18 Questions with Sierra Winters: On Biking and Building Across the Pacific Northwest

by Sierra Winters

Sierra Winters is a regular contributor to eco18. For this month’s edition of 18 Questions, she shares her experiences on Bike & Build’s “Drift West” trip, an 800-mile cycling journey from Portland, Oregon, to Bellingham, Washington. In addition to the beautiful and challenging days on the bike, Sierra interacted with affordable housing organizations across the Pacific Northwest, assisting them in their local projects and learning about what can be done on a larger scale.

  1. Give a brief introduction to Bike & Build as an organization.

For twenty years, Bike & Build organized regional and cross-country cycling trips, designed for 18-26 year olds interested in discussing and supporting affordable housing projects. Sadly, this was the organization’s last year of operation due to recruitment and financial sustainability challenges. However, over the years, it has allowed thousands of young people to expand their perspectives on basic human rights while becoming physically and emotionally stronger through countless hours of pedaling.  

  1. What requirements did each rider have to fulfill before beginning the trip?

Each of us had to fundraise ($3000 for regional trips and $5000 for cross-country trips), finish an online affordable housing curriculum, interview a local affordable housing representative, complete 15 hours of service with local affordable housing organizations, pass cycling safety quizzes, and log 500 hours of training time on our bikes.

  1. What did the average day look like on your trip?

There was no average day! Our group of twenty riders met for the first time on July 28th, and our final ride day was August 20th. In between, we had orientation, six “build” days, one affordable housing curriculum day, one “rest” day, and 14 ride days. Our shortest ride day was around 20 miles, but our longest was 89 miles. The trip totaled about 800 miles, and we spent a few days crewing the support vehicles.

  1. What did the support vehicles do?

Each ride day, we would wake up between 4-6 am (depending on the planned mileage) and load our duffel bags into the cargo van. Two people would take the cargo van to our hosts for the night, while two other people would drive the other van as a “sag wagon.” The sag wagon would meet us for lunch and provide support to riders (i.e., bike maintenance or picking up a rider who was not feeling well).

  1. A trip like this inevitably requires some amount of crisis management. What was a challenging experience you faced?

On our second ride day, from Longview to Chehalis, I was crewing one of the support vehicles. It didn’t take long for us to realize that someone had tapped the gas tank in our cargo van. It’s a relatively common occurrence in that area, but, of course, not one for which we had planned! One of our trip leaders spent all day getting the van towed back to Portland and procuring a new one. Hearing how our team discussed the crisis was eye-opening and heartwarming. We weren’t angry at whoever tapped the gas tank; we just felt bad that they had to resort to it for lack of money!

  1. How were routes planned and hosts organized?

This particular Bike & Build route has existed for several years, so we had a rough plan to follow and insights from past riders. However, our four trip leaders still had an impressive amount of logistical planning to do, from contacting churches and booking campgrounds, to fine-tuning routes so that they would avoid heavy traffic and construction zones.

  1. What roles did hosts play?

We have so many reasons to thank our hosts! We mostly stayed at churches, several of which have been taking care of Bike & Build riders for years. Some churches had couches, and one church even provided each rider with their own blow-up mattress! We would often be given dinner and/or breakfast, and sometimes, these dinners were open to the community, allowing us to share our experiences and learn more about the towns in which we were staying. Our hosts usually sent us away with leftover food – a great help, considering our tight budget.

  1. How was safety encouraged?

Cycling is inherently dangerous, and construction zones are also notorious for being accident-prone areas. However, Bike & Build takes safety very seriously. We all completed safety training courses before receiving our bikes (most participants used bikes provided by the organization). We were also given safety triangles to strap on our backs and flashing lights for the front and back of our bikes. At orientation, we practiced bike handling drills and gave each other cues (i.e., “car back”). On construction sites, we wore safety helmets and ensured everyone felt comfortable with their respective tasks.

  1. There was a heat wave in Seattle as you were riding through it. What was that experience like?

I am no stranger to riding in the heat, but riding through a city in the heat is a different experience! With so few trees for shade, we all felt the sun belting down on our backs, especially after 11 am. We had to be mindful about hydration, electrolyte intake, and “mandatory” ice cream breaks.

