Look Ma, No Hands! – Women’s World Featured Article
A Brief History
I have a pretty healthy bucket list, and have done a lot of adventurous things in my life. I am no stranger to being wild. At 14, I shaved my head to solidify my distinction from the other social scenes in high school. I went on from there to cement a lifetime of operating outside the norm, living in squats and sleeping on filthy floors among rodents. Later in life, I crisscrossed the United States in vans and tour buses for years with 12 roving gypsy vaudevillians, performing in grand theaters and busking on the side of the highway for gas money.
But in all my stages of life, in all my adventures, I never thought that one of my best adventures someday would be camping on a motorbike.
I’ve been riding bikes and licensed since 1999. In art school my best friend and I had a bone to pick with the boys of this world and made it a point to do everything they did—and do it better. This included welding, fording, tattoos, big trucks, martial arts, and of course motorcycles.
With the best of intentions we took the classes and I bought little Honda 400. The 400 had a kick-start engine that would stall at intersections. I was naïve and had no one to school me, so I rode with shoes that had no tread. I rode in the rain, and the bike slid out from under me, I cracked the oil pan and didn’t get back on until I found myself on a Tiger 200 in Indonesia. I rode again for about a year but only topping 40 mph at best. It was a glorified lawn mower.
Breaking Down, Buying the Bonneville
Life happened. I had a man, I had a baby, and 7 years into that phase of my life, everything imploded. He left us, my daughter and me, after 7 years and massive amounts of counseling to deal with his constant cheating. There were the trust games, the check-ins, the workshops, tears, lie detectors, disclosures, and various other jabs and pokes from the institute of relational healing. And then there was therapy, 5 years and counting, but it proved no match for his demons and my blinding co-dependence. It was never bad enough for me.
Suddenly, the rules didn’t apply. Life was unpredictable and the life I’d invested in was gone. Lost, drifting, I tried to redefine myself between mediations and moving. And one day, buying a Bonneville made perfect sense. My roommate had it in the garage with a dead battery. He tried to sell it to several of our friends, while I secretly looked on with envy because I believed that part of my life was over. I was a mom now, and moms don’t ride bikes in LA or at least I thought they didn’t.
But I made the snap decision to buy it, because hey, why not? I’m not that nice wife anymore, nor am I living in that fancy home up on the hill. I’ve gone back to my roots, rolling, practically running, down the hills of Hollywood from where the rich live, the privileged, and the lucky few artists who have made it. I landed down past the suburbs, where the successful, stable and good-natured parents live, past the trendy parts of Silver Lake, where a million dollars buys you a starter home. Even past the hipsters and shop owners, a little farther till you come to a gravely stop at the edge, where the “cool” drops off, where the disabled, destitute, and roommate-ridden houses of east LA stand.
The edge, that’s where I am today; I’ve gone back to my roots. Poor, punk, and full of life; this is how I’d been living basically from the get-go, and now I’ve returned.
At first, I had a lot of reasons why not to ride. Everyday your hear another gruesome tale of a rider on the 405 held up in the county hospital with $100K worth of repairs to his or her broken skeleton without health insurance and that’s if you’re lucky.
But I realized the flip side of that story, and how if you don’t take chances, you’re living a life controlled by fear of the unknown, fear of what if? That’s how the whole insurance scam works, right? It’s an industry, a society, that bank on the idea of disaster.
I had no idea what buying that bike would do for me. But after the fledgling white-knuckle ride on the 110 freeways late one night, I was sure it would be death. Just out of the shop, and 2 miles into our ride (and several close calls), my 1600cc Harley riding friend had to pull over and give me a talking to.
“So, how’s it feel?”
“Great!” I lied.
I was terrified. The wind threw me off at high speed. I felt like I was going to be blown off, or worse the bike was going to suddenly lose traction and flip over on top of me at 50 miles an hour. The machine couldn’t be trusted like my ex, like all the world.
“You have to ride faster, the slow lane is dangerous and riding slow is even more dangerous.”?
Easy for you to say, I thought. You’re riding a Harley that can peel this LA freeway in two. My bike is going to flip over on me at any moment. I’m going to die.
“Ok,” I said. And we were off again.
After that first week, something changed. I began to feel better. I began to feel, after every short ride, a little happier, a little more comfortable, and a little less afraid. I would catch myself smiling inside my helmet—an act I’d forgotten can take place. I began to trust the bike more every day. It felt good to bypass my primitive fear and lean into a curve and get sideways.
I could tell this bike what to do and it would do it. It would react to its environment as long as I was in control. And that felt really good in my seemingly uncontrollable life. This relationship was making sense when nothing else did, and providing me with a healthy outlet for all the pain. When you’re on a motorcycle you can’t be kind of in control like when you’re driving a car. You have to be present and pay full attention; you have to react without fear.
Handling a 500-pound piece of machinery around a corner feels really good. And particularly for a woman, it can be profoundly empowering.
Camp Fire Girls
Not long after getting on the bike I was introduced to the ESMB: East Side Moto Babes. I had never ridden in a group, and I never rode a bike with more than 400ccs. I figured I needed to get better on the bike and riding with a group would help.
It does. Being accountable for showing up at every weekly ride is a commitment that betters you as a rider and strengthens your community of motorcyclists. We are independent people, soloists to a degree, so riding in a group is good practice and fun.
When the 1st Annual ESMB women-only camp out came up, it cracked open a whole new world. At first I was intimidated many of these women have been riding consistently for years.
Me? I was still a squid in many ways. I could ride, and had a bona fide bike, but it was really my first above 400cc, and if you calculated all my miles before the Bonneville, it wouldn’t add up to over 1,000.
I decided I would take the plunge and go against my isolating fear of meeting people and sign up. I jumped down a rabbit hole of researching camp gear, saddle bags, and luggage racks. I watched videos on packing your bike and pitching a tent. I obsessed over tents, practical and impractical, wondering how technical these women were going to get. I finally realized the trip was only one night and we had a follow vehicle and I was completely going overboard on preparedness. So I ordered a vintage sleeping bag off eBay, rolled up tapestries and kilim rugs, added one bottle of JD and one tube of Russian red lipstick, a tiny cheap tent and change of clothes and a toothbrush, and I strapped it all on with bungee cords. A poor woman’s pack it was perfect.
While I was putting it all together, I came across a novelty human skull in my workshop and decided to strap him on too; traveling 6 years in a circus sideshow conditioned me to understand that all the world’s a stage and every day’s a costume.
I was ready and was really quite proud. I was doing something I had never thought to do in my life, and I loved the idea of riding my bike into a forest and laying down my bed. I was beginning to realize what little I really needed for a short but super-rich adventure, and I was wondering why the hell I’d never done this before.
We met at a small café in Eagle Rock on a warm sunny day, typical for Los Angeles; kick stands at 10 a.m. A small pep talk and a really a great turnout, everyone in the cafe seemed electric, as each bike pulled up I couldn’t help but to feel excited. Twenty-five women on all kinds of bikes; duel sports, British, crotch rockets, and Harleys. There were women in riding gear and full face, others in open face and tank tops, but one thing in common: really big smiles.
Emily was born and raised in Hawaii and is a huge lover of the ocean. Her greatest loves are her daughter and sushi. An unapologetic Scorpio who hates baking and liars, Emily taught herself KungFu while traveling across Asia. Today she lives out west with her Bonneville Danny Boy, her daughter Abs and the wild cats that arrive every morning for coffee.