In 2011, my dear friend Toni and I rode our bikes down the West Coast, living on $4 a day, camping in backyards, and giving away free menstrual cups. This was our second bicycle trip together. Our first trip was just a joy ride two years earlier. We tested how cheaply we could live, and in doing so, we discovered that bicycle travel is a very special way to have engaging conversations with people we would never meet otherwise. So, we planned another trip and organized it around our shared passion for menstrual cups! Menstrual cups reduce waste, save money, are safe for women's bodies, and offer users an opportunity for a more intimate relationship with their cycle.
For those reasons and more, spreading the word about menstrual cups is now our feminist, social, and environmental-justice project. Sustainable Cycles is a nonprofit grassroots organization of bicycling menstrual-cycle activists. We started Sustainable Cycles with this trip in 2011. We wanted to take advantage of bicycle travel as a way to talk to people outside of our regular worlds about women's relationships to their bodies. Since then, Sustainable Cycles continues to organize similar bicycle trips for new rider-educators.
When you travel by bicycle there is a lot of uncertainty. We never knew who we'd meet during the day or where we'd sleep the next night. Some days we'd be tired, wet, cold, hungry, or scared. Our little differences, which didn't seem to matter so much when we were at home, could be a really big deal on the road. I ride up hills a little bit faster than Toni does. She can go a little longer without a snack but likes to have time to really rest at some point in the middle of the day. Toni cries, writes, and meets strangers a little more easily than I do. I swim in every lake or river I can find.
Riding alone, you can follow your own lulls and highs of energy and emotion, but together we had to sometimes wait or hurry, to push ourselves when we didn't want to or rest during vital energy peaks. Toni and I are friends for life now, and I definitely could not have done it alone: I'd probably still be crying alone on the side of the road somewhere in Oregon. We sometimes joke: "All we ever needed to know about relationships we learned on our bicycle tour."
Along our route we hosted workshops about periods in community centers, shelters, clinics, colleges, and really anywhere that would have us. We aimed to break taboos and promote sustainability by having conversations about and advocating for reusable menstrual products.
BASIC INFORMATION ABOUT MENSTRUAL PRODUCTS
Tampons and pads cost the average woman $2,000 over her lifetime. Most disposable products are made of pesticide-rich cotton, rayon, bleach, and glue. However, since they are classified as medical devices, companies are not required to list ingredients.
I found out about menstrual cups in college and immediately started buying them as gifts for all my friends and family. They catch rather than absorb the blood, so you can reuse them, rather than buying single-use disposable tampons and pads again and again.
DIARY OF OUR 2011 SUSTAINABLE CYCLES RIDE: SEATTLE TO LOS ANGELES
The beginning of the trip was a humbling whirlwind of information.
We spent one of the first nights at a transitional home for women just out of prison, part of the Catholic Worker House in Tacoma. The "house mom" told us that in many prisons women aren't allowed to use tampons, only pads, and prisons sometimes withhold pads for humiliation. We left her with cups for her residents.
Our first community event was at a small radical bookstore in Olympia. It was well attended, with a number of queer and trans-identified people in the group. We enthusiastically took out our sample cups and cloth pads and fliers and pamphlets with the words women and woman all over everything. The room got pretty uncomfortable, until finally some participants let us know that our use of those words was not inclusive. I was embarrassed that we hadn't considered this before. It wasn't an easy conversation for any of us, but I was moved by and appreciative of their openness. Not all people who menstruate are women, and not all women menstruate.
Part of the point of traveling by bicycle was to talk to people outside of our social demographic, so we arranged to visit homeless shelters in several small cities in Washington. We found out that shelters consistently run out of pads and tampons. Often women have to travel across town from shelter to shelter to find them. One woman told us that the only things she ever steals are pads and tampons. We quickly realized that giving cups to homeless women requires a personal relationship, education, ensuring access to clean water, and follow-up. We left cups with counselors and social workers who would later support their clients in making the switch.
Amid all we were learning, every late afternoon we had to start "shopping" for a house. We'd look for flowers or toys in the front yard, then knock on the door, introduce ourselves, and ask for a place to pitch our tent. We were too scared to "stealth camp" alone in woods or hidden lots but (with a few exceptions) felt really safe as lawn guests. People were usually a little startled to see us at the door, but we were very rarely turned down. Our hosts often invited us in for dinner or showers, eager to hear our stories. We talked to most of them about menstrual cups and left them with anyone who wanted one.
The last few days in Oregon were very steep and very scary. This was the bottom of a fourteen-mile uphill climb on a narrow two-lane road with no shoulders, mainly used by logging trucks speeding past us. I cried and walked my bike up the second half. The other side was a cool, cloudy descent to a beautiful gray beach. We splayed out on the sand, happy to be whole, alive, and past the biggest climb of the trip.
Beautiful redwoods and pot country behind us, we arrived at the San Francisco Women's Community Clinic. They invited us to talk to their gynecologists, nurses, and volunteers about menstrual cups. This was when I first realized how few gynecologists know that conventional tampons and pads are not the only options.
This is a picture of the Women's Building in San Francisco, the first women-owned community center, with these incredible murals!
A quick shout-out to San Francisco as home to my favorite bicycle.
We were a little behind schedule, so after one last beautiful stretch on Highway One, we hitchhiked and then rode in the back of a pickup truck in order to make it to our event at the Bicycle Kitchen in LA. We didn't expect to find a great bicycle community in LA, famous for its car culture and traffic, but we were pleasantly surprised. This rad bike co-op hosts a monthly Bitchin' Kitchen women-only bike-repair night, only one of many ways that the bicycle community in LA comes together.
We ended our trip in LA just as the Occupy movement there was at its height. We camped on the front lawn of City Hall next to passionate protesters, hosted workshops on the front steps, and gave away the last of our cups.
When we were planning this trip, many people cautioned us in various ways: "Shouldn't you have a guy with you?"; "You know, traveling alone is more dangerous now than in the '60s"; or "Bicycling is the most dangerous form of transportation." It's true: We were female bodies exposed to the elements, traffic, the male gaze, and other unforeseen dangers with no one to protect us. It was a powerful experience not to be controlled by those fears, but rather to trust my own discernment and ability.
Since 2011, Sustainable Cycles has hosted four more cross-country bicycle trips. Riders have collectively covered more than 22,000 miles, given away almost 2,000 menstrual cups, and hosted workshops throughout the United States and Mexico. In 2015, seven women rode three different routes across the country, all converging at the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research Conference in Boston in June. Now, Sustainable Cycles is run by me, Toni Craige, and Rachel Horn (a menstrual-cycle and bicycle activist based in Los Angeles).
We are excited to be planning trips for Spring 2017 in collaboration with the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research. If you or someone you know might be interested in going on a tour, write to email@example.com and introduce yourself!
Sarah Konner is a Brooklyn-based dance-artist, menstrual-cycle activist, and co-founder of Sustainable Cycles. #bikeperiod