I took motorcycle lessons at the age of 55. It began, as most bad ideas do, with my husband tossing the idea out to see if it had legs. “We’re going to Wyoming in August. Wouldn’t it be great to rent a couple of bikes and zoom down the highway?” You can imagine the sound effects he offered.
The State of Pennsylvania offers free motorcycle safety classes. Five hours in the classroom and then ten hours on an actual bike, supplied by the program. On the morning of our first classroom lesson, my husband and I stood around a windowless trailer with a dozen other hopefuls. It’s funny how the proximity of motorcycles brings a certain swagger to your walk.
Most were young men with impressive biceps. Some were near our age. All confessed that this was the realization of a life-long dream. Children were grown. Wives had agreed or decamped. Job pressures had eased. The road called.
Why exactly was I there? Certainly not for the thrill. I don’t even like rollercoasters. None of the students looked like me. The lone other woman was half my age and twice my weight.
The classroom lessons began. Acronyms were offered for safety checklists. Then mnemonics to remember the acronyms. Finally, the correct answers were reviewed before the test was administered. Failure was not possible.
When we were escorted outside to our bikes, I felt a little like my twenty-year-old self being led to the enormous trail horse, which, I was promised, would walk nose-to-tail for an hour and then let me off. Instead, I got off when the horse determined it was time and didn’t get back on another one for thirty years.
Would I do better with the two-wheel variety? I looked at my stallion, a tired 250 cc blue-fendered beauty missing both rear view mirrors. “Um, do you have anything smaller?” and then gestured to my shaking mass indicating, hey, I come in the petite variety.
“You’ll be fine,” he replied. I had my doubts.
Our first task was to roll it forward ten feet from a dead stop, engine off. Despite having the upper body strength of a toddler, I managed to complete this successfully. The padded seat cradles you somewhat comfortably. I believe I had the physical advantage over the men here.
Following instructions, I turned the bike on, squeezed the clutch and rotated the throttle slightly. The bike surged forward. The clutch popped, the engine stalled, my legs firmly astraddle, it stayed upright, and so did I. Again I squeezed the clutch, depressed the on button, gave it a little gas, and felt the bike wobble forward. My feet grazed the ground for support. I braked firmly with my right hand, stopped the bike smoothly, and looked across at my husband with a wan smile. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so bad.
The first curve I navigated like a teenager, little bursts of gas—on, off, on, off. The trick to stopping was to straighten the handlebars before you applied the brake. Unfortunately, I didn’t. The bike leaned heavily to the left, the front wheel angled at two o’clock, and I did my best to hop from it as it went down hard on the ground. My left ankle, trussed up in those army-style boots, bent in an unnatural way, and my elbow hit the asphalt smack on the same spot that had cracked when the four-legged version of my transportation decided to throw me decades earlier.
The instructor, Ted, lifted the bike from me. “You didn’t square the handlebars. And you let go of the clutch.” A two-fer mistake.
Coordination has never been my strong suit. It was pretty obvious I would never be good at line dances or playing the drums. Riding a motorcycle requires each hand and each foot to do its particular job in varying and independent order. This, I knew, would be my downfall. Not the lack of upper body strength. Not the fact that I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in forty years, and when I tried the month before our lessons, discovered you definitely did forget how.
Back on the bike, I managed to go about twenty feet straight, then I hit the next curve. Ted shouted, “Stop,” and down I went. This time, I got my leg out in time and only managed to wrench a shoulder.
Ted lifted the bike again. “Sure you want to continue?” I nodded, not sure at all. The other drivers were sailing past me, my husband included. I got back on, drove about five feet, and fell off a third time. By this time, my left hand couldn’t have squeezed the clutch if it had been tasered, but I got back on the bike, briefly, until my fourth and final grounding. Ted sheepishly approached. “Maybe this isn’t for you.”
The next day, after his second lesson, my husband returned home triumphant. “I suppose you want a motorcycle now?” I asked, having already amassed the reasons he couldn’t get one.
“Are you kidding? Nobody learns to ride a bike at sixty. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. We’ll rent a nice car in Wyoming. Maybe a convertible. Put the top down. Close enough.”
Did I really want to ride a motorcycle? Of course not. I took the lessons for the same reason I began seriously writing fiction late in life. The challenge of trying something new. But then something surprising happened. Writing turned from a challenge to a passion. You could even say obsession. It dragged me deep into its engine. Gave a voice to those ramblings in my head, and taught me to navigate a road of complex emotions and irrational characters. I’m in deep over here. The road is wide open and I’m roaring down at 100 mph.
And I will likely not break a hip doing it.