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.
tony di zinno
On trips to Afghanistan, Shannon Galpin has interviewed natives across several provinces.
Shannon Galpin has developed a network of community partners in Afghanistan.
travis beard
Shannon Galpin has developed a network of community partners in Afghanistan.
Many Afghan children had never seen a woman ride a bicycle — until Shannon Galpin came along.
travis beard
Many Afghan children had never seen a woman ride a bicycle — until Shannon Galpin came along.

"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."

She saw a lot of the world over the next half-dozen years, as Clark's assignments sent them throughout Europe. But when Galpin's sister, who is ten years her junior, enrolled at Adams State College in Alamosa, she and Clark moved to Colorado so that Galpin could be closer to Larissa. The world travelers settled down in Breckenridge, where they bought a home. Galpin got a job as a trainer at the Vail Athletic Club, but soon was offered a six-month gig in Paris as a master trainer in Pilates. Clark didn't want her to go, but she took the job — and when the six months were up, she promptly took another in Beirut. "It taught me to be comfortable in cities with guns, because there were AK-47s on every street corner," Galpin remembers. "It began to teach me what I was capable of."

She and Clark grew apart as she became more confident. But they had made a deal: She'd stay off birth control when she returned to the States. Nine months later, on December 3, 2004, Devon Galpin Clark was born.

Galpin's travels were over, at least for a while, but she soon found other ways to stretch her horizons. She read John Wood's Leaving Microsoft to Change the World and Rory Stewart's The Places In Between. And then, along with much of the American reading public, she purchased Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortenson's account of his transition from professional nurse to co-founder of the humanitarian Central Asia Institute. "I became very attracted to his accomplishments, especially because he was not an expert, either," Galpin says. "He was just a regular person, too, and I began to realize that a Pilates teacher living in Colorado could also become part of that. I saw a place for myself."

For more than a year, even as she continued her work as a wellness instructor, she helped raise funds for Mortenson's nonprofit from her home in Breckenridge. After one local fundraiser to benefit the Central Asia Institute raised more than $100,000 for women's schools in Pakistan, Galpin began thinking about creating her own organization, one targeted toward the issue of women's rights — which she always refers to as "human rights." The push to make it a reality came in 2006, when Larissa called to make the announcement that Galpin never had: She'd been raped.

As Galpin listened to her sister, the guilt struck her hard. "I felt like maybe if I had just told her, it would have prevented the same thing from happening to her," Galpin says. "I know that's unreasonable, but it spurred something. I always had a wall up, and I was unwilling to be vulnerable."

And in that haze of emotion, Galpin's life suddenly changed directions. "I had to do something, but I knew only a few things for certain: I wanted to work with women who felt like victims, and I wanted to work in the place that was named the worst for them to live," Galpin says. "It was a leap of faith. I think out of everyone, the change surprised me the least."

That place was Afghanistan, a country she'd never even visited.

The first step was to go there. Once Galpin realized she could not purchase her ticket online, she talked with a friend, a National Geographic photographer who lives in Boulder and had worked in Afghanistan on assignment. Her friend recommended a travel agent who arranged round-trip airfare to Kabul for $1,600. "My goal on that first trip was to ignore preconceptions as much as possible," Galpin remembers. "It was not to start a mission."

Following her friend's suggestion, Galpin hired a translator named Najibullah Sedeqe for this first trip — and many since. Through him, Galpin met Dr. Massouda Jalal, Afghanistan's former minister of women's affairs, who ran against Hamid Karzai for the country's presidency in 2004. That was just Galpin's first interview out of more than thirty over the next three weeks, as she met with women involved in as many areas as possible.

On her second day in the country, Galpin toured an Afghan prison, where she met women jailed without trial, women who had never taken a single class and women permanently deformed by marital "spats." A few days later, she discussed the country's high rate of maternal deaths during childbirth with a local doctor. And all through her travels, she developed a network of Afghan aid workers and international ex-pats who'd also somehow found their way to Afghanistan.

For most of the trip, Galpin's protective guide stayed by her side, locking the doors of his Toyota Corolla the second she was strapped in, unlocking them only after they'd arrived at their destination, and never letting her leave his sight. For good reason: Galpin is tall and blond, with blue eyes lighter than a Tiffany's box, and she is trusting. Sedeqe made sure she traveled in convoys and stayed in compounds.

With one exception: On one of her last days in Afghanistan, an Australian photojournalist offered Galpin a ride through Kabul on his motorcycle. "He asked me if I was allowed," Galpin says, frowning at her friend's joke, "and I was like, 'Am I allowed? Am I allowed? I'm going to do this.'" Without telling Sedeqe, Galpin straddled the bike and sped through the city where she had yet to take a walk unaccompanied. Her friend took her up to the mountains, where she looked down on Kabul...and her future.

