Saturday, August 20, 2011

Girls on Motorcycles

{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.


LizK said...

After years of thinking about doing it, wanting to do it, but being too timid and unsure to do it, opportunity and your book "The Perfect Machine" came into my life and I finally started to ride a motorcycle. I am so glad that I am right now getting ready to ride my sturdy little commuter bike to a gathering of girl friends who all ride... Thank you

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

That's pretty great, Liz. I'm happy for you, because there's few things in life that have the giveback that bikes do.

The times I've ridden with a group of women (too few) have been extraordinary. I can't describe the feeling exactly. But it's very good.

Shybiker said...

Sage thoughts, beautiful prose.

It's intriguing to read your ideas on gender and motorcycles, the two vital subjects of my life. Their intersection for me is complex, so reading your thoughts is helpful.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Thanks right back. I don't know about you, but any help I can get understanding anything about life is just grand!

Kevin G. said...

Recently found this quote, in the most appropriate of places - I think - to relate to such a perspective ....a motorcycle magazine.

The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.
- Marcel Proust

Kent said...

I've worked on many video projects involving women and motorcycling. I hated to see the reaction from most folks ("She RIDES that big bike?"), but it was always fun to witness the women riders' enthusiasm!

I will try not to be sexist here (just sayin' what I'm thinkin'), but it seems like so many male motorcyclists want to: a. look tough b. act like a racer/stunter or, c. ride over their heads. The women that I met...just seemed to enjoy the ride.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Thanks for your perspective, Kent. I've heard from plenty of MSF instructors that their women students, removed from the need to appear as if they already know how to ride, are actually able to learn.

But here's another question: Why do we not have 50 percent of ridership? I suppose any answer would have to be complex. At any rate, it sort of throws a wrench into the plan I gleefully gave a (woman) rider friend in need of a new career: Start a singles motorcycle tour/dating company! Then I realized it might be a problem finding enough single women riders to make it a go.

Kent said...

Most of the women riders I know ARE single. They are also happy, so I am reluctant to introduce them to my shiftless bunch of single male rider friends!

I told Amazon I would like your new book on Kindle. Was that a good thing?

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

From what I can tell from the one bikers-singles site I looked at, there are lots & lots of Harley dudes in their sixties looking for biker girls in their twenties. That's why your female rider friends are happy: they're not in this pool.


Kindle is coming when the book is in stock at Amazon--soon!

Liz J said...

Thank you Melissa.

Wishing you the best with all the exciting "news" in your life. Can't wait to read about it. Nothing compares with the motorcycle for delivering the gifts you describe.

Tranesong said...

Just finished "The Perfect Vehicle" for the second time. Inspiring stuff for those of us that ride. When people ask me why I ride, I try to explain. But then I just give them a copy of your book.
Motorcycling saved my life, and continues to be my true therapy. I've logged 40k in the last five seasons in Michigan on my Ducati. I admire the women riders I know very much. Considerably more than the Hardly Ableson riders I contend with. I hope to see more riders that actually RIDE.
Thank you for your amazing book. I've read all of the moto books. Your writing prowess, observations and experiences are inspirational.
Soon it will be winter here. Tough times ahead. Thanks again.

Melissa Holbrook Pierson said...

Thank you, for in your turn inspiring me!

I hear it again and again (and I live it again and again): "Motorcycling saved my life." Yes. Yes.

Winter is time to go inside, literally and figuratively. Time to dream of riding. There's reading, too. And maybe writing? I have a funny feeling you might have something that needs to come out, and it will come out well. Just a hunch.