Wow, an Alumni Blog! Dedicated to, in the words of Savannah’s request, sharing “how PTP affected me, what I learned, and how I am carrying that with me today…”
Well, where to start? Pedal the Pacific and I go, like, way back.
It’s hard to parse out the parts of me that weren’t formed by or alongside this organization. Myself, and the liquidy, complex core of who I am, in many ways feels indivisible from this gaggle of “hilariously un-athletic women” I am so proud to be a part of. I will try to distill some of the highlights.
Imagine me: 17-years-old and all dreams. I’ve never been farther west than Texas, I’m a chronic overachiever, and I have no real reason to believe I will change the world besides the fact I’m 17, and it’s a luxury that comes with the territory. Before algorithms exist, by a combination of pure kismet and some serious Instagram deep-diving, I find a girl who knows a stranger who tags an Instagram user who has a sister who is described as “changing the world.”
Upon further investigation, this world changer was Grace Pfeffer, one third of the PTP founding team. From stranger to stranger, by chance click to curiosity, I stumbled upon a group of people that would completely change my life. Of course, I didn’t know that yet.
I hit the follow button and consumed every piece of information I could, from professional and personal Instagram account captions to the archives of the very blog you’re reading now. From the beginning, I was enraptured. With foundational knowledge and brimming passion about the reality of trafficking in the United States, but no place to successfully focus that energy yet, Pedal the Pacific was a banner of inspiration and hope. It was a secret, special nudge to my 17-year-old heart: Here are these regular girls, actually doing something about this thing I care so much about. Maybe I could do something like this one day… if I were brave or creative or bold enough. Just maybe.
When the three inspiring strangers posted “Dare we say Pedal the Pacific 2018???” my hands were clammy but tied. I couldn’t not throw my hat in the ring. So I did. I also didn’t tell a soul, obviously. A filled-out questionnaire that read more like fan mail and one giddy Skype call later, I was put on a team of 11 way-cooler-than me women. PTP 2018: the first organized Pedal team, the guinea pigs <3
Lesson 1: The beauty of Pedal the Pacific is and always has been that it gives regular people the platform, the tools, (or at the very least,) a really good excuse to talk about something they care about.
The ride itself posed another set of lessons entirely. Does it take much imagination to understand how a 1,700-mile bike ride with a group of 10 near strangers, all 2-4 years older than me, completely rocked my world? I look back now on the six weeks I spent on the coast that summer and know my teammates were engaged in more charity work than the ride; they were also taking care of me at every turn.
In the thick of my girlhood as they were becoming women, wanting desperately for their approval while they were worried about keeping us safe, I was the team Little Sister; probably less than ideal, but transformative all the same.
To this day, it’s difficult to convey how I was mothered and big-sistered; nurtured and taught by example and painfully shown. As the oldest in my own sibling order, I imagine it’s the closest I will ever come to understanding a youngest’s compulsive need to touch the outskirts of their older sisters’ spotlight —to brush up against or just be associated with that hard-earned, out-of-reach knowing they possess. To this day, they are my heroes. All 10 of them.
Together we lived in the woods, laughed until more than our legs were sore, and experienced unforgettable generosity. It was the most mentally and physically challenging thing I had ever endeavored or accomplished. It was also the most rewarding.
Lesson 2: We can do really hard things.
Lesson 2a: My body is strong and magical. I am far more concerned with what it can do and allow me to experience than what it looks like. (Hint: you can ride your bicycle over two state lines and still be sporting cellulite. And you should.)
Lesson 3: People are so good when you give them a chance to be. Generosity: of funds, attention, time, or anything —regardless of and disproportionate to one's means— is a vital, restorative, and stunning act of humanity.
Lesson 4: The world is so much bigger than I ever thought it could be. More than just the allure of the California coast or charm of Port Orford, Oregon; more than geographically, but in the minutiae of everyday life and its infinite possibility. Pedal the Pacific —through knowing my teammates and the people we encountered— taught me that my life could look so different, so much more expansive than I had ever thought to dream up for myself.
Predictably, after that life altering summer I had a reckoning with where I should or even could fit into the real world. A freshman in college and desperate for true connection, I flew to Austin for the 2019 Pedal the Pacific Retreat. The moment I climbed into an SUV full of my teammates, picking me up from the airport and in-the-flesh for the first time since our finish line, I sighed a breath of relief, bit back happy tears, and wordlessly laid my head on one of their shoulders. Oh, to be known. It was sort of like coming home.
It became obvious to me I needed to stay here, in this known-ness, somehow. Before the weekend was over, untimely and emotionally, in true Madilyn-fashion, I pulled Grace and Sav aside and told them I had no clue where Pedal the Pacific would be in the next few years, but my secret and scary dream was to be a part of it somehow.
Over the next few seasons, I helped in any way I could. (Read: Religiously signing up for annual Alumni 1-on-1s and cataloging my excessive praise for the applicants I got to speak to, as well as encouraging everyone I knew to apply to PTP.)
