Getting That “Itch” Again

Capitol Reef National Park

Capital Reef National Monument: The main park road was closed when we were there in 2011, so we’ll get a do-over this year.

Every winter our friends start asking where we might travel this year, and sometimes we have the answer already in hand. So far this year we’ve said we probably won’t travel much this year, thinking that we would wait one more year before the next big trip.

Until today.

Doug said, “Maybe we should think about a trip this year, since gas prices are low . . .”

That’s all it took.

All of our friends know that we love the West, and especially the Southwest. New Mexico has called us back many times, and we also love northern Arizona. We thought we had already seen at least most of the beautiful national parks and monuments in Utah. But as we chatted about the possibilities for a trip this year, we dug out the maps and took a closer look.

There are a ton of places we haven’t seen yet!

Canyon de Chelly

Canyon de Chelly in 2011 was one of our all-time favorite places. Maybe this year we can go down into the canyon.


So we started a list, and I started a new Pinterest Board. And there we are — with a fuzzy plan. Boom! (We never have a focused plan until we arrive there.)

On the list for this summer are, first, places we have visited but wish to see again:

  • Bryce National Park
  • Zion National Park
  • Capitol Reef National Park
  • Canyon de Chelly National Monument

And also places we have never seen:

  • Hovenweep National Monument
  • Cedar Breaks National Monument
  • Antelope Canyon
  • Rainbow Bridge National Monument
  • Vermillion Cliffs National Monument
  • Monument Valley Navajo Valley Tribal Park
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante National Park
  • Natural Bridges National Monument

I know, this is a huge list. We’re thinking we’ll stay in this area for month or so! All of these places are in a relatively close distance from one another, in southern Utah/northern Arizona. Ahh, the photographs! I can’t wait.



1997: Our First Sturgis Rally

Sturgis On High

It’s difficult to write about our motorcycle travels separately from all of our travels; the bikes came with us on every trip from 1997 until 2007, and definitely provided many highlights and great memories as we rode them in some amazing places, many of which were beautiful national parks. When we made our first cross-country excursion in 1996, sans bikes, I fell in love with national parks. I had only been to two parks before that trip: Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts and Acadia National Park in Maine. I had loved those, but in 1996 we visited Badlands N.P. in South Dakota; that was where it all began for me, and I wanted more. From that point forward, we would choose destinations based on the parks in specific places, and in 1997 I was on a national park frenzy! Feeling like seasoned travelers with one cross-country trip under our belts, we put Doug’s Harley on a trailer behind the Monte Carlo and off we went.

It was in Tennessee that we began to see signs welcoming bikers in front of campgrounds, restaurants, and other businesses, and we continued to see that kind of hospitality almost everywhere. We also began to see bikers almost everywhere — lots of them — and it didn’t take long to figure out that starting in mid-July, all roads lead to Sturgis, South Dakota. It was easy to get caught up in the excitement; most bikers are friendly and  they would almost always offer a wave going by. Even though we were cheating by towing ours, we still got a lot of friendly greetings, and that was fun.

We met our first Sturgis-bound bikers at a campground in Elk City, Oklahoma, about two weeks before the start of the rally. They were from Indiana. Hmmm . . . going through Oklahoma on the way to South Dakota, coming from Indiana. Well, it makes sense in the summer on a motorcycle! The next day, in Texas,  we met two bikers we had previously seen in Arkansas; they were headed to Sturgis as well, and we ran into them (figuratively speaking) again in eastern South Dakota on our way home. “Big Red” was from Alabama and we talked with him and his buddies like we were old friends.

Later we wondered abut the money that the Sturgis rally brings to so many other locations along the way, between “wherever” and the Black Hills; it surely must be considerable.

When traveling over 8000 miles in 24 days, there is not a lot of time for leisurely dilly-dally, and so we did not unload Doug’s Harley from the trailer until we got to Red Lodge, Montana. I was nervous about the unloading; Doug would back the motorcycle out of the trailer using a wooden board as a ramp. The board was only about ten inches wide, and he had not practiced doing this before we left.

We were in Red Lodge to meet up with a friend from home who was there on a construction job; we rode into town looking for him, but he wasn’t home, so we just poked around the town and returned to the campground. He came out there later to meet us, and took us to dinner, which was our first introduction to Montana restaurant portions: they are huge!

