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Friday, March 22, 2013

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New York to Alaska, on Motorcycle

Diana Bletter is also known as The Mom Who Took Off on Her Motorcycle.

Edith Zimmerman: So, Diana, you drove a motorcycle from New York to Alaska a few years ago, as we all do from time to time. Question one: Whaaat!!

Diana Bletter: I thought the same thing the whole time I was riding. I’m still convinced that a stunt woman who looks just like me rode the bike. I was terrified some of the time. About 99 percent of the time. Also, everyone thought I was insane. My mother stopped speaking to me. One of my husband Jonny’s friends, this tough motorcycling dude whom I call Mr. X in my book, sat me down before I left and said, “You’ll never make it.” So, I had to prove him wrong. I couldn’t not do it, which was challenging because I’d never really ridden a motorcycle. I’d taken six lessons before I took off.

Motorcycles are so terrifying I basically can't even look at them, and avoid people who have them because it's too much to worry about. But, I am a wimp. And you clearly are not. I am in awe.

I am in awe, too, because this is so not like me. My idea of a good time is going to the library or sitting in a café. I had no interest in a motorcycle trip. I thought that book should have been called “Men and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” But I was at the proverbial fork in the road — my kids were all leaving home — and I needed something shocking to do to pull myself out of a funk. (Until you have kids, this is hard to comprehend, but trust me on this one.) I met a woman who was about to ride her motorcycle to Alaska, and then I happened to run into her agan by chance — fate — divine providence — the day she was returning from Alaska. I thought, OK, I get it, I get it.

Tell me about the bears and moose!

The first time I saw a bear up close was seconds after I’d been standing in an outhouse on the side of a very desolate road in the Yukon, waiting to hear my pee hit bottom. (1 … 2 … 3 … It was a very deep hole.) That bear could have easily knocked over that plastic Port-O-San and eaten me for an appetizer before attacking Jonny for dinner.

But even scarier are bison — they’re huge, pre-historic creatures wearing full-length shag rugs. Moose are also gigantic, and they run faster than I thought, up to 35 miles per hour, but then again, my entire body of knowledge about moose was based on Bullwinkle. Instead of calling my book, The Mom Who Took Off on Her Motorcycle, Jonny said I should have called it The Moron Who Stopped for a Moose. But you’ll have to read the book to find out why…

Can you listen to music in helmets?

If you have really expensive helmets you can. But I didn’t. It was just me in my own head — which was like being in a moving monastery.

How alone were you on this trip? 

I rode my motorcycle (a BMW something-or-other) in front of Jonny, who was riding his own BMW something-or-other. Riding point guard made me feel very alone, because I had to decide what to do when confronted by Dal sheep, moose, or Grand Canyon-sized frost heaves. The good thing was I could set the pace and ride as slowly as I wanted. Jonny and I had no way to communicate except by hand signals. His favorite was, “Go faster!” Mine was, “No f—g way!”

Where did you sleep?

We slept the first night in our tent. I should say that I slept that first night. Jonny, a former commando soldier, did not sleep. He was too worried about bears and moose. After that, we slept in bed & breakfasts and motels. My favorite was Buckshot Betty’s, in the westernmost outpost of Canada. She told us, “You can pay in gold nuggets or cash.”

Was writing the book fun? This excerpt is great, but I basically couldn't breathe by the end of it

Writing the book was definitely tougher than doing the ride. The trip lasted 51 days — the book took me more than three years.

Most useful item of clothing on the trip?

A pair of gray pants with zippers around the knees that could become either shorts or vinyl car-seat covers.

Tastiest or most memorable meal?

Crossing Canada and going up to Alaska, I rarely ran into a vegetable. I saw one or two cucumbers, but they’d been turned into pickles.

In the past, Canadian trappers ate Pemmican, an energy bar made of buffalo meat mashed with melted fat and wild berries. These days, Canadians have creative names for snacks, such as PC Lassy Mogs and Canadian Beaver Droppings.

What was it like arriving in Alaska? And what did you do when you got there?

