Sunday Rumpus Essay: Don’t Call Me Biker Chick

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In life, it’s rarely about getting a chance, but about taking one.

 

It’s delightfully cool this morning, fog snaking through the streets of my neighborhood.  The top of Verdugo Peak half a mile to the south is a ghost image of itself, not even a hologram, barely an outline. Mountain lions and bobcats have been recently been sighted there.  We’re nearly part of the mountains here, nestled tight to the foothills.  Last fall, a California black bear strolled across on our front lawn.

And yet we’re part of the urban landscape, too.

Mt. Lukens, two miles to the north, is the tallest peak in the City of Los Angeles. Today it’s hidden itself completely in the morning’s mist.  I’ll have to keep my eyes peeled for the coyotes that have been prowling our streets at dawn and dusk, hunting the little bunnies that seem to live everywhere, having to settle occasionally for unattended small pets.

Into this fog-shrouded morning, I prepare to enter.  First jeans, the ones with the “snake bite” burns on the inner right ankle from getting too close to the tailpipe when I first test-rode this motorcycle and hadn’t yet learned to place my feet wide on the pegs.  Then tall, wicking socks designed for backpacking, followed by 12-inch leather boots with slip-proof soles and a left toe reinforced for shifting.  Just walking in the boots gives me attitude. A t-shirt is next, followed by a jacket with body armor.

Dressed like this, helmet in hand, I no longer look like myself – a 48-year-old mother of three, an author and college professor, a daughter steeped in grief after the death of her father.  For the hour or so I plan to ride this morning, I will shed that identity to become only a body with a set of skills, a person in sync with a machine, eating up miles and feeling a very distinct version of joy – the closest I can imagine to what it feels like to fly.

I open the garage door and the morning’s sleepy trance is broken by the overhead light: harsh, too much.  As my eyes adjust, I see her, the object of my love.  Izzy.  Matte black from head to toe, chrome pipes traded out for soot-dark ones.  Sleek.  Like a black leopard.  No saddle bags or backrest or extra doo-dads.  Just a retro-looking badass bike, as cool as they come.

I speak to her quietly, offering a morning greeting and asking her to be gentle with me on our ride. I run my hand the length of her leather solo seat, thrilled each time I touch her, each time I remember she’s mine.

When I pull on my full-face helmet, my breath circles audibly inside the little bubble covering me.  This is the moment when fear gathers itself and reminds me of what I’m doing.  I try to slow my respiration, hearing each breath echo in the enclosed space, aware that I’m about to take my life in my hands.  I pull on my leather gloves and feel my heart join my breathing in the body’s call to flee or fight.  Adrenaline forces a line of sweat down my side, inching along my rib cage despite the cool morning.

Riding a motorcycle is almost always a pleasant experience.  But preparing to ride – that’s another thing.   My insides rebel. I start coming up with reasons why I shouldn’t do this, primary among them is the fact that I wish to live.  I say a prayer to the God of motorcyclists to watch over me.  And I mount Izzy.

The fear doesn’t leave; it keeps tickling the back of my skull, making my hands a mite unsteady, my heart a jackrabbit. But I know it will quiet.  Eventually.  A mile or two in, like the big bad boogieman that fear is, it will slink back into its corner and wait for another chance to frighten me into a smaller, quieter life.

I back the bike up to turn her around and toggle the engine kill-switch to its “on” position, waiting for the lights to tell me she’s ready to be fired up.  And then I start her.  The sound rumbles deep and throaty.  Thunderheaders grumble and the “Screaming Eagle” intake system bellows, producing a deep growling roar that says: I am here, get out of my way.  Five hundred and fifty pounds of metal come alive between my legs, aching to ride free, to go fast.  Kicking up the side-stand, I punch my left foot on the shifting peg and feel the satisfying “clunk” of first gear. I roll the throttle gently while letting the clutch out and speed away from the house as quickly as possible out of courtesy for my family and neighbors who probably don’t want to be awakened this early on a weekend morning. I nearly asked the dealership to trade out the pipes on this bike when I bought her, opting for something quieter, more ladylike, but then I was reminded that the noise would make other motorists aware of me and that it might not be such a bad idea. And besides: what’s the saying?  “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”

*

I learned to ride a motorcycle last summer when my father was dying. I’d signed up for the Harley-Davidson Rider’s Edge class, offering three nights in a classroom and two full days riding an actual motorcycles. On Friday night, the second evening of the in-class component, my cell phone began to vibrate. I ignored it. The group of 11 students and I were standing around a large piece of paper taped to the wall with a stick-person sketch of a motorcycle.  We drew slips of paper from a helmet with words like “throttle,” “rear brake,” “speedometer,” and “clutch,” on them, taking turns identifying where such instruments were located.  Because I was new to this experience, I didn’t want to miss a moment. I correctly identified where the turn signal cancel switch was located and felt a little jolt of excitement –I was starting to get it — when the phone vibrated a second time. I pulled it from my back pocket to check who was calling so insistently.  My brother Brendan.  I excused myself from class and stepped into the hallway.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“Dad’s worse and I can’t take this much longer. I was here last night and I’ll be here again tonight, but I’m at the end of my rope. We’ll need someone to stay with him Saturday night and Sunday, too. Can you set up something?”

