standard | Published on March 10, 2017 by Michelle Wirth
(Frick Park in Spring. Hill between Beechwood and Forbes.)When I was 34, my wife encouraged me to get my motorcycle license, something I had wanted for myself but hadn’t pursued. We learned it would be better for our marriage if I learned how to ride a motorcycle from someone I wasn’t married to. I hesitated to ride fast enough to obtain balance and control of the motorcycle on Pittsburgh’s streets, all hills and curves. I struggled to maintain balance and control of the motorcycle while riding slowly in the K-Mart parking lot, while people drove their cars past me as if I knew what I was doing. Instead of becoming one with the motorcycle, every fiber of my being was shouting “Attention K-Mart shoppers!” (Get out of the way now please don’t let me hit you please!)
Pennsylvania offers a free motorcycle safety course. I was the only woman in my class. I passed the book test, took the rider training in the parking lot on smaller motorcycles, and failed the riding test. I did not have the confidence needed to let loose on the course. A year flew by and I returned to the class. Passed the book test. Returned to the parking lot classroom and was again the only woman on a motorcycle. This time some things made sense that just hadn’t clicked before. I understood them in the fibers of my being. I counted up the miles and figured I had logged a total of 15 training miles in this parking lot, plus 15 from the year before – and I had a chance of passing the class.
On the day of our riding test, I was looking forward to smooth sailing from the training to the testing part of the day. October’s cold rain started falling before our class ended, and we were blinded by the rain that stuck to our safety visors. Then we were told we would have to wait and take our test after a class that had come before us. The instructor explained that their test results hadn’t been certified correctly, and they had to retake the test. Other returning students had not passed the first time so they were getting a do-over. From the sidelines, I would not be able to tell the difference.
As we stood on the curb in the cold rain, a group of women crested the hill. Women in riding gear, holding helmets, looking totally badass. Women retaking the motorcycle safety test. Each of them had their first motorcycle driving experiences in this class in this parking lot. They took the class together because their boyfriends liked to ride together.
One woman said to me, “I’ve had plenty of time riding, but I was never driving the bike.”
“You mean you were always a passenger, on the back seat?” “Yes.”
“It’s different when you’re in control of the bike, not the accessory.” “Yes.” We each got our motorcycle licenses.
My wife bought a bike that was a good fit for my short legs and strong reservations. She rode us out to the pitted parking lot of a big box church that was empty on week days, and watched as I practiced swerving figure-eights around potholes.
When I was 39, she asked me to stop coloring my hair. She liked the silver streak that had come in down the middle. I said no, because I was job hunting.
When I was 40, she died.
I would give anything to run my fingers through the gunmetal grey, soft curls of her short hair.
I would give anything for my wife to see me get older.
I see the silver strands of my hair and I feel tenderness for all that she wanted to share with me. When I see older women who have white hair, or hair they’ve died purple or highlighted cobalt blue, I want to nod at them the way motorcycle riders nod at one another when they pass on the street, badass just for having their hands on the grips and doing the ride. In the moments I feel overwhelmed in the driver’s seat of my life I look up in the mirror and see silver signs that life is streaking by, and I find steadiness in the speed.
I’m 42. I’m learning how to navigate the terrain without my wife gunning the engine, or standing back to witness as I set a course and pick up speed. I’m job hunting again.
I cut my hair to a professional length, and I left the silver streak that says this is not my first ride.
Post Script – The Pennsylvania Motorcycle Safety Course is funded with the learner’s permit and licensing fees paid by Pennsylvania motorcyclists – so if you passed your permit test, come take the course you paid for! Check out the FAQs here.