Lessons Learned from a Bicycle
Rev. Rebecca Turner
On May 22, 2008 I caught an Amtrak train, the actual train called the “city of New Orleans” made famous by Arlo Guthrie. In New Orleans I met up with 12 other women, all of them half my age, none that I had known before. We were about to engage in a first-of-a-kind journey called the Wanderlust Bike Tour for Reproductive Justice, and our lofty goal was to ride our bicycles from New Orleans to New York City. One might assume that we were all experienced cyclists who had toured before, but that was only true of our fearless leader, Nora. The rest of us had much to learn.
Every day was a completely new adventure. Sometimes the roads were busy four-lane state highways where we would ride the shoulder. Sometimes we were on country roads that saw very little traffic. Sometimes we were in big cities like Mobile, Birmingham, Atlanta, Charleston, Baltimore, or Philadelphia. Sometimes the roads turned to gravel, and once a road was sand. There were small mountains to cover in Alabama and Virginia, and there were beautiful beachside roads along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. There were dangerous areas where construction was underway or where huge bridges had to be crossed.
Mostly the weather was hot and humid. We seldom saw rain, but it was usually a relief when we did.
We camped out most nights, which meant the work of setting up camp, cooking our own meals, washing dishes, rinsing out our smelly clothes, and usually falling into bed between 11 and midnight. The next morning there was breakfast to make, packing to do, and we were on our way again for the next adventure. Every campground seemed to have its own species of mosquitoes, bees, moths, and spiders. I was amazed at the variety.
And there were so many animals: eastern bluebirds, owls, woodchucks, armadillos, wild pigs, deer, bobcats, and coyotes.
There were people on front porches who waved as we wandered by, people in convenience stores that thought we must be preparing for the Olympics, people in ice cream shops who gave us free ice cream for “bravery”, and without fail, every time one of us had a flat tire (and that was daily) there would be a man in a pickup truck stop to see if we needed tools (we didn’t).
One day in Georgia we stopped for a picnic lunch, as we did every day. We were sitting on the ground and suddenly began swatting at our legs. Within seconds, swarms of biting ants were covering our bodies, our food, and anything we had set on the ground, like our helmets. You can imagine the dancing and screaming that occurred. After I believed myself to be free of the ants, I sent a text message to a biking friend back home in St. Louis. “We’ve just been attacked by swarms of killer ants.” His message came back. “I’m sitting in a boring meeting.” I smiled and realized I had the better deal. I got to get on my bike and ride through the beautiful countryside.
There were wonderful serendipitous moments like meeting the daughter of a friend in Chapel Hill and meeting a friendly man at one campground and his brother at the next stop.
In Selma, Alabama, I crossed the famous bridge where several people died when Gov. Wallace sent the National Guard to stop the voting rights march. At Myrtle Beach I swam in the ocean. I was in front of Constitution Hall in downtown Philadelphia days before the fourth of July. I biked through the lower ninth ward in New Orleans, by the White House, across the place where Washington crossed the Delaware River, and across the Williamsburg bridge into the Hasidic section of Brooklyn. I cannot begin to tell you what it all meant to me to see the history and the beauty of our country spread out before me in this way.
But this bike tour wasn’t just to see the sights or to get a lot of exercise or to study the varieties of mosquitoes. All along the way we stopped to talk to people about reproductive justice.
An explanation of that term is probably in order at this point. Reproductive justice is not just a new name for choice. It’s an acknowledgement that the early movement for choice was mostly for white middle-class women in cities. It didn’t always understand the lack of choices faced by women of color or low income women. In the fight for safe legal abortion, sometimes the choice movement overlooked the teen who wanted to have a baby, the woman in prison or the disabled woman who was being forced to have an abortion or undergo sterilization, or the low income rural woman who lived too far from an abortion provider to even consider her choices. Too often, the discussions in favor of “choice” took on a judgmental attitude of who was worthy of motherhood.
Reproductive justice is a movement that seeks to listen to the values and experiences of all women, and to bring them the full range of reproductive health options that have always been available to white women of means.
So, along the way, as if just biking and camping weren’t enough, we had meetings. We met in bars and restaurants, in a Methodist home for unwed mothers, in a couple of abortion clinics, in universities, in churches, and in homes. And we listened. We did not go to teach anyone what reproductive justice means. We did not go to promote any political agenda. We just asked questions and listened.
I think if I had to name the one thing that I observed in every location it would be that women are hungry to tell their stories. Teenage women with newborns, teens who were sex educators. Older women who’d had illegal abortions, young women who’d had an abortion only weeks before. Women who were working for women’s rights in far-away countries and women who were afraid to tell their own friends or husbands what they believe. Women who had been victimized. Women who hadn’t finished high school and women with PhDs. All of them hungry for conversation. Hungry to tell the truth of their own lives.
