Learning to Ride

Many, many years ago, when I was just a young lass and my older sister was in college, my Dad had bought some sort of moped for her. I don’t think he knew anything about the bike itself, and she rode it once or twice, but didn’t like it. It ended up sitting in the garage for a year or so until my Dad got tired of the oil leak and sold it. I don’t think they ever knew, but I used to wait for my parents to leave the house and then I would sneak out to the garage and take it around the block. This was my first experience with two motorized wheels. It didn’t “stick”, but instead faded quickly into the background of my childhood.

But then in college I had a second experience with two motorized wheels: 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 in order to make the journey easier. The first time out, I hit a pothole and bent the front rim. The bicycle hadn’t been a point of excitement to begin with so it hadn’t take much for me to give up on it. Instead, I moved up the two-wheeled ladder when I found a small scooter for sale: a mid-70’s Honda Express with a top speed of 27 mph. It would be perfect for what I planned on using it: 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 27 mph? My father countered that was the problem: I’d forever be on 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 after the Honda Express expired, I came across an ad in the classifieds: “1978 Yamaha motorcycle. Runs. $250.” I had been rolling around the idea of “something faster than the scooter” in the back of my head, and this spoke to me. 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 hefted it back up onto its wheels. 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 lift 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. How did I ever end up with this beast?

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

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1978 Yamaha 500

The news got out that I had a motorcycle and eventually a friend of a friend came over to show me some things. 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 bewilderment. 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. I had no realization at the time just how lucky I had been with that little accident. I was ok and the bike just fell gently into the grass.

Ok – time to get a license!

I signed up for the local MSF (Motorcycle Safety Foundation) course, which most (all?) US states have to “train” motorcyclists. I use the word “train” loosely, as the entire course consists of a couple of hours of classroom instruction and then two days on a closed course, riding their small displacement motorcycles. Complete this course and you are suddenly licensed to ride anything and everything on two wheels. For me, the course was a blur. I remember some cones, and the small motorcycles, but that was about all. Regardless if I learned anything, at least I could legally 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 riding 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.

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1985 Kawasaki 454 LTD

I sold the Yamaha to a friend, who promptly totalled 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.

And then I took a summer job in Colorado working at a dude ranch. I had taken the train so I was without a vehicle. I thought that having a motorcycle there might be fun and I ended up buying another Yamaha – because it was cheap and one of the few used bikes the shop in Boulder had. 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 didn’t keep it for very long once I completed my first epic motorcycle tour on the return 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. Tires? Yes, I had two. What the air pressure was, or the tread condition, I had no idea. 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 that 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. Obviously I enjoyed motorcycle enough to keep buying them! 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. Much later someone else 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 – even though I’d been licensed for five years at this point. 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 motorcycle 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.

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8 comments

  1. Michelle Sit says:

    Thanks for sharing your story. Really inspirational. I’m about to take the MSF and begin riding after a decade of obsession.

  2. Jordon says:

    Good read! I hope to have half as many adventures in my life as I begin riding. That’s a sweet moped your sister had, people would pay a good penny for one of those in good shape today.

    • DantesDame says:

      I was surprisingly unhappy when my Dad sold it. I mean, I had no right to complain, as it was never mine and he never knew that I had any interest in it. I wish you many years of great adventures!

  3. Jay says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. Just got my license and bought a 2001 klr650. So far I have taken it to the end of my driveway. It’s a beast! Still nervous about heading out on the street, but I didn’t buy it to stare at it parked outside my house. Would have loved to see a pic of you in the black skit ; )

    Be safe!

    • DantesDame says:

      Welcome to the wonderful world of riding – and KLRs! I still miss mine and think that perhaps I should have held on to it.
      Take things easy and soon you’ll be exploring all sorts of places on your beast.

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