From Colorado to Kabul and back, Shannon Galpin's wild ride

From Colorado to Kabul and back, Shannon Galpin's wild ride
Illustration by Mark Andresen

When Shannon Galpin is on a bicycle, she knows where she is going — and how she is going to get there. This is a luxury she does not often have.

So on a sunny Monday in late spring, Galpin is determined to ride. At the start of one of her favorite paths in Golden, she removes her mountain bike — a custom-made, baby-blue single-speed that she built to accommodate her slender frame two years ago — from the trunk of her Honda Element, adjusts its 29-inch wheels, attaches her water bottle and loops one leg over its slim metal frame. As she looks up, shielding her fair face from the sun, she resembles a child whose parents have buckled her helmet, placed her on a bike and then, slowly, let her go.

But the truth is that Galpin, the 37-year-old founder of the Colorado-based nonprofit Mountain2Mountain, has pushed herself here — against the odds and occasionally against international protocol. In 2010, on a bike that differed from this one only in color, she became the first woman to cycle across the Panjshir Valley of Afghanistan. There, an activity she performs routinely — with no shifting and no distractions — transformed into a symbol for her outreach efforts.

On trips to Afghanistan, Shannon Galpin has interviewed natives across several provinces.
travis beard
On trips to Afghanistan, Shannon Galpin has interviewed natives across several provinces.
On trips to Afghanistan, Shannon Galpin has interviewed natives across several provinces.
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On trips to Afghanistan, Shannon Galpin has interviewed natives across several provinces.

"I constantly vacillate between realizing I'm making a difference and wondering if I'm ever going to make one," she says. "Sometimes when I get tired, I remind myself that I once rode across the desert. It usually helps."

Looking back — both at the past and over her right shoulder — she releases her grip on the brakes and starts pedaling.


During a particularly trying financial period, Shannon Galpin wondered if Mountain2Mountain, the organization she founded in 2006 and expanded to non-profit status in 2009, really had a future. While drafting her memoir, she decided to find out by looking back over its history. So she gathered the notes she'd scribbled on trips abroad, all 350 pages, and laid them out in chronological order. She spent the summer of 2011 revisiting her entire life: What was her story arc? Her climax? Her resolution? Based on past experience, Galpin knew her story was not Three Cups of Tea or Eat, Pray, Love — but then, what kind of story was it?

It started as Pollyanna: Galpin jokingly compares herself to that wholesome Hayley Mills character. She grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota, with an architect father, a stay-at-home mother and her younger sister, Larissa. At age five, she discovered modern dance — and by the time she was a teenager, she'd developed a fervent dislike of her home town, where there were few opportunities for a dancer. She left as soon as she could, auditioning for Minneapolis's Zenon Dance Company and then moving there at the age of seventeen, when she was offered an apprenticeship. She took a job at the Gap and studied tap, jazz and classical ballet with Zenon for a year.

And then she was raped.

After taking the bus home from work one night, Galpin got off at the wrong stop, a mistake that required a short trip through a city park. A few minutes into this unexpected walk, Galpin heard a man's voice and felt hands on her back. The stranger used his knife and weight to push her to the ground, where he raped her, cut her and abandoned her. "I am certain in my mind that he thought he had left me for dead," Galpin says. "For a few days, I felt like I was."

Instead of notifying either her family or the authorities, Galpin retreated into herself, hiding in her apartment for days and calling in sick to work until her cuts healed and her bruises paled. She never danced again. "I was afraid that if I told anyone, the rape would define me," she says. "I didn't just want to be the person who was raped." At the insistence of a friend, she finally reported the rape through a relay phone inside the police station; the police have never found her attacker.

And while she distanced herself emotionally from the experience, Galpin removed herself physically from its setting. She enrolled in a creative-writing course at the American University in Heidelberg, Germany. When she flunked, she got a job as a trip guide. That's how she met her future husband, a dashing British rafting guide named Peter Clark who accompanied her on a tour through Austria's Zell am See region. The trip lasted only three days, but they connected quickly. "I called him the next week and said, 'What if I came back?'" Galpin remembers. "So I did."

After two years and travels through several countries, the couple married on December 30, 1997, a commitment propelled as much by citizenship issues as by love. (Today, Galpin calls it a "necessary evil.") The newlyweds moved to Wales, where Clark worked full-time as an engineer with the European Space Agency and Galpin trained in sports therapy with a focus on preventive care. "I was so frustrated that everything was always reactive, which is my concern with nonprofits, too," she says, and sighs. "We don't fix the world until it's broken. I want to fix it first so that it doesn't get that far."

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