SEX: F. HGT: 5’-6”. WGT: 107lb. CLASS: CM1.
Those are my specifications, as listed on my driver’s license. M1: Motorcycle license.
Safety, not getting hurt, anticipation of consequences and mitigation of those consequences – are how I make my way through the world. Someone like me having a motorcycle license, therefore, seems pretty improbable. When people see me in context of the motorbike I ride (BMW 650GS, which weighs 423 pounds), how I ride (often solo and set up for road trips and camping), and the terrain I am in the process of learning to ride on (off road), people ask me for my story. I keep my own motorcycle diaries, documenting my miles, my routes, my progress, my learnings. Now I aim to keep another sort of motorcycle diary, exploring the nature of the sport from the body and mind of a skinny female. I believe people need to experience their own significant adventures, which I find are often connected to road trips or travel. These motorcycle diaries are not intended to be a source for vicarious living; I much prefer that each person write their own story, however that looks and wherever that takes them.
This is my motorcycle background: pretty much none. I did not grow up on dirt bikes. No one in my family rode during my childhood. I sat on the back of a couple of people’s motorcycles as passenger three to five times over a three year period in my mid-twenties, and quite liked it. For about five years I had the concept of doing a motorbike trip through Asia, but that is all it was: a concept. Then the guy I am dating, who got his first motorcycle (a dirt bike) at age eight and grew up riding, decided to finally get his license and a motorcycle. He said if I was curious as to whether I would like being the driver of the bike instead of passenger, I could spend a couple hundred dollars on the Motorcycle Safety Foundation (MSF) course; if I passed then essentially that would qualify as passing the driving test for the motorcycle license, and then all I would have to do would be to take the written test. And, the MSF class provides the motorcycles and the helmets.
Despite being extremely concerned about safety, I signed up for the class. First evening was classroom, next two days were on a motorcycle doing exercises on a small, rectangular, tarmac course. The guy I am dating likes documentaries and videos and asked me to record myself on my thoughts. When he saw the video of me before the first day on the actual motorcycle, he said, “You look terrified” right before I myself repeatedly stated in the video, “I’m really nervous.” I explained in those videos how hesitant I was about the whole thing, how the motorbike road trip had been a concept for a while, but how I had never really ever considered the steps it would take to make that happen, or whether I wanted to actually make it happen beyond the romantic notion. I explained my fear of getting hurt, how one of the guys I rock climbed with has a twin brother who lost his leg in a motorcycle accident where another motorcyclist sideswiped him; my friend thought if his brother was wearing proper protective riding pants, that his leg may have been saved; the road rash went too deep. I explained how the mother of someone I know has a brain injury caused by a patient she was a nurse for; she was never the same, could not even cook because now she could not remember to turn off the burner, could not learn how to use an iPod (and the kind that was not even a touch screen); she became more extreme in behaviors that were moderate before. I do not want either of those to be my stories. But I also described my first experience on the back of a friend’s motorcycle: he had taken me into the mountains, and I could smell the mountains and the trees and feel the crispness of the air almost before the visual came up for me (one definitely sees a lot less being passenger in the back). For that, and for the concept of this unlikely road trip through Asia, is why I signed up for the class.
The first two hours of the MSF class, I wanted to quit. I had never really driven stick, so did not really understand clutch or what order to use both hands and both feet to make the machine function, and clutch was not explained in the course, as how to use it was assumed to be already known. I stalled constantly. I wanted to quit. After the first two hours, everyone else started stalling all the time, so I figured I really was not doing so badly. I also saw I was actually decent at some of the techniques we were learning, and when there was flow, had fun. I passed, so the next step was the written test; and I passed that so officially had my motorcycle license. Figured I should keep continuing forward since I now had my license, so I did some homework on motorcycles. I was told I should get a little 250cc enduro; but I heard the BMW 650GSs were good for road trips, and should I not get what I eventually wanted to do road trips on? But, first things first, so I focused on procuring proper protective riding gear. Then while looking for a helmet at a shop I had gone in previously, a salesman told me he thought he had exactly the motorcycle I was looking for, a trade-in from the night before, a BMW 650GS, with panniers and all of the other aftermarket pieces I wanted. At the price and with the components, it was as if the stars aligned, and for someone who takes months to make decisions, I rode the bike awkwardly in the parking lot, did some math and consideration the rest of the day, and said I would buy it. A friend rode it home for me. When people hear that the 650GS is my first bike, the response I have gotten more than once is, “That’s a helluva first bike!” And let me tell you, it is a quite hardy bike.
Fast forwarding to now, I have now had my motorcycle license for two years but have really only been riding for over a year and a half. I have done day trips, overnight camping trips, and short road trips, mostly alone, occasionally with a partner, and once in a group. “Aggressive” is not a word that anyone has really ever used to describe me until recently; if anything, it was something guys told me I needed more of in my engagement with my sports. When I mentioned that I was concerned that by having a red motorcycle there would be bias against me for the association of the color red and speeding, one guy said, “Oh you don’t look fast at all,” as a comment on how I rode early on.
I have read articles where insiders and outsiders write about why people ride. I generally do not feel I identify with those same reasons. Maybe because I have a healthy (or unhealthy) fear for the seriousness of the potential consequences of riding, and still get a nervous tightness in my stomach before I go on a ride. Despite this, it has been when riding a motorbike that I have had a full smile on my face and in my spirit, which for me is a rarity and means a lot. When riding on trails I have had a pair of deer come prancing out ahead of me. In another instance a deer waited for the line of cars to pass through on a road before coming out a ways up in front of me, not concerned about me in the way it was concerned about the cars, as if it saw me on the motorcycle as closer to its own kind. I have ridden parallel to a speeding train and boat on separate occasions, though not as close to either as would have been ideal. I have followed a dirt road through the desert that crested a low hill and wandered among the giant renewable energy wind turbines, making me feel as if I were in a fairy tale field of giant metal flowers. Once there was a hawk that flew from a field on my right side to a space by my left hand, and it hovered there a couple of feet from me and we flew side by side in tandem for a couple of seconds. And, depending on the motorcycle, the experience of riding can feel especially exposed, but with the freeing aliveness of being fully present in an interaction with nature, which I have only previously felt when above pitch five on multipitch trad climbs in Yosemite Valley.
On a basic level, riding a motorcycle does not occur under one’s own power, such as how bikepacking or backpacking does. Yet on another level, especially if on more technical terrain, riding a motorbike demands full engagement of the body and mind. For me, riding the motorcycle off road uses the culmination of pieces, mental and technical, of all of my past sports/activities’ trainings, which is about half a dozen different disciplines.
The motorbike had initially been just a concept for me; now that motorbike road trip through Asia actually has the potential to become a reality.
See the rest of the Motorcycle Diaries