The moment of departure or the beginning of something is a strange place in time. We have been preparing for over a year - buying motorcycles, rebuilding them, acquiring the needed equipment, making things, practicing, learning, planning, saving money, packing. And finally we rode our heavy-as-hell bikes out of the driveway. In that 30 seconds our lives shifted from (relative) domesticity to the daily unknown. The moment passed, and we twisted our throttles, shifted gears, and somewhat shakily began moving along the roads.
Day one quickly became time for me to learn how to balance the Hammer with a hundred and fifty extra pounds, as well as a time to discover that the Hammer has a broken shock and Whiskers has a leaking brake caliper. Minor safety issues but headaches none the less, it is fortunate to find out these things so immediately giving us time to order the parts we need. In the small desert town of Delta, Utah of all places, we found a suspension specialist in his backyard who re-charged the shock (it’s still pretty broken), and Scott bought brake fluid to keep filling his reservoir. We had a caliper shipped to Cali and kept riding West. West. We were ready to be out of Utah.
Nevada is like surface of the moon. Miles and miles of straight roads through salty valleys that contain no one, interrupted by rocky desert mountain ranges. The loneliest highway in America is lonely indeed. Lonely, hot, dusty, and beautiful in it’s own right. At one point we were hit with a rain storm, grooved pavement, and 60 mph wind gusts all at once. I thought I was going to eat the dirt on the side of the highway, with a squirrelly front wheel, a bad shock, and the wind pushing my feet from where I wanted to be on the road, but we made it through. I am continuously learning how to ride again when we hit new terrain or new riding conditions. It’s a little hard, but I love it and each new challenge makes me a better and more confident rider and human.
After 600 miles and a night in the desert serenaded by packs of coyotes, the Eastern Sierra Nevada range came into view and things became abruptly green, the roads began winding through hills and mountain passes, and Nevada was behind us, with hot springs ahead. The second riding challenge of that day was an 8-mile dirt road that was full of in ruts and deep sand - sometimes 6-8 inches deep, which is hard on a heavy motorcycle. Even Scott had some difficulty getting through it. I almost went down twice but muscled through and thanked Thor (Hammer god, ha!) for the power of acceleration. 400 miles at 55mph, wind and rain, sand and cold found us shivering and exhausted but we were met at the end of the sand road by friends who gave us the glorious wonderful amazing gifts of fire, beer, hot food, and friendship. I think I cried. And we sat in the hot springs and went to sleep with the moonlight shining on our faces.
A few days ago I dumped my bike. I was riding with my friend Tobi (a super awesome moto-riding-plant-and-duck-guru-neighbor woman), and with Scott, on Skyline Drive near Bountiful Utah. The ride is incredible. 25 miles of rocky dirt roads winding through the Wasatch Front through high elevation wildflowers, Mud-Dog lakes, and sweeping views of the Great Salt Lake. The last 4-miles, however, challenged me with one of my great fears. A 1,000 foot cliff met the edge of the narrow road. I have a strange fear of heights and my annoying vertigo sent visions of me and my friends plummeting to our death through my mind.
If i went careening - what would I say into my bluetooth headset? What would my last words be as I fell to my death? Would my friends have last words as they met theirs? I hate fear.
Near the end of the road, as I tried to tame my brain and drive at the same time, we came to a hairpin turn. The entire turn was exposed to a cliff. At the apex of the corner, I hit a sandy patch and was afraid to accelerate through it, in the face of what some yet-to-be-conquered part of my brain was sure was imminent death. I could blame my sticky throttle, but the fact is that I dumped the bike. Maybe I could have saved it, but I was, honestly, afraid.
The worst part of dumping a bike is the embarrassment.
A kind man on a 4-wheeler stopped and picked up my 450 pound beast. I didn't thank him. The only thing I could say was "'shit.... I wanted to try to pick it up,' which was quite true; I wanted to pick it up but some of that stubborn I-want-to-do-it attitude also comes from the pressure I feel. The pressure that is put on me, and all women, who, well... do ANYTHING 'tough' or 'cool' or (the worst) 'manly.' We have to be extra tough. We must flip off the men who whistle at us from their trucks, and the ones who ask us out on dates at stop lights. We must excel, or be judged and called 'a girl' (this term should be one of high praise, but it's connotations make it into what is undoubtedly one of the most harmful colloquialisms of our times.) All eyes are on us. Can we hack it? Do we have the nerve?
