Learning to Ride

It all began at college. I lived off campus and wasn’t ambitious enough to walk the two miles to my daily classes. Instead, I put some money into a bicycle to make the journey easier. The first time out, I hit a pothole and bent the rim. So much for that idea. I moved up the two-wheeled ladder and found a small scooter for sale: a mid-70’s Honda Express with a top speed of 27mph. It would be perfect for what I planned on using it for: running errands and getting to class. I excitedly called my parents to tell them the news. They were immediately concerned for my safety. I was dumbfounded: what could possibly go wrong at 27mph? My father countered that was the problem: I’d forever be at the side of the road, passed by cars and trucks. He had a point, but I had the scooter. I continued to ride it until it blew the piston rings a few months later. I asked my boyfriend to help me fix it, but we did it wrong and the rings blew again. I parked the scooter.

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A little while later I came across an ad in the classifieds: “1978 Yamaha motorcycle. Runs. $250.” It was a deal I couldn’t pass up and I drove my VW Beetle to the guy’s house. I didn’t know to look at mileage, tire wear, chain condition and signs of prior accidents. The guy demonstrated that the motorcycle did indeed run and that’s all I needed to know.

The seller’s only concern was if I could pick up the motorcycle if fell on its side. He laid it gently down on the grass and I picked it back up. Satisfied, I handed him the money, he handed me the key and I handed it right back to him. I didn’t know how to ride; would he ride it to my house and I’d give him a ride back? The deal was done.

So now I had a real motorcycle sitting in my parents’ driveway. Surprisingly, I don’t remember them commenting upon this purchase. No one else in my family rode (or even had any interest in) motorcycles, and I didn’t personally know of anyone who rode, so when I excitedly told my friends about the bike and one of them told me that she had a friend who knew how to ride, we arranged for him to come over and teach me what he knew. I should point out that my dad bought some sort of motor vehicle for my older sister when she was in college, but she never used it, and it ended up sitting in the garage for a while. I used to sneak out and take it around the block after my parents would leave for the day…

But this was the $250 “next adventure!” motorcycle currently sitting in my driveway:

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1978 Yamaha 500

I clearly remember the two of us standing next to the motorcycle as it sat in the driveway. He stood on the opposite side from me and one by one, pointed out the controls and how they worked: Front brake, throttle; rear brake; clutch; gear shifter (up, down and neutral). He barely got through them when he looked at his watch. “I have to go!” he exclaimed, leaving me standing by the bike in confusion. I looked at the bike, got on and started it up. Fortunately I was already familiar with the whole “clutch/gas” process from driving my VW, but that doesn’t mean that the information transferred well to the motorcycle’s hand operations. I popped the clutch and almost dropped the bike. Oh yeah, this was going to be interesting.

I spent the next couple of weeks periodically taking the motorcycle around the neighborhood. The streets were wide and empty and I gingerly went around the block a few times. I popped the clutch one more time, this time bad enough that I fell off the back of the bike as it careened down the street without me. Ok – time to get a license!

I signed up for the local MSF course and the rest is a blur. I remember some cones, and the small motorcycles, but that was about all. But now I was at least legal to ride a motorcycle!

I started out with the beater bike, but after the first year I felt that I deserved something “prettier”. I had no concept of different styles of bikes, or seating positions. I hadn’t (consciously) been influenced by the Harley culture – or any other culture, for that matter. My parents went with me to the local dealer. I wandered around the used bikes they had on the floor and for no real reason that I can come up with, I chose a 1985 Kawasaki 454LTD. It was essentially a cruiser, a small version of the Honda Shadow, for those who know what that is. But it was shiny and clean, unlike the Yamaha.

I sold the Yamaha to a friend, who promptly totaled it and broke his femur on his ride home. Apparently “I have lots of riding experience” wasn’t an accurate description on his part. I almost felt guilty as he handed me the check from the hospital bed.

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1985 Kawasaki 454 LTD

At one point, I took a summer job in Colorado, working at a dude ranch. I thought that having a motorcycle there might be fun and ended up buying this one. Single-minded me only rode it from the ranch and down to Boulder and back. What was I thinking, not taking advantage of living at the Front Range for three months? I must have been feeling creative with some paints one day, and I didn’t keep it for very long once I got back to Pennsylvania.


1976 Yamaha 500

The new Kawasaki had a belt drive, so there was no need for me to learn about motorcycle maintenance. At least the ownership of a VW bug gave me the knowledge to check the oil level once in a while. Otherwise, it was just a matter of putting in gas and riding.

