Swizzle Sticks

Spring arrived, but I never did venture out onto real streets with Little Red. I rode her once or twice more in the neighborhood, and that was that. With the rigors of modern motherhood, learning to ride wasn’t a priority, and I lost some of my zest. Maybe too, the influence of the man in my Hayabusa love triangle had started to fade somewhat. But in May 2017 I attempted the ABATE class again, this time with an encouraging friend and one last ounce of persistence.

This friend and I met when we brought our kids to a day-long ABATE dirt bike class on a lark, which was fun for us all until my daughter was thrown up and over her bike and landed on her back on a patch of gravel. She lay there crying, not otherwise moving, and only later at the ER did we learn she was okay. She had been riding off the course and ran into a wooden beam obscured by taller grass. Coincidentally, ABATE instructors at the regular motorcycle class have been known to throw wood out onto the course right in front of student riders, but not on the first day riding thank goodness.

This time, the weather was fine for class. But riding a bike too small for my long legs, in a wobbly herd with mixed skill levels, while being shouted at by a bully instructor (just my luck) made the experience feel too much like punishment and leached the confidence I had gained back in my neighborhood. (By the way, the other instructors were really nice.) Then after a woman ahead of me fell and I saw her sprawled under her bike on the pavement (and again saw my daughter on her back), I rode back over to the parking area, hopped off, and left.

I didn’t feel relieved, not really, and I fought feeling embarrassed. I felt dull. Driving home without my endorsement papers meant accepting a status quo I still longed to resist.

Little Red stayed in the garage another year until I sold her to my ex-husband’s colleague. During those months before they drove off together (looking cute—his compact frame matched hers), I’d often pause in the garage to admire her curves. I’d remember that a man and a motorcycle in Colorado changed me. They really stirred something up. What was it? Power certainly, the joy of learning something new, freedom and fresh air of course, some devil-may-care, and maybe a secret ingredient. It’s a cocktail I’ll try to recreate, just some other way.

Battery and Soul

When Little Red had her post-purchase checkup two months ago, she received a fuel stabilizer to keep her gas from getting gummy over the winter. So I thought she was all set. Although I knew that owners regularly wake their sleeping beauties during periods of not riding by starting their engines, I thought that was just an alternative to adding fuel stabilizer. This past holiday week I did some reading and learned there is more to winterization.

Cold temperatures and not riding can cause a lead acid battery to lose its charge, moisture can cause rust or damage the tires, and water spots and squashed bugs can cause corrosion. Plus flat spots can develop on the tires—like bed sores, from weight on the same area too long.

Yesterday morning when I tried to start her, I had a Little Engine that Could Not. After several I-think-I-can’s, I consulted the Honda Shadow forum, watched a few YouTube videos, and downloaded my bike’s service manual. By the afternoon, along with just enough theoretical know-how, I possessed a motorcycle toolkit worthy of someone who knows what they’re doing and a battery tender

A battery tender simply monitors a battery’s charge and gives the battery some juice whenever the charge drops a little. You can keep it hooked up to the battery indefinitely. There’s really nothing scary about it.

But I’ve got stories in my head authored by three influencial people: My electrical engineer father who taught us to always respect the current, my mother, who remembers inserting a bobby pin into an electrical outlet as a little girl and being shot across the room, and mostly my ex-husband whose father was tragically electrocuted while installing an attic fan and later died. These people have made me extremely careful, if that’s the right word. And when I see that my kids have left the toaster plugged in I get twitchy.

How to access the battery…  for my bike at least, it involves an undoing of things and a handling of dismembered parts. That mental image made my stomach feel funny. I couldn’t, and still can’t, even remember the last time I removed a dip stick from a car. At the same time, the mental image roused me like a thrown gauntlet. And yesterday was not cold for a New Year’s Day in Indiana. I was comfortable in my garage and I was singing along to Hootie & the Blowfish when I pulled off Little Red’s side covers.

On the right side, I pulled back an initial rubber cover, tried and failed to remove the fuse box (not even necessary), removed the battery cover, and found the positive terminal. On the left side, I found the negative terminal deep inside. A  pair of clamp wires came with the battery tender. I attached the negative clamp to the negative terminal, passed the wires through Little Red’s middle, and back on the right side, I attached the positive clamp to the positive terminal.

