“It’s only when you hit your 40′s that you can look back at a picture of yourself when you were in your 20′s and realize just how much potential really lay ahead.”
That’s a paraphrasing of a remark I heard once on the radio that really hit home. And it’s so true: you really don’t understand, when you’re young, what it’s going to be like when you look back. And then, when you are in your 40′s, and if you happen to come across a picture of yourself from, say, your college days, you probably gasp and think, “Look how YOUNG I looked!” And the reason it’s so surprising, I believe, is because you’re seeing not just your physical youth… but your innocence, too, and complete lack of perspective.
It’s been kind of entertaining recently, recalling the memories and milestones in the “Why I Ride” series I’ve been posting. And on a parallel plane, I’ve been looking through a lot of old pictures for other reasons – and that’s been equally entertaining.
The shot of me at left is from the Fall of 1983. I’m 21 years old; that’s just shy of 30 years ago for those keeping score. I’m about five years past my last ride on the Honda Express, but five years away from the epic trip with Steve to Colorado. Kind of a mid-point in my motorcycle journey where bikes aren’t even on the radar. The picture was taken in my efficiency apartment across the street from the Iowa State University campus in Ames, Iowa, early in my first semester at the school, to which I had transfered after two years elsewhere.
I look at that picture and I can immediately conjure all the most important circumstances of my life at that moment – and of course memories of “bright college days” come flooding back.
But today, I also realize that at the moment this picture was taken, I knew what I wanted to do but I had no idea who I would become. And I think that is the question that pulls so strongly at your heart when you come across a “young” picture: Did I become who I thought I would be? And perhaps more importantly: Do I like who I’ve become, even if it’s not who I thought I would be?
I am very, very lucky – when I look back at a picture of myself in my 20’s, I don’t think about failing to meet my potential – though Lord knows I haven’t achieved half the shit I’m capable of. I just laugh about how smart I thought I was, but how little I really knew about the world, and true joy, and true pain, and what’s important. I might also pine just a little for the tiny sum-total of my life’s worries at that moment. That’s the perspective 30 years gives you, I guess. I’m grateful that I feel like I’m doing okay when I stack my present life against what that girl had planned for her future.
This week I read a lovely blog post by Jeff Maddox, who calls up a few of the key moments in his younger days when “life became a little bigger.”
Life was going on around us and we were taking in the view beyond the grasshoppers, mud puddles and those really straight sticks you would find every so often that you couldn’t stand to leave behind.
That business about straight sticks really grabbed me, because for me it was pretty rocks: I’d walk home from elementary school every day past a house with a pea-gravel driveway, and almost daily I’d find a little rock that was so pretty I had to keep it – failing to understand that it was the whole driveway that was cool, not just one little rock. And that that one little rock’s purpose was not to serve as my own personal treasure, but to be a beautiful detail within something larger – something that needed to be left intact for others to see, and appreciate, if only they would take the opportunity.
I think that’s ultimately why I ride. After the goofy phone booth, the nerdy Honda Express, the rickety learner bike, and everything else, I ride because it is a tremendous opportunity to live in the moment. To experience ordinary details – like deep green corn stalks tipped in early Autumn gold, or a ten-degree drop in temperature at the bottom of a long hill, or the scent of manure coming off a farm field – that I would otherwise miss because life has become so much more complicated.
I think it’s also why I spend so much time on this blog spotlighting the details of each and every ride. I want as many people as possible to simply look around for themselves and see the details of their own life – and appreciate their beauty, and the beauty of their own big picture.
Even if they aren’t who they thought they would be.
By the end of my first season of riding, I was off to a great start. So great, in fact, that when Season 2 dawned in 2003 I was bitten hard by the “new bike bug.” Somehow, with my license in hand, the commuter/learner bike just wasn’t doing much for me anymore.
Besides, I wanted to take some real highway trips and the shuggity-shuggity-shuggity of the 250 was never going to cut it for anything other than trips “up around the lake.” I sold it to our neighbor who was, oddly enough, a motorcycle licensing examiner for the DOT.
Cash in hand, I began my search for a new bike. I visited dealerships for Harley, Honda, Suzuki and Yamaha, and was pleasantly surprised at the number of bikes that fit me well despite my short stature: the Suzuki Intruder 800, Yamaha V-Star 650, Honda Shadow Spirit 750 and VLX 600 were all serious contenders.
The bike that really spoke to me was the VLX 600. It felt completely right as I sat on it in the showroom. Steve, however, nudged me toward the 750 Shadow Spirit – he feared I would quickly outgrow the 600 since it was only a 4-speed, and besides, the purple-with-ghost-flames paint scheme on the 750 was gorgeous.
