Mary Ellen Hitt '02

A Cross-Country Ride to Build Homes

Mary Ellen Hitt ’02, a restoration carpenter who lives and works in New York City, found out about Bike and Build from a high school friend. The nonprofit organizes cross-country cycling trips to benefit affordable housing causes across the country. Hitt, who had spent the last two years restoring multi-million dollar homes, knew this was something she needed to do.

In the summer of 2010, she set off from Providence, RI with 30 other riders, bound for San Francisco.

Before they could get on their bikes, Hitt and the other riders each had to raise $4,000 for affordable housing groups and to finance their trip. Hitt mobilized friends and family in her fundraising, spreading the word about Bike and Build and why it was important. Together, the riders raised $144,000.

The 4,100 mile trip took 72 days. They cycled for 59 days of those days, spent 10 days building houses, and took only 3 days off.

On a typical riding day, Hitt woke early in the morning to cycle seven to fourteen hours before arriving at her destination. The group made do with showers at local schools, sleeping bags lined up on church floors, and whatever dinner the local community had donated for the night.

Build days varied depending on the site. Hitt and the other riders did whatever was needed. “I was the only person who had a career in building,” she says. It wasn’t about skill so much as strength in numbers: 31 people, it turns out, can put up all the roof trusses for two houses in one day.

Seeing the country at 14 m.p.h.

Hitt developed an immense appreciation for the American landscape as a whole, and for the specificity and pride of the people she encountered.

It was the details of the experience that made it personal—putting faces on the people helped by this ride. Seeing the pride the residents of Pittsfield, IL felt in their community on the night of the annual Pig Festival is an experience Hitt will never forget.

The group witnessed first-hand how organizations were responding to the affordable housing crises in their communities. On Habitat for Humanity sites, installing vinyl siding donated by home improvement retailers was a common theme. In Moab, Utah, the group spent a day building the floor of a straw bale house, an energy-efficient and eco-friendly construction style. At another stop, the group assisted in a demolition to retrofit a donated 19th-century log cabin.

During the trip, the riders collaboratively selected the recipients of the funds. In this case, there was no question about where the money they had spent months raising was going: they gave the majority of their funds to organizations they were directly involved in throughout the trip.

Meeting the Challenge

The most challenging leg of the journey was the Appalachian Mountains, where riders faced steady, relentless inclines before they were truly well-conditioned. And Hitt says she may never bike through Nevada again, where the group climbed mountain after mountain separated by ten-mile valleys where temperatures reached into the triple digits and 35 m.p.h. headwinds blew without mercy.

But, descending from the peak of the highest road in the US after a 23-mile uphill climb, Hitt’s sense of self-sufficiency and satisfaction brought her to tears. “No one could take away my sense of accomplishment in that moment,” she recalls.

Ultimately what kept her going were her companions. After 72 days of being around each other non-stop, the group developed a deep bond common to people who have gone through an arduous experience where teamwork is the only way to keep going.

On the road again

This summer, Hitt embarks on a two-week Bike and Build Capital Ride from Richmond, VA, to Philadelphia. This time, she’ll be leading 25 riders with a friend she met on her first ride and three other Bike and Build alums. Along the way, they’ll be volunteering in towns in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. As Hitt embarks on her second, shorter expedition, she wants to share a simple message: “There were people on my trip who had never ridden more than 30 miles. Anyone can build a home, and anyone can bike cross-country.”

Hitt chronicled her trip with a photo blog, which you can view here

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