When I got to Alaska, I wrote an article for The New York Times on the Matanuska Colony Project in Palmer, 41 miles northeast of Anchorage. Farm families living on welfare in places like Michigan and North Dakota went up there to start an experimental farming community during the Great Depression.

I also hung out with my old college roommate who moved to Alaska a long time ago. But the best part was that I didn’t have to ride my motorcycle for nine whole days — until I had to ride it back home, another 5,000 miles.

What does driving that far do to your body / hair / face / hands / soul / life?

Riding a motorcycle is like sitting in a meditation pose with your eyes wide open. When I crossed the border into Alaska, I was so amazed and relieved that I started to cry, which was a bad idea because I couldn’t wipe my nose with my motorcycle helmet on. For the entire trip, my hair felt like two fish filets slapped on the side of my head. But the amazing thing was that doing the one thing I feared most — as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “you have to do the thing you think you cannot do” — made me unafraid of just about anything. Fear controls you until you really face it and move through it. Once you do that, it loses its power over you and then you are free.

Diana Bletter writes for The New York TimesThe Huffington Posttabletmag.com, and other publications. She is the First Prize winner of Family Circle Magazine’s 2011 Fiction Contest, and author of The Mom Who Took Off On her Motorcycle. Her first book, 'The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women' (Jewish Publication Society), was short-listed for a National Jewish Book Award. She blogs at www.thebestchapter.com.



80 Comments / Post A Comment

Rock and Roll Ken Doll

Great story!

I used to have a motorcycle. Until one day I thought, "I've dropped this thing three times, with significant damage to the bike each time, but, coincidentally, never any significant damage to me. I should probably quit while I'm ahead."

I still miss it sometimes, though.

DianaB

@Rock and Roll Ken Doll I guess falling down is part of the territory...like falling in love--there's always the hurt factor!

Rock and Roll Ken Doll

@Linda J. Rabinowitz
I'm not so sure about that. $19,062 at $68/hr. works out to 279.58 hours in a month. That's not "a few hours," that's actually a pretty serious workload. Though perhaps your buddy's ex-wife is getting paid only every other month? You don't say, but, if that's the case, then the hours would be more reasonable.

Also, given that it's his ex-wife, you might consider if she's exaggerating her earnings. Sometimes people are insecure and say things that aren't quite true, in order to make themselves look better and look like they've moved on.

mattewmc

I needed this@t

Champion Khatri@facebook

I get especially pumped up when I hear from women riders because I got so much sexist bullshit on my trip. People would assume, if they saw me with a helmet, that I was riding on the back of my boyfriend's bike. Or, at a bike shop, that I was picking a particular part up for someone else - because I couldn't possibly know what to do with a wrench.hanging room divider

RubeksCube

I want to be her. What a great idea/awesome story!

DianaB

@RubeksCube You can live your life so that you have your own awesome story to tell.

RubeksCube

@DianaB Awww, thanks! That's the goal! :)

so what?

My roommate/good friend is a motorcycle babe and she and her boyfriend (or she, on her own because she's amazing) will often take off on road trips around the country. I am infinitely jealous (and slightly in awe) of her. She is a very warm and charismatic person -- she definitely draws people to her -- and she meets all sorts of interesting people and always has amazing stories.

iceberg

you guys please be careful if you do ride motorbikes. all the time be careful.

parallel-lines

@iceberg okay, mom! ;)

Acacia79

@iceberg OMG, no one with dreams of traveling long distances thought they should be careful until you wrote this comment! Thanks, mom of many small children who apparently cannot imagine other peoples' lives.

emmycantbemeeko

I love a short motorcycle trip on a nice day. This sounds miserable. But I am impressed!

kellyography

Wow, what a feat. The excerpt from the Times also had me holding my breath. Obviously she got through it fine, but hoo boy. Brave.

Roxanne Rholes

Wow, Diana, this is so cool! I did a similar trip and oh my gosh, I can't wait to get my hands on your book!

