I started riding when I was twenty-one, and at the time the only thing I knew about motorcycles was that I didn’t want to be someone else’s passenger. The first motorcycle I bought was beautiful and tiny: a Honda Rebel 250 with an electric blue paint job and a speedometer that worked sporadically. It fit me perfectly. Over the course of the first summer I rode it, I was excited to experiment with taking passengers—mostly women, as small and light as I am, but once I took a man who must’ve weighed almost two hundred pounds around the block and vowed never to subject my cycle or my nerves to such an imposition again. By the time the next summer rolled around, I’d been dating an equally large man for a few months who thought that my motorcycle was pretty sexy and my leather jacket was even sexier. When I offered to teach him, he had zero interest in learning how to ride himself—what he did have an interest in was riding bitch. He enjoyed the idea of zipping through town on the back of my Rebel: this comparatively enormous man, so hairy he must have had a grizzly bear in his family tree somewhere, perched precariously on the back of my itty bitty motorcycle, hanging on for dear life.
I was hesitant to try this with him. I remembered white-knuckling my previous male passenger around a sleepy residential block and had serious doubts about taking this hulking man into downtown traffic. But, even I couldn’t deny that the aesthetics would be delightful. One day we decided to give it a try. A friend lent him a goofy-looking helmet, something a motorcycle cop might wear, which he paired with mirrored aviators and bushy facial hair. I turned the Rebel around in the driveway, headlight facing the busy road I lived on at the time, and he got on. Immediately the shocks compressed and the entire bike sank toward the gravel. The driveway was long, and so we rode the length of it together, but by the time we reached the end I’d realized this was a truly stupid idea. I could barely maneuver the bike with so much weight on it and just coming to a stop at the end of the driveway was a nightmarish balancing act. I put the Rebel in neutral and turned to him.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t think this is going to work.”
He got off, a little disappointed but probably also a little relieved. The Rebel sprang back into her correct shape. For a minute I thought about parking the motorcycle and riding another day, but the hum of the engine was too delicious—it would be a shame to waste such a perfect afternoon. Just a quick one, I told myself. I gave the boyfriend a wave, knocked the bike into first gear, and shouted that I’d be back soon, then zipped out into traffic. The Rebel and I roared into town, passing slow-pokes, revving at all the stop lights, taking the turns sharp and low. No baggage, no bitches, just us.
My fourth motorcycle was a different kind of beast. With a 750cc engine it was bigger, louder, and far better suited for heavy loads—except, I wasn’t so interested in carrying passengers anymore. I had a different kind of adventure in mind. I removed both the sissy bar and the passenger’s seat altogether to make room for gear instead of people, and as I was loosening the screws that connected the black passenger’s seat to the cherry red fender, it hit me: this machine was all mine. I was past showboating, past wanting to share my new passion with other people. This motorcycle was just for me. As I removed the physical space where another person might sit, my metaphysical self expanded to fill the gap left behind. The truth was, I hadn’t been interested in taking passengers for a while, but removing that seat made it official. My love of motorcycles had ceased to be about other people and how I wanted them to perceive me; by then it was about who I actually was, and better yet, who I wanted to become. I stopped revving my engine at stoplights because I no longer cared if the pedestrians waiting to cross looked at me and thought, cool. The self-consciousness I’d begun with was slowly seeping away.
Later that year, after a month on the road with the 750, I had grown tired of navigating unfamiliar traffic, of looking down at the directions taped to my gas tank, of worrying that the car I was about to pass didn’t see me. For once I didn’t want to be in the driver’s seat—so I parked the 750 and rode on the back of my father’s motorcycle for a while. I let him do the worrying and the navigating while I enjoyed the view. Leaning back into the wind, I watched the scenery whip by, or closed my eyes and let the visceral feeling of speed separate from the optics of it. I loosened my grip on the autonomy I’d been clinging to so stubbornly and stopped worrying that without constant vigilance I would somehow lose my sense of self.
I was surprised to find that yielding my chokehold on this illusion of control, this lone wolf pride I used to hold so dear, didn’t diminish me—it made me bigger, stronger, and way more fun to be around. We’re all riding bitch in one way or another and that’s not something I can change—hell, it’s not something I would want to change. It’s been five years since I took my first passengers on that little Rebel, but since then I’ve come to realize that sometimes being an independent, grown-ass woman means letting someone else drive.
Lily Brooks-Dalton is the author of Motorcycles I've Loved, a memoir forthcoming from Riverhead Books. Find her on Facebook.