So I bought the 750, and had no problem getting used to it. In fact I quickly came to appreciate the additional power. On the downside, the stock seat was awful and there wasn’t much in the way of after-market accessories. Steve kept saying this was because it was already designed to look like a custom “boulevard cruiser,” so the accessories were already there. What I wanted, though, wasn’t chrome and bling – I just wanted a backrest and saddlebags, both of which I felt were essential for going any distance. There just didn’t seem to be anything designed for this bike.
I did eventually add some Vance & Hines exhaust pipes, a Memphis Slims windshield, and a set of Kuryakyn ISO grips for the handlebars – all great additions to the bike.
Unfortunately, my first season with this bike quickly took a downturn.
One day, while riding up around the lake, I came to a stop at a stop sign. I looked both directions and started to pull out on my right-hand turn, then changed my mind as I thought an oncoming car from my left was approaching too quickly for both Steve and I to get through the intersection. I applied the brake, and dropped the bike.
I didn’t even so much drop it as it just sort of leaned over and I was left standing over it, feet planted on either side.
“What happened?” Steve tried to question me as we righted the bike.
But I didn’t know. I just knew I’d changed my mind about the turn, and dropped the bike.
We pressed on – I considered the drop a fluke and felt lucky that I hadn’t done any serious damage – and enjoyed the day.
A couple weeks later, on the next ride, we were headed up to the gathering point for a large group ride – a major first for me. This time, at a stop just a block from home and pulling out to turn left, I dropped the bike again.
Again, not much damage except to my pride. Still, I was spooked. So much so that by the time we arrived at the gathering point, I was convinced there was no way I could complete that ride. I told Steve, “I’ve got no business endangering other people when I can’t keep my bike upright.”
We rode back home. I was terrified every time a left-hand turn was needed and paranoid that the bike was going to go down yet again. This was June, early in the season.
It’s almost unfathomable to me now that I let that beautiful bike sit an entire season without riding it, but it’s true: I didn’t ride again all year.
During that season, I spent a lot of time feeling like a phony. Wanting to ride, but terrified that I would drop my bike again. It was actually a relief when winter came around – at least I didn’t feel guilty for not riding anymore.
Of course, like it always does, winter eventually changed into Spring and I started to get a nagging feeling: I should either ride the bike, or sell it, but it was stupid to just let it sit in the garage.
I had spent a lot of time over the winter reading “how to ride” articles and watching videos online, trying to find a clue as to what I’d done wrong. It finally dawned on me that probably what had happened was that in my haste to get whoa’d after changing my mind about the turn I was making, I applied the front brake with my handlebars turned.
Everything I read – and Steve confirmed – that if you have the bars turned, it transfers the bike’s weight to that side and makes the bike top-heavy. And if you apply the front brake with those bars turned, you’ll drop the bike in the direction the bars are turned.
I also learned another potentially fatal mistake I was making when turning: I was staring at opposite curbs rather than looking where I wanted to go. The secret to a turn, it turns out, is three-fold: look where you want to go. Don’t be afraid to goose the throttle if you’re pulling away too slowly and wobbling. And don’t apply the front brake with the handlebars turned.
I should point out that, had I taken an introductory riders’ course at the local community college, I would have known these things from the start.
At any rate, I finally felt like I knew what I’d done wrong, but I didn’t have much confidence in my ability to learn to do it differently. There came a day, though, when I decided it was time to try.
It was like starting back at square one: Steve rode the bike up to the school parking lot, and I drove the car – so afraid was I to ride this bike. Our daughter, Stephanie, accompanied us, just as she had done back in Season One.
I remember straddling the bike and lifting it up off the stand. Turned the key on, put it in neutral, and pulled in the clutch. Pushed the start button and felt it rumble. I loved that sound. But I was terrified. I couldn’t move. I really did not think I could do it. Tears rolled down my cheeks.
“If you want to go home, we’ll go home,” Steve said after several minutes.
In the space of about 60 seconds, a couple of things happened. First, I made a conscious effort to talk to myself. It went something like this:
“Self, you can do this. You have proven you can do this – you have a license that says you can do this. You’ve already ridden several hundred miles. Now all you have to do, is put the bike in gear and roll forward. Just roll forward, then make a turn. If you don’t, you are going to sell the bike, and you’ll no longer be that smart, sassy Rebel Biker Mom.”
And while I was talking to myself, I happened to look over at my daughter, who was sitting on the curb and poking a stick around in the dirt. Content, at least for the moment, to spend her Saturday watching me go in circles in the parking lot.
That’s when I wondered: What does she learn if I give up? And, what do I want to teach her about how you handle things that are difficult?
I took a big sniffle through my snotty nose and said, out loud, “I can do this.”
“What?” Steve called out over the rumble of the bike.
“I’m going to do this,” I said a little louder.
And so I did.
