It was fitting that Corinna West
loaded her bicycle with camping gear and started her frigid 162-mile journey to from Kansas City to Missouri's capital on the first day of the winter Olympics.
After all, she's an Olympian herself -- and cycling helped her get to the Games.
While training at the U.S. Olympic Center in Colorado Springs as part of the American judo team in the 1990s, West commuted everywhere on two wheels. That cross-training, she says, gave her a leg up on her competition. She dreamed of a gold medal at the 1996 summer games in Atlanta; she was crushed when she placed 15th in the world.
Then, a few years later, in graduate school at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, West was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a brain disorder that often includes auditory hallucinations and difficulty discerning what's real and imagined. "There came a place where I thought I couldn't have a career as scientist and I couldn't have a successful family," she says. "I gave up on my dreams and, being a really ambitious person, it was such a discouraging state that I was really sick for a long time."
Connecting with other cyclists and becoming an advocate for alternative transportation acted as stepping stones back to a healthy lifestyle. But on Saturday morning, she and her partner, Brian Gallmeyer
, took a leap that some might call crazy: They started a three-day ride that ends today at the state capitol in Jefferson City.
In her day job, West works as a certified peer specialist at Mental Health America in Kansas City, Kansas, sharing her story of recovery with others. But recovery isn't finding a magic bullet; it's finding support mechanisms. Sometimes, West explains, her symptoms make it tough to keep track of reality. "Sometimes I have the ongoing thought when I'm at work, 'Maybe I'm actually at home in bed,'" she says. "So I talk to my co-workers and ask, 'Am I really here at work?' And then this last week, I was at home and thought I was at work. So I called into work and they said 'no,' so I realized I must be at home."
That's why, in addition to prescriptions, West also practices personal medicine. "Personal medicine is two things: what we do to stay well and the reason why we want to stay well," she explains. "And, for me, poetry and bicycling are my personal medicine."
In the past two years, West has logged more miles on her bicycle than in her car. She's found ways to get over the river, learned routes to every destination and explored otherwise inaccessible corners of the urban core. She's wears a swatch of pink fabric -- her "helmet fluff" -- to deter drivers' often inconsiderate and irrationally angry attitude toward cyclists. She rarely misses Critical Mass, the monthly take-back-the-streets ride. In fact, that's where she met Gallmeyer.
In 2009, the two cyclists have ventured far beyond the city limits. Each time West received an invitation to share her story or read her performance poetry at mental health conferences, the pair pedaled to the destination. The longest journey: 298 miles to Wichita in the middle of a heat wave. Despite the often dramatic weather conditions -- the two got an intimate view of a tornado as they cruised through southwest Kansas -- West is hooked. "These trips you see so much and experience so much, it's like living a lifetime in four days," she says.
So instead of catching the train or organizing a carpool to the Missouri Bicycle Federation's annual lobby day in Jefferson City, Gallmeyer and West decided to ride half-way across the state during a bitter cold snap.
|West and Gallmeyer loaded up for their trip|
To prepare for camping in possibly sub-zero conditions during their three-day trek, the two had a trial run earlier this month, cycling down to a conservation area adjacent to the Missouri River and sleeping in their tent even as the mercury fell to just 1 degree. By Friday, as they loaded up their bike trailer with equipment and provisions, they were ready for snow or rain. Gallmeyer, who commutes by bike every day of the year, says he's accustomed to pedaling in even six inches of precipitation.
West is a veteran of bike lobby day, having appealed to legislators the past two years to better fund accommodations for cyclists and pass friendly legislation, like the Complete Streets bill
. But she hopes her unconventional journey this year punctuates certain realities to state leaders. "A lot of the decision-makers and policymakers and [transportation] engineers out there have never been poor in their lives," she says. "A lot of them don't know that people don't have cars. "
According to statistics from the Missouri Bicycle Federation, more than 8 percent of state residents are part of a zero-car household; more than 30 percent of Missourians don't have a driver's license. For West, alternative transit is also a key issue for people with mental illness. "If you can't afford a car, transportation is one of biggest barriers for people with disabilities," she says. "At all the community mental health centers, they swear that case management is really transportation management."
"Doing things like this, riding a bike across the state when we could have driven, is great fun and a great adventure and you have a great time, but it also shows that it's possible," she says. "And, yeah, we're going to sleep outside one night in middle of winter, but many homeless people sleep outside year round and they don't necessarily have a brand new zero-degree, down sleeping bag like I got."
For more information about bike-ped lobby day, check out the Missouri Bicycle Federation