I get especially pumped up when I hear from women riders because I got so much sexist bullshit on my trip. People would assume, if they saw me with a helmet, that I was riding on the back of my boyfriend's bike. Or, at a bike shop, that I was picking a particular part up for someone else - because I couldn't possibly know what to do with a wrench.

And those bridges ARE terrifying. I do not blame you for crying! I once broke down packing up my bags in Jasper, because I was just so tired of doing that every dang morning.

KeLynn

@Roxanne Rholes I "only" have a scooter, but I still sure as hell want protective gear. And every time I've gone to the shop to look at helmets, jackets, gloves, whatever, the salesperson assumes I'm going to be riding with someone else. I guess technically they do ask, but it's always phrased like "So you're riding on the back of your boyfriend's bike, right?" NO, the idea of being on a motorcycle that I'm not in control of is terrifying to me, THANKS.

(To say nothing of the salespeople who try to convince me that I don't need safety gear even though my scooter still goes about 65-70 mph, but I guess that's a post for another day.)

Roxanne Rholes

@KeLynn Oh my gosh, that's so ridiculous, haha. I told a guy I met on OKC that I was taking a break from riding because I watched my ex get in a miraculously-not-fatal accident on the highway, and a week later he invited me out for a ride on his bike. If I don't trust myself to pilot one of these things, why the hell would I hop on one with a stranger from the internet?

DianaB

@Roxanne Rholes Thank you, Roxanne! And yes, whenever I see Mr. X, I make sure to remind him that I did the trip just fine!

DianaB

@KeLynn I agree that it is more terrifying (and more boring) to sit on the back of a motorcycle. I actually started riding with a scooter so, hey, you never know.

@serenityfound

@Roxanne Rholes Lady scooter riders! I am lucky to have never really encountered too much opposition in shops and the like, but I think that's because I did my MSF class through Harley Davidson (which had female staff) and otherwise go look at gear specifically at scooter shops. Hopefully I'll keep having a fairly positive experience when I move over to a regular motorcycle in the next year or so and have to go to regular shops more often.

Roxanne Rholes

Also, screw this Mr. X guy. What a jerk! I hope you called him as soon as you got to Anchorage!

KeLynn

And here I am, afraid to go more than like 100 miles from home because WHAT IF I GET A FLAT TIRE IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE AND GET KILLED BY A DRIFTER WHILE WAITING FOR AAA? (And no, I don't want to talk about how there are plenty of drifters in the middle of nowhere within 100 miles of me so that doesn't even make sense.)

Nicole Cliffe

You are amazing.

DianaB

@Nicole Cliffe Are you looking in the mirror when you took your photo? Yes, so then you just photographed one amazing woman!

straw hat

This is amazing! Props to you, Diana.
Also Yukon & Alaska are incredibly beautiful places and I would go back there in a second (in the summer and by car/plane, because I am a wimp.)

KeLynn

@straw hat - I want to go to Alaska so bad!

straw hat

@KeLynn You should! It's so great! Moutains, icebergs, the wide open spaces, the midnight sun, the gold rush-themed town, delicious fish...
If I was to go back I'd love to take the time to drive there. I'm not sure if flying is expensive? Or maybe a cruise? You could not pay me to go on a cruise but I've heard that the route is really beautiful.

straw hat

@straw hat *glaciers not icebergs

DianaB

@straw hat If you do drive, remember that it can be reaallly boring to drive those 1,400 or so miles on the Alaska Highway!

kickupdust

this sounds amazing! I would looove to do something similar.

any women riders around here want to tell a newbie where to start on this whole motorcycle thing?

KeLynn

@kickupdust - Take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation beginners course! They teach you everything, and at least for my course you didn't have to bring a bike and you just got to ride theirs. That was great because a) you could fall down and not be stressed out about hurting your own bike, and b) you could, you know, actually figure out if you like motorcycling before dropping a wad on one of your own. If you are like me, you will have friends and family who think that you're wasting time and money taking a special course when "your brother could just teach you in an empty parking lot" but NO NO NO NO NO.