"It all hit me at once," she remembers. "This was where I had to work."

Back in Colorado, Galpin considered all the needs she'd encountered in Afghanistan — as well as her drastically diminished bank account — and weighed the difference between what looked good and what would actually do good. "My biggest hate is to be called naive, to be criticized for believing change can happen," Galpin says. "I was naive, though, before I realized how much money talks, how integral that chicken-versus-the-egg model is."

She worked on a structure and financial plan for her proposed nonprofit, built a six-member board of directors and a six-member advisory board, and then in 2008 filed the 501(c)(3) paperwork for Mountain2Mountain, which she named after an Afghan proverb: "No matter how high the mountain, there is always a road."

Once she'd decided on her own road, she was committed. Galpin soon closed her wellness studio, told her husband she wanted a divorce, sold him half of their house and listed her Subaru Impreza online. "I'm kind of an all-or-nothing person, unfortunately," Galpin says. And she was going to do it all on her own. "I didn't like Western organizations coming in and saying what to do, and I wanted the focus to be on using Afghan ideas to assist Afghan people," she explains. "The goal is to be a proxy for these women until they have their own voice, not to just sit there and pretend to be their voice."

From the start, Galpin was determined to avoid what she calls "Band-Aid activism," which she avoided by taking on only those projects that could continue without her. "In general, Afghans respect people who are willing to engage them fully, people who are willing to eschew a lot of the security theater that surrounds most of the international community there, people who meet them in their homes and villages instead of calling them into heavily fortified compounds," says Una Moore, an independent consultant on international development projects who met Galpin in Kabul. "Shannon really gets the idea that for any development to work in Afghanistan, the expats have to be in the background as opposed to out front. You can't implement projects that are just being dreamt up in major cities in the West."

Working in Afghanistan is like sifting through quicksand: The politics change every week. One of Mountain2Mountain's most ambitious early projects stemmed from Galpin's first trip there and her conversation with the doctor over the high rate of maternal deaths in childbirth. For months, Mountain2Mountain organized a program dedicated to teaching women in rural villages midwifery skills, right before Afghan political administrators updated the country's health regulations, effectively killing the project.

In 2009, Mountain2Mountain finalized the paperwork to start a school for the Afghan National Association of the Deaf, which, when finished, will be worth eight times Mountain2Mountain's current annual budget. Three years later, though, there is only the foundation of a building. "Shannon's goals are incredible, but the Afghan people look at results," Moore says. "It is one thing to say you will create change in Afghanistan and another thing entirely to do that. Shannon knows this more than most."

Another early effort targeted women's prisons, where it's not uncommon for the inmates' children to live with them. Over several trips, Galpin visited five facilities to decide whether the nonprofit's focus on women's rights should be stretched to include prisons. In March 2010, wearing a tightly wrapped burqa, accompanied by a handful of male escorts and a small video camera, Galpin entered the women's prison in Kandahar.

Through an interpreter, inmates told her of the "moral" crimes they'd been accused of committing. "I met this woman, the fifth wife of a 65-year-old man, who was twenty, married at sixteen and beaten, with knife wounds all over her body," Galpin recalls. The woman had been accused of attempting to murder one of her stepsons, and the resulting prison sentence actually presented an escape. "Before she got there, she was already imprisoned in her own life. I realized I could do nothing for them," she says.

After a day of interviews, as Galpin headed for the exit, the women presented her with a token: a jeweled barrette that Galpin often holds but never wears. When she tried to refuse the gift, a prisoner brushed out Galpin's hair and clipped the barrette in. For the second time in her life, Galpin says, she felt completely helpless.

She's felt that way often in the days since, as she contemplates the enormity of the work that needs to be done in Afghanistan.

*****

And as she tests the durability of Mountain2Mountain, Galpin continues to test herself. At the same time that she was launching the nonprofit, she took up mountain biking. Between trips to Afghanistan and rounds of fundraising, she rode with friends, trying to figure out a way to connect her primary form of recreation with her all-consuming cause.

She started a Mountain2Mountain biking team, which occasionally competes in races to earn pledges for the nonprofit. In 2009, she took her bike to Afghanistan, where she rode it through a few rural villages. And then she came up with a grand plan: To raise funds for and awareness of Mountain2Mountain, she would ride across Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley, where few women traveled and certainly none rode bicycles.

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?

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."

