New York to Alaska, on Motorcycle
by The Hairpin
Diana Bletter is also known as The Mom Who Took Off on Her Motorcycle.
Edith Zimmerman: So, Diana, you drove a motorcycle from New York to Alaska a few years ago, as we all do from time to time. Question one: Whaaat!!
Diana Bletter: I thought the same thing the whole time I was riding. I’m still convinced that a stunt woman who looks just like me rode the bike. I was terrified some of the time. About 99 percent of the time. Also, everyone thought I was insane. My mother stopped speaking to me. One of my husband Jonny’s friends, this tough motorcycling dude whom I call Mr. X in my book, sat me down before I left and said, “You’ll never make it.” So, I had to prove him wrong. I couldn’t not do it, which was challenging because I’d never really ridden a motorcycle. I’d taken six lessons before I took off.
Motorcycles are so terrifying I basically can’t even look at them, and avoid people who have them because it’s too much to worry about. But, I am a wimp. And you clearly are not. I am in awe.
I am in awe, too, because this is so not like me. My idea of a good time is going to the library or sitting in a café. I had no interest in a motorcycle trip. I thought that book should have been called “Men and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.” But I was at the proverbial fork in the road — my kids were all leaving home — and I needed something shocking to do to pull myself out of a funk. (Until you have kids, this is hard to comprehend, but trust me on this one.) I met a woman who was about to ride her motorcycle to Alaska, and then I happened to run into her agan by chance — fate — divine providence — the day she was returning from Alaska. I thought, OK, I get it, I get it.
Tell me about the bears and moose!
The first time I saw a bear up close was seconds after I’d been standing in an outhouse on the side of a very desolate road in the Yukon, waiting to hear my pee hit bottom. (1 … 2 … 3 … It was a very deep hole.) That bear could have easily knocked over that plastic Port-O-San and eaten me for an appetizer before attacking Jonny for dinner.
But even scarier are bison — they’re huge, pre-historic creatures wearing full-length shag rugs. Moose are also gigantic, and they run faster than I thought, up to 35 miles per hour, but then again, my entire body of knowledge about moose was based on Bullwinkle. Instead of calling my book, The Mom Who Took Off on Her Motorcycle, Jonny said I should have called it The Moron Who Stopped for a Moose. But you’ll have to read the book to find out why…
Can you listen to music in helmets?
If you have really expensive helmets you can. But I didn’t. It was just me in my own head — which was like being in a moving monastery.
How alone were you on this trip?
I rode my motorcycle (a BMW something-or-other) in front of Jonny, who was riding his own BMW something-or-other. Riding point guard made me feel very alone, because I had to decide what to do when confronted by Dal sheep, moose, or Grand Canyon-sized frost heaves. The good thing was I could set the pace and ride as slowly as I wanted. Jonny and I had no way to communicate except by hand signals. His favorite was, “Go faster!” Mine was, “No f — g way!”
Where did you sleep?
We slept the first night in our tent. I should say that I slept that first night. Jonny, a former commando soldier, did not sleep. He was too worried about bears and moose. After that, we slept in bed & breakfasts and motels. My favorite was Buckshot Betty’s, in the westernmost outpost of Canada. She told us, “You can pay in gold nuggets or cash.”
Was writing the book fun? This excerpt is great, but I basically couldn’t breathe by the end of it.
Writing the book was definitely tougher than doing the ride. The trip lasted 51 days — the book took me more than three years.
Most useful item of clothing on the trip?
A pair of gray pants with zippers around the knees that could become either shorts or vinyl car-seat covers.
Tastiest or most memorable meal?
Crossing Canada and going up to Alaska, I rarely ran into a vegetable. I saw one or two cucumbers, but they’d been turned into pickles.
In the past, Canadian trappers ate Pemmican, an energy bar made of buffalo meat mashed with melted fat and wild berries. These days, Canadians have creative names for snacks, such as PC Lassy Mogs and Canadian Beaver Droppings.
What was it like arriving in Alaska? And what did you do when you got there?
When I got to Alaska, I wrote an article for The New York Times on the Matanuska Colony Project in Palmer, 41 miles northeast of Anchorage. Farm families living on welfare in places like Michigan and North Dakota went up there to start an experimental farming community during the Great Depression.
I also hung out with my old college roommate who moved to Alaska a long time ago. But the best part was that I didn’t have to ride my motorcycle for nine whole days — until I had to ride it back home, another 5,000 miles.
What does driving that far do to your body / hair / face / hands / soul / life?
Riding a motorcycle is like sitting in a meditation pose with your eyes wide open. When I crossed the border into Alaska, I was so amazed and relieved that I started to cry, which was a bad idea because I couldn’t wipe my nose with my motorcycle helmet on. For the entire trip, my hair felt like two fish filets slapped on the side of my head. But the amazing thing was that doing the one thing I feared most — as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “you have to do the thing you think you cannot do” — made me unafraid of just about anything. Fear controls you until you really face it and move through it. Once you do that, it loses its power over you and then you are free.
Diana Bletter writes for The New York Times, The Huffington Post, tabletmag.com, and other publications. She is the First Prize winner of Family Circle Magazine’s 2011 Fiction Contest, and author of The Mom Who Took Off On her Motorcycle. Her first book, ‘The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women’ (Jewish Publication Society), was short-listed for a National Jewish Book Award. She blogs at www.thebestchapter.com.