Putting the motorcycle back on the trailer the next morning  was a bit of an adventure. There wasn’t enough space behind the trailer to ride the bike in a straight line and we couldn’t back it up because there was a hill. Doug ended up lifting the back end of the motorcycle onto the wooden plank after it had fallen off! We wrote it off as educational, and enjoyed the rest of the evening.


Camping in SturgisThe next day we drove to Sturgis, about 400 miles, and we headed to the Days End Campground, close to the center of town. They wouldn’t take our reservation when we called them, saying, “We never run out of room here.” They were right, because they had a brilliant system. Upon arrival, you pay for the entire week ahead of time, and you get a bracelet that the guards check when you enter the grounds. When you leave, you check out at the office, turn in your bracelets, and receive a refund for the time remaining in the week. There are no designated campsites, with the exception of a few huge class A motorhomes. Everyone else just finds and claims a spot wherever they can. You can see in the photo that it’s pretty chaotic, but everyone got along fine and there were no fights, at least while we were there. We slept well, and were surprised to discover when we woke up the next morning that we had completely different neighbors from the ones who were there when we zipped the tent closed the night before!

The next day we were excited to go into town and “do” Sturgis. I was sitting behind Doug and shooting video as we drove along the main street; at one point I stood up so that I could get a better view straight ahead, but almost immediately a cop barked at me to sit down or else. So much for the good view. We had been to Laconia Bike Week, but this was so much bigger with so many more people! The center of town is blocked off to cars and other vehicles, allowing motorcycles only around several blocks. About 300,000 people were in the area that year, and it is hard to describe the people watching, but it’s gotta be the best anywhere. (Check out the photo gallery at the bottom of this post for some of my people watching photos.) The big highlight was when a B-1 bomber (out of Ellsworth Air Force Base) did a fly-over above Main Street. It’s part of their annual recognition of veterans, and it sure does make an impression!


I did mention that I was on a national park frenzy. At the end of the trip, we had traveled 8,100 miles in 24 days, visited 23 states and 15 national parks, which included Bandelier, Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon North Rim, Zion, Bryce, and Glacier. Doug’s motorcycle stayed on the trailer while we visited those parks as fast as humanly possible. Can you imagine going to Grand Canyon and Glacier National Parks, and thirteen others all in the course of 24 days? Good grief. It truly was a national park overload. We would never visit that many parks in one trip again. Ever.




Me and My Harley

Note: The story that follows, while it does tell the actual story of how I got my own Harley, also contains some fiction in the details of the ride. I share it here because this story also has a story. I had submitted it to a couple of motorcycle magazines, and it was actually accepted by one! I think the magazine was called Harley Angels, and it was devoted to women riders. I had some encouraging correspondence with the editor, and it was slated to be included in their next issue. Here’s the funny part: The magazine went out of business and that issue was never published! So here’s my almost previously published story.


My new ride            “It will be your Christmas gift this year,” Doug said on that cool September Monday when I got home from work. “But we’ll get it now so you can get in some riding time before the weather cools.” I was dumbfounded as we piled into the car and headed for Manchester. “You can pick out anything in the store,” he said. I still didn’t know whether to believe him or not, but we entered the Harley Davidson dealership and began the search.

I knew I wanted an XL883, the smallest bike made by Harley. We did a quick walk-through first to see how many 883’s we would have to choose from. “Here’s a dark green one, and over there is a brand new black one,” Doug pointed out. A little more browsing revealed two more, a blue one and an older black one. Now all I had to do was choose.

“Which one do you want?” I glanced from bike to bike, and they all seemed wonderful. This wasn’t going to be easy.

On my third trip past the long row of the large, full-sized machines, a distinctive customized motorcycle caught my eye. It was low, and sexy, the black gas tank emblazoned with purple flames, with matching flames sewn into the black leather saddle. It was beautiful, and on a closer look I saw that it was an 883. Somehow we had missed it when we were first looking, but I knew instantly that this was the one I wanted. It was shiny and sleek, slender and well balanced, and it was definitely a lady’s bike.

My hands shook as the salesman allowed me to fasten the SOLD tag onto the handlebars. The phrase, “My Harley” kept ringing through my head.