Roxanne Rholes

@KeLynn Seconded on the training class! I didn't take the MSF one, but any class is good, and the more hours the better. I can't really tell you anything that a good instructor won't, but I would totally stress the following: sign up early, because classes for the summer fill up fast, and wear boots with good grip, because a lot of bikes are made for dudes who are generally bigger than the average lady, and you want to be able to push the bike around as easily as possible.

kickupdust

@Roxanne Rholes & KeLynn - thank you both! I am a very small lady, is it even possible for us tiny ones to manhandle (womanhandle?) a large vroomy machine? should I start lifting weights? (hee!)

OxfordComma

@kickupdust : I kinda want a Honda Cub for this reason--sweet little machine. :)

DianaB

@kickupdust I agree--take a good motorcycle course with professional instructors (that's what I did) My instructor was a woman, about 5'2" and she rode very well. You'll do fine!

kickupdust

@DianaB yay, good to hear, thanks!

@serenityfound

@kickupdust Definitely, definitely a class. I did my MSF one through Harley Davidson, which was a little more expensive but gave you more time on the bikes. I've seen tiny ladies on big bikes before with some adjustments (lowered seats, adjusted handlebars, etc). Just remember that bigger isn't always better!

gobblegirl

On the Trans-Canada highway between Edmonton, AB and Jasper, just as you're getting into the foothills, there is a sign pointing towards a pretty sketchy-looking secondary road.
It says "Scenic Route To Alaska."
I've always thought it looks like a trap.

parallel-lines

My dad and stepmom did MN to RI during their courtship. She said it was like sitting on a vibrator for 8 hours a day and eventually your lady parts just get cranky and give up.

RoxxieRae

Oh, the adventure. I ride all over the west, my longest day around 750 miles, and my dad still hasn't broken the record. I'm about to head to Death Valley with my dad... we put dirt bike tires on our street bikes and we're going to go see all the weird and wonderful near the ways that aren't paved.

I can't fucking IMAGINE, however, riding that far or that long after so little experience! My first months of learning to ride were absolutely a white-knuckle experience... I almost went back to zero after my first crash, but then picked it up and rode it home and went out the next weekend and tried not to make the same mistakes again... I just remember in those early days being so physically and mentally exhausted, and my hands hurting so, so, so, so bad from gripping the bars so tight...

It's become such a huge part of my life since those days, and I love seeing other women do it! I was overjoyed when my mama started riding, being able to share it with her is such a pleasure. One of my best friends is a 61 year old lady that tours by herself all over the country for weeks at a time. She is my hero.

@kickupdust- check out pashnit.com, it's a forum populated by riders who are mostly from California, but it's a really nice group of all kinds of riders who fully endorse stuff like safety courses and proper gear. There are quite a few women riders on the site as well, and it's a great place to get friendly advice coming from a place of enjoying the sport without fucking killing yourself.

kickupdust

@RoxxieRae Oh I just saw this, thank you! (And I totally agree with your comments below as well.)

RoxxieRae

You know.... the more I think about this article, the more it kind of pisses me off. Did Hairpin choose to profile this particular female rider because she wrote a book? The Mom in question totally minimizes the sport ("BMW something-or-other"), and embarked on something with NO experience that she honestly didn't have a lot of business doing... All this when Elena Meyers is competing (and winning!) against men in AMA pro races, women are running motorcycle-related businesses (including advanced level training courses and track schools), women are wrenching on their own bikes and riding in IronButt rallies (1K miles per day for 11 days)... I mean, i get that there is some shroud of mystery and danger surrounding motorcycles, but good grief. A woman throwing a leg over one and going for a really long ride (no minimizing that!) with her husband after BARELY KNOWING HOW TO RIDE hardly merits this tone of breathless wonder.

OxfordComma

@RoxxieRae : Hey...she did something that scared her, and that's pretty rad.

An amateur's experience does not diminish the professional's.

OxfordComma

@RoxxieRae : And? Who knows--maybe this will bring her into a lifetime of riding and loving it and encouraging other women to get involved in the sport, too.

