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It's Nelly's World

Girls on Motorcycles

alec vanderboom

{The piece that follows was written for the Women Who Ride seminar at the 2011 national BMW rally, in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, on a July weekend that was the hottest I've ever endured. Reference is made to that in the third paragraph below. This short piece, I realized, encapsulates my past four years. And it points to the future.}

***

In a profound and complex way, motorcycles have given me a life. They have brought love, both for an object and with other people; after making it once, I don’t think I’ll ever make the mistake again of finding myself paired with a man who doesn’t ride. But more important even than that, motorcycles have given me a subject.

For in the deepest part of me, I am a writer (as well as a rider) and I don’t know that I would be one without motorcycles. It was the intense, jumping-up-and-down, collaring-strangers-in-the-street passion I felt for them that gave me an idea I could not let go of until I had exhausted many pens, a tree and a half, and a prototype laptop. The result, although I did not know it when I began scribbling simply because I had too many thoughts in my head and they were going to cause it to explode if I didn’t offload them, was my first book.

Although I didn’t conceive it as something I was writing as a woman for women, the fact is (last time I checked) I am a woman and that colors every nuance of how one looks at the world and its phenomena. Men and women, even in the pursuit of a common passion, necessarily experience it differently. We literally have different brains. Then there is the fact that we are perceived differently by the rest of the world—but I have to tell you that, despite what they think, I have never ridden while wearing a bikini, with the sole exception of the ride here, but at least it was under my Aerostich—while we too perceive things differently. My pride in the long history of my sisters who rode—a history as long as that of this machine—was equal parts “Hey, see here! We can do it too, and well!” and pure human joy. It was not the whole story, just as men do not own it all either, but I did not want it excised. I wanted it there, emphatically.

I wanted everything there. I thought I had put it all there, everything I could possibly say about bikes, and then I closed the cover. Done.

But what we believe about what we are doing is not always what is in actuality what really happens.

After a long period during which the aforementioned mistake was practiced at length, I faced the same crisis so many of us do—fifty percent of the population, I am given to understand. This has a way of unmooring you from all that is familiar, all you thought was stable and permanent. For a while afterward, you just float. For me, it was motorcycles that reappeared to provide an anchor in choppy waters.

Or rather, it was motorcycles as delivered by one person. A very, very persistent person by the name of John Ryan. At first I just thought he was one of those messianic boosters that our sport occasionally creates. But no. As I slowly learned, he is sui generis—no one lives or thinks as he does about bikes, and no one does what he does on them.

It was a blessing not only to be riding again, but also to have a puzzle to ponder: briefly, in the case of John, it was “W. T. F.??” I had known about the Iron Butt Rally, certainly, in what I was beginning to refer to as my First Motorcycle Life, but then I’d just figured they were a tiny group of fringe fanatics who were so deep into something ungraspable by the rest of us that they were merely a footnote. I’d already written that footnote; I think I took care of them in a sentence. Done.

Then my brain started chewing again on the subject of motorcycles—ever various, I now know—and what in particular extreme long-distance riders like John were doing. And lo and behold, I had a new subject. A new bike, and a new book.

New friends. New destinations. New life. If a woman ever needed these, it was me. If a machine can ever give such gifts, it is the motorcycle.