I made calls for the next 10 minutes, standing in the hallway, missing class, arranging for family members to take turns staying the night with Dad, who was in home-hospice care with bile duct cancer. He was 90 and lived nearly an hour away from any of us.  My step-mother Jean, 82, had been getting no sleep.

I returned to the class and tried to follow the lesson, but my mind was elsewhere.   I forced myself to concentrate, but one question echoed: What the hell was I doing here, in a class to learn how to ride a motorcycle, as my father was dying?

After class, I called my friend Kitty.

“This is crazy, isn’t it?  I should just drop everything and get myself out to Dad’s house.”

“There’s no knowing how this will unfold,” she said.  “When you get quiet inside, what do you feel you need to do?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t felt quiet inside lately.”

“That’s your first job, then.  Let everything settle inside and see how you feel.”

I followed her directions, sitting silently for 20 minutes.  After, I felt rested and at peace.  I had made a clear decision: Unless I felt a definite prompt to run out to Dad’s house, I was going to stick with the motorcycle class.

The juxtaposition of a motorcycle class and a dying father seemed incongruent.  One cockeyed and crazy and perhaps downright dangerous; loud as all get-out.   The other sad and solemn and calling for lowered voices and crepe-soled shoes.  And yet, there seemed to be a pattern in my life, one I was just beginning to recognize.  I like to take risks.  Not big, scare-myself-silly risks, but small ones, ones that heighten my awareness, make me step out of what’s familiar to enter my life anew — as a newcomer, a beginner, one who doesn’t know it all.  And for some reason, I seemed to take the more outlandish risks when the most difficult-to-walk-through things were occurring.

By taking that motorcycle class, I would later realize, I was after something else. I wanted to remind myself that I was strong and capable, that I could do things that frightened me; that I could learn to take care of myself even with something as big and powerful as a motorcycle.  I hoped that maybe, perhaps, in just a tiny way, I might discover I was strong enough to survive the loss of my father, the only real parent I’d ever had.

There was also a great freedom in it.  A motorcycle is made for one person.  Many can accommodate a passenger, but not this one with its solo seat, and not with this driver who’s just learning.  Learning to ride a motorcycle seemed to be the first thing I’d done in my adult life that was just for me.  There’d no room in this adventure to take care of anyone else.  I grew up caring for my siblings when my mother’s mental illness shut down her ability to parent.  I went straight from that experience into marriage and motherhood, caring for kids and a spouse.  And then I was facing my father’s death and being called to further service.

What a relief, then, it was to have this one thing, perhaps only this one weekend, to do something for me.

Having made a decision about Dad, I slept well and woke ready for a full day on the range on a real live motorcycle.

I drove the 15 minutes from my home in the foothills into LA proper, looking for the Costco/Best Buy parking lot.  Tucked behind these superstores was an even larger parking lot used by Glendale Harley as its training range. I saw my fellow students gathered near a large metal storage building with a rigged-up sunshade.  Three lines of four motorcycles each were queued up and waiting for us. My heart leapt at the sight.  For as much as I’d spent the past two evenings doing the book-learning part necessary to take this next step, the bikes themselves in all their brawny realness startled me.

They’re really going to let me ride one of those things!  (Or, in moments of fear, I thought more accurately, they’re going to make me.)

As I got closer, I saw my fellow students.  The three other women in the class were outfitted in mostly Harley gear – leather jackets, black half helmets, tight-fitting tank-tops with motorcycle images on them, and kick-ass boots.  Two of the three were even wearing makeup.  Our faces were going to be in helmets in 90-degree weather, sweating to learn how to master these machines — and makeup?  The guys were almost as decked out.  Most wore cool-looking boots and leather jackets.  The youngest guy in the class had just bought a pricey leather jacket and a fancy-pants helmet already wired with Bluetooth when he has yet to sit on a bike.  The somewhat corporate-looking clean-cut guy from Santa Monica, who’d confessed last night that he was taking this class while his wife was out of town on business since she’d kill him if she knew, was carrying his new modular flip-up helmet.   I wondered where he was going to stash that when the wife got home. Of the women, one had already bought her own bike and just needed to learn how to use it.

And me?  Why was I here again?

The story I gave on the first night of class was still my ostensible reason: I was working on a novel in which the main character was a woman who rode a motorcycle.  In order to write convincingly, I’d told myself, I needed to know how to do it.  This was simply research — no need to buy anything.  No need to take any of this seriously.