Me riding new bike            Two days later, I sat tall on the seat, admiring the “Live to Ride, Ride to Live” trademark intricately embossed on the silver gas cap. This is my Harley; I was beginning to believe it. And the weather would still be warm for a few more weeks.

September in New Hampshire is an amazing time of year, as leaves change from green to yellow one day, and then to blazing and glorious the next. The whole world is bright and the air is cold and crisp, like that first crunchy fall apple. Back roads twist up hills and through blazing forest that once was farm pasture, winding around old stone walls and grizzled cemeteries. My Harley and I would get to know one another as we explored these places, leaning together through curves, wanting to drive along these roads forever. We’re alone as we travel through time; what contrast we are, purple flames and fringed black leather riding through age-old towns that were settled two hundred years ago. It’s so easy to forget where I am as I cruise along, lost in my own thoughts.

I wind my way into a village I’ve never seen before. How much time has gone by? How many miles have I traveled? I’ve lost track. I look around, and nothing looks familiar. I park the bike on the side of the road, and walk across the street to explore the picturesque little town, complete with white church and spire. A graveyard lies silently among a large stand of tall pines, names and weeping willows carved on neat rows of ancient, thin headstones. White colonial houses, some with fences, most with porches, circle protectively around the village green as though to keep strangers away. My feet rustle through the fallen leaves as I walk across the grass, kicking waves of yellow, red and orange ahead of me. There are still a lot of leaves left on the trees, I notice, but they’ll probably fall with the next gusts of wind or rain, leaving only skeletons to frame the sky with stiff, brittle limbs. There are no people around to talk to, and suddenly I notice there are no dogs or cats, either. I walk slowly around the empty village, stretching my legs and wondering about this place.

What was it like here two hundred years ago? No motorcycles, of course, just horses and carriages. Long skirts and button shoes, and fancy hats for both men and women. How different it must have been. I lean against an old iron fence and think about the past. Was it better then, or just different? I fantasize about my Harley, how it would be if it were a time machine, hurling me back to these slower, easier times, or forward to . . . forward to what? I sigh, wondering what I’d like to travel forward to. I shake my head to get rid of cobwebs, and resume my walk, this time retracing my steps back to the shiny motorcycle waiting for me across the street.

No time machine, this Harley, but in a way it has propelled me into a future I never could have imagined just a few short years ago. Change can be such an amazing thing, scary and exciting at the same time, making one feel brave and afraid, knowing everything and knowing nothing. Change arrives welcomed and unwanted amid chaos and discomfort — all these things, all at the same time. When you’re in change, you might not even know it, but then you come through to the other side, and there it is behind you, big and solid and behind you, and you might even wonder what the seed was that made it grow. My Harley wasn’t a seed of change, but it certainly is a fruit, a reward for some years of darkness and conflict. I have broken through my own cocoon of change, ready for the freedom and the power and the celebration that is my Harley Davidson motorcycle.

M rear view There it is, my trusty steed, and I mount it, pulling it up straight, and going through the startup routine. FINE. F — fuel on, I — ignition on, N — gears in neutral, E — engine switch on. Everything’s set, and I push the starter, listening for that trademark Harley roar. I twist the right handgrip twice to let the machine announce its presence one more time. Then I push the kickstand with my left heel, ease out on the clutch with my left hand, and feel the forward movement, at first slightly, then more as I accelerate and I’m on my way home through the September autumn. It’s getting dark and the temperature has dropped quickly, too quickly.

Soon it will be too cold to ride. The roadways will be icy, and snow will cover the bankings. Motorcycles will be covered and stored away for the winter, hibernating until early spring sunshine warms the blood and wakes sleeping souls.

But not yet, not yet. There’s still warmth during the daylight, and the early morning frost is thin and melts quickly. I can still ride. I won’t surrender yet to winter’s chilling conquest. I will bundle up in the morning to drive to work, as the wind slaps my face in the biting early cold. This is my time, and I will savor the feeling of freedom and power and celebration. I’ve earned it.

“Motorcycles Are Dangerous!”

