by Gayne Kalustian ’17
Matt McFarland ’16 was born in motion — racing, building, creating. After spending his youth skiing and running distance for his high school track and cross country teams, he walked on to Dartmouth’s lightweight rowing team as a freshman confronted by a sport he never encountered in his home state of Minnesota.
“There are things you think you know and things you think you don’t know, but then there’s a whole lot of stuff you don’t even know you don’t know,” McFarland said. “It’s an interesting mix with the recruited rowers and the walk-ons, but it’s something where we have been able to come together and break through really well.”
Immediately after his first season with the crew, McFarland wasted no opportunity to keep moving. He opted to take part in Bike and Build during which participants took one of seven routes across the country on a bicycle. Departing from Providence, Rhode Island, in early June and arriving in Half Moon Bay, California, on August 22, 2013, McFarland biked 4,160 miles across the United States. Looking back on the distance, he said, gives him a different perspective on the place of humanity in the world.
“You can look at a satellite image of the United States and think, ‘Oh wow, that canyon looks familiar,’ and I can remember biking down that canyon,” he said. “You can look and see a distance that from sunrise to sunset we covered. If there’s any testament to human power and what you can do, that’s a pretty tangible example.”
He and other participants were required to raise $4,500 to contribute to the cause of affordable housing — a problem McFarland described as a “submarine issue” because it is “in our backyards and we don’t even realize it.”
The success of the journey is heavily reliant on the good will of people all across the country who hosted the cyclists in whatever accommodations were available — churches, community centers, gyms, even the occasional baseball field on which the riders would pitch tents and take refuge for the night.
“The trip gave me one of the most organic views that you can get of the United States,” McFarland said. “It wasn’t comfortable. The best place to sleep would be like a church basement with a shag carpet. If they had air conditioning — whew. That was so good.”
Along the way, the wayfarers took 14 rest days during which they would spend the day building with local Habitat for Humanity affiliates or volunteering with other service organizations. In Moab, Utah, McFarland encountered a community affected by the historic cyclical economic booms and crashes that have plagued much of the United States. Residents, he said, had liabilities in what were once considered assets after living in trailers, brought in to accommodate the rush of inhabitants decades ago that were no longer up to housing code. The local organization with which he worked used natural materials — clay, mud, hay — and sustainable building techniques to construct affordable homes to attempt to offset the crisis confronting a large portion of the population.
Despite having a high level of fitness coming off of the spring crew season, McFarland found challenges associated with biking an average of 73 miles a day — 116 miles on the longest day.
“I did have to adjust my mindset on how I viewed exercise because you were out pedaling for five hours straight a day,” McFarland said. “That was more than physically exhausting. It was mentally exhausting. You biked for an hour and sometimes you were sitting there thinking, ‘Wow, I’m on this bike for five more hours. My butt already hurts.’”
But through the hours of uphill struggle through the Rocky Mountains, uncomfortable sleeping accommodations on the ground, and long days of “rest” during which the team would frame houses and landscape yards, McFarland found a new way to connect with other participants with whom he wouldn’t normally interact after spending his entire life in academically intensive programs.
“There were two girls from other Ivy Schools who I got along with the worst, actually,” McFarland said. “The kid I got along with the best wants to be a forester. Now he’s out in California interning to be a forester. These are the kind of kids who think, ‘Oh, class is cool but what if I go abroad for a year and go to Europe and what if I want to do charity work and see the world for six months?’ It taught me a lot about friendship, what’s important in life, what makes you happy.”
McFarland, after returning from his adventure across the states, brought back to Dartmouth some of the lessons that shaped him. This summer’s service chair for his fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, he has helped institute a mandatory service commitment for all the brothers. The activities in the house range from working at Darthmouth-Hitchcock’s David’s House, the Upper Valley Haven and the Prouty, for which SAE raised over $3,000.
In the classroom, McFarland is pursuing engineering and computer science to hopefully one day create something that will better the lives of people in the world.
“I think you should always be challenging yourself to push the boundaries of what you’re capable of,” McFarland said, “but don’t do it in a way that is morally or spiritually hollow. People matter. People have problems, you have problems. If you spent energy and time focusing on one another and how to help one another, we could build a better world.”
McFarland plans to row for his third season on the team, during which he hopes to improve enough to row in the varsity boat, but he always keeps an eye on and draws inspiration from what he has done, who he has met, and the 4,160 miles he biked to keep his mind focused on moving forward.
“If you want to make a positive influence and leave a legacy, you need to trust, give people the benefit of the doubt and be friendly,” McFarland said. “I think it ties into the relationships I built on Bike and Build, because a lot of that was that we went through this thing together. Those relationships sustain me. They changed my life.”