In the summer of 2021, as I was road tripping with the fourth friend I’d recruited to matriculate the PTP program out to their launch in Seattle, I got a message from Grace and Sav, writing to gauge interest in a budding volunteer alumni leadership group. Put me down as *duh.*
In the end there were six of us, LT 2022: the first organized Pedal the Pacific Leadership Team, the alumni guinea pigs <3
Self-titled (horribly) the “Officer of Connections,” I served as PTP’s social media manager who also happened to lead Book Club for the team. My goal was, put simply, to tell Pedal the Pacific’s story; for people to feel connected to the beauty, to the struggle, to the mission. An added bonus was that I got to know the 2022 riders up-close, and although I was older than (almost all of) them, I gained 11 more heroes —sisters. Whether big or little, it was immaterial; I had something to learn from every single one.
At the end of that term, it was clear my work wasn’t done. When a new “Head Leadership Team Officer/Applications and Programming Coordinator” position (again, shaky titling) was made, I stepped in. Another milestone: Pedal’s first part-time, paid employee next to the Director. I was and still am immensely honored.
My year on the 2023 Leadership Team is, again, hard to encapsulate. All of the details and pride and growth —both as a person and as an organization.
Tasked with hand picking our 2023 riders and leading them through bi-weekly educational meetings, my biggest bragging rights from that year are how well they loved one another and worked as an impenetrable unit. The gift of reading each of their applications, having a front row seat to their growth as advocates, and getting to see them through to the Finish Line is something I will never be able to make words do justice.
It cannot go without saying that an integral part of my deep connection to the 2023 team is my (literal) younger sister, Emma. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe that when she told me she was thinking of applying I was hesitant; her flexibility, determination, and impeccably-timed humor make her an invaluable asset to Pedal the Pacific. She has long been my life’s greatest gift, but now she’s my peer and fellow alumni, too. I am so lucky to share another part of my life experience with her and to have another reason to cheer her on.
In so many ways, the 2023 ride-year brought things full circle for me. From Emma’s participation, to the incoming LT largely made up of 2022 Alumni I had led the year before, to the cherry on top: the achievement of $1M raised as an organization since our inception. —A goal met through the last-minute mobilization of our alumni network, raising over $13,000 in less than 48 hours to be matched and send our total over the top. (The highlight of my PTP career, both as a rider and an employee.)
Lesson 5: It was, and always has been, a team effort.
It was then that, facing graduation from my Master’s program in Gender and Race Studies (a degree I would never have pursued if not for Pedal’s catalyzing my passion for women’s rights), with pride and tender satisfaction in my heart, I knew it was time to move on. The work will never be done, but I had finally affected, changed, and grown Pedal the Pacific in the way it has continually affected, changed, and grown me.
I stepped away from my official role with Pedal knowing it will always be home, and I will never truly leave. There will always be the warm groove of my PTP community to sidle up next to, lay my head on its metaphorical shoulder, and be reminded of who I am —of where I come from.
Lesson 6: (An adage I returned to on my own summer ride:) The people are always the best part. This network of world-shaking women is my backbone. I am forever humbled and proud to be grouped together with so many phenomenal human beings. They are my heroes, my role models, my mentors, and my friends. And we just keep growing!
Lesson 7: The value of inviting people in cannot be understated. I will always be awestruck by and thankful for Sav and Grace’s collaborative leadership. They have taken what they made and repeatedly handed it over to new teams of women to make their own. They’ve taught me to do the same, and I am better for it.
Finally, in case I haven’t yet made it clear, Pedal the Pacific is more than the people or the lessons it has given me. It is me. In the sense that it is the indomitable stuff I am made of. Pedal the Pacific’s —as in Sav and Grace’s— belief in me, as a leader and a human being, from my fan mail in 2017 to their promotion of me in 2023, has been an indubitable life source, a well of self belief, that I revisit often.
There are not enough blog posts in the world to give credit where credit is due: it would be easier to explain how PTP hasn’t affected me than how it has.
As for how I am carrying it all with me today, (or tomorrow,) I think that is something I am still trying to figure out. I’ve left Alabama to follow a long-held dream of living in New York City, and for now, I’m stepping away from the non-profit sphere. I have no clue what working in an environment that isn’t mission-driven even looks like. —I have been slightly naive and incredibly lucky that up until this point, nearly everything I have ever pursued has been a passion project.
But the “real world” calls, and I am answering. I don’t know where my philanthropic experience and bleeding heart meets a corporate 9-5 in Midtown Manhattan, but I do know that once someone has Pedaled the Pacific, they can do almost anything.
With me, wherever I go, I will take my curiosity and willingness to learn, my commitment to social justice and desire to make noise about the causes I care about, and my belief in myself, in the world, and in our shared and infinite possibility. These, among countless others, are a few of the things Pedal the Pacific has gifted me.
I am eternally grateful.