No one wanted to convert. They just wanted someone to listen. They didn’t believe that every other woman had to follow the same road they had. They weren’t interested in judging the different paths taken by others. They wanted someone to hear them and acknowledge that life was filled with difficult experiences, hard choices, and that no matter the choices, it doesn’t all turn out rosy, nor does it all go bad. It just is what it is.
What does riding a bicycle have to do with hearing women’s stories? Well, I wondered that myself before the trip. Sure, we could have traveled some other way. But I think we learned more this way. We really saw where people lived. We saw how the landscape influences the divisions between people. By moving slowing and working hard at getting places, by facing daily physical challenges and pain, we, as fairly privileged women, understood our bodies better. We understood that sometimes you hurt so bad that nothing else matters, and that you can’t easily take care of someone else when you’re hurting.
Susan B. Anthony said, “let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” We learned together that 12 women can do anything they set their minds to do, that among us we had the power to solve any problem we encountered, that hills and other obstacles only made us stronger.
I think as 12 women on bicycles we were not just voyeurs in women’s lives, as we might have been had we arrived by plane and taxi. The women we met seemed inspired by our courage, by our stamina. They said things like “If you all can ride your bikes that far, then I can surely get through what I’m dealing with.” That’s what bicycling has to do with reproductive justice.
And what does reproductive justice have to do with religious faith? Again, I would say it isn’t at all about what I believe but the ways millions of individual women define themselves.
Faith Aloud daily responds to the needs of women who feel lost, confused, worried, angry, or hopeless about their situations. They think no one is listening, no one understands and that surely God has abandoned them. Some are pregnant and don’t want to be. Some are pregnant and someone else doesn’t want them to be. Some are pregnant with the child they have always wanted, but the pregnancy has gone wrong and the doctors offer no hope. Some honestly don’t know how they got pregnant. Some are victims of violence. Some are victims of their own poor choices. Some are victims of public policy that denies them access to good healthcare. Some are victims of bad theology that has placed an angry, vengeful god at the center of their lives.
When the phone rings, we are there to listen. Not to judge the road they’ve taken. Not to talk them into anything. Just to listen to their stories, hear their reality and to assure them that nothing can separate them from the love of God.
There is a Christian scripture that we have found to be helpful with women, so helpful that we’ve put it on the cards that clinics give to their patients. It says: “For I am convinced that neither death nor life nor anything in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God.”
A former staffer re-wrote the words for women considering abortion:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor rulers and government policy, nor things present, nor things to come, nor unplanned pregnancy, judgmental faith communities or angry parents, nor contraceptive failure, unsupportive partners or life’s complexities, nor abortion, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.
And I’d like to offer you my more light-hearted version from the perspective of survival of a six-week bike ride from New Orleans to New York City:
For I am convinced that neither hills nor valleys, nor truck drivers on narrow highways, nor the lack of ice and water, nor killer ants and hostile raccoons, crashes in tunnels, thunderstorms or raging heatwaves, nor arthritic knees and aching muscles, nor anything else in all creation, nor any distance that we may travel, will be able to separate us from the love of God.
One day’s entry from our blog:
It’s Nora, bringing you Friday morning group blogging, from a goldfish farm that is also a horse farm.
No one is entirely sure how we ended up here, but here we are – in Bunnlevel, North Carolina, at the Little River Trails horse camp and goldfish farm. We’re sitting in an enormous square dancing pavilion with more picnic tables than we know what to do with, and we realized last night how drastically our standards have fallen when we’re excited that a place we stay has both more than one shower and more than one electrical outlet. We may never leave.
In our last two weeks, we are traveling through almost as many states as we’ve passed through in the first three and a half. More than anything, this trip has A been a lesson in geography, and it makes me think about the ways that physical space determines our reality. A shocking amount of the country is full of not a whole lot, and we’ve spent more time than not traveling down deserted rural roads through farmlands and past abandoned country stores. Over the next two weeks, though, we’ll be riding into the Eastern Seaboard and thickly settled suburbs, through almost a state a day.
So from Wanderlustland, our thoughts on geography and the places we’ve been.
Mel and Elizabeth here, who don’t like Fayatteville. We had to ride Critical Mass thro the city because the cars apparently didn’t believe it possible that single file bicyclists and two lanes of traffic could coexist. And even the fuzzy navel sno-cone that Elizabeth got was gross. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the Grapefull Sisters Vineyard is a Wanderlusty favorite. It was located in coastal North Carolina, and could be described as Paradise. We REALLY wanted to stay there forever! Amy and Sheila told us about their adventures taking out cotton on the family farm to replace it with native Muscodine grapes, which they then used to make amazing wine. We know, we got to do a wine-tasting. Sheila is getting into the SLOW food movement, and told us about her efforts to support and promote locally grown wines and grape varieties (check out ncwines.org). Amy stood in her kitchen while we were sampling the Southern Charm variety, and told us how she had hammered nails and set installation in every wall of the house, although we don’t know who installed the Futuristic Robot Shower and Bath Tub. It was complete with flashing blue lights, music, a radio, a mysterious lady bug button that we never figured out, shooting jets in every direction, and at least three Wanderlusties at any given moment (to save water, duh!).
