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Essay

Riding From Shadow

A Woman and Her Harley Take Back the Night

August 22, 2004|Wendy Moon | Wendy Moon is a freelance writer living in Northridge.

Searching for freedom, I learned to ride a motorcycle. There were 12 of us in the parking lot at Pasadena City College--all men except one other woman, a librarian. Major Bill taught us to creep through tight turns, to weave uncertainly around cones, to stop without locking up the brakes and dropping the bike.

I didn't feel ready for Los Angeles traffic when the course was over, so I practiced on the streets of Eagle Rock where my boyfriend lived. I followed my lover down strange streets that led nowhere I knew, he on his bike, I on mine. I was always afraid, confused by the winding roads along the hillside, terrified I wouldn't see him turn and be lost. There was too much to anticipate, both the immediate (shifting and turning) and the possible (dogs and unseen patches of oil). I worried I wouldn't stop in time. Any lean off the vertical seemed an invitation to kiss the pavement. Fear, not freedom, was my constant companion.

We always rode in darkness, and I was always cold, the night air chill and moist against my face. It was a practical decision--that's when my boyfriend was home. I kept my bike at his house, and I had no key. But it was appropriate on another level. Nights have always been more dangerous for women. We cross the street when men approach. We hurry to our cars, keys in hand, and double-check the locks once we get home. It's a practical paranoia. So it was a two-birds, one-stone situation: physical fear coupled with gender anxiety. To overcome one would help resolve the other, even if doing so left me more exposed and vulnerable.

Plus, on a motorcycle, the rider is alone. No one sits beside you as they do when you first drive a car. No one can advise, warn and affirm you minute by minute. No one can reach over and save you from crashing. Someone once said the average biker makes 300 decisions every mile--or was that every minute? I had to ride or fall by my choices. There is no other way, so I persevered.

Riding a Harley was not my only bold choice in life. The previous year, I had divorced my first husband, moved from Wisconsin to L.A. and gotten a job as a celebrity's personal assistant. But I was still living by my children's moods, trying to make the kids happy in a city they detested, trying to please an aging star who believed verbal abuse was just another way of saying "Please love me best," trying to live around my lover's schedule. Any decision that pleased one upset the others. But on a bike, it was all about me. Life and death choices do that. Practicing, I hoped, would give me the courage to control the rest of my life.

The weeks passed; eventually fear diminished and confidence took its place. Then I rode the freeways and canyons in daylight and experienced wild, abundant liberation. Still, I only rode when my lover could lead me. Even after we moved in together, he didn't think I was ready to venture out by myself. He still wanted me to follow his line, and I still didn't trust my ability. Eventually we married, and eventually I decided to ride alone.

My maiden voyage was along the crest of the Hollywood Hills and down through a canyon to Bel-Air. That first time, though, reminded me of those nights in Eagle Rock--once again afraid I'd crash. But Mulholland Drive is full of lovely curves, and even fear must give way to joy. To ride well demands rider and bike join in an intimate motorized union, a dance done to the music of the engine's revolutions. It's both science and art: the mobile geometry of the tire's line through the corner; the algebra of velocity, angle and weight; the art of balancing human agency and the great laws of physics. Done well, it's as elegant as ballroom dancing.

I did not ride well that day, but at one point, I sighed--a deep sigh coming from the soles of my boots--and tension drained out of me. I felt freer than when I rode with my husband. It was so exhilarating that I did it again and again in the following weeks. Soon, the bike was my commuting preference, and I rode it across town to work in daylight and back again late at night. There was no danger in the dark anymore: Superior acceleration and quick maneuverability made me safer than those who rely on a gun for protection, and my gender was hidden beneath my leathers. Besides, no one messes with bikers.

Once I found freedom, my husband found another woman, and then another after I left him. They are married now, and she clings to his waist as they ride.

The day I moved out was sunny and hot. By the time the truck was loaded, it was dark and chilly, and there was only one thing left--my motorcycle. I was exhausted, and a friend offered to ride it for me. No, I told her, I needed to do it myself. I wore my helmet--it's the law--but not my jacket or gloves or chaps. I was clearly a woman on a bike.

Within a block, my energy surged--the empty street belonged to me and those miles of asphalt became a darkened ballroom. I began to sing and weave back and forth within my lane, coming to a full stop at a light without putting my feet down, poised there like a bird, then rolling on the throttle when the light turned green. I rose on the foot pegs, dancing alone in the dark, experiencing the full glory of the freedom to ride away in the night.

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