I saved my first bike from being tied to a tree and set on fire.
I didn’t know I was going to save her and in the end that she would return that favor.
It was during a hot July 4th fireworks show in New Jersey when I came across the little beauty. She was parked on a front trash-filled lawn with a “for sale” sign on her. On the porch was a group of rednecks half in the bag before the fireworks had even started. I walked past the bike, doubled back and asked if I could sit on it.
The guys were all about it and amused to think that a young twenty-one-year-old girl in a dress was just looking for a fun photo opportunity. Mind you, this was long before Instagram and smartphones. Capturing the moment wasn’t even on my mind. I had already taken my MSF course to get my license and was looking for the perfect bike.
I wasn’t sure what the perfect bike was for me. Actually, I knew nothing about bikes at that point. I just knew I was super excited to ride and didn’t have much money.
In what is very hard to admit, getting the right bike was especially important to me because earlier that year I had experienced deep trauma. I had this instinctive feeling that buying a bike was going to be part of my healing journey. I couldn’t put into words how or why, at that time. I just knew I needed to do it. Sometimes we have such clarity in life that it is important to act on that feeling than second-guess it. Years later, life would prove that I was right.
I went to the fireworks show and the whole time I kept thinking about that bike. On the way out, I told my friend Kerry that I needed to get the number for that bike. As I walked by again, the porch now held a rowdy bunch of very drunk guys. I asked for the number and they said, “Ask for Monster”. OK….
I returned back to NYC and told my group of riding buddies that I had found my bike. When I explained what it was, they were like, “NO WAY!”
I don’t take well to being told, “No”. Also, how could I be denied my perfect ride?
As it turns out, they were a little right and I was a little right. From what I described in my limited moto vocabulary, they thought I was talking about a bike known as The Widow Maker, a 1973 Kawasaki 500 Mach III. It was one of fastest bikes of its generation, and somewhat infamous for being difficult to handle…hence its ominous name. But my bike was actually the baby sister of the “Widow Maker,” the 1973 Kawasaki 250 S1. I was so bummed out that no one wanted me to own this bike. But, I listened to them anyway because what did I know at that point? (You can read my article HERE about educating yourself on purchasing the right bike for you.)
A week later, my friend Scott came back to me and said, “I was thinking about that bike and I think we should go look at it. Streetbike 2-strokes are rare these days and this bike might be a handful or it might be really fun.” I called up “Monster” and set a date to meet. Scott and I rode two-up on his old Beemer to an address that was in a cornfield in the middle of nowhere, New Jersey.
Monster was a character, to say the least, but I liked him immediately. It turned out that he acquired the bike from a woman, on a trade for a woodstove. She was the original owner. I felt like that was a good omen for some reason. I needed sisterly support at that time of my life. Also, I have imagined that she was one badass chick who would be happy to know the bike ended up in the hands of another female. Monster and I negotiated. I ended up with the bike for $250, which was good because I had only brought my last $300 with me. As I handed the cash over, he told me that I had saved the bike from being strung up in a tree and burned at his party that coming weekend. Welcome to ‘Merica fun! I felt like a super hero.
Sounds cheap for a moto? Yup. It was. And that is usually for a good reason. But, I would find out about that later.
I picked up my new moto, which would eventually be named Pumpkeen by my French Mother, who didn’t want me ride but thought this bike was cute, in a borrowed pickup. (Pumpkin, but sounds like Pump-keen with a French accent.) Every bike needs a name. So if you haven’t named yours, get on it. The bike was also orange, which would set a theme for all my subsequent rides.
I spent hours cleaning the old bike and tried to figure out what I needed to get it road ready. Remember, I knew nothing about anything at this point that was related to motorcycles. After buying a set of new tires and putting in some gas and fresh oil, as far as I knew, I was good to go! After a few test rides in Connecticut, I brought it home to NYC. Another moto friend, G, invited me to go for a ride. He needed to get his BMW worked on in Brooklyn by a notorious mechanic.
Looking back, I think – what the hell was I thinking?!