Sometimes I project my ideas of others' perception of me onto them. It's not fair to them, I know. It's also not fair that my projections and perceptions come from years of living in 'a man's world' where I have experienced violence, sexism, wage-gaps, sexualization of my person, discrimination, and harassment. Only. Only because I am a woman. A strong, independent, round, intelligent, creative, problem-solving, real, woman. But let's move on...
I was also afraid the first time I rode my first motorcycle. The 350. A junker 1992 Yamaha enduro that I bought for a grand. My first experience with motorcycles was playing with the clutch on a slight incline. Then my neighbor took me to a parking lot and made me practice braking, skidding, and turns. Scary, yes, but northing like the first few solo-rides around the block that I took. A neighbor saw me and said she was afraid for my life. To be honest, so was I.
The adrenaline was flowing. I rode over train tracks. I warped my brake rotor. My hands shook for at least 10 minutes after I shut the engine off in my driveway. I told myself that once upon a time I had learned to walk and to drive, and that those things were dangerous and scary then, but now I do them without a thought. Riding a Moto - I knew - would be the same. So I practiced. I rode the Salt Lake City canyons with Tobi. I rode dirt and downtowns with my friends. New riding styles were a constant challenge and learning experience for me.
I fixed my brakes and it got better. It got brilliant, and, in fact, one day I felt the joy of the curves and I overcame the fear. I conquered. I accelerated.
The first time I rode the 600XT was a 235 mile solo ride to Moab. It was hard, and new. I had never ridden the bike, or ridden on a highway - but I determined that I was up for the challenge. And I did it. I dropped that bike too. Broken Clutch Levers I now realize are a part of life. Now, to me, a broken lever is not a failure but a symbol of success.
Difficult things are worth doing.
I have taken on a challenge. I have failed sometimes, but ultimately I have succeeded as I knew I could. The objective of this story runs deep and has little to do with motorcycles. Keep on my friends, my sisters; tackle the things that seem a universe away. Take on the impossible - the strength is in you. Don't listen to what society or culture tells you. Flip off the jerks, call them out, or just ignore them (the jury is still out on the best way to handle cat-calls and harassment). But what the jury is not out on is that it's in you. I promise - you are so, so, so worthy of your dreams. Jump in!
Heartfelt thanks to Tobi Werkhousen, Scott Hathaway, Scott Dixon, and Kevin Bell for challenging and teaching me how to ride.
Thank you, you most amazing women: My sisters (Darcy and Misti), Samantha, Megan, Jamie, Ashley, Shaquille, Thalia, Tobi, Eliza, Melissa, Danielle, and all of the other wonderful women in the world, for inspiring me to follow my dreams and crush the opposition. I believe in you.
I like to think that crashing is a tradition as old as riding. The first poet Homer was writing about heroes falling off their ride back when democracy was still a good idea. Imagine a horse drawn chariot carrying Trojans and Spartans into battle as spears and arrows whiz by, careening off rocks and splattering their brains over the fields of Troy. Even the Egyptian boy King Tutankhamen was thought to be crushed by his chariot way back when Eagle looked at Eyeball on the walls of the pyramids.
And when the first bicycle was invented and some poor inventor’s apprentice was told to sit on the cross bar and go for a ride they must have been mortified. For a time bicycles were thought so dangerous they were illegal to ride in the city. Hell they even called them Boneshakers because they were made of solid wood and iron.
And so what happens when you add a motor to an already dangerous device? It gets twice as fun and twice as dangerous. In the 1910’s and 1920’s motorcycle racers on wooden race courses were being impaled by splinters from the track and spectators died from motorcycles launching off the top of the 45 degree banked walls earning the motordromes the nickname “Murderdromes."
T.E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia died from a motorcycle crash in 1935 even after surviving a sleepless 49 hour camel ride across the Sinai Peninsula. Bob Dylan almost ended his career in a crash driving a Triumph too fast through upstate New York hell-bent on quitting either his tour schedule or this mortal coil, and today you can watch so many dash cam videos of motorcyclists eating it on Live Leak it’ll make you question your humanity.
So when I went down a month ago and broke my collarbone I wasn’t surprised. Everybody crashes; it’s something that you just have to deal with. By getting on two wheels you are assuming that you will fall off. But a crash isn’t the end and falling off isn’t really that bad, it’s just a part of life.
I started reading about motorcycle crashes before I had even ridden my first bike, a compact V-twin Yamaha barely big enough to squeeze my 6’4” frame into. Out of morbid curiosity I wanted to hear about people’s horrible mistakes and the life altering consequences of high velocity impact. I figured if I could scare myself enough then I would either learn from their mistakes or just never ride a motorcycle and take up something safer like juggling.
