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Wanderlust 2008: Sharing stories, riding bikes

by Shelby KnoxPEP Young Women's Leadership Council

What is Wanderlust? It's not a word most people hear or say with regularity, but it tingles off the tongue with a bit of mystical lightness that hints at its meaning - "a strong desire to travel."


It's also the apt name of two amazing adventures which brought together the joy and struggle of biking (really, really far) with the joy and struggle of defining and exploring the reproductive justice movement - and all of it sprung forth from the brain of Nora Dye, the Senior Program Coordinator at the Pro-Choice Public Education Project.


The nuts and bolts of Wanderlust, parts I and II: In the summer of 2007, Nora set off on her bike Rhonda for a 4600 mile journey from New Jersey to California to, in her words, "meet with and listen to advocates, sexuality educators, and other folks who are working for reproductive autonomy, increased access to health care, and combating negative images of female sexuality." Joined in parts by the intrepid Elizabeth Sy, the trip introduced them to amazing work going on across the country. When Nora moved to New York City and started working with PEP, she set her sights on a second trip, across different terrain and with the crazy people she could convince to pedal with her.


With PEP's support, Nora began planning Wanderlust II, a journey across the South, endeavoring to talk to those people whose voices and work are often left out of the 'movement' that seems centered on the coasts and in politically 'blue' states. She recruited fifteen fierce, brave women from all over the country to ride from New Orleans through the deep South and up to New York. The crew of students, organizers, writers, two teachers and even a reverend raised money, trained, and prepared - and, despite not owning a bike or really knowing how to ride one, I did too, much to the surprise of…everyone who has ever known me!


Somewhere between South Carolina, where I and two others joined the rest of the bikers who had already battled their way through the heat from New Orleans, and New York City, I learned how to ride my bike without falling off when I brake, how to change a bike tire, to push my body just a little further than my brain thinks it can go and vice versa- and to always use "I" statements when representing a shared experience. There is not and never could or should be a single official Wanderlust trip report - the musings that follow are an abbreviated version of my experience as an organizer and feminist on a trip that changed my life and how I think about our movement.


I am big on women's stories. After leaving Texas to travel across the country as an itinerant organizer, I've had the opportunity to hear them from coast to coast - and am reminded with each story I hear how connected and separated we are by the experience of (often multiple) oppressions based on gender, race, class, age, sexual orientation, and ability.


Separately each story is simply that: an endless struggle with often intangible, seemingly unrelated forces that winds up being defined as "life." Put together and shared and discussed, the patterns become clear and it's obvious that there is nothing wrong with us, but with a system of oppressions working exactly as designed to make us feel that way. As such, women's stories, especially when shared, are a powerful catalyst for personal and systemic change.


So, perhaps that credo is why I learned from and now remember Wanderlust in stories. Every 15 or so miles, we would troop, sweaty and loud, into gas stations on country roads across the South - what a sight to see 11 women on bikes, claiming to have come from New Orleans and be heading to the Big Apple! Some of the most impactful, personal stories were shared at the gas pumps: a woman who, after having six children, had her tubes tied at 28 and her friend who, after talking to us for a while, blurted out her story of an abortion she didn't tell her husband about because she didn't think they could feed another child. An older woman who pulled every map she had out of her truck to help us find a shortcut told us of her adventures helping unmarried friends get birth control before it was legal for single women. And an Air Force pilot who, after hearing us describe reproductive justice, somehow innately "got it" and told us about his wife's fertility treatments.


Every time, I wondered what made these people tell perfect strangers such personal details about their lives. I realized along the way how many people are still afraid to admit being "pro-choice" and that it is still very taboo to talk about women's sexual autonomy - some people could face very real discrimination from neighbors, family members, or their church. Some who shared their stories hadn't shared those stories with their closest friends, but we were the perfect confidants because we could provide empathy and understanding and then ride far far away.


Whether we realized it or not, by participating in the Wanderlust Tour for Reproductive Justice, we became ambassadors for the movement and the way we shared our stories also affected people we met with along the way. I realized quickly how the alphabet soup of acronyms developed by the reproductive freedom community become barriers when talking to people who, while they may be doing amazing work on the issues, don't feel part of a larger movement and don't have contact with the national organizations. Talking about CBAE and VBAC's doesn't make me sound smart, it makes me sound superior and exclusive - and cuts off valuable conversation with people from whom I can learn more than they can from me.


There are so many things about Wanderlust that I just can't put into coherent words yet, so thanks for making it this far. I can only describe a feeling that going on this bike trip and meeting the amazing women who embarked upon it with me and the people we met along the way has changed the way the gears in my brain and heart work - ask me again in five years and perhaps I can describe half of it. But there is one story that represents Wanderlust for me perfectly:


In biking terminology, "critical mass" means four or more bikers riding side by side in a lane that have the legal traffic status of a car. Sometimes it's safer for a large group of cyclists to ride this way - through towns, construction, or when confused about the directions. When we would get into these situations on the trip, someone would yell "take the lane" - and all eleven cyclists would swoop into two-by-two formation, asserting our power by yelling, whooping, and cheering each other on.


The rush of primal strength, of women's voices piercing the traffic noise and in unison taking the town by will was and still is the most powerful and overwhelming experience I've had. I realize now as I didn't before being part of this very special "critical mass" that there are so very many things that I can't do by myself, but almost nothing I can't accomplish with a pack of sisters at my side - and whenever I start to feel alone against the world, I yell "take the lane" in my brain. My sisters, though scattered across the country, are right there with me.




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