There are 3,889 miles between Jacksonville, Florida, and Monterey, California.
Caitlyn Wilson will travel all 3,889 miles over a span of two and a half months this summer.
On a bicycle.
Through the sweltering heat of Florida and Texas to the rough, steep terrain of the Rocky Mountains, Wilson, ’17, will spend most of her days pedaling about 50 to 65 miles – and at least one day pedaling 100 miles – but it’s how she’ll spend her non-biking days that will motivate her to keep going.
Wilson is completing her cross-country bike trip through an organization called Bike & Build. While biking from coast to coast is a large part of the trip, the true purpose of the expedition is to support affordable housing, she said.
About every three days, the group of 36 young-adult bikers will stop in a town along the southern United States to spend an entire day building with an affordable housing organization such as Habitat for Humanity.
It wasn’t the biking aspect that initially attracted Wilson, who said her training began by getting on a bike for the first time when she was 10 years old. Instead, Wilson saw this as her opportunity to finally give back to the community.
“Going to Lehigh, I feel like I’ve invested so much in myself so I could give back later,” Wilson said.
Starting this fall, Wilson will attend veterinary school at University of California, Davis, conveniently located not far from where her biking trip ends. With four more years of school ahead of her, she felt this summer is her one opportunity to serve the community while she still has the time.
But to take advantage of this opportunity, Wilson has to sacrifice walking at her graduation.
When she first registered for her Bike & Build trip, Wilson was not aware of the trip’s start date. But when she found out in February that she would be leaving on May 11, she didn’t have to think too much about the decision.
“I just think that what I’m doing this summer is way more important than what I would have done at graduation for one day,” Wilson said.
She views graduation more as a ceremony for her family than for herself, and knowing that her parents will have the chance to see her graduate from veterinary school, she was OK with missing her Lehigh graduation ceremony.
When Steven Savino, professor of practice in marketing, learned about Wilson’s plans to bike across the country, he thought she was “nuts.” But he thinks the decision she made to take this trip over attending graduation says something about her character.
“When you’re a senior and you worked this hard, the ritual is ‘I did all this so I have a chance to walk, and I’m walking on May 22, and I’m proud and my parents are proud,’” Savino said. “She’s giving all that up, which I don’t think is a small thing.”
Wilson met Savino through professor Robert Kuchta, who teaches marketing to business minors like Wilson. She asked him for advice on how to market herself and the Bike & Build cause to successfully fundraise, and Kuchta asked Savino to help her as well.
Before beginning the trip, all bikers must raise $4,800 – half of which goes directly toward supporting affordable housing organizations, the other half going back to Bike & Build, Wilson said. Any money a biker raises after that initial $4,800 goes directly to affordable housing.
Wilson created a three-minute slam poetry video explaining what she is doing through Bike & Build and why. Kuchta and Savino worked on the script with Wilson to help her make it engaging and descriptive for people who don’t know her.
Additionally, Savino offered his sales marketing students an extra credit opportunity that involved creating ideas for how she could position her sales pitch to donors. Savino received 25 responses, giving Wilson 25 more ideas for how to fundraise.
Sal’s and Chipotle supported Wilson by donating a percentage of one night of sales to her Bike & Build fund. She also set up a stationary bike outside Saxbys and inside Molly’s to collect donations from customers, which she said was surprisingly successful.
The idea to use a stationary bike at fundraisers came from Wilson’s friend Trevor DiLallo, who graduated from Lehigh in 2016. DiLallo completed a Bike & Build trip between his sophomore and junior years and from the first time he mentioned his trip to Wilson, she was interested.
DiLallo said the trip is something riders have to physically prepare for to avoid suffering through the first few days, but they start with lower mileage to ease into the routine.
“It kinda becomes what you do, like some people find it hard starting a new job and stuff like that,” DiLallo said. “But after awhile, this is my life. I know I get up in the morning, I get on a bike, I go to this other place and it’s not as intimidating.”
Wilson said she knows she’ll experience pain during the adjustment period, but it will be worth it in the end. She’s been biking through back roads around Lehigh and completing the rides Bike & Build has instructed its riders to do, including biking in the rain, riding with a group and completing 65 miles at once. In total, riders must complete 500 miles before starting the Bike & Build trip.
The trip sticks to 35 mile-per-hour roads for safety purposes and covers many states Wilson has never visited before. She’s excited to see new sights and meet new people but said she has to remain focused on why she’s taking this cross-country trip.
“It’s not a vacation, and there’s something more that it’s about,” Wilson said. “It could easily become some Instagram-able trip, but I don’t want it to be that.”