A Girl on a Motorcycle

I got my first bike – a Honda QA50 – at eight years old. Okay, so it was a mini-bike. A two-speed automatic, that thing was joy. It was not a steel frame, like most mini-bikes, with a Rupp lawnmower engine stuck in the middle. It was a Honda.

Our Dad was in the midst of building the summer home on our Northern Michigan property, and he thought the three younger kids ought to have dirt bikes. We got the Honda and two beautiful Chaparrels (made by Indian), and I soon graduated from the Honda to the 100cc Indian. The first time I rode it and worked the clutch I ended up with the front wheel in the air and stuck in a bush behind our house. I yelled for Dad to come over and get me out, and I still remember him trying to fight back the laughter that was nearly erupting as he ran over to pull me and the bike from the wicked grip of our backyard bush.

By about the age of ten, our parents had friends who had cottages right across the road, so we had riding buddies. Soon, motocross got in the blood. Nearby, Farmer Brown built his grandson a track behind the cornfields and we all went over there to tear up the track. We rode every day, all day. We’d ride and ride and ride until the carburetors and air filters clogged up with Northern Michigan’s trademark white sand. We’d explore singletrack and two-tracks and gravel pits and swampland all day long on those bikes. We’d find hermits living in shacks in the woods, and we always made up stories that we’d seen them point a gun at us. All of us saw that gun, don’t you know. We’d find farmland acreage with miles of two-track winding through the fields where we’d race and wheelie and build ramps for jumping. We jumped fire pits and creeks and whatever else gave us a seemingly good reference point. Then, after too many sand cleanings, my personal mechanic, Dad, said to me, “It’s time you learn how to clean your own carburetor and air filter.” And I did.

Evel Knievel was really popular at about this time, and admittedly, the imprudent mentality then took over. We wanted to be like Evel. We would take our bikes out to this nearby two-laner that was straight as a board for 2.5 miles, with hardly any traffic. At the end it hooked up with a road that trailed Mullett Lake along a series of winding, hilly curves. So we’d blast down the straightaway at full throttle. A guy named Paul had a Puch 125, and he smoked our Indians. We’d learn to ride wheelies – first sitting, then standing on the seat. Then we’d stand on the gas tank and ride, or we’d sit and put our feet up on the handlebars. After the long straightaway we’d hit the 10 miles of twisties and just nail it, with our full knobbies singing on the pavement. We were oblivious to the consequences of a fall or other mishap. We were kids juiced on the thrill of speed, open air, and the temporary freedom from parents. Besides, we were all Evel Knievel.

So I hit the road with a bike right after I graduated high school. Then a couple more rice burners after that, and sometime around 1998 I said, “enough.” I had too many close calls that year, and in fact, part of the problem was socially inept guys following me, thinking that them coming on to a girl on a motorcycle was perfectly within the boundaries of good behavior. After two near-mishaps and about a zillion unwelcome comments while riding or sitting at red lights, I sold my beautiful, Yamaha Radian 600.

It would be about six years before I rode on the street again. Each year it got more difficult when spring rolled around – I saw all the bikers hitting the road and I was not one of them. I missed it more than I could imagine. It was like a huge part of my life had been shelved and forgotten. So each year, starting in about 2001, I said, “I’ll get another one this year.” Each year went by and I remained without a bike.

In 2004 I got on the back of Tom’s Harley Road King. I had never been on the back of a bike in my entire life. So I started thinking bikes again, and that summer I got a Sportster 1200. That thing is a rocketship, which is why I got it. After I broke in my engine, Tom and I raced way north of here, on some forgotten back roads. We played like kids.  With no traffic around, we hit speeds in the mid-90s, and in each race I nudged out his Road King by a bike length-and-a-half. It was fun all over again. I had rediscovered the glory of my youth, only this time on a chromed Harley, and with a lot more common sense.

When I got the bike I did not dare whisper a word of it to my folks. Somebody else did – only I don’t remember who – and I got the phone call. The one where Mom and Dad said, almost in stereo, “I hear you got a Harley.” Well imagine trying to hide that from Mom and Dad at my age. I had to because I knew they wouldn’t like it. They would worry too much. So I reminded Dad that it was he who got me to love the dang things in the first place, and he reminded me that it was all about dirt bikes, but he never meant for me to graduate to big, chromed Harleys on the roads and freeways.

I ride a few thousand miles each year on my bike, and I love the long weekend road trips, especially to the great twisties of the Ohio Valley, West Virginia, and thereabouts. I’ve done some road crew work with a local HOG chapter, and I led a HOG group through the Ohio Valley’s finest twisties near Marietta.

The great thing about Ohio is that once we cross that border we can make the choice: helmet or not. My choice has always been the latter. Most people assume the conventional position and say that not wearing a helmet “is just plain stupid.” However, wearing or not wearing a helmet is not a matter of intelligence; it is a matter of choice via the assessment of risk. We all take risks in life. Some people zoom down ski slopes in Vail, some race boats or cars on the weekends, and some folks go bungee jumping, hot air ballooning, skydiving, or cliff diving. Life activities can come with huge risks, and those who fully engage life tend to develop a higher-risk lifestyle then those who stay home and watch TV or knit. So not wearing a helmet can certainly add to risk, but wearing one is just a way of minimizing risk in an activity that always involves risk. Wearing full-body armor would further minimize the risk of serious injury, however, outside of serious crotch rocket pilots that is rarely done. Bike riders assess and understand the risks involved each time they throw a leg over the bike and roll it out of the driveway.

