Breckenridge’s Shannon Galpin pens a gripping memoir on bike-based activist work in Afghanistan
September 28, 2014
Could mountain biking spark a cultural revolution? It sounds like something a Coloradan might dream up.
However, Shannon Galpin isn't just another Rocky Mountain gearhead imposing her weekend-warrior enthusiasms on others. She is following in the singletrack of a long, rich tradition of bike-based activism that traces its roots back to suffragette Susan B. Anthony and beyond.
"I think the bicycle has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world," Anthony wrote in 1869. "It gives a woman a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. The moment she takes her seat she knows she can't get into harm unless she gets off her bicycle, and away she goes, the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood."
One hundred forty-five years later, however, and the world still isn't comfortable with strong and self-reliant women riding free.
As Galpin reveals in her tough new memoir, "Mountain to Mountain: A Journey of Adventure and Activism for the Women of Afghanistan," she wasn't aware of the bicycle's role in promoting women's rights when she decided in 2009 to pedal her Niner 29er single-speed across Afghanistan and become the first woman in the country to ride a mountain bike.
The 39-year-old Breckenridge resident just knew riding made her feel free; but she also hoped it might confront the deeply ingrained prejudice in the war-ravaged country that women weren't smart enough to balance and pedal at the same time.
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Riding a bike in a hostile and misogynistic culture is a major accomplishment by any stretch, but it is put in stark relief when you consider that an 18-year-old Galpin couldn't safely walk across a park in Minneapolis several years earlier.
In one graphic and brave chapter titled "Whore," Galpin, for the first time publicly, details her brutal rape at knifepoint in 1993, an attack that left her physically and emotionally shattered.
The event led her to drop out of dance school and forever altered the course of her life, taking her to Germany, Beirut and eventually Breckenridge. The rape came to define her. By how much, Galpin didn't know until her bubbling rage over gender violence took her to the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman — Afghanistan.
Today, Galpin, a single mother of a young girl, runs the Mountain2Mountain nonprofit from her Breckenridge home. The group, founded in 2006, seeks to empower women in conflict zones through art- and story-based projects, among other efforts. Her work in Afghanistan led National Geographic to name her its 2013 Adventurer of the Year.
Galpin's memoir comes out at a time when violence against women, namely within the NFL, has dominated the media conversation. Galpin's book poses an unsettling question: Though America and Afghanistan are worlds away culturally, does the tolerance of gender violence link them more closely than we'd care to admit?
In the United States, someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. The network estimates that 1 in 6 women in the U.S. have been or will be raped. About 6 percent of rapists go to jail. In Afghanistan, many of the women who are the victims of rape end up in jail.
"My theory was that beyond illustrating what a woman was capable of to Afghans, I would also be able to experience Afghanistan in a way few others had before me," Galpin writes. "By sharing my experiences and stories back home, perhaps I could challenge perceptions in both countries."
Some of the book's most powerful moments come from Galpin's visits to the women's prisons in Afghanistan, where many of the inmates live with their children.
"While I couldn't imagine the oppressive loss of freedom as anything less than a death sentence, these women often had very few freedoms outside of prison," she writes.
The book is a memoir, yes, but it's not a gauzy journey of self-discovery. It is a book veined with anger and argument. Much of the book is written from a defensive posture, with Galpin combating critics past, present and future: Those who say she's a narcissist, those who want to forever link her to the disgraced "Three Cups of Tea" author Greg Mortenson, those who say a single mother shouldn't work in a war zone, those who want to control the direction of her nonprofit.
Many people have told Shannon Galpin's story — National Geographic, Outside Magazine, to name two — but it's now time for her voice to be heard. It's a voice worth listening to.
The book isn't perfect; it was written quickly and that sometimes shows. The prose can get weighed down with score-settling, as well as cliché, repetitious phrasing and general sloppiness (a famous Ernest Hemingway quote is attributed to "A Call to Arms," when there is no such book).
In the end, however, Galpin's story challenges us with a hugely important question: How can we create a better world, not just for our daughters, but for our sons as well? Call her a narcissist, call her a Mrs. Jellyby, but don't say she isn't putting her pedals where her principles are.
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