It's all good to be in breathless wonder over a new experience. :)

RoxxieRae

@OxfordComma I'm down with this... I believe it was difficult. A cross country trip is a HUGE undertaking. But one of the reasons it was so difficult for her had to do with the way she went about it. Also, I'm not even talking about professionals, here. I know plenty of women with regular jobs who ride for pleasure who can at least change their own oil. This just bums me out because it furthers a lot of the bullshit surrounding women and motorcycles... That we don't know what we're doing, that we always need a man's help, that we make foolish decisions because we're just silly little lumps of sugar and spice that need to "shake things up"... It's lame to be awed by a woman just getting on one and operating the controls, because THERE'S NO REASON A WOMAN CAN'T DO THAT. And there are so many women who do. And do it well. And do it alone. And know the model of the machine they're riding.

OxfordComma

@RoxxieRae : Ah, gotcha. Yeah, I can see how that would bug.

Maybe we can get an article from a veteran rider to supplement?

RoxxieRae

@OxfordComma Also, I'm complaining about the breathless tone of the Hairpin article, not the lady in question. Honestly, she doesn't seem all that breathless to me, which is one of the things that's bothering me. What is for some of us a lifetime pursuit FULL of breathless, wonderful, intense, awakening, meditative moments seems to her like this kooky thing she did with her husband because her kids were moving away. I am obviously INCREDIBLY biased in my opinion, just putting it out there from the perspective of someone that doesn't think a motorcycle is a horrid scary death machine. :)

RoxxieRae

@OxfordComma I think profiling some other lady riders would be excellent! Or the Hairpin with all its love of the glamorous and old-timey could talk about the ladies like Ethel Purtle and Lolita Kemp that used to ride the velodrome in the 20's-30's with adult male lions in their sidecars. The photos can't be beat. :D

queenieliz

@RoxxieRae " It's lame to be awed by a woman just getting on one and operating the controls, because THERE'S NO REASON A WOMAN CAN'T DO THAT" gee.. You just said what I find so damn hard to articulate about the whole Moto-Girl/Babe culture.
Well, at least it's better than the last motorcycle related article I remember seeing on the Hairpin (http://thehairpin.com/2012/07/a-brief-history-of-the-loud-motorcycle-man) (massive eye-roll...)

DianaB

@RoxxieRae Thank you! You have a point...I do try to take motorcycling seriously--I just try not to take myself too seriously! You're right, there are plenty of far braver women who ride bikes and I take off my helmet to applaud them. We each have to do what we can to be the hero of our own life!

Roxanne Rholes

@RoxxieRae Have you read The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles, by Melissa Holbrook Pierson? She writes quite a bit about being a woman rider and what it's like to just start getting involved and learn how to maintain a machine and figure out mechanical problems on the side of the road. It's excellent! I think you might like it!

That said, I really enjoyed reading this article and thinking about Diana's trip. Like I noted in earlier comments, I did something similar (25k miles from Boston to Florida to Seattle to LA to OKC to Anchorage and back to Boston through Chicago,) so I'm biased, too. I can't tell you how quick I got bored of helping people understand that I was a lady who had made it a long distance and actually knew what I was doing. I guess I agree that it would be great if she had a little more interest in doing this independently, or getting involved in the technical aspects, but I'm just glad to see another lady on a bike instead of on the back, really. I get that there are crazier stories out there, but this is a neat story about an individual facing a fear, and maybe overall it's doing more good than harm? I guess that is my hope.

I am also definitely entertained by the similarities of our usernames. Biker chicks love R's and X's? Haha. Who knows.

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Thank you, Roxanne! And yes, whenever I see Mr. X, I make sure to remind him that I did the trip just fine hacking facebook

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I really enjoyed reading this as I attempted a similar journey a few years ago! Unfortunately, because I had a DUI I was refused entry into Canada and had to turn my motorcycle around at the land border crossing between Washington and British Colombia. Apparently Canada treats a DUI like a felony and doesn't let Americans with one visit :( Although I was unable to complete my trip last time, reading this has inspired me to figure out my DUI Canada entry situation and try the trip again. Thanks!

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