I put the bike into gear, and rolled forward. And when it came time to turn, I did that too. I went round and round in countless ovals. I practiced tight turns to the right, tight turns to the left, going in circles, shifting up and shifting down… over and over again until my family was bored silly.
Then I took off for a short ride up around the lake, and when I got home I knew that Rebel Biker Mom was here to stay.
Coming next: Why I Ride, Part Five – Epilogue
And now, Part Three – Inspiration Boots!
After we got married in 1991, Steve bought and sold a few bikes over the next several years. Then in the late 90’s he got an idea to build a custom bike, and starting with a 1974 Harley Davidson Sportster he made a really cool retro-looking bike that everyone thought was a 50’s or 60’s model.
He’d take it to a popular local bike night to display it, and our daughter and I would follow in the car so we could walk around and look at the bikes. It was on these visits to Bike Night that I first noticed a few (very few!) women riding their own bikes. They looked confident, cool and independent – and I uttered the thought out loud as soon as it occurred to me:
“I wonder if I could learn to ride my own bike.”
Now one type of guy might have said, “No way, it’s too dangerous,” and I might have given up the idea right then and there.
Fortunately, my husband replied, “Sure, you could learn if you wanted to,” and he went out and bought me a pair of HD riding boots for inspiration. Now obviously, wearing the logo of a popular manufacturer doesn’t make one a biker, but I wore them anyway for literally a couple of years, trying to get the vibe before I really got serious about learning to ride.
Early in the Spring of 2002, we heard about a great learner bike being offered for sale by a friend, so we bought it. Now with boots and a bike, there really was nothing holding me back except my own tendency to over-think. It was time, as my mother used to say, to “shit or get off the pot.”
The learner bike was a 1982 Yamaha 250 Exciter commuter bike. Now this is about as nerdy a bike as they come: it had a plastic trunk on the back, had lost one of its side mirrors, and its top speed was about 70 mph. (It sounded like a Singer sewing machine at anything above 50, and you could hear the Wicked Witch of the West’s bicycle-riding music in the background when you rode it.)
I started out riding this bike up and down the driveway and around the front yard. The first day, Steve showed me how to work the clutch: I’d start the bike with the clutch pulled in, and he’d walk backwards down the driveway in front of me as I inched forward by feathering the clutch.
After a couple hours of this, I was able to ride the bike in first gear down to the end of the driveway, make a U-turn, and come back. I then progressed to riding circles around the house, and finally Steve rode the bike up to the nearby high school while I followed in the car. Once there, I used the parking lot to learn about shifting gears.
Around this time I also took the first of two tests required of all riders by the State of Iowa: a written “road rules” test. Passed that with no problem, and suddenly I was allowed to ride on the street as long as a licensed rider rode alongside me. (Because presumably, you’re less of a danger to others that way. I’m not sure that makes sense, but that’s the law.)
By late summer, we had a routine of riding up to the parking lot at the school where I could practice, followed by maybe 30 miles or so riding around town together. I was having a blast.
I turned 40 in mid-September that year, and about a month later I took the skills test to get my full license.
That was an adventure in itself. I had diagrams of the exercises required for the test, and was able to lay them out in the driveway and practice, over and over again.
But I hate any kind of graded performance, and although I was very comfortable riding the bike around town and for short stretches on the highway, the thought of having someone watch and score my skills was terrifying.
My goal had been to get my license before my birthday. But, due to my fear of testing, the day came and went with nary a licensing attempt having been made.
By the time October came around, I was feeling pretty silly. There was no reason to think I wouldn’t pass the test – I’d been riding all summer – and the season was drawing to a close. So I picked a day and just decided to do it.
Up at the DOT, it was me and six guys. First came the equipment check – we knew the bike needed both side mirrors to pass inspection, so we had snagged one off my bicycle and screwed it into the open hole on top of the handlebars. It wasn’t pretty, but it did the job.
The next potential hurdle was the horn test. The horn on this bike was very, very weak – it sounded like a wounded canary. Fortunately, the license inspector had the group test their horns together so my bike’s sickly bleating went undetected.
When he asked for volunteers to go first, my hand shot up – there was no way I was going to sit here any longer than necessary. I was either going to pass, or go home and practice.
I put my foot down once going through the orange cones, and I don’t think my quick-stop was exactly what he wanted, but I passed. I passed! And with that, Rebel Biker Mom was born.
I started the summer of 2002 as a wannabe with a pair of Harley-Davidson boots and a keen envy of girls who rode their own bikes. I ended that summer with a bike, a license, and a full season of riding adventures and “firsts” already behind me.
I started riding two motorized wheels when I was 15.