I looked down at my hiking boots and began to doubt my own rationale.  I’d love a pair of killer motorcycle boots.

Deep in my heart I knew some of this was a sham.  Surely, my powers of imagination were great enough that I could figure out how to write that character without taking this class.  Still, I couldn’t find a better reason.

I picked out a helmet and our instructors, Mario and Kathie, went over the safety rules and then asked us to select a bike.  They were all Buell Blasts, yellow or black, 492-cc bikes manufactured by a division of Harley and used to teach students across the nation.  The plastic bodywork pieces covering the bikes were made from Surlyn, a substance used on the outside of golf balls, designed to protect the bikes’ surfaces when – not if — the Blast was dropped. (They say there are only two kinds of bikers in the world: those who have put down a bike and those who are waiting to do so. This was not comforting.)  The side-view mirrors had been removed and the taillights were plastic and simple to replace — wise precautions given our newbie status.   I ended up with a black motorcycle, number 16.  Finally, we were told to mount the bikes.

I’d ridden on the back of a bike before.  When I was in my late teens, I’d dated a guy with a motorcycle and rode around LA on the back of it, going up and down Angeles Crest.  No helmet, no gear.  I felt nothing bad could happen.  I was lucky.  Now there was a helmet law in California and I was too old to believe myself invincible.

But this? Riding by myself?  Not a passenger but the driver?  This would be different.

I swung my right leg over the saddle and sat.  When instructed, I turned the handlebars to straighten out the wheel.  I raised the bike to an upright position and swept away the kickstand with my left foot.  I stood, straddling a machine that weighed some 360 pounds and rocked it gently side to side beneath me.   Doing so, I felt every ounce of the bike’s weight and heft, a gravity I’d not been expecting that made the hairs on the base of my neck bristle.  Firing it up, I felt its willingness.  It seemed to want to do whatever I might ask it to; friendly, eager to please. There was something mystical about the moment, as if I’d been imbued with magical powers.  I was sitting on this machine that could go – and go fast – at my slightest touch.  It was intoxicating.  And terrifying.

Soon we learned to walk our motorcycles in first gear across the range, turning them manually at the end of each lap.  And then, before we knew it, we were riding.  Just little jaunts across the asphalt, but we were moving on the bikes and our feet were off the ground on the pegs. My fear all along had been that I would not be strong enough to do this. How, I’d wondered, would I maneuver a machine that so outweighed me?  But in actual riding, I saw the truth.  Physical strength wasn’t the key.  It was more agility and coordination, nimbleness and vigilance.

When the morning break arrived, we were all jubilant.  Everyone had figured out how to ride; no one had flunked out. We were called into the shade for water or coffee and doughnuts and a little rest, and asked to record our thoughts having just ridden a motorcycle for the first time.  I wrote a sentence or two about how exciting it felt and then ducked behind the storage building to call Dad’s house and see how he was doing.

For the past two hours, it had been a treat to not have him on the brain, to not be second guessing whether I should have gone out there this morning rather than show up for my class.  Doing something new that’s difficult and a bit scary focused me so sharply that there was no room for other thoughts.  But now, with a break, those other thoughts came flooding back.  I spoke to my step-mom and heard that Dad was much the same.  Very weak.  Hardly able to stand, much less walk. I asked to speak to him and told him I loved him.  I didn’t tell him or Jean that I was learning to ride a motorcycle that weekend, that I’d chosen to do this rash and dangerous thing rather than come visit him as he inched ever closer to death.

I was ashamed of what I was doing.

*

Life went on – I finished the class and received my motorcycle endorsement on my driver’s license — and death arrived. The morning after I bathed my father’s lifeless body with the help of the hospice nurse and sent him on his metaphysical way, I walked into the Harley dealership and bought a motorcycle.  My Izzy. An example of grief made manifest?  Absolutely.  It was also a full-hearted embrace of life.

*

Within a minute, I’m carving along La Tuna Canyon Road, paralleling the rise and fall of the San Gabriel Mountain foothills, away from all I might awaken.   I’m riding my 2009 Harley-Davidson Sportster Iron 883, en-route to Little Tujunga Canyon (known as Little T), a rode described on Pashnit, a website of California biking routes, as the place God would ride if he had a motorcycle.  Its back-and-forth “twisties”’ wind through canyon and mountain, presenting one riveting view after another.  It’s a nice change from the hour-long commute through LA’s most congested freeways I ride during the week.

As I make my way there, I pass a few other bikers out for a morning ride.  They gesture a greeting with a low-down peace sign, signaling our kinship.  I sign back, acknowledging commonality.  Were my bike to break down, one of these folks would undoubtedly stop and help me.  Were I to pass a biker on the side of the road, I would be compelled to do the same by the bond that unites us.