I plugged the battery tender into a plugged-in extension cord, eyed a couple of leftover fireworks, mentally noted an escape route, considered pulling my like-new car out of the garage, and nearly ran inside to check the toaster. Cringing, I plugged the connector at the other end of the clamp wires into a connector at the end of a wire coming from the battery tender. And I lived.

The green light on the battery tender blinked, indicating that the battery had at least an 80% charge. Maybe Little Red would have started if I had tried longer. (Later the green light shone solid, indicating a full charge.) I knew my accomplishment was basic, still I danced to “Only Wanna Be with You” out there in my cave, one wall of which might soon display a calendar objectifying firemen. I might also get a beer frig. And get carpet scraps to put under Little Red’s tires, buy a good, breathable cover, give her a nice bath and blow dry (leaf blower), and occasionally move her around until spring.

Inclined to Wait

I must have ridden for about 10 miles, mostly on my neighborhood’s one-mile loop but also on connected cross-streets and cul-de-sacs, never exceeding 15 mph. A few cars drove by, and I passed vulnerable-looking people and a barking dog.

You should all be afraid. It’s a beautiful afternoon… but I have never done this before.

I couldn’t wave to my neighbors, of course, because that would have been life threatening. All I could do was nod at them, which felt too subtle by the time the angst waned. By then I wanted to wave wildly with both hands. To a few I shouted, “This is my first day riding!” like a five year old. One neighbor, who I know fairly well, stopped in his tracks for a double-take. I beamed back from inside my helmet.

Elated and disbelieving, I rode back to the base of my driveway. The modest incline was daunting, but I was in can-do mode so I rode straight up the hill and promptly stalled on the steepest part.

I stood up immediately and squeezed the front brake, probably harder than necessary, but I had no interest in discovering the brake’s threshold or what being in gear was really doing for me then and there with 440 pounds. I switched off the ignition, and I stood there, stuck, knowing I had neither the strength to push Little Red up the hill nor the skill to start her back up and ride forward under those circumstances. My right hand was getting tired from squeezing so hard.

I looked to the right. I looked to the left. No one was around. Where were all my neighbors? I looked to the right and left again, and I wondered how stupid I looked. I kicked the side stand down, and it seemed to bear the weight, but I couldn’t trust it. I waited, squeezing that front brake as my hand became weaker. Time passes slowly when you’re feeling stupid alone on a hill and your hand hurts.

Finally after a while, a dog-walking neighbor did come along and he graciously lent his strength to push Little Red up to the level part of the driveway while I walked her and steered. A motorcycle. Really?

Foot Pegs

At first, on the driveway, trying to learn how to ride Little Red simply involved rocking in first gear while gently squeezing and releasing the clutch. Then, I tried just enough gas to Fred-Flintstone forward—not stable enough to put my feet on the pegs. I was terrified of the throttle, so I slowly wobbled a few yards forward and then walked her backward to my starting spot.

Over and over I did this. It was actually kind of fun, but I was worried that I would never get my feet up on the damn pegs. I also felt pretty stupid and not in control, and I wondered if beginners ever just tip over. (They do.) I knew I needed more space, a good, long straight course, and that I had to stop being so afraid of the throttle. But it was hard to imagine ever becoming comfortable. A motorcycle. Really?

With winter knocking at the front door, I knew I had to get over myself quickly. I wanted to truly ride before hibernating, so while on the sofa under blankets and books I could look forward to spring with confidence and then take a Motorcycle Safety Foundation class without further delay. So on a spring-like November day, I took a last-minute afternoon off—no meetings and the sky was pure blue.

While I was gearing up, having conscientiously stowed my learner’s permit in the saddlebag, a friend sent these texts:

Go ride that bike today.

And then again tomorrow. Rain this weekend. 


A few minutes later I walked Little Red down the driveway, a small hill, slowly and deliberately as if I were doing T’ai Chi. I learned to use the front brake to control her 440 pounds; she is not a bicycle. On the road I wrestled her into a straight position far enough from neighbors’ mailboxes. And there, looking ahead I saw a vast plane so vivid in the sunshine and somehow different from the neighborhood street with which I was familiar.

Anything could happen here today.

I inhaled… and exhaled… and put Little Red in first gear, really meaning it this time. I didn’t have to Fred Flintstone for long. With room to ride and feeling comfortable with the clutch and gear shift, the throttle was less scary. I slowly gave the engine exactly what it needed and found the foot pegs. It felt right. For me, this was barely believable. If you knew me, you’d understand. I was riding a motorcycle and loving it.