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In the fall of 2010, she took apart one of her Niner bikes, checked it on a plane bound for Afghanistan, then rebuilt it and rode it across the desert for two days and ninety miles, all the while looking at the message printed on its frame: "Pedal, damnit!"

"It just struck me as this way to gain attention and sponsors while also furthering our goal of promoting women's rights," Galpin says. "It wasn't like, 'Hey, look at me, I'm a woman riding a bike where I'm not supposed to,' as much as, 'Hey, you're women, too, and you can do this, too. And maybe let's do this together."

She was accompanied by three male companions and propelled by financial commitments from supporters in Portland, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., among other places. As they pedaled through the Panjshir Valley, pacing water and food intake, Galpin looked at the faces of the locals her group encountered. Were those looks of curiosity or animosity? Was it offensive to them, these people on bicycles, this woman on a bicycle, or just surprising?

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.
tony di zinno
On trips to Afghanistan, Shannon Galpin has interviewed natives across several provinces.

In order to pedal farther inland without a police escort, Galpin's team bribed officers to allow the group through. As they cycled into the sun, Galpin recalled stories of snipers on the cliffs overhead. And on what would become the final day of the trip, they encountered a goat herder who uttered a warning Galpin could not understand. But they felt immediate tension, she remembers.

Through her Panjshiri translator, Galpin finally got the message: "No. No. Do not go through here. They have guns." On the other side of the pass, Nuristanis from a neighboring province carried weapons, and though the group did not know if they were targets, they knew they were unprotected. After a short deliberation, Galpin made the decision to travel one more hour to the final open space on their route, a grassy field in the middle of the desert. There the trip ended early.

"I cried, took out the barrette and tried to absorb both the disappointment and the accomplishment," she says. "In a really soppy, Pollyanna way, I felt like the women of Kandahar prison were there, even if only in spirit."

In October, she plans to try to cross the Panjshir Valley again. And in the meantime, a domestic Panjshir tour that benefits Mountain2Mountain has expanded to 25 cities this year and attracted more than 1,000 cyclists.

Each time Galpin visits Afghanistan, she develops more ideas — but her time in the United States is rarely as productive. "You can visually watch her think, but you can't keep up," says Mountain2Mountain boardmember Barry Reese. After six years, Galpin remains Mountain2Mountain's only full-time employee. The organization's budget for this year is $100,000 — and Galpin is still owed $30,000 for past personal expenses.

But the situation should change at the end of 2012. This past January, when Galpin was struggling with health issues — a bleeding ulcer — the board voted unanimously to refocus on smaller, grassroots efforts. And Reese had a frank talk with Galpin: "I asked, 'What happens if the last straw happens and it collapses? Do you want to go back to being a Pilates instructor, or would you join another NGO?'"

Galpin has thought about this many times. "If I concede to defeat at some point, it would all still be worth it for the lives we have changed so far," she says. "It would be frustrating that the roadblocks weren't war or conflict or discrimination or law, but money. That seems like a shitty reason to not be able to make change."

Today, Mountain2Mountain's list of outreach programs includes a literacy daycare system for the children of incarcerated mothers. To encourage free speech and educate women in the arts, Mountain2Mountain has also partnered with Afghan artists to teach youth how to create graffiti. The group has sponsored community concerts, organized art shows that partner artists in the United States and Afghanistan, and donated computers to a women's school where students had never seen them. To make this last project work, organizers brought in a back-up generator to guarantee power and spent hours teaching the students the most basic computer skills. This summer, Mountain2Mountain will launch Internet cafes in Jalalabad and Bamyan, two cities where electricity is sporadic or non-existent.

"We don't do sticks and bricks," explains boardmember Gareth Glaser. "We don't build buildings and put names on them and then have them taken away. The only way that Mountain2Mountain succeeds is through developing partnerships with local institutions."

While all of that work takes place at the grassroots level, those roots are more than 7,000 miles away, and donors have fallen prey to Afghan fatigue. "They don't see anything beyond footage of turbans, Taliban riding in the backs of pickup trucks, and firefights in Kandahar and Helmand and Ghazni," Moore says. "They see helicopters landing in military bases and hotels on fire in Kabul and lots and lots of armed men running. They see this immutable black-hole wasteland of violence and terrorism and war."

So Galpin pitches potential. "People want to invest in hope," she says. "They don't want to invest in pity and misery."

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1 comments
Gentry June
Gentry June

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