And along those lines of ignorance, my first year’s gear consisted of a $60 full-face helmet from K-Mart, some fingerless gloves, a World War II canvas jacket, jeans and combat boots. Not that I wore those all of the time. I recall feeling pretty sexy when I rode to campus wearing my little ankle-high black dress boots, a very short black skirt and a Wilson’s Leather dress leather jacket. I did turn a few heads on that day.

But still, the motorcycle was nothing more to me than a means of transportation. There was no joy riding, or feeling the thrill of leaning into a sweeping corner in the countryside. I rode from my house to my friends’ houses, and occasionally from campus to my home town (about four hours). Even those trips through the forests of Pennsylvania, while enjoyable, didn’t bring an ecstatic grin to my face. And an eye-opening ride half way across the country still wasn’t enough to open my eyes all the way to the joys of motorcycling. This would be the status quo until one fateful ride to Mt St Helens in 2002.

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197 Honda CB750

Because the motorcycle was still a tool to me, I was still in the mindset of needing a destination in order to ride somewhere. After I’d moved to Seattle I sold my Kawasaki, bought a ’74 CB750 and then a ’91 VFR 750. One day my roommate asked if I wanted to go for a ride and I immediately asked “where?” I was greatly confused when he didn’t know “where” – he just wanted to go for a ride. But then someone asked if I wanted to ride to Mt St Helens and this time I accepted. I had been living in Seattle for over a year but hadn’t been to the famous landmark yet. The group of guys that I was riding with were all very experienced, but also considerate of my “new to riding” status. They encouraged me to take my time and ride at my own pace. The road we were on was an in/out road and they’d meet me at the top.

That road scared the pants off me.

Because of its location in the 1980 blast zone, the landscape around me was open and barren. There were few guardrails between the side of the road and a quick drop to the valley below. The pavement hugged the natural contours of the volcano, which meant lots of tight twists and turns.

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VFR at Windy Ridge, the Ride

This was not what I was used to and I was extremely nervous about riding it. The other riders were true to their word: I didn’t see them again until I reached the parking lot at the end of the road. They had been there long enough to park, take off some gear and get out the cameras.

I waved sheepishly as I pulled in and they reassured me that they were pleased that I took my time and made it in one piece. After I made it back down the mountain, and I had time to reflect on the ride itself, I realized that it was a thrilling thing to lean the motorcycle into a turn and feel the power of the bike as it pulled away on the exit. I experienced a revelation: motorcycling could be fun!

So now I knew that there was more to motorcycling than just riding across town. What next? I spent the next couple of summers riding around the Pacific Northwest. Each time out I learned something new about my bike and my abilities. I grew more confident and comfortable with each trip. My new-found motorcycling friends gave me tips and suggestions and I also learned more about taking care of my ride and myself, finally investing in good motorcycle-specific gear. Then I was invited to a group meet in Custer, SD, over 1,200 miles away. An entirely new kind of riding was about to open up to me.

Packing was the next thing for me to learn about. I didn’t learn very quickly. I clumsily over packed my VFR, adding bags to just about every surface imaginable. But the bike handled well and other then running out of gas twice – in one day – the trip went smoothly. I have since learned how to pack more efficiently, even though I may not always do so. More importantly, I learned that riding my motorcycle, day after day and through so many varied landscapes, brought that long-awaited ecstatic grin to my face. I had found my joy.

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VFR on the way to Custer, SD, 2003

And then my joy expanded: I rode with a friend to the Arctic Ocean. I discovered that not only were back-to-back days on the motorcycle thrilling, but the experience of riding where few others have been added to my addiction. The more remote, the more pleasing it was to me. With that in mind, you can imagine what a great experience Mexico was when I was able to spend over a month exploring its roads and culture. I was hooked. And that trip also showed me one more thing about myself: I love to ride alone. While I enjoy riding with friends on roads that I know well, nothing beats being on my own, riding how I want to ride and where I want to ride. I can change direction or speed on a whim. I can stop for photos or not stop. It is my own ride and no one else can claim it.

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North Brooks Range, Alaska 2004

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Mexico, 2005

Now that I know what I like, I find myself searching for the next high. What roads will I find that can give me the thrill and the excitement that I’ve come to love? It will be a life-long quest, of that I’m sure.

2 Responses to Learning to Ride

  1. Gene Blackman says:

    Any pics of you with the little boots and black dress?

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