Izzy, My Love
By Bernadette Murphy | BernMurph12 | firstname.lastname@example.org
I remember the first day it clicked for me. I had completed my motorcycle safety class just a few weeks earlier and then walked into my local Harley dealer the day after my father died. I’m not sure if it was grief talking, but I was suddenly ready to buy a bike. A few days later, I prepared myself to enter the early fog-shrouded morning on my very own motorcycle.
First I pulled on jeans, the ones with the “snake bite” burns on the inner right ankle from getting too close to the tailpipe when I first test-rode the bike and hadn’t yet learned to place my feet wide on the pegs. Then tall, wicking socks designed for backpacking, followed by 12-inch leather boots with slip-proof soles and a left toe reinforced for shifting. Just walking in the boots gave me attitude. I felt like Wonder Woman or maybe Bat Girl. A T-shirt was next, followed by a jacket with body armor.
Dressed like that, helmet in hand, I no longer looked like myself, a 48-year-old mother of three, a suburban wife and professor. For the hour or so I planned to ride, I hoped to shed that identity to become only a body with a set of skills, a person in sync with a machine, eating up miles and feeling a very distinct version of joy, the closest I can imagine to what it feels like to fly.
I opened the garage door and I saw her, the object of my love. Izzy. A 2008 Harley-Davidson 883 Sportster Iron with Thunderheader pipes and a Screaming Eagle exhaust system. Matte black from head to toe, chrome pipes traded out for soot-dark ones. Sleek. Like a black leopard. No saddle bags or backrest or extra doo-dads. Just a retro-looking badass bike, as cool as they come.
I spoke to her quietly, asking her to be gentle with me. I ran my hand the length of her leather solo seat, thrilled each time I touched her, each time I remembered she was mine.
Pulling on my full-face helmet, my breath circled audibly inside the little bubble covering me. This was the moment when fear gathered itself and reminded me of what I was doing. I tried to slow my respiration, aware that I was about to take my life in my hands. Adrenaline forced a line of sweat down my side, inching along my rib cage despite the cool morning.
Riding a motorcycle had, thus far, almost always been a pleasant experience. But preparing to ride was another thing. My insides rebelled. I started coming up with reasons why I shouldn’t do this, primary among them was the fact that I wished to live. I said a prayer to the god of motorcyclists to watch over me. And I mounted Izzy.
Thought the fear didn’t immediately leave -- it kept tickling the back of my skull, making my hands a mite unsteady, my heart a jackhammer -- I knew it would quiet. A mile or two in, like the big bad boogieman that fear is, it would eventually slink back into its corner and wait for another chance to frighten me into a smaller, quieter life.
I backed the bike up to turn her and toggled the engine kill-switch to its “on” position, waiting for the lights to tell me she was ready. When I started her, she rumbled deep and throaty. Five hundred and fifty pounds of metal came alive between my legs, aching to ride free, to go fast. Kicking up the side-stand, I punched my left foot on the shifting peg and felt the satisfying “clunk” of first gear. I rolled the throttle gently while letting the clutch out and sped away before I could awaken anyone. I’d nearly asked the dealership to trade out the pipes on this bike when I bought her, opting for something quieter, more ladylike, but then I was reminded that the noise would make other motorists aware of me and that it might not be such a bad idea. And besides: “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”
Within a minute of leaving the house, Izzy and I were carving along La Tuna Canyon Road, paralleling the rise and fall of the San Gabriel Mountain foothills north of Los Angeles, away from all I might awaken. I was en-route to Little Tujunga Canyon (known as Little T), a rode described on Pashnit, a website of California biking routes, as the place God would ride if he had a motorcycle. Its back-and-forth “twisties”’ wind through canyon and mountain, presenting one riveting view after another.
As I made my way there, I passed a few other bikers out for a morning ride. They gestured a greeting with a low-down peace sign, signaling our kinship. I signed back, acknowledging commonality. Did they realize I was female as they offered me this gesture of brotherhood? Did it matter?
Riding, I felt genderless and ageless, more a point of consciousness than a person. Identity and all the ways it separated me from others fled in the face of swift movement, immense power, and the conviction I was somehow resisting the bear-hug of gravity.
People who don’t ride, people who don’t know, often seem perplexed by the idea of a female biker. No, this is not my son’s bike, nor my husband’s. They also seem mystified that I don’t fit any particular stereotype. Like most people who undertake authentic life experiences, like most of my sister riders, I don’t fit among the images pop culture gives us to choose among. Most women who take up motorcyling are less concerned with the shiny veneer of how they appear than with the twang of experience. Just to get on a bike is to break prescribed gender roles even in this post-feminist age. Thus, to take it one step further by refusing to be limited to the sexy biker role, or, that of hard-ass butch rider, is to accept one’s true sense of self.
Like my sister riders, I like my motorcycle simply because I like to ride. I like the feel of the wind in my face and the air slamming my chest. I like smelling the chaparral and notice when it turned to eucalyptus, and how, when I move into a more urban setting, those scents turn to In-N-Out burgers followed by Taco Bell. I like how my helmet squeezes my face so that when I smile, I feel my cheeks jamming against the sides of my helmet, making me keenly aware that I am feeling bliss. I like to shift gears and feel a sense of competence on this machine that outweighs me four times over. And more than anything, I love the feeling of fear that thrums in my ribcage, coupled with the sense of satisfaction I feel when that fear finally curls up and retracts its claws.
Riding, I realize that too many years of my life have been eaten up by fear. Too many opportunities missed, worried about how it might look or whose feelings I might hurt or how difficult something might be. I am at that place in my life when a stand-off looms: Me or the fear. One of us is going to win out and the other will be vanquished, if only for an hour or a day, until the next standoff. But to bow to fear in this moment, I know, is to shrink my life, to contract its borders, to cry uncle.
I want to feel all-too-alive, to chance encountering the divine. To feel fast and vulnerable, powerful and exposed all at once. I want to truly live while I still have breath within me.
Bernadette Murphy is the author of the forthcoming “Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life” (May 10, Counterpoint Press.) She is a professor of creative writing and has published three previous works of narrative nonfiction. She rides a Harley Sportster 880 Iron. Her website if Bernadette-murphy.com.