Elizabeth says we find ourselves so much in the moment from place to place and the trend is for us to feel so elated when arriving safely at the next destination that we say “this is the best yet. Let’s stay here!” This has something to do with the weird way we experience time here, which is as a continuous time warp. Heather says “every day is a full experience unto itself and unique from the previous.” When trying to explain the nature of time on the trip, Elisa joined us to say “It’s like time is inverted and making love to itself.” We don’t know what day of the week it is, or what hour when we arrive at camp at the end of the day.
Mel loves watching the moon, which looks a little different from every camp site. Because we’re outside all evening, we can even watch it move across the sky. Other natural phenomena enjoyed by Wanderlusties are the Atlantic Ocean at Myrtle Beach, the varieties of birds and their night calls, and the insects.
Becky now…We all have different feelings about the bugs. Every location has its own variety of mosquitoes, ants, bees, beetles, moths, spiders, and odd flying creatures. We’ve all been bitten by mosquitoes and ants and hardly recognize our own legs because of the bite scars. The South Carolina mosquitoes were fat and black and totally immune to DEET. The bumblebees in North Carolina are huge. Horseflies sometimes follow us as we bike, nipping at our backs. But some of the night creatures have been fascinating and beautiful.
Speaking of night creatures, we heard our first bobcat cries when we were at Jones Lake. They sound like screaming women and it’s pretty spooky.
Here at the fish farm, we’ve enjoyed watching beautiful eastern bluebirds who have taken to dancing around the mirrors of our van.
Because we each take a turn driving the van every couple of weeks, it’s become clear how differently we see the world on bicycle than in a car. From a car, one sees lots of billboards, but from a bicycle those are barely noticed. Instead, a cyclist notices the road, its bumps and curves and hills and trash. A cyclist notices flowers and trees and cows and dogs and ducks. When driving the van, we mostly see buildings and road signs and distant landscape. It’s fun to travel so slowly, waving at people on their porches and appreciating what a diverse country we live in.
Vanessa Renee here now. Watching the landscape change from fields to trees, from skyscrapers to old abandoned barns is my favorite part of each day’s ride. Arriving at Grapefull Sister’s Vineyard two days ago to a beautiful view of corn fields and grape vines is a memory that will stay with me for a long time. Amy and Sheila have created a little piece of paradise on the land that I can’t wait to return to some day.
Shelby Knox, chiming in this morning. I left Texas for New York City about a week after graduation, happy to leave behind the politics, some of the people, and the long, hot, never ending stretches of road that dominated my childhood. Riding through South Carolina and then North Carolina, I have experienced an unexpected nostalgia biking past farms with flags and people waving from the porch, and going into the only grocery store in town, knowing that the owner will relay our visit to his family over dinner because we were the only outsiders to pop in for the day. I find myself for the first time since I moved away starting sentences with “In Texas, we…” or “Because I’m from Texas…”.
I feel in my bones and heart the gentle hospitality, the willingness to help, some of the judgment and the same fascination with people whose reality is almost unimaginable, which I felt for the first time when two New Yorkers came to my small Texas town to tell my story. I couldn’t imagine their life, or what mine would be just five years later, but I suddenly saw that my reality did not necessarily hold true everywhere – and set off on a journey to discover as many realities as possible, intuiting that was the way to make the world a more just place in some small way. This journey led me to feminism, to progressive politics, to the reproductive justice movement, and eventually to Wanderlust, where my reality has coincided with that of nine other amazing women, each of whom has taught me so much already and who I am honored to pedal, discuss, disagree and grow with everyday. Just as the geography changes as we ride, I can feel the geography of my heart and mind expanding, becoming hilly and mountainous in some places and flat and calm as the old Texas roads in others. I want to thank each Wanderlustie for creating a space in which this is possible – and encourage all of us and every person reading to continue to look past your own reality and inside of other people and their worlds. This is amazing, and there is no place I would rather be.
Kathleen here! Geography…hmmm…. Myrtle Beach was a challenge for me. It was so busy and congested. We busted out about 25 miles or so in a urban area crossing over in dangerous traffic on highways and bridges. I never felt my heart beat so fast before in my life! I loved the difference in scenery when we made our way to the Grapefull Sisters Vineyard. It was all pure farm land. Though I consider myself an “urban gal” it kinda made me want to settle down some place quiet and live on a farm and bake pies! The journey to the horse farm was not so peaceful. I had an anxiety attack biking through the thick traffic. It seemed as if the drivers wanted to drive us off the road! Why can’t we all share the road?