The doctor rolls his metal stool over to me, his knees almost touching mine. “Well, Carolyn, your MRI doesn’t look good. The bones in your neck are flattening the spinal cord and that is why your right side is so weak. I’ll need to open up your neck, replace two disks, and immobilize vertebras five, six and seven with a couple of titanium plates. You won’t have as much movement in your neck and it’s a major surgery.”
Dr. Lao is a kind man and this was not our first discussion. He knew this was a difficult decision for me. “I’m sorry, Carolyn, but do you understand what I’m saying to you?” The tears well up in my eyes, I clinch my jaw and swallow, but I don’t cry. Of course I knew what he meant: my riding days were over.
Riding has been an integral part of my life for the last twenty-five years. I have owned five Harleys, ridden over 100,000 miles, and rode alone through all fifty states the year I turned fifty. My husband, Dennis Foster, and I were an active part of the Harley community. We rode with friends, attended rallies and enjoyed every minute on our Harleys. And just like that, it was over.
Suck it up, I told myself. You are 66 years old, an adult, and this isn’t the end of your life. Get over yourself. Adapt. Adjust. Move on. So when life lobbed those lemons at me, I made lemonade. We sold our Harleys and stopped going to the HOG meetings. I never picked up a motorcycle magazine, and refused to turn my head to look when I heard the seductive roar of a Harley’s engine.
We purchased a motorhome and a Jeep Wrangler, headed south for the winter and made new friends. Jeepers are a vibrant group, very independent and self-sufficient. They organized caravans and we tracked the bumpy roads of the desert. Together we rock-crawled over gigantic boulders, winched each other out of ravines, clung to the side of cliffs and defied gravity. Repairs were fixed on the fly, and no one was ever left behind.
Bad weather didn’t concern us, as we sweltered in the heat or slouched our way through creeks and mud. Jeepers are intriguing characters and I know you would like them. My life was different, but I was having a challenging and robust time. Content with our new life, the next five years whirled past in a flurry of dust, dirt, good friends and outrageous adventures. I had adjusted.
Then, when I least expected it, the dreams started.
I’m riding on a lonely backroad in the desert, the weather warm and balmy, the sky cobalt blue. I set the cruise control, tighten my thighs against the tank and spread my arms to catch the wind. Closing my eyes, my arms rise and fall with the wind and I fly. Mile after mile I ride like this, eyes closed, completely at peace with myself. You can do that sort of thing in dreams, you know.
When I woke up I told myself to be satisfied with these glimpses of my prior life. And for a while I was…until the yearning started. I turned my head when a Harley passed, waved at women riders, and looked at motorcycle magazines when no one was around.
I also learned the truth about lemonade—it leaves a sour taste in your month.
One day my husband and I walked into a Harley dealership, only to look you understand, and came home with a beautiful 2015 Ultra Limited Low. For the first time in twenty years, we were riding double, with me in the back. The view is different sitting in the rear. The countryside moves in slow motion, not like the quick snapshots you see from the front seat. As we wound our way through a canopied forest, I gazed deep into the woods and watched the sunlight flicker between gently moving branches. Glancing up, jet contrails twist and bulge in the wind high above us, looking like a snake that had swallowed a tasty morsel. It is relaxing sitting the back, and I didn’t think that would be true. Hugging my husband, my thighs tight against his hips, I was happy. I was riding again and that was all that mattered.
Still, I envied those who have never ridden in the front. Those who never experienced the thrill of controlling the bike, the joy of riding alone, the empowerment that comes from being exclusively in charge of yourself and your motorcycle. For those folks never longed to return to the front.
I’ll tell you a secret if you swear not to tell my doctor. On Valentine’s Day, 2016, we walked into a dealership in Arizona and came home with another motorcycle, a 2005 Harley-Davidson Fat Boy. It was in immaculate condition with only 4,500 miles on it. The first month I couldn’t stay off the bike and I rode over 1,000 miles.
The other morning, in the tranquil quiet of the Arizona desert, I took my new motorcycle out for a ride. I settled into the front seat, and meandered along a winding backroad that paralleled the deep blue Colorado River. The wind warmed my face, light sparkled and danced across the still water, and serenity completely engulfed me. Tears welled up and streamed down my face, but this time I didn’t care.
I was home.
Carolyn Fox started law school at age 41, learned to ride a motorcycle at 46 and obtained her private pilot license at 60. When she turned 50, she sold her law firm, bought a Harley, packed it with camping gear and set out to ride through all 50 states…alone. You can read about her travels in her book, Soul Rider: Facing Fear and Finding Redemption on a Harley, available on skyhorsepublishing.com. Look for our upcoming book review here on womanrider.com.