Montana 2014 Part 2 – Day 78 – Kalispell: Gender is not a disability

Tuesday August 5, 2014, 13 miles (21 km) – Total so far: 3,650 miles (5,875 km)

After I drop off the bike at the shop, I head out to explore downtown Kalispell. The downtown is several blocks long and wide. The brick buildings are mostly one and two-story with functional design. None of it shouts past opulence; this was obviously never a mining town.

Actually, Kalispell started out as a division point on the Great Northern Railway in 1891. One of the Conrad brothers, who had become a wealthy merchant through his businesses in Fort Benton, convinced the owner of the railway to bring the railroad through Conrad’s new area of residence. Conrad and Hill were old pals, and in the way of the wealthy with connections, the railroad came to town after Conrad bought up land and platted a site. Unfortunately, the line west of Kalispell (which we’ll ride a little bit tomorrow on a rail trail) had many curves and steep hills. This led the railroad to reroute through Whitefish in 1904. However, by this time, Kalispell was well-established as a centre of government, trade and timber processing, so it survived. A branch line of the railroad from Columbia Falls remained until 1950.

After a wander along the sidewalks and a gander at the architecture downtown, I head down to the city park just east of the CBD. To get there, I tread along sidewalks in an older neighbourhood with well-kept homes. It could be any 1900s to 1930s neighbourhood in the Rockies. The bungalows, cottages and two-story homes sit under mature trees which provide plenty of shade. The houses sit back from the street, and in the way that I love so much and that is so American, with no fences in the front yard. It is welcoming instead of territorial.

The park was created at the turn of the century (not the most recent, the one before) from a swamp. The swamp was home to the homeless and was a breeding place for crime and mosquitoes. To clean it up, the city dredged the swamp and created inter-linking ponds. They planted trees and installed lighting. It is still a very pleasant place, but the bird life is prolific. It is not somewhere you can easily find a place to sit on the grass without scooping some poop out of the way. So I just find a picnic table instead to sit at and catch up the journal, read, and write letters and postcards.

Later, I head back up to the Hockaday Art Museum in the old Carnegie library. A range of exhibits, many focusing on Western landscapes, figures and the local area, entertain me for an hour or so. I wish I had my childhood friend Eric along. He was a great lover of art and could always explain the finer details and artist intentions without being pretentious or snooty. He could interpret shading and light and the deeper meanings that are never apparent to me. Eric died in 1997 from heart problems that he was not supposed to survive at birth. He was then given to age 10, then 15. He made it to almost 23. I miss him every day, but I miss him terribly when I go to art museums.

Next on my nerdy list is catching up on newspapers and magazines at the library. Then, it’s off to the local history museum which is housed in the 1894 school building. It was saved from demolition in 1991 and renovated in 1999. Wandering around and thinking of it as a school is as much fun as looking at the history exhibits. There are two galleries featuring county and logging industry history. There is one gallery about a famous writer and politician named Frank Bird Linderman.

What I will most remember about this day, however, is my conversation with the older gentleman at reception. After the standard questions about where you from, why are you here, how did you end up there (Australia), what does your husband think about you travelling… we get to the standard six questions about bicycle touring. The older gentleman looks a whole lot like an elderly Andy Griffith and has a booming voice that carries through both stories of the old school. He is very impressed by my solo touring. He corrals several people walking by the desk to tell them that I am riding my bike all over Montana alone and rode here from Illinois and won’t quit riding until I get to Colorado in September. He brags about my achievements like I’m his own daughter. It is flattering and embarrassing. His voice is so loud, every patron in that museum must know my itinerary. But then the man says the words that I absolutely detest and hate to hear, because they are so untrue I feel like a traitor when someone even suggests that I might exhibit such a characteristic. The man says, “You, young lady, are so brave! For a girl to ride alone across the United States is just so brave”!

Ugh. I hate when people say that. I do not feel that way at all. Bravery requires ignoring fear. And I am not fearful at all. Of course, there are moments of fear, when bad weather is imminent or a car passes too closely. But those are just moments, and I get those at home, too. Riding my bike alone causes me no fear. It is a joy. It is a freedom. It is what I would do every moment for the rest of my life if I could only choose one thing. It is a lot of things, but it is not scary nor does it require courage or bravery.

What bothers me most when people say this, though, is the subtle or direct suggestion that my gender requires bravery to do things on my own. When people say this, it always sounds to me that they liken my gender to a disability that must be overcome. I’m a chick. So what? My gender identity is not something I think about in the morning. I suppose gender identity may be very important for some women, but it is not for me. The fact that I have tits and bits is no more important to me than the fact that I have blue eyes and brown hair. My identity is tied up in my relationship to other people and the things I enjoy: I am a daughter, sister, wife, cyclist, plant and rock nerd, American expat, Jim Henson fan and outdoor enthusiast. My identity is sorta formed in that order. Yes, I identify as a heterosexual woman, but that has never been in the back of my mind when I thought about the things I wanted to do. How I see myself has never had much to do with my gender or occupation.

So, no, gender is not a disability. It does not need to be overcome to go ride a bike. If you want to be proud of me for overcoming something, be proud of me for riding with arthritic fingers and asthma. These things cross my mind much more often, and require much more patience and planning than anything to do with girly bits. Being a woman just means it probably takes me longer to ride the same distance as a man because I have less strength and lung capacity. But I do get there. I have endurance and patience in spades. Being a woman also means it is a bit harder for me to find a place to pee than a man, but it also means I look a tad bit less ridiculous in lycra. It is all a give and take. There are pros and cons to being a woman or a man. But for goodness sake, I do not need a man along just because I’m a woman. And my gender is not something that must be overcome. I’ve mixed it up with the boys for as long as I can remember – BMX chicks are like that.

But I don’t give this sermon to the elderly Andy Griffith at the desk in the old school in Kalispell. I just politely say, “Thank you sir, that’s very kind. I don’t think of myself as brave. I just think of myself as someone who goes after her dreams and doesn’t wait for them to come to her.”

He smiles and says, “But you are brave. So much braver than anyone else I’ve met in the past month. And I see a lot of people here. You keep it up. We need people like you. You are the ones that are the leaders.”

Oh dear, he got me wrong on ‘leader’, too. But we won’t go into that. We will, however, go pick up the bike at Wheaton’s bike shop. When I get there, the place is really busy. That’s great to see, particularly when so much business is migrating out to the north side of town. The guys are too busy to thank properly for their help (I’ve only been trying to get a new chainring since South Dakota), but I tell the business owner at the front that I’m very happy to see how busy they are and to please thank the mechanics for me. She thanks me, in return, and wants to know the standard six. Then she wants to know what I do for a living. I say, “Well, I used to do research at a university. But I had enough of that, so came out bike touring for a bit”. She asks what I research. I reply, “ the human dimensions of environmental science.” She brightens up and says, “Oh no, you have to go back. We need people like you. We really do.”

Well, two people in a row have just said they need people like me. Only they don’t know me. They need researchers and leaders. I’ve had to be both. I didn’t really care for either. But if they knew me and knew that I try to be kind, compassionate, strong and determined, then yes, maybe we need more people like that. The world might be a better place if there were more strong, but gentle, women on wheels.

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