At the same time Mountain2Mountain has refocused its efforts in Afghanistan (a 2011 Thomson Reuters poll confirmed that Afghanistan is the most dangerous country in the world for anyone with two X chromosomes, worse than the Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia), it has also expanded its vision. This fall, through a new program called Combat Apathy, Mountain2Mountain will push projects in Cambodia, Mexico and Denver; next year it hopes to move into Israel, New York and Los Angeles. The three-stage educational experiment will partner young Americans between the ages of 16 and 22 with those in international conflict zones through citizen journalism and volunteer social-work projects. In the first stage, participants will publish personal stories through Mountain2Mountain's website and social media, with the hope that they will connect through the geography-free Internet.

And then the participants in the two communities will meet to create a project of their choosing, what Galpin calls a "social impact program" dedicated to an issue such as human trafficking, community violence or drug use. Although the specifics of the first pilot program won't be released until fall, it will unite Denver and Mexico City on the topic of trafficking.

To launch Combat Apathy, Mountain2Mountain will ramp up its fundraising efforts; its board of directors voted to increase the annual budget to $500,000 and hire four more full-time staff members, all of whom will be based out of Denver's Greenhouse Project start-up space.

The board has determined that the only way Mountain2Mountain can attain its goals is to grow. But in order to make Combat Apathy work, the group will have to fight apathy here at home. "You don't get someone to give you $20,000 because you're the good guys," Reese says. "You get it through results — and through people like Shannon. We have to believe in her."

*****

In an average year, Galpin spends twelve weeks outside the United States. After a month in Afghanistan, she'll devote three months to fundraising here. While she is away, Devon stays with her father, who lives only a few miles across the highway. When she is home, she teaches Devon to care for her puppy — a twelve-week-old Saint Bernard who was originally named Phoenix, after the bird in the Harry Potter series, but is now called Bear — and attempts to explain the world's problems in first-grade language.

"Devon used to think, 'Mommy builds schools,' because I would show her photos of schools with outdoor classrooms where students are learning off of a piece of plywood," Galpin says. "Then in preschool, we printed out all of her favorite photos of me abroad, and I made a map of Afghanistan and helped her put the photos all around it on a tri-fold science-fair board. I brought it in to her preschool class, and they tried on burqas and hats and thought about if they had to wear them every day."

In her bedroom, Devon keeps two piggy banks on the dresser; in one, she collects money for herself, in the other, for the kids in her mom's photos.

From the front door to the living room of their home, a long white hallway is covered with a series of travel maps and a collection of color-coded Post-its that Galpin uses to structure her business plans. In the kitchen, seven-year-old Devon pens a novella in front of her own list of chores, which is tacked to the fridge. She soon presents Galpin with her masterpiece: The Book of Numbers, All the Way to Number 697, by Devon Galpin Clark.

Galpin has written her own book, which grew out of the project she started last summer, but Devon will not know the full story of what her mother is doing in Afghanistan until she is at least ten, Galpin says. Devon has come close to learning too much a few times, though. When Galpin was driving the school carpool one day (although she sold one car to fund Mountain2Mountain, she's since bought another used car that she's still paying off), one of the older kids asked her if she'd ever seen any bombs abroad; fortunately, Devon didn't hear the conversation. "He's only two years older than Devon," Galpin says. "It's hard to keep everything from her, but we have to for a while. She doesn't know I'm gone unless I tell her that I'm not in Breckenridge."

Galpin definitely has her critics, who call her "polarizing" and "hammer-headed." In launching her own nonprofit, Galpin bluntly abandoned the traditional route and fashioned her own model through trial and error. Some point to her unorthodox mothering schedule to rebuke her more brazen methods of diplomacy: If she really cares about women, why doesn't she spend more time with her daughter? But to question her concept of family, the strongest element in her story, is a mistake, Galpin says.

Family is everything, even if her finances are so tight that she regularly needs to choose between groceries and her cell-phone payment. Last year, during a trip to her local City Market to buy dinner, her bank account reached a low of $20, forcing her to decline Devon's request for gummy vitamins.

"How pathetic is it to not be able to get your daughter vitamins?" she asks. "But then I realize that, for me, this project is as much about her future as theirs. Why should she have to live in a world where women are less? I'd hope I'm teaching her, if nothing else, to care."

Back in Golden, Galpin steps off her bicycle and stretches her arms and legs before turning her attention to her Niner. She removes its front wheel and packs both pieces into her car, making sure to leave room for Bear, who's been waiting inside his padded kennel.

Galpin checks on his water supply, then her own, releasing a long breath and chugging from her bike bottle. "If I didn't appreciate water before, I certainly learned to in Afghanistan," she says.

She takes a deep breath: "Of course, I've learned a lot of things there."

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1 comments
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Gentry June

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