Meg Lyczak

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

Standing near her Roxbury Street home in Keene Friday, Meg Lyczak holds the bike she will ride across the country, with stops along the way to help construct affordable housing, through the Bike and Build program.

Someday, perhaps soon, Meg Lyczak may make her way back to college, in the formal sense. She loves her job working with children in the afterschool program at The Orchard School in Alstead and can foresee building a career in education.

But just because the 21-year-old from Keene lacks a college degree doesn’t mean she isn’t educated. Far from it. The outdoors is her classroom, a lifelong skill set honed by exploration and experience. From sleeping mountainside, deep in a Vermont winter, to paddling the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, she’s as adept at donning a tool belt as preparing group meals over a Coleman stove. Just last December, while assisting migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border, she had to prove to Border Patrol agents that she wasn’t a drug smuggler.

“We were in a van from New Hampshire, so I can understand why we were checked,” Lyczak says with a grin. “Living in New Hampshire, you don’t get frisked by Border Patrol every day.”

Her outdoor résumé exceeds what most people may experience in a lifetime, never mind someone only 21. Highlights include completing the rigorous Kroka Expedition semester program; working for several years at The Food Project in Greater Boston; hiking — solo — the entire New Hampshire leg of the Appalachian Trail; working on the trail’s Hut Crew; and working for the Mahoosuc Trail Service in Maine, which conducts dog-sledding trips.

Her next adventure begins next month. Lyczak is in training for the Bike and Build program, a three-month bicycle trip from Jacksonville, Fla., to Santa Cruz, Calif. In addition to raising funds for affordable housing, riders will stop at designated building projects along the way and help with the construction of those homes.

Because of her experience, Lyczak was chosen as one of the group leaders and is responsible for overseeing a handful of the 23 bicyclists on the southern route. The leaders will gather in Jacksonville May 5, and the rest of the riders will join them a week later. The nonprofit organization, which started in 2003, also includes riders on central and northern routes across the U.S. It ends July 28.

“My passion for social justice, radical living and outdoor adventure is what drew me to Bike and Build,” Lyczak says in the organization’s biography box. “Because I grew up with a father who believes in fixing things himself, I am quite comfortable with a chop saw and a nail gun.”

Lyczak’s father, Nathan Lyczak of Keene, is Kroka Expedition’s managing director. Her mother, Rev. Nancy Wood of Acworth, is staff chaplain for the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center’s palliative care service in Lebanon. Lyczak has known since she was young that the usual educational glide path of grade school, middle school, high school, college probably wasn’t for her. Hence, she bounced around at Monadnock Waldorf School in Keene, MC2 Charter School in Keene, even Keene High for a year and a half.

But it was her semester at Kroka Expedition in Marlow, when she was 16, that changed everything. “A most transformable experience,” she calls it. “It allowed me to come out of my shell.”

From January to June, a group of 14 students bonded as they traveled around the periphery of Vermont on skis, bikes and in canoes. They explored the state from the Massachusetts border to the Canadian border and many of the mountains in between, sleeping outdoors, cooking outdoors, bonding outdoors.

“We’d ski all day and set up camp at night — you had to cook over an open fire. I learned skills I would not have learned in a classroom,” she says.

Following the Long Trail one memorable day, they skied up Mount Abraham and across the ridge to Mount Ellen and down a ski slope in the dark at Sugarbush Resort. Lyczak was responsible for the group’s meals, which were cooked over a wood stove made out of titanium that they lugged with them. Every night, they had to find firewood. “I learned a lot about what I was capable of because at Kroka, they really push you to your limits,” she says. “Those skills I learned at 16 have helped ever since.”

The experience prompted her to join The Food Project in the Boston area, which consists of 70 acres of sustainable agriculture spread around Beverly, Wenham, Lynn, Boston and Lincoln. Serving inner-city residents in Boston, the program features 120 teenagers working on the farms, and one of its main components is social justice. Lyczak became educated in diversity and attended nightly gatherings organized by facilitators where conversations often centered on privilege and race.

It was eye-opening, she says, even more notably since she considered herself an outlier coming from Keene.

“Wow, I’m white; that means I’ve been given a certain privilege in my world,” she says. “It was almost too much to handle. … I don’t know how it affected other people; I know it affected me hugely.”

Lyczak took a gap year after high school, hiking the Appalachian Trail, working various jobs in the outdoors. They included the Green Mountain Club on the Long Trail, and the dog-sledding group in Maine, though cleaning up dog poop at 5:30 in the morning and catering to an affluent clientele wasn’t exactly her calling. But it was fun being on a runner, mushing across wide-open lakes in the middle of a Maine winter.

She also attended Simmons University in Boston for a semester, thinking about a nursing career, but wasn’t quite ready for formal academia.

She had been aware of Bike and Build for about three years, but opportunities to participate never lined up with her schedule. She applied last fall and learned not only had she been accepted, but had been chosen as a leader. She is responsible for organizing two weeks of the trip — in Texas and Nevada. Riders will sleep in churches and community centers. She is looking forward to the friendships that are sure to form.

“You learn about each other’s idiosyncrasies and form your own weird culture,” she says of the bonding experiences.

Lyczak has raised $3,600 for Bike and Build, and all donations will go toward affordable housing. (To donate to individual riders, visit bikeandbuild.org.)

Working at The Orchard School this winter has been rewarding, especially connecting with kids. After Bike and Build, she’ll consider returning to school, perhaps community college. But she’ll always be pulled to the outdoors. The recent humanitarian trip to the Mexico border featured a month-long, 300-mile canoeing adventure on the Rio Grande.

She says it was quite the education.

Steve Gilbert is a columnist for The Sentinel.