As a new biker at age 50, I took a 10,000-mile cross-country motorcycle trek with my son and husband. I met an unwitting mentor—a woman ten years my senior riding a much bigger motorcycle—who gave me advice that boosted my confidence and saved my skin. Hell’s Backbone is the story of our encounter.
It is excepted here from my book Spirit Traffic: A Mother’s Journey of Self-Discovery and Letting Go (to be released April 19, 2022 by Magic Hill Press):
I struggled to park my motorcycle in the dirt lot at Hell’s Backbone Grill. The spaces here sloped down and away, loose gravel canting downward at odd angles to a railroad-tie perimeter, making it difficult for me to let my bike down onto its side stand. It would have toppled onto me here, if I tried to lower the stand down onto the uneven ground. Given the weight and height of my bike and the length of my legs—my legs are long, but my BMW 650 GS is very tall for off-road clearance over rocks and branches—these kinds of maneuvers have always been tough for me.
As I wrestled with my bike and tried to back it uphill, my tiptoes slipping on the loose gravel, a tall, blonde woman expertly commanded her loud, gigantic, shiny metallic, cobalt-blue Harley into the parking spot next to mine. Next to her ferocious iron horse, my 650 looked like a dirty little filly.
She dismounted and towered over me. Everything about her spoke of hard-earned experience: her stately carriage, her deliberate gestures, the lines at her eyes, her well-muscled body, the extra pounds around her middle. Even the bandana around the wrinkled skin of her sunburned neck was purposefully positioned for show and a modicum of protection from the elements.
She must have been sixty or so, and probably six feet tall. She wore blue eyeshadow and menacing dark eyeliner. Her tall, high-heeled leather boots came up over fashionable, strategically ripped jeans to her thighs. She wore a black leather vest over a form-fitting white t-shirt. Her long braid was tied back in a black leather sheath bound by leather cords. Curtains of well-groomed fringe draped from the arms and shoulders of her black leather jacket.
Her Harley was similarly adorned: black leather saddlebags and black leather fringe dangling from the handgrips, which incongruously made me think of the fringed handlebars of the banana-seat bicycle I rode in third grade. Despite the evocative handlebar fringe, her big Harley had a predacious look. But she was definitely its master. I felt small and weak next to these two. The third grader in me prayed I wasn’t their prey.
She silently side-eyed me as if I was a squashed bug on her windscreen. Like Clint Eastwood’s character in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, she turned her back on me and slowly adjusted the straps of her saddlebag. Her gaze was every bit as intense as Eastwood’s in that movie.
After some minutes of pregnant silence, she glimpsed my license plate and softened her posturing a little; it was obvious that I’d ridden farther than she had on this particular journey. (I’d ridden to this part of Utah from Vermont; she was a local.)
“Gettin’ blown all over the road on that little thing, are ya? We had a guy once riding with us who was blown so bad in the wind, bouncing all over the place, I thought he’d eat it.”
I nodded and meekly smiled back at her, wondering to myself, “Is my utter lack of experience so visible?” Any sense I had of the great accomplishment it was for me to get this far wilted and withered under her gaze. We had ridden more than 2,500 miles to this particular destination, and yet I still felt like a punk-ass tenderfoot.
It gradually dawned on me, though, that I could learn something from her. She was not necessarily my antagonist, but my potential guru. I lifted my eyebrows and waited—trying not to look like an abused, attention-starved puppy. As she sauntered over, I trembled, imagining I heard spurs jingling in the dust, and hoping her gun wasn’t loaded. Her gaze registered my not-leather armor, my dusty little bike, my brightly colored, waterproof gear, and me.
“You’ve been out a while,” she observed. I nodded. She moved closer. I held my breath, trying not to wiggle or shy away. She came closer still and leaned in. Conspiratorially, she confided, “You’ve got to just let the wind blow through you. Just be easy. Soften your arms, hollow your chest, get low in your saddle, and be easy. Let the wind blow through you, like you’re a part of it. Just be easy about it and you’ll keep the rubber on the road.”
She nodded sagely, straightened to her full height, and walked slowly back to her big blue bike, then headed into the café.
I’d soon test her theory on Hell’s Backbone Road. (Utah Highway 12, which I had unwittingly renamed Devil’s Backbone, giving the Devil agency to be even more frightening.) This was a road we’d been hearing about for days. One woman said it was the most terrifying road she’d ever been on—and she was in a car! It is called the Hell’s Backbone because it is a naked spine of a high road with a 10-12 percent grade from which everything has fallen away but the wind.
On each side of the narrow road, the land plunges into deep canyons. The Hell—or Devil, as I interpreted it—in this case is some kind of Dimetrodon, that hostile dinosaur with the sail on its back. We would ride along its spine, trying to avoid its croc-like teeth.
Hell’s Backbone Road passes between two wilderness areas. From its spine, you can see Box-Death Hollow Canyon Wilderness to the northwest and Grand Staircase-Escalanté National Monument to the southeast. (A box canyon is a narrow canyon with a flat bottom and steep, vertical walls.) Death Hollow gets its name from the great number of livestock that plunged to their death trying to cross the canyon. “I will not plunge,” I told myself again and again.
The road sign warned: “Steep Grades, Sharp Curves, 25 MPH.” This was the road in front of us. The only road. My options were to go with gusto or turn back. Though the members of the little motorcycle club that was my family (my husband John and my son Emmett) discouraged it, they almost always allowed me the option of backing out of riding particularly difficult terrain and conditions, but we’d come this far. And I’d not let my son down. The fear of the indignity I’d suffer if I turned back was greater than my fear of being swept off the back of the wind-blown Dimetrodon. And besides, The Kid was amped to ride the dinosaur. I had to muster my strength.
I tentatively took my place in our lineup on the highway behind John’s calm, cool, and collected leadership and in front of Emmett’s youthful ebullience. Inspired by my fringed guru on the Harley, I let my weight sink into my seat. I rounded my back, hollowed out my chest, softened my arms, and tried to let myself be easy.
It worked! I felt my center of gravity lower just a little bit, which gave me better connection with the road below me. Thrilled at this epiphany, I howled into the hot wind, raging and posturing like a real badass, flipping off the Devil. My false bravado gradually morphed into something just south of delight.
Go ahead, Devil, make my day!
Jane Taylor lives and writes in Vermont. Her new book Spirit Traffic (to be released April 19, 2022), recounts how, at age 50, she overcame her fears, learned to ride, and took a 10,000-mile motorcycle trek across the United States. Pre-Order it now at CJaneTaylor.com.
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