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One for the Road: Rite of passage

By Shadow

I’d just filled up the tank at a gas station somewhere in rural Wisconsin, when I saw a young woman and her motorcycle on the other side of the lot. I was thirsty and needed a break before I got back on the road, so I pulled into a spot not far from where she was parked. I waved hello, she waved back and we struck up a conversation.

Her name was Elizabeth, and she looked to be in her mid- to late-20s (although I’m terrible at guessing ages). She told me she was headed to a town in Michigan that was 284 miles from her home. Elizabeth confessed that it was her first solo trip longer than an hour—she’d gotten her motorcycle endorsement only a few months ago—and she seemed thrilled to take this big step.

Elizabeth came from a family of riders, and her dad has given her plenty of help along the way. She told me that for her first bike, he wanted her to get a large metric model in the 1300cc range, but she didn’t feel comfortable with something that big and instead bought the used Yamaha Virago 250 she was riding that day. I said something like, “Good for you for sticking to your guns! There’s plenty of time for you to upgrade when you feel you’re ready.”

She told me how she’d prepared for the ride—the bike had a new chain and she’d packed some chain lube just in case. She was wearing a beautiful, nicely-fitting all-weather textile riding jacket and handsome, functional gloves. Her helmet was a full-face with a shield, and she looked like she could conquer anything that came her way.

I wish I’d listened to the same advice about size and displacement when I was shopping for my first bike. Most of the female riders I spoke with suggested I get a small starter bike, but I wanted a Harley. There were no two ways about it. I picked up my brand-new Sportster from the dealership, but instead of riding straight home, I decided I needed to practice turns and figure-8s just as I’d done with the 250s I’d learned to ride on. In the lot where I’d practiced before, I gave it too much gas rounding a curve. It jumped the curb and I dropped it. Back to the dealer she went for a new mirror and handlebars. The next time I rode the bike I had a lot more respect for that throttle.

As she pulled away, I remembered feeling excitement mixed with trepidation when I took my first “long” journeys. A ride to the Jersey shore was my first of any substance. I met up with a friend about 40 miles from my home, and we continued another 60 miles to Seaside Heights where he owned a beach house. My Sportster was still bone stock, and I’d managed to stuff a swimsuit and towel inside a tool bag hanging from the front forks. Tools? I didn’t have any. Rain gear in case of bad weather? Didn’t have any of that, either. Never even thought about it, and besides, I had no room to stash anything. The sun was out, neither of us broke down and we had a fabulous time.

My first solo ride would take me 120 miles from where I lived to the family home in Northeast Pennsylvania. I knew the road well, having traversed it on four wheels many times. This time, the Sporty sported a set of saddlebags to hold a cheap set of raingear and enough clothes for the weekend. One of the guys at work used to talk about how much his back and butt hurt after a long ride, and I wasn’t sure I could make the entire trip pain-free. Sure enough, at my first gas stop an hour and a half later, I realized my butt was numb when I got off my bike. The stock seats back then might as well been made of paper for how much cushioning and support they provided. But I soldiered on and made it to the old homestead and back without incident.

My parents bought that house in 1953, the year after they got married and several months before I was born. My sister Judy and I grew up in that house, and when it was time for us to leave the nest, there was comfort in knowing we could still come home. When my dad died back in ’74, people asked my mom if she was going to move. She insisted on staying. Mom was diagnosed with cancer in the early ’80s and died 10 years later, but my sister and I kept the house for some years afterward. My first visit there on a motorcycle would prove to be my last because shortly after my visit, we sold the house. I’m grateful that my sister thought to take some photos of me, looking real happy, on my Sportster in front of the house, during my visit. Some of you might laugh, but I was pretty damned proud of myself for having the guts to ride that long a distance solo.

So next time you see a new rider on the road, in a gas station or at a rally, be kind, be encouraging and let them have their moment of glory. Remember, you were once a newbie, too.


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