Chapter 36 - "Where Are All the Women?"

I was a self-respecting, nineties kind of girl. When I'd entered my teens, I'd perused "Our Bodies, Ourselves." I'd read books about Goddess traditions, the importance of good self-esteem, and how special it was to blossom into womanhood. "Honor your womanhood," the books instructed. "Go to the woods when you're menstruating! Meditate! Write creative poetry! Do Yoga! Feel your power!"

Those self-empowerment tips weren't going to help on this particular afternoon. My period had just arrived, as I rode into a rest area where the bathroom looked like jail cells all lined up. Those new-age books had had some chapters missing, like How To Embrace Your Womanhood While Perched On A Bicycle Saddle, Ten Miles From the Nearest Campground.

I was rooting around in my panniers for some maxi pads when a kind lady came over. "You don't look very good, dear! Do you need anything?" she asked.

"I can't find my stupid maxi pads!" I said, emerging from my pannier. Exhaustion, wave after wave of it, swept over me.

"Oh, goodness—I know what that's like! You know, I think I have some in my car—should I check?" At that moment I found the pads, but I thanked the woman for asking. At least being female fostered a connection with other women. We knew what it was like to have our periods every month.

After that steaming hot day back in Kansas, when Abbey had gotten her period in the middle of a fifty-mile ride, I realized that female cyclists—as well as women in general—faced challenges that men just didn't have to deal with. Maybe it went the other way round, too, but I am female, and therefore biased. There were reasons, I concluded, why single male cyclists were in abundance while I only met two women traveling sans boyfriend or husband during my five months on the road. Men never had to think too much about sexual harassment and catcalls—or rape. And of course, they never got menstrual cramps.

I sure wished I would meet a few more female cyclists. Sometimes I craved contact with more women whose first question wasn’t, “Aren’t you scared?” I wanted someone to say, “I’m doing that too…and you're right…it is hard sometimes to be alone and get your period while riding or get whistled at by obnoxious men or feel the need to prove yourself in order to be treated with respect....But you know what? You can do it!”

I met Wally (“people always think I’m a man in newspaper articles!”) in Montana, as I was leaving a campground. A blue bike was leaning up against the restrooms, with a sticker on the top-tube that read, “Wild Woman.”

Wally was petite, blond, and 30ish, wore a yellow tank top, and she didn't appear at first glance to be especially wild. Then she told me where she was going.

“I’m riding this tour in three summers,” she said. “Last year I rode from Alaska to Washington, this summer I’m doing Washington to Costa Rica, and next summer I'm goin' to Chile.” Wally practically exuded self-confidence from her pores. She was bubbly and bold, and told me about a recent evening she'd spent in a bar with fifty guys and no other women. “…Everyone started pouring their drinks onto the floor around midnight," she said, laughing, "and by the end of the night it was so slippery that we'd take a running start and slide from one end of the room to the other!” In a way, Wally sounded cavalier—just like, I thought later, a man might sound if he told a wild story about something that happened to him.

But we both know that we couldn't do things in quite the same ways men could. At one point I asked her about MACE. “I carry it,” she told me quietly. I said I did, too. “Good. I mean, you shouldn’t be scared of everyone, but you shouldn’t be stupid, either.” In that short exchange, we shared an admission of our vulnerability—the continual, simmering, careful awareness through which we experience the world.

As we were leaving, Wally handed me a feather. "There was this poor owl in the road, and I thought it was a shame to let its feathers go to waste.” I accepted the gift, and rode down the hill into the shadow of a canyon, the sun shining brightly.

I stuck the feather in my handlebar bag next to my joyful girl quote, and I looked at it all morning. Wally had given me more than the feather—her exuberance and courage had given me reassurance, a tiny bit more confidence, a little more trust in myself, and one of only a few bicycling women to look up to on the trip.