  1. Did you encounter any wildfire smoke?

During our last few days, the sky acquired an overcast gloom as we approached Bellingham, Washington, and breathing felt slightly more difficult. I felt like the conditions were similar to what I experienced living in Mumbai, India. I grew up in North Carolina, far away from wildfire smoke, so seeing this kind of atmosphere in the United States was shocking and strange. Due to climate change, the wildfire season has become significantly longer in Washington, and this weather should not be considered “normal.”

  1. Your route took you through the Olympic Peninsula and the San Juan islands, two breathtaking regions of the Pacific Northwest. What was your favorite part?

I fell in love with the Olympic Peninsula. Since we were riding in the summertime, we had very little rain – only a bit of mist as we rode through Forks. My favorite segment was from Kalaloch to Neah Bay and Port Angeles. The Olympic National Forest is stunning. I loved learning about indigenous history in Neah Bay, and riding the Olympic Discovery Trail on our way to Port Angeles was one of the most serene experiences of my life. Also, although I never considered myself a fan of the Twilight series, it was cool to see the towns and geographies where it was set!

  1. What was the most challenging part of the trip?

Finding time alone to process everything we were going through was often challenging. We always had to have at least one riding partner for safety reasons. We ate breakfast and dinner as a group, and we slept in communal spaces as well. Even the most outgoing, extroverted people needed time to themselves, which sometimes meant sacrificing a fun experience with the group for some alone time.

  1. While completing the affordable housing curriculum before the trip began, what is one thing that stood out to you?

We learned about how much land parking lots occupy, as well as how a certain number of parking spots are legally required per the square footage of a building. This takes a significant toll on the land available for housing. Highways and parking lots have transformed cities’ landscapes over the past century, negatively affecting both the environment and the people who have historically lived there.

  1. While building, what is one thing you learned about affordable housing that you did not expect?

While working on a house in Aberdeen, we met a man who would ultimately be living in it. He was in his 70s or 80s. I always imagined affordable housing to cater to people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, but there is a crucial need for older people to be safely and affordably housed as well. In such cases, accessibility features have to be considered. Additionally, most organizations require house recipients to complete a large amount of sweat equity before moving in. Although this man was of advanced age, he showed up with the utmost excitement and joy to build the house that he will someday call home.

  1. When we think of affordable housing, we often think of one organization: Habitat for Humanity. What limitations does this impose?

Habitat for Humanity is excellent; I helped build houses with them for my pre-trip sweat equity requirement, and we also worked with them a few times in Washington. However, there are many more affordable housing organizations that we should not overlook. For example, we worked with Taking Ownership PDX in Portland, which keeps existing Black homeowners in neighborhoods that are rapidly becoming gentrified.

  1. Is the solution to affordable housing more systemic than just building houses?

As is the case with all significant societal issues, we have to see policies change before we will see large-scale changes manifest. This isn’t to say that building and maintaining houses is not a worthwhile cause; a small-scale impact that improves the quality of life for one family can inspire all those who witness it, and it can also help discourage the misguided notions we have about the unhoused population. 

However, it is clear that we need a better voucher system for affordable housing, and it is high time for us to combat the downstream effects of historical redlining programs. There are countless ways to support affordable housing on the systemic level, and it will take a multifaceted approach to make meaningful progress. We need to educate ourselves and our communities so that we can use our votes for the greater good.

  1. Why do you think affordable housing is not discussed more?

Learning so much about affordable housing has reminded me how different our socioeconomic backgrounds are and how we often hide these differences to ease our discomfort. But we are all human, and we all deserve basic human rights. We all deserve a platform on which to speak and share our experiences. Unfortunately, the unhoused population faces much discrimination and long-standing prejudices that prevent them from being heard.

  1. How will you take these experiences with you as you move forward in life?

Although affordable housing is a cause I will always support, I would not say that it is my life’s passion, nor is it the life passion of most Bike & Build participants. However, affordable housing is an intersectional cause that speaks to other interests of mine, like environmental justice and sustainability. We worked on a few tiny houses, learned about solar power grants that are planned for an affordable housing project in the San Juan Islands, and discussed concepts for community gardens.

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