I pulled into the garage. The sun was still echoing off the leaves and the heat was as oppressive as the week before. I clicked up to neutral and turned the key, my hand automatically reaching for the petcock. I moved my foot to the side stand and dismounted. I did it. I did it. The whispers escaped from my lips as I peeled off my leathers and picked at my gloves. My right hand still vibrated and my butt ached just like my back before the birth of my first boy. I did it. I could have gone on; I could have ridden more today. It had been a long week — 1,500 miles — and I did them all on my own bike.
Six years ago, I got a divorce, cut my hair short, moved to another state, unpacked my suitcases, sat down on my futon, and had a good cry. A new beginning, and I didn’t know where to start. I met a motorcyclist and began riding with him on his Nighthawk. We had fun. We went fast. We tested ourselves and his machine. I watched the back of his head. I watched the side of the road. The last thing I wanted was to watch my distorted reflection in his helmet. My body ached to move. I was primed. Or so I thought. I was still very fragile. My brain pounded out “Thriller,” my heart beat to “Blue Moon.” I felt the tug of my limitations, knew they would hold me in check. I resolved to numb these anxieties. I borrowed a Honda, took a deep breath.
I had a good teacher. We took it one step at a time, up and down the paved classroom. I’d put it in gear, go to the end, stop, pop it into neutral, tiptoe it around, and repeat the process. Even for novice riders, this elevates monotony to a new high. I finally graduated to turns. I didn’t figure it would be difficult. You just do as before but add handlebar movement. Sort of. I eased it around once, twice. I was quite confident. On the third time, my mind wandered and took my hands and feet with it. I hit one of those concrete dividers, sailed over the bars and onto the grass. I realized a few things: I was lucky to have landed on unshorn grass; I should always wear a helmet, even at a snail’s pace; I would definitely call it quits for the day. A week passed. I had to get back on. I had invested too much time, too much energy and emotion to quit. What kind of a new beginning was this? Buying another tank for the borrowed bike’s owner strengthened my resolve. It took me a few more months to get my license.
Then I bought my first bike. It was an ’81 Yamaha 650 Special. Beautiful, metallic silver, not a scratch on it, and it was mine. I rode it all the time — that is to say, as long as I had a partner, just in case. I had only one problem. I’d fill it up, ride around for a while, stop at a light, turn the wheel, ease out the clutch, and tip over. It was embarrassing. There were rumblings of not being able to handle such a large bike, sexist comments meant only to enlighten. On my first solo outing, I pulled into a friend’s driveway, put it into neutral, cocked the wheel to dismount, and dumped it. Besides being red-faced, I wasn’t strong enough to right the beast. After a few phone calls, I found my teacher. He dropped what he was doing and came to my rescue. I assured him I was all right, and left. I just wanted to get home. I noticed a headlight about three blocks behind, mimicking my every move, retiring only after I drove into my garage. I was humiliated and angry. Weighing 120 pounds was always going to make righting my bike difficult. I was weary of the dependence. I decided it was time to take control. That was five years ago. I haven’t tipped it that way since.
I used to ride home on a road that spiraled around the city. With every arc, my heart would beat out, “push left, go left.” The blood drained from my tight fingers and the inside of my thighs flattened against the tank. I must have been doing all of thirty-five miles per hour. Each evening I repeated the mantra. I knew my bike would lean; I just couldn’t bend with it. One night I was late and becoming frustrated with the traffic. As I entered the curve, I breathed out the word “relax.” My body instinctively responded with my left hand gently pressing the bar, my knee falling away from the tank. We leaned in harmony and rounded the curve at forty-five. Maybe someday I’ll feel as comfortable on my bike as in my jeans, but for now, I can round the curve at fifty-five, and I’m getting better.
I crashed my bike once. I bought an R75/5 — my first BMW. I was told I had to earn it. I didn’t quite understand at the time. I regarded the bike as a class machine deserving an equally classy owner. It was built in 1972, but was only two months old to me. We were playing teacher-student on the backroads of Virginia. He did, then I did. It was challenging for me, practice for him. He overcooked a blind curve. It took all his experience and strength to remain upright. I innocently entered the same curve at the same speed. I started a front-end oscillation, realized I was on my own, aimed for the grass, said, “Oh, shit,” noticed my life was not passing before me, and went down hard. I awakened with the taste of Virginia soil in my mouth and concern for my bike in my mind. As he rolled me over, I saw the bike lying loyally at my side, smoking and very still. I had totaled it, and I hurt so badly I couldn’t even cry. I didn’t open the garage for weeks and then only with a shudder and a tear. It took a year to rebuild. My bones mended faster than my mind. I understood about earning, and I knew I had to climb back into the saddle. My bike was ready only weeks before I was. We had a lot more to do.
Setting the bike on the center stand by myself. Riding over wet grass without putting my feet down. Being stranded in a parking lot with only a kick starter. Backing out of the garage onto a sloped driveway. Locking up the brakes and not losing it. Riding four hours in the rain and slipping only once. Knowing how to adjust the valves. Riding with a group and almost keeping up. Stop signs on mountain roads, dogs not on leashes. Understanding that “no big deal” means different things to different people.
We went on vacation to the mountains of northern Georgia this year — my first long-distance motorcycle trip. I was told it would be tough, my butt would get sore, and I might not be able to do it. It was beautiful. Tight curves winding up the mountain to reveal astonishing sunrises I had only imagined. Mile after mile — narrow roads with the thin double yellow, cliffs to my right, walls of rock to my left. I did them all. One probably could have walked faster around some of those curves, but I did them on two wheels. We were gone for eight days. We rode for about five and I did it. I almost kept up, too. I’m not embarrassed to admit I’m not a natural. I grew up believing that women were allotted three careers from which to choose — teacher, mother, or ballerina. It’s a small victory every time I swing a leg over.