In 1978, after much begging, I convinced my parents that I should have my first “motorcycle”: a lime green Honda Express. A moped without the pedals. (God how I wish I had a picture of it! Sorry to say the photo at left is not my ride, but it looks JUST like it! Photo courtesy www.mopedarmy.com.)
I talked about wanting one for a year before my folks finally relented – my Dad offered to split the cost, and my mom insisted that I wear a helmet. (The helmet I picked out was purple and glittery – “metal flake,” I later learned it was called.)
I loved that thing. The exhaust had a distinct smell that I associate with the exact spot in my parents’ driveway where I’d wheel it out into the sun, checking it over and prepping for a ride.
The day I bought the bike was the day I learned that the cheap-ass dealer had only put a miniscule amount of gas in it, because I ran out of gas on the way home from the dealership, at the foot of our long, steep hill.
I also remember going around a curve in the neighborhood and hitting a patch of sand, and the whole bike suddenly went out from under me. I hit the pavement and watched the bike skid a few feet on its side, right before my head bounced off the curb. (Point taken about the helmet, Mom.)
And of course, I remember riding the damn thing all over the place for the next couple of years: to the skating rink, up and down the street in front of a certain boy’s house (maybe multiple boys, okay? Don’t judge me!), back and forth to my job reading newspapers to the blind lady.
The thing was, I was about the nerdiest moped rider in town: scooting around in my “Let’s Get Small” t-shirt, ripstop nylon jacket with the NBC (television network) logo on it and my purple glitter helmet. But I didn’t care – I loved riding it, and it suited me perfectly.
Eventually, of course, I bought a car and sold the Honda. As much as I’d like to claim that I knew one day I’d re-emerge as a Harley-riding Rebel Biker Mom, I can’t. The Honda was awesome, but it was just something I owned at the time. When I sold it, the era had ended without fanfare and without any real hint of what was to come.
It was almost ten years before I sat on another motorcycle. By that time I had graduated high school, and college, and had been in the workforce for a couple years. I met my future husband at the TV station where we both worked, and as soon as we started seriously seeing each other, he invited me to take a bike trip to Colorado.
It sounded like a blast, and it was – 10 days riding pillion behind Hot New Guy on a Yamaha 1100 around Rocky Mountain National Park, Leadville and Colorado Springs, and of course back and forth across Nebraska. No doubt, I was still a nerd: I had no gear of my own, so I wore his ex-wife’s jacket and helmet. But the trip planted the seeds of true appreciation for the different landscapes that make up America and the adventure of finding lost little towns, great local eateries and beautiful landmarks.
Still, no sense that one day I might ride my own bike. Even after tooling around on my Honda Express, even after that first glorious “real” trip, the day when I would learn to ride my own was a long way off.
I once had an idea for collecting up some of the stories from this blog into a book, but when I shared that idea with a new acquaintance in the midst of a conversation about our experiences as writers, she shook her head “negatory” and said, “Uh-uh, I don’t want to know where you went… I want to know where you came from. I want to know why you started riding.”
Now I’ll be honest, she kinda took the wind out of my sails, briefly, and here’s why: the fact is, I have no long-buried, deep-seated, book-worthy urge or need to ride that suddenly worked its way to the fore when I hit a certain point in life.
I know there are gals (and guys) who do have that, who went through years of trying to please Mainstream Society before they finally said “f*ck it, that’s not who I am and I will no longer be denied.” (I know a couple of them who are truly fearless, and all I can say is, do not cross the woman who has been held back from her dreams, her gifts, and her self for too long!)
But I am not a Phoenix rising from the ashes. I’m more like the kid from “The Wonder Years” who narrates his white-bread suburban childhood from that nostalgic, first-world-problems-are-real point of view.
The first is a telephone booth.
When I was in sixth grade, my dad brought home an antique wooden telephone booth – the kind that sits in a hotel lobby and contains a pay phone. Dad’s phone booth included the working pay phone (albeit with the guts taken out so it was more of a piggy bank than a pay-per-call mechanism), and this contraption served as our second phone, or “teen line,” until the day my folks moved out of the childhood home many years later. Anybody who spoke to me on the phone from sixth grade until they day I went off to college was talking to a kid in a phone booth.
What the phone booth taught me was that it was fun to be different… to have something in my life that made me stand out from my peers, something that they thought was cool enough to remark upon, ask me about, tease me about. (Years later, as I reconnected with some of those kids on Facebook, it amused me to learn that the phone booth was also something I had been remembered for.)
Now certainly, I can’t say I’ve lived my whole life being different. I was never the purple Mohawk swimming upstream in a sea of Big Hair. But the phone booth was one thing – the first thing – that showed me there’s value in standing out from the crowd… that it’s okay to be a little weird sometimes… and that having, or being, something unexpected can bring a lot of satisfaction on a lot of levels.
The other thing… well, more on that next time.