In spite of the peril, I love the freedom of me and my bike peeling across the open road with my feet on the highway pegs, my do-rag flapping, and the wind massaging my body and face. I know non-riders who say, “I don’t get it.” I suppose they don’t, any more than I don’t get knitting or bowling. On a bike, the freedom you feel from the rest of the agitated and road-raged world is both exhilarating and calming. Those two churning wheels channel away the stress and give me great pleasure every time I roll the throttle.

Perhaps the most glorious aspect of biking is the tremendous wave of lady riders that are discovering what I have known for years: motorcycles are for ladies, too. Gals are on bikes everywhere, and what a great sight that is. They are flocking to beginner riding courses in droves. I rarely have troubles from people on the road anymore, even when I am riding alone. I more typically get a thumbs-up, a “you go girl,” or an otherwise encouraging remark. It seems that people have gotten used to women on motorcycles and have accepted it as a good thing.

In all of my years on the road I have never been in an accident. I have never laid the bike down. I have yet to even drop a bike in a parking lot. This, I know, is uncommon. I was given a love tap in the rear end, once, at a stop sign, by a 92-year-old driver. To minimize the risks I have spent the time acquiring advanced skills that allow me to better meet any unexpected challenges. I have had so many close calls, so many near accidents – I figure that my defensive riding attitude and skills have saved my neck more times than I can count. Also, I can’t help but smile when I think of my Evel Knievel days as a fearless kid, because I know those handling skills, combined with less-than-daredevil adult maturity, make me a pretty decent bike handler.

Early this summer, as I was stuffing my groceries in my saddle bags at Kroger, a guy using a walker and cane approached me and asked me about my bike. He was about mid-forties, had long hair, and he spoke in a very articulate manner. He noticed I was looking at his leg. It was deformed, turned all outward, and purplish with huge swellings extending all the way up to his knee. He said, “Take a good look at it. I was going down 12 Mile Road, and a woman stopped at a stop sign on the residential street. She looked right at me and then pulled out in front of me. My leg got caught under the bike as I went over. Snapped my ankle in a million pieces and crushed my foot. I’ve had several surgeries already and will have several more. I’ll never work again and life as I knew it is over. I’ve ridden for almost thirty years, too.” That conversation ended in a “you ride safe and keep that pretty face intact.” That man’s grotesque leg and foot haunted me for days afterward.

On a July weekend, I had a great idea. Let’s do our Canada ride. And so we did, with nine bikes showing up for the all-day ride. It was a perfect day, and we had a blast. On the way back, way up somewhere in Ontario, we had to take a detour because a fatal accident had closed the road that led back down to the Ferry to Michigan. As we were riding on Walpole Island – unceded territory inhabited by Indians – we came down a road with many houses and driveways. I passed a driveway with a car sitting a bit close to the road. I paid scant attention because it wasn’t moving. Behind me, the car pulled out. She was about twenty, and she didn’t see the last three bikes. Don, a native of Atlanta retired in Michigan, and one of the most experienced riders in the group, t-boned the rear door of her Honda Accord at about 40 mph. He and his bike went down in a heap. The other riders behind him avoided further incident. Don ended up in a Sarnia, Ontario hospital, and besides some head gashes and bone chips, I’ve been told that he’s okay.

When one of your own goes down on your ride, it’s a reality that triggers a new kind of concern. When the hit is that close to home, the risk suddenly becomes more pronounced and you witness for yourself how swiftly bad things can happen. And they don’t just happen to everyone else and leave you alone. So you ride with a greater level of fear because being fearless – like a twenty-something lunatic on a crotch rocket – is perhaps the single, greatest impediment to staying alive and healthy. I constantly think about giving up riding because of the spate of accidents and deaths of folks on bikes. Too many people I know have gone down.

In spite of their risks, I love motorcycles for several reasons, the first being their artistic beauty. Talented human beings have designed and crafted these machines to perfection. In spite of all bikes being beautiful, I particularly savor the aesthetics of a Harley-Davidson. Nothing is more stunning than a chromed, retro-outfitted Harley. Along with the looks, I also love the bellow of a V-Twin with a little extra pipe noise to go along with it.

Mainly, I love motorcycles because I just love to ride. I love the freedom and escape my Harley offers. I have a Screaming Eagle Sportster that is half-Sportster and half-tour bike, so people don’t always recognize what it is. I’ve come to like when people come up to me and ask, “What bike is that?” I love the left lane of the city freeway at 9pm at night. I love to travel to towns that time forgot on my Harley. I love to load my bags up with stuff and head out for the day, and end up at some beach or coffee shop, with friends, far away from home. I love to ride along Lake Huron on a 90+ degree day and enjoy nature’s air conditioning. I love riding on really hot days and stopping at cool taverns for some really cold beer. I love riding around Michigan’s “thumb” with no particular place to go. I love taking the ferry to Canada, where I can bring home Cuban cigars. I like to have a riding partner who likes to open up the throttle with me once in a while, where space permits. Ted, with his Victory cycle, likes to do that.

I don’t even mind when people stare at me because I’m just a tiny girl on a big bike. Ultimately, I’m really just a girl who likes to be free and go fast, and my motorcycle allows me the opportunity to do so.

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