By Kerri Dougherty
July 25, 2017
If you told me 6 years ago I would be living in San Francisco, riding a BMW F650GS around with strangers and running a motorcycle tour company for women, I wouldn’t have believed you. Sure, I’ve always pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone in all aspects of my existence. But my current life seems very far from what I ever imagined- and I couldn’t be happier.
I was always interested in riding motorcycles, but had stuck the idea up on a shelf. My parents totally disapproved of the dangerous activity. I couldn’t make heads or tails out of the craigslist ads for a seemingly endless foreign combination of letters and numbers. Not to mention all of the motorcycle safety classes seemed to fill up immediately. I didn’t have the patience to figure out the logistics of it all. So I tucked my dreams of riding in the closet, which is where it sat until I met my ex. He had rebuilt a BMW R100 and ridden it from Seattle to Argentina- something I never even considered was a thing you could do. I was starry-eyed. Sure, while traveling in Central America I had seen big motorcycles loaded up in front of the hostel, and the little motorcycles riding alongside the buses I was jammed into. I thought about how great it would be to ride through Central America with my brother. But to actually ride from so far north to so far south on just a motorcycle? That was something else.
And so, with the support and encouragement of an experienced rider in my new relationship, figuring out the world of motorcycles started to come easily to me. I had my own personal guide to help me get my license, narrow down which bike I wanted, help me sort out the gear, and get me riding. I had great hopes of going for rides together, traveling on our bikes and having the time of our lives.
I quickly found myself riding alone. The relationship was toxic and suddenly the bike became an escape and a regenerator. Even though the relationship wasn’t working, part of me was scared to leave it because among other things, I would have to learn and navigate the motorcycle world on my own. This place I had put in a museum, put it so far out of reach. It was still so overwhelming. I didn’t know enough yet. I didn’t have the confidence and I was scared to take that step into the unknown. Questions constantly came up that I couldn’t answer. Is there anything I should keep in mind while parking in a big parking lot? What type of luggage should I get? What should I do in the rain? What if I broke down? I had sold my car, so how could I carry my groceries?
The more independent I became the more I realized I had to leave the relationship. I went from having my own human motorcycle encyclopedia to learning how to figure it out myself, and it was the best decision I could have made.
Setting out on my own forced me to grow. I could either figure it out for myself or give it up. Riding, and everything it encompasses in my life, is my responsibility. That means it is on me to seek and obtain the knowledge I want and need in my own way. Sometimes it is really scary and overwhelming; but what is much scarier is not doing it.
I’ve always liked a challenge and some of the biggest difficulties I have encountered have taught me the most. I’m inclined to take the harder line, to keep my mind active, to push myself to learn and grow, to do better, to go further. Little by little I figured things out on the motorcycle. I somehow managed to pack my groceries into the little tail bag I owned. I would find my own routes and visit friends outside the city on weekends. It took some time- riding across state lines alone, early on Saturday mornings; learning when to pull over from cold, exhaustion or just lack of focus. Building my knowledge and skills meant that I was organically expanding my goals and desires. Suddenly I was changing my own oil, checking my valves, and replacing my chain. Then I was renting a larger bike on the opposite coast of the country and riding around for a week, riding in the snow, rebuilding a motorcycle older than me, and making even larger travel plans.
Two years into riding my job wasn’t in the realm of any of my passions. My friends were moving away and I knew my time in Baltimore was coming to a close. I was going to leave and I wasn’t going to come back. I sold off or donated my things and took my pets to live with my folks in New York. The bike I had planned to take wasn’t working out for me, so at the last minute I bought a used KLR650 after having only ridden a 250cc bike that was low to the ground. I put 100 test miles on it, adjusted a couple of things, took off early one July morning and just kept riding. I planned to ride half way across the country on dirt roads. Sure I had never ridden off road before, but I would figure it out… on a motorcycle I just started riding, fully loaded, in the rain with only the ability to get my tippy toes to touch the ground.
We all have fears, doubts, and lots of self-doubt. I do at least. But what I don’t have is the second-guessing or questioning of whether my decisions to travel or try something new, swim against the stream, is right. It is so deeply right for me, ingrained into my being, I don’t even think to think about it.
Sure, dropping the fully loaded bike in a Kawasaki dealership parking lot in front of the entire staff in the middle of the country was embarrassing- all of us wondering how I would ever make it to California let alone through Mexico. But I did it. Now I’m a better rider, more confident, smarter and safer than before.
I found what I liked and didn’t like, and I’m sure I’ll keep adding more to both lists. I still hate working on my bike and can’t ever imagine I will enjoy it, but I’m glad I’m comfortable enough to do it. I like getting better at riding- taking classes that are challenging and frustrate me, but then seeing marked improvement on the pavement and in the dirt is so rewarding. Every time I agree to meet some strangers for a ride or go alone to a new class, I begrudgingly drink my morning coffee and drag my feet to my bike, grumbling about having agreed to do this. But once I’m out there riding, learning, meeting, there is no other place in the world I’d rather be and I laugh at my tentative morning self.
We fall into grooves of ease in life and sometimes it’s really nice to just let the tide take you, to take a break from swimming. After we are fully rested it is time to get back out there and find what we need. After my solo trip across country and through Baja I found some mindless ease in a new city with new jobs, figuring out how to readjust into society and normal day-to-day life, bills, and traffic. I eventually became restless and frustrated again; discontent with the mindlessness of my graphic design job, being stuffed into the train cars during rush hour, everyone around me in their own phone bubble. I quit another job and took off to Baja for two weeks with the goal of clarity and rest, and somehow unexpectedly became an unofficial tour guide for two men I had never met. It was during this adventure I discovered that I was unwittingly starting my next venture. And so, when I came home I created my own motorcycle tour company- for women riders of course.
Now for the first time in my life I feel like I can see what I will be doing for the next 5 or even 10 years. I have a plan and a goal that I am excited about, and that fits my lifestyle and values. All of my traveling and trials have helped me grow, and become more confident and sure of myself. I have learned it is really empowering to be out on the road. From my experiences I also understand it isn’t easy or possible for many to drop everything and go out on their own. We all need a little help at times; I of all people know how daunting it can be. I can now provide an opportunity for women to get out there, meet other women, have a great time and empower themselves. How spoiled am I?
I’m sure if I had done all of this with a friend it would have been less scary. I would have got a lot out of it, but I think in going out on my own I have gained more. I made myself stronger and more resilient. I am thankful for the help and guidance I had in entering the motorcycle world, as well as during my many times of difficulty. Without the help of others I would not be where I am today. My experience shows that we sometimes need a push towards finding out more about who we are and what we want from life. I found a direction and passion in my life that had formally been lacking. I don’t think we are ever fully prepared for anything in life- I don’t think you can be. So you should not let it stop you from doing what you are passionate about. If anything it should push you to try more and go further.
All photos courtesy of Kerri Dougherty