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A sense of freedom’

Madeline Buckley | Wednesday, February 17, 2010

When sophomore Aaron Patzwahl decided to spend his summer after high school biking 3,300 miles across the country, he knew it would be a challenge. 

Cycling through California deserts and the Rocky Mountains was, at times, painful. Often, the temperature surpassed 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

But Patzwahl had the opportunity to “see the country from the ground level,” and he raised about $4,500 in the process.

Before coming to Notre Dame in the summer of 2008, Patzwahl participated in the Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure, a service project started by Ryan Iafigliola, a 2007 Notre Dame graduate, to benefit housing projects of the Fuller Center for Housing.

The Fuller Center is a nonprofit organization based in Georgia that constructs housing in poverty-stricken areas.

“We averaged about 70 miles a day,” Patzwahl said of the trip, which began in San Diego, Calif. and ended in Savannah, Ga. “It was great experiencing the scenery, but meeting all different people across the country was the most amazing and enlightening part of the trip.”

Patzwahl and Iafigliola were among eight riders that participated in the complete inaugural bike trip. This summer, Iafigliola will organize the third annual excursion, and he said he hopes to raise about $250,000. The last two trips garnered about $200,000 collectively, he said.

“The experience is something you’ll never forget. There’s kind of a sense of freedom in being on the road every day, riding at your own pace and meeting all kinds of interesting people,” Iafigliola said.

During the 2008 trip, the group hit about 11 states and stayed at various churches and community centers along the way.

At Notre Dame, Iafigliola was president of Habitat for Humanity on campus. He became acquainted with Millard Fuller, founder of both Habitat for Humanity and the Fuller Center.
After graduation, he pursued a post-graduate service opportunity with the Fuller Center, and now works on staff. As part of his service, he organized the cycling trip across America.

“I was trying to figure out how I could contribute to the Center right out of college,” Iafigliola said. “And I thought of a bike ride to raise money.”

Iafigliola said riders can raise money for a cause of their choice, and along the route, the group stopped at Fuller Center sites to help build houses.

For Patzwahl, one of the most meaningful experiences of the trip was helping to rebuild the small town of Greensburg, Kan., after it had been ravaged by a tornado the previous summer.

“They had been hit by a really bad tornado the summer before, and when we got there, the entire town was demolished,” he said. “We took an extra day off from riding to stay and build for another day.”

Although the group was cycling to serve others, Patzwahl said it often worked the other way around.

“We would meet people in the towns, and oftentimes, they would cook you a meal or do something really nice. The hospitality was amazing,” Patzwahl said. “We were trying to be of service and promote our organization, but usually you would receive more than could give to these people.”

A native of Fort Myers, Fla., Patzwahl said the trip was an education.

“We stayed in towns ranging from as large as Albuquerque to this little town in New Mexico, where there was one stoplight if that. No one had cell phone reception the entire time,” he said. “I realized how much cultural diversity there is in America.”

The trip was physically taxing as well, Patzwahl said, and presented some logistical challenges. At one point, the road they were taking just ended, with no indication on the map as to how to get back on track.

But he said anyone can do the trip with some training.

“Riding in the Rocky Mountains was difficult,” he said. “But it was the most beautiful part of the trip without a doubt.”

Iafigliola said one of the best parts of biking across America is simply meeting people from different parts of the country.

“When you’re out there, not visiting tourist sites, but going through country, you meet ordinary people and see the way they’re living,” he said.

This year’s ride begins June 18 and concludes Aug. 8, starting in Niagara Falls and ending in New Orleans. Bikers can participate for the entire ride or for a segment of the course.

“Cycling is fun, but the trip is about so much more than cycling,” Iafigliola said. “Being a part of this ministry is really something special.”