But no amount of scared-straight reading could keep me from crashing. My first accident was caused by my bike stalling on a hairpin curve in fourth gear. The bike lurched halfway through the turn and I was ejected to the side and the bike nearly went off the cliff. Second time was low-sliding through a mossy water crossing. Third time was hitting loose boulders on a trail in the desert. I’ve gone down in marvelous places.
In an accident everybody wants to blame somebody else. The other driver did this or that or the road conditions were shit or something was wrong with the bike. There’s a million excuses for every incident, but you need to think about what you did wrong when you crash. Awareness of your environment could save your life. If I had better anticipated that car turning in front of me last month I wouldn’t have accelerated towards a green light, and I sure as hell wouldn’t have hit the front brake on a wet road.
Even if you don’t completely avoid the incident you at least want the best possible outcome. Low-siding versus high-siding, a broken collarbone versus a broken neck, etc. Minimizing your injuries is key but don’t let a crash get you down. After the crash you get up, you keep riding, and you change your ways. Riding a motorcycle is a beautiful thing and the freedom experienced from two wheels should not be given up for anything.
With the Hammer loaded up and a car full of pasta, cans of beans, and a box of beer, I was ready for a week at the "Rusty Can" with some friends. A desert escape from electricity, cell phone service, and the city. My imagination was taking me down dirt roads to hidden hot springs, spending days working in a ghost town coffee shop, and bonding with The Hammer in Big Bend National Park.
As I was on my way to "The Can," waiting for a hail storm to pass in Ozona (about 6-hours outside of Austin), Scott was busy crashing his motorcycle in an unfortunate accident, breaking his collarbone, crushing his foot, and doing some minor damage to his bike. (read about it)
Our weeks of desert bliss and adventure were turned to bags of ice, heat packs, one-armed motorcycle repairs, and sketchy two-up rides with me driving, no brake lever to speak of, and crooked handle bars. Thanks to some amazing friends, Scott's work engagements were covered and we had a lovely "Hovel" to stay in while Scott recovered for a few days.
In the course of the crash, Whiskers bent it's frame near the passenger foot peg, causing it to rip a hole into the aluminum swing arm. Additional damage was a broken weld on the foot peg, twisted handle bars, the brake lever busted about an inch from the master cylinder, and a nice gouge in the crank case. Relatively minor injuries to human and machine. A sling, a weld or two, new levers, and some ace bandages.
We were able to get the swing arm and foot peg tabs welded at a shop in Austin. We bent back the frame ourselves by ratchet strapping the motorcycle to a tree, and attaching ratchet straps to the bent portion of the frame and likewise to the truck. I used the bike and tree as leverage to pull the frame as Scott tightened the straps. It worked quite well, and took us about a half an hour to re-bend both sides of the frame.
Somehow Whiskers passed inspection with exposed wires to serve as a "functioning horn," along with broken brake and clutch levers. Gotta love Texas.
Safely back in Utah after visiting amazing friends and a short trip to Mexico, our next project involved a 1970's sewing machine - first fixing it up and then using it to make a new seat cover for Scott's motorcycle which had started splitting after years of hard use. Crocodile-skin printed vinyl. We took off the original seat cover and made a pattern (which didn't work), got frustrated, and I hastily eyeballed and cut out a new set of vinyl pieces. We sweated out some bullets and stressed about the difficulty of cutting the last of the fabric. Sewing that shit was not exactly straight seams - it was tricky - but all said and done our fears were put to rest and the seat looks and functions well.
A new aftermarket seat cover costs around $45 if you order it online. You still have to stretch and staple it. This alternative cost us $11 in vinyl and a couple of hours. An additional "advantage?" is that it's totally custom. Very one of a kind. Now that I know how to do it, I kind of want zebra print vinyl for The Hammer... But I will heed the wisdom of my grandfather and stay with the original red: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Next up on the agenda: Re-build the hammer (we took apart the engine and as we suspected, it was running on a performance high-compression piston which accounts for the need for 93 octane fuel and the frequent detonation). The cylinder has been honed by a local Harley shop in exchange for some beer, and we are waiting for new gaskets and rings in the mail. I still need to clean and put new seals in the valves, put in a new copper gasket (long-lasting and reducing the compression just a bit more), clean everything up, and break it in. I'm missing having a motorcycle to ride in the meantime.
In addition to the mechanics, I am making roll-top panniers out of Carhart factory seconds which will be waxed and painted for water resistance. More inexpensive, labor intensive, custom work.
Finally, the reality of picking up and committing to the road has hit me. The existential cliff has been jumped. The sacrifices have been weighed. We are all in and August will be here in the blink of an eye.