My brother Iggy was nineteen years older than me so I looked up to him as a hero. When I was young — about fourteen — he got a motorcycle. I was never allowed to even sit on it. In 1965 he rode his motorcycle to the Laconia Motorcycle Rally with a bunch of friends who rented a cabin. iggy-motorcycleThat year there was a fairly serious riot when trouble broke out between police and unnamed motorcycle gangs. Iggy came home with a broken rib or two, telling our mom that he had fallen down a flight of stairs. The true story remained untold: he was right in the midst of the fighting, and was pushed down the stairs when someone punched him. He was not a gang member and I don’t think he would have been a good one even if he tried; he was a goofy, fun-loving guy who always found a way to be in on the action.

My sister also had a small motorcycle around this same time, riding it locally around town. I remember once she was riding in shorts and had a large blistered burn on her leg from the hot pipes.  Another time, she and my nephew came to a family gathering at our grandmother’s house, and my nephew, then about eight or nine, sat behind her, barefoot. The family had a conniption! Bottom line was that motorcycles get people into trouble. So, motorcycles in the family dialogue were pretty much something that I was warned about by parents, aunts, uncles and grandmother: I should never ride on one because they were dangerous, and I didn’t.

That first summer he had his motorcycle, we had such fun, taking the long way, riding all over New Hampshire. We usually headed west where there was less traffic and fewer people; sometimes we would ride out to the coast or north to the mountains. Two of usI have no idea how many miles we put on his bike, but they were all fun. That fall, Doug said that I should take the Motorcycle Safety Course and get my license. I was not particularly interested (“Motorcycles are dangerous!”), but he convinced me that we might get into a “situation,” and if he was hurt and couldn’t drive out, then I might have to. I should at least know how.

I know that when Doug thinks and speaks in “police mode,” I need to pay attention. This argument made sense, and I agreed. When my birthday rolled around in November, his gift to me was the tuition for the course, and we made my reservation for early April. I still wasn’t particularly excited, but I was willing.

The motorcycle safety course is offered every weekend and some week nights; there is no way it can be rescheduled in case of inclement weather, and so it is never canceled. When the time arrived for my session, the forecast was awful: temps in the high 30s or lower 40s, and rain, rain, rain. But there was no turning back! Friday night was classroom work, so that wasn’t bad, but the rest of the weekend I donned my leathers and warm socks, and tried to make the best of it. The rain let up a bit sometimes, but pretty much persisted for the whole two days. Doug came with hot coffee, dry socks and gloves, and he was a true cheerleader, so I was able to endure and get through it.

A funny thing happened, though, when the rain would stop. I discovered that I was having fun. In fact, I was having a blast! I was actually successful at all the things we were taught to do, and I was feeling really good about it. When we did the figure eight activity, riding while spaced a certain distance apart, all of us actually crossed the intersection between one another. So exciting! I  had discovered that “I can!”

At the same time I was excited, I was also a nervous wreck. At the end of the day on Sunday we had to take the exam to get our licenses. I had never experienced test anxiety and always scored well on standardized tests, but I hadn’t taken a test in many years and I was scared about the road test. I had gained a new understanding of students who regularly suffer from test anxiety, who don’t see themselves as successful or smart or capable. That was a good thing to know. I did ultimately pass the test.

Doug didn’t take long to act on my new confidence about riding. It just so happened that in the way back of a storage shed was his father’s old 450 Hondamatic (called that because it had an automatic transmission), and now it would be mine. Wow — I loved having my very own motorcycle, but soon a problem popped up. The bike was so tall I could only touch the ground on my tiptoes, and I kept dropping the bike when slowing to a stop. The most embarrassing time was when I pulled into the local pharmacy parking area, which sloped downhill; I was angled the wrong way on the slope, and by the time my foot reached the ground it was too late to recover. Down I went! It didn’t keep me from riding the Honda, but there is no real solution to a bike that’s too tall for its rider, so my efforts to always keep the bike upright were in vain.

One day after the start of school, Doug met me in the driveway when I got home. “I’ve been thinking today,” he said. “You need a new motorcycle.” I was speechless, but he was firm.  We would go bike shopping that weekend. (To be continued . . .)

Getting the Stuff

Once Doug became more comfortable riding his shiny new Harley, he decided we needed to have the proper gear as riders.  Helmets. Goggles. Leather. Boots. Chaps. Jackets. Do-rags. And don’t forget the Harley t-shirts! We didn’t get all this stuff right away, but the looking was a lot of fun. This all took place back when Harley stores were small and friendly, you got to know the staff and they got to know you, too. We loved that. Once the stores began to expand, and became all the same, it really wasn’t as much fun.

