The Beartooth Highway climbs, twisting, backtracking, gaining altitude and respect. It connects with Chief Joseph Scenic Byway, and continues its punishing trek. Nearly 11,000 feet above sea level, the mountain views are breathtaking – literally and figuratively. The roar of thousands of bikes, all makes and models, announce that it’s time for the 2011 Beartooth Rally, hosted in Red Lodge, Montana.
The decision to embark on an over 700 mile round trip journey to the Rally wasn’t exactly a decision, it was an obvious choice. The adrenaline, wind, speed, and my boyfriend’s Harley – of course I would be there. We rode with good friends, camped out, enjoyed local frosty brews, and took in some of the most amazing scenery our country has to offer.
But this was not my favorite ride. Phenomenal? Yes, of course. Favorite? No. Not even close. Because when 700 miles of thinking is at one’s disposal, the mind is apt to wander while the bike stays on track.
I am not, at first glance, an obvious connoisseur of motorcycles. I don’t consider myself an accomplished rider in the least, and though I live just over 100 miles from Sturgis, South Dakota, I’ve never been to the famed rally. However, the draw to motorcycling is there, somewhere deep in my memory. It might even be in my blood.
The ride that changed me, sculpted me, occurred some hot, late summer evening, nearly twenty years ago. I don’t recall just when it was, what I wore or why I finally got to go, because when you’re four or five and, at last, Mom lets you on “that contraption” with Dad, you forget everything else.
The tank was bright, ferocious red and there were lights and dials in front of me and the only thing I was allowed to touch was the bar that joined the handlebars. Montana’s stifling summer heat and the waves radiating from the bike did nothing to subdue my nearly blinding excitement. The snarl of my dad’s Yamaha, an early ‘70s 125 Enduro, kickstarted something within me that I will never be able to define, just as I will never be able to divorce it from who I am at the core.
Together, we spattered gravel from the driveway, tore through the street, and hurtled down the road. Though our actual speed at that moment is likely lost to history and significantly lower than my personal account, in that moment we were flying. My heart lurched and I remember gulping back wind, my eyes watering, though not from terror. I felt adrenaline, wind, speed, and joy.
The size of the dirt hills a few blocks from my childhood home are inversely proportional to my age at the time of the memory of choice. This was a day when they were mountains, seemingly thousands of feet above sea level. Dad plunged the front tire down into the abyss and for a brief moment, I was sure my short life was coming to a rapid close. My stomach dropped and we shot upward, my laughter probably as much of a surprise to my father as it was to me. My life wasn’t over. It had just begun. I begged to do it one more time, again and again and again, just to feel the joy, the fear, the giddiness a little more. The feeling of living is truly intoxicating, addictive.
So that’s it, I guess. It’s not glossy or fancy. My favorite ride was on a dirt hill in my hometown, sweaty little legs stuck to the tank. Why? It’s the ride that started all the rides, motorized and beyond. My life is richer because of it. I live for adrenaline, wind, speed, joy, fear, giddiness, but above all, I live. The feeling of that first ride at a young age is so internalized and critical that to be without it would be like trying to tear out my own heart.
While a thrilling ride across the Beartooths might register as number one among some, I’ll keep my little kid memory. That Wide Glide makes me smile, but there’s something about a two-stroke’s growl that sparks a very real, visceral reaction. It’s a sound and a feeling that makes me want to go anywhere, try anything, and really live. I’m willing to bet we all have something that gives us that feeling. For Dad, it’s a smell, the scent of bean oil mixing with nitrobenzene that takes him back to the flat track and days spent endurance racing before they were called Enduros. It’s the smell of adrenaline, wind, speed, and life.
After all, isn’t that why we ride? It’s a feeling we want to capture, again and again, that takes us back to a place where we know we’re real and living.
Written By Kisa Kron