First off, I didn’t even have that much riding experience but I thought it was a good idea to ride in NYC amid traffic, crazy cab drivers and pedestrians. Two, the bike was a two-stroke, which means you have to wind it up to let it rip to get power, which is super difficult on short blocks with lights. Three, the bike sends out a tail of smoke, which makes everyone think you’re on fire. (That part is kinda fun!)
My naiveté said, “Let’s do this!”
So off we went from the East Village to Brooklyn. As we cusped the Brooklyn Bridge, I knew something wasn’t right. The bike lost all its power and stalled. Sheer panic hit me. I didn’t know what had happened and there was a long line of cars behind me. If you know anything about New Yorkers, they’re not necessarily the most patient or kind folks. I jumped off the bike and proceeded to push the bike off the bridge as everyone behind me laid on the horn, cursing me out as I backed up traffic. I was sweating so bad, but the adrenaline had me put a hustle in my shuffle. G was waiting for me on the end of the bridge where there was a little space to pull over. We left the bike there, which broke my heart because I was nervous someone would steal it. (Remember, this is NYC where anything that isn’t bolted down usually gets stolen.) G said maybe his mechanic might work on it, but probably not because he was a bit of a grumpy old sport and only liked BMWs. I jumped on the back of his bike, hoping for the best, and went to his mechanic, whom I’ll call Bob.
‘Ol Bob had an over-packed messy shop, was playing death metal and looked a lot like Jesse James, but not nearly as cute. G and I explained my situation, and the whole time Bob was shaking his head. He looked at G, and then he looked at me, narrowing his eyes with a smug look and said,
“If you come sit on my lap, I’ll think about helping you out.”
While G thought this was highly amusing, I was not so amused.
In that moment, I decided I was going to learn everything I possibly could about fixing and maintaining a motorcycle, especially my beloved Pumpkeen, so I would never ever have to depend on anyone for it. I looked at G and said, “I’m good. Let’s go.”
$250 quickly turned into a lot more money. I had to rent a van to pick up the bike, plus parts upon parts and parts. Pumpkeen was an old broad that needed some love and attention after being neglected for so long. I got a crash course in motorcycle maintenance. I scoured the young Internet for information on these bikes, which was not plentiful at the time. I spoke to every knowledgeable moto person I knew and didn’t yet know. I rebuilt most of the bike with the help of many who were friends or became friends.
In rebuilding Pumpkeen, I was also rebuilding my life. The focus and attention she needed gave me the space for my own healing. It took my mind off of reliving my experience or trying to make sense of it. In the most basic necessity of life, creating anything with your hands is infinitely rewarding. She was my new design project.
Once I got her on the road, my world opened up. I was able to escape the intensity of living in NYC. I met so many people when I was out riding solo in the Catskills of New York, experiences that put my life in perspective.
One time, I ended up having lunch with two Vietnam War veterans that picked me up in a kitschy upstate restaurant parking lot because they loved my bike and offered to buy me lunch. They told me a story about their experience with a fellow soldier who was riding a similar bike to mine and disappeared behind enemy lines. Those moments stay with you forever.
While I would never recommend that a new rider purchase a vintage bike, it is important to find a moto that suits you. Your bike should spark a connection. Some people, who don’t get it, tease me about my attachment to my motos and my car, which is OK. When you love your bike, it makes your experience extra special. It’s like being in a relationship. If you only sorta like your bike or partner, it’s never going to truly work out. If you LOVE your bike or partner, you can make it through anything. Just make sure your bike or partner loves you back.
While I have had bikes come in and out of my life, I still own Pumpkeen. She is 44 years young now. She is tucked safely inside a shed that belongs to my best friend who knows how important she is to me. At this point, he has taken over her maintenance and made modern changes to her that are beyond my mechanical knowledge to make her run stronger than ever. I know I will never sell her. We are in this journey of life together.
In the end, Pumpkeen saved me. She changed my life and set me on a path that was completely different than where I was headed or could have ever imagined. I learned so much about myself with her and we’ve been through a lot together. When it is time to retire her, I envision her on display in my office or home at some point. She’s beautiful, after all. When I die, I have the hope that she will pass into the hands of another woman who will love her just as much.
Have you ever loved a bike? Please share below.
I would love to get to know you and meet you on the road!