On our cross country road trip in 1996, even though we didn’t have Doug’s bike with us, we still stopped at many H-D dealerships and bought t-shirts. Harley shirts are generally printed on the back with a design from the particular dealership and location. It was really fun to have shirts emblazoned with the places we visited.

My costumeOnce I had acquired some of the basics, Doug wanted to take a picture of me with his motorcycle — I was his “biker babe.” We had talked about how I felt wearing these clothes; they were not like anything I had ever worn before, and I didn’t feel like myself. He told me just to think of it as a costume. I did that for quite a while before I felt like I was wearing my own stuff, but eventually as I became more competent as a rider it stopped being weird. I enjoyed being a biker with a hidden identity — an English teacher in disguise!

Awhile after I had acquired my own motorcycle (that story will come soon, I promise!) I went back to school to earn my Master’s degree at Lesley University. I was enrolled in the Creative Arts in Learning program, and attended the satellite campus in Raymond, New Hampshire. At the very first class, the professor did several team-building and get-acquainted activities (the group would be together for every class in the program and so it was important for us to get to know each other), and at the first class he asked each of us to tell the group something about ourselves. Not about our children, or our family, or our work. Just ourselves. This was a very hard activity for many people — we were all women, and had families and teaching positions, and that’s how most of us identified ourselves. I felt so lucky to be able to say that I had recently acquired my motorcycle license and was having a great time riding my new motorcycle. It was a rare moment of satisfaction that I actually had something important and fun in my life that made me a person in my own right, that wasn’t attached to my job or my family (both of which I also loved, of course)!

Marilyn @Deadwood

When I compare this photo to the one above, it seems clear that I have become more comfortable in my “biker clothes.”

It’s interesting, though, how we think of/judge ourselves and others by appearance. We had two experiences we’ll never forget, when we were actually treated with prejudice, looked down upon as not equal to others, because since we were dressed in leathers we must be derelicts, or part of a gang. The first was in Great Falls, Montana, in the gift shop of an art museum. We had loved this museum and I always love to browse the gift shops! There were some items I was interested in, displayed under the counter in a glass cabinet. The associate was “busy” behind the counter, and never once even looked at us, although it was clear that she had to work hard in order to do that. We were the only customers in the shop, and even though I could have made a scene, I chose not to. We decided to take our money somewhere else.  The second incident was in New Hampshire, not far from home, and this one was really crazy! Don’t we all think that New Hampshire is a place where we are all equal, where everyone is the same? In Keene every year there is a Motorcycle Swap Meet, which is like a flea market but it’s all motorcycle stuff. We always rode over with a bunch of friends — it’s about an hour’s ride from home on run roads that curve along a river with beautiful scenery. This particular year there were about eight of us, so it was a lot of fun, and after the meet we went into town for lunch. The restaurant staff was friendly and welcoming, and we were seated quickly at a long table near the door; we were having a great day. We were all looking forward to a good lunch and good conversation. A family, parents and two children, came in and were seated next to us along the wall. They kept looking at us with stern expressions, and talking under their breath. After speaking to the hostess they soon were moved to another table, giving us looks of clear disapproval as they vacated the space. We really had to laugh about this one, though. They might have thought we were low-lifes, but little did they know that among us was a police sergeant, an English teacher, a legislative aide, a business owner, a town department manager — all of us reputable people with good jobs. Being in those two situations, though they happened years apart, gave us a small dose of what it must be like to be the object of narrow-minded disdain in places where that kind of thing is more common.

As I look back now on those years, and think about this issue of how we value ourselves and others, I have to say that I never met a biker I didn’t like. While it’s never fair to generalize, I do believe that bikers tend to be friendly people, often generous, and willing to help out another biker in a difficult situation. I can’t say that about the general population. Maybe it’s because riding a motorcycle gives a person a different perspective on the world. You know that you are vulnerable, so you become more aware of other riders who are also vulnerable. There is no metal cage around you which also enables you to smell the smells, breathe in the fresh air, and enjoy the ride. Life is good on a motorcycle.