Do they know I’m female as they offer me this gesture of brotherhood?  Does it matter?

When I ride I feel genderless and ageless, more a point of consciousness than a person. Identity and all the ways it separates us from each other flees in the face of swift movement, immense power, and the conviction I’m somehow resisting the bear-hug of gravity.

People who don’t ride, people who don’t know, seem a little perplexed by the idea of a female biker.  No, I tell them.  This is not my son’s bike.  Though he, too, rides, he’s away at college and has taken his bike with him.  Nor is it my husband’s.  He wouldn’t be caught dead on a motorcycle.

They also seem mystified that I don’t fit any particular stereotype. Like most people who undertake an authentic life experience, like most of my sister riders, I fit cleanly in no stereotypical camp. The truth is, it takes a certain kind of courage for a woman to take up biking in the first place, and doubly so if she knows she’s going to bypass all the images she’s given to choose from.  It seems to me that most women who take up biking and all its tribulations are less concerned with the shiny veneer of how they appear but rather with the twang of experience.  Just to get on a bike is to break prescribed gender roles even in this post-feminist age.  Thus, to take it one step further by refusing to be limited to the sexy biker role, or, say, that of hard-ass butch rider, is to accept one’s true sense of self.

Like my sister riders, I like my motorcycle, my Izzy, simply because I like to ride.

I like the feel of the wind in my face and the air slamming my chest.  I like to smell the chaparral and notice when it turns to eucalyptus, and how, when I move into a more urban setting, those scents turn to In-And-Out burgers followed by Taco Bell.  I like how my full-face helmet squeezes my face so that when I smile, I feel my cheeks jamming against the sides of my helmet, making me keenly aware that I’m feeling bliss.  I like to shift gears and feel a sense of competence on this machine that outweighs me nearly five times over.  And more than anything, I love the feeling of fear that thrums in my ribcage, coupled with the sense of satisfaction I feel when that fear finally curls up and retracts its claws.

Too many years of my life have been eaten up by fear.  Too many opportunities missed, worried about how it might look or whose feelings I might hurt or how difficult something might be.  I am at that place in my life when it comes to a standoff: me or the fear.  One of us will win out and the other will be vanquished, if only for an hour or a day, until the next standoff.  But to bow to fear now would be to shrink my life, to contract its borders, to cry uncle.

And so I ride.  To confront the fear.  To feel all-too-alive.  To encounter the divine.  To feel fast and vulnerable, powerful and exposed all at once.

I ride in order to truly live while I still have breath within me.

I think about the fact that so many of the difficult things we face in life occur without our approval or consent – illness, the death of spouse, problems with children, divorce, job loss, bankruptcy, foreclosure.  We have little choice but to endure these hardships – sometimes gracefully, though more often in a stumbling, numb, wanting-to-hide fashion.  There’s little sense of satisfaction in making in through these times because we know we would never have opted for this course had we been given a choice.  Certainly there’s relief at the end of the ordeal and lessons learned, though often little else.

But what about when we voluntarily choose to do things that scare us?  Even little things?  That’s different.  When we voluntarily wrestle with the boogieman of fear, we gain skills and self-knowledge that steel us for the rest of life – those soul-numbing, bone-crushing times when we have no say in how much hardship we can take, how long we can last, how strong at our core we might be.  Nothing so strengthens our resolve as having a regular, intimate encounter with the fear that tries to stifle us, that tells us we’re not smart enough, or young enough, or pretty enough, or strong enough.

When we’ve made peace with our fears and have taken risks at our own volition, we learn the most powerful bit of self-knowledge possible: that we have what it takes.   Joy often hides in the very things we’re afraid of, and if we can move past fear, we can see how much more there is to life.

My motorcycle reminds me, sometimes on a minute-by-minute basis, of my own mortality.  To be awake and alive at this very moment is a precious gift, a gift for which I feel a massive debt of gratitude.  And when I ride, I remember that.

*

Riding a motorcycle has become for me a way of containing all the contradictions that make for a textured life.  It’s like the neighborhood in which I live.  At once rugged mountain foothill and part of a big city, a place harboring both wild beasts and domesticated backyard pets.  As a female biker, I get to embody numerous incongruities. Doing something that scares me in order to tap into my ever-present well of courage.  Being a mother and wife who needs, every so often, to escape from the responsibilities that threaten to overwhelm.  And finally, as a female biker with no tattoos, who fits no stereotype, I get to be more fully, more completely myself than at any other time.


Bernadette Murphy is the author of Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life. She has published three previous books of narrative nonfiction including the bestselling Zen and the Art of Knitting, is an Associate Professor in the Creative Writing Department of Antioch University Los Angeles, and a former weekly book critic for the Los Angeles Times. Her website is Bernadette-Murphy.com. More from this author →