In the Wind

Riding a Motorcycle and Flying

Bonnie on her 1976 Shovelhead.

If someone asks me what is the one thing I wish I could do, my answer is to fly. I’d like to have wings that would allow me to soar high up in the clouds, riding the air currents weightlessly. Like a gull. As a kid I spent a lot of time on the ocean. My grandfather had a big boat. I spent many summer hours lying on deck or on the beach watching the water birds. I had such an itch for that kind of freedom, envious of their control. I tried to capture that dream by skydiving . . . too high and scary. I went up in a glider. Way too expensive, but I loved the sound of the wind. I tried parasailing. Not enough control, and the boat driver was a lunatic. Surfing was hard work and too much sand in between me and the wetsuit. On a trip to Hawaii, I was surfboard sailing and a school of barracuda swam by . . . too many teeth. I loved skiing, but it was seasonal and cold, with too much special gear and clothing. I did ski for many years. It came close. It wasn’t until I threw my leg over my first Harley Davidson that my quest was satiated.

It all began on Labor Day Weekend, 1976. I was 23. At the time I lived in New York City, and that weekend, I drove out to Long Island to meet some girlfriends at a bar. As we were dancing and being raucous, two guys came in who were obviously “bikers.” There were differences between bikers and motorcyclists. It has to do with leather and the smell of 20W-50 oil. Maybe the sound of some chains hanging from belt loops. Oh my heart be still. By the end of that evening, I was on the pill pad of a 1976 Super Glide. His name was George—not the bike, the guy. A dark-haired, blue-eyed Greek who knocked my socks off. He was visiting his friend who lived locally. George lived in New Jersey. That night was the beginning of a long relationship, not only with George but with the Harley Davidson Motorcycle. I was to officially become the “old lady” of a biker. The title never suited me, nor did that ridiculous pill pad I was forced to sit on. Riding in the rear was just not my dream come true, and so riding in the rear was short lived.

The jacket still fits!

My cousin Kenny was a custom motorcycle builder on Long Island. One weekend he rode to New Jersey, which was where I now lived with George, to do some riding there. I guess I must have really been whining about how uncomfortable I was. It was a Sunday, and Ken pulled into a K-Mart parking lot in Bayonne. It was empty because of the blue laws back then. Remember the blue laws? George wasn’t thrilled with what Kenny had in mind. Ken rode this Sportster, which was off-the-charts insane, that only he was capable of riding. After some coercing, George dismounted, and I slid onto the seat. Ok, clutch, gas, front brake, rear brake, gear shift down 1, up 2, 3, 4, neutral is between 1 and 2.

Got it!

Go ahead.

I did. It was glorious. Like I was born to ride. My car had a stick shift, so I had the coordination. Poor George . . . Kenny had turned his old lady into a monster! Within a month that Shovelhead was my ride. We stripped it down, put it in a swing arm frame, wide glide front end, fat bob tanks and fender, bicycle bars, wrap around oil tank. Oh baby, in one word, righteous! It had a comfy bicycle seat, absolutely no passenger accommodation. This was my ride and my ride only! George had a 1952 Panhead motor that he built into a total criminal bike. My love of that Shovelhead and the open road would come to define who I was. The total control was there. The bike and I were one.

In 1976 there were few women on Harleys, very few. Instead, the ladies were perched upon king and queen seats wearing leather bustier and chaps with shiny conchos running down the sides. NOT! I was more jeans, engineer boots, and a bulky leather jacket. A fashionista I was not. We rode with some hardcore guys who found my love of the machine objectionable, as opposed to intriguing. But I wrenched my bike, attained as much knowledge as I could (Easyriders was my bible), became an excellent biker, and eventually earned their respect. The ladies didn’t get it either. But with the wind in my hair, the roar of that 1200cc V-Twin while I laid down into a curve or blew by a semi was the thrill of a lifetime, every time I got on that bike. My wish to fly came to fruition.

Over the years we rode and rode and rode. There were about a dozen bikes. Guys named Blues, Bass, and Crabs. Girls named Strawberry, Twinky, and Iris. Lots and lots of tattoos. Weekends were spent at pig roasts, swap meets, races, and bluegrass concerts. And we’d walk the aisles of Ted’s in Upstate New York, looking for that 1935 Flathead running board. The bikes had no radios, reverse gears, or electric start. No one bike looked like another, everything was custom—amazing paint, chrome, all old school. We may have looked like bunch of hardcore stereotypes, but we were family. We raised money for kids, did fundraisers, rallies, you name it. We even trekked out west twice to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota. We sold miles for money and raised a lot for charity.

Somewhere in the mid-´80s George and I parted ways. With that end, so ended my relationship with that 1976 Shovelhead. Although I sank bucks into that bike, the motor wasn’t mine. I do believe that it is still on the road today. I decided to move to Pennsylvania and leave my job in Manhattan. But before I did, I made a trip to the infamous B&D Harley Davidson dealership in Rahway, New Jersey. That was my go-to shop. I walked in, there it was. On a pedestal, in front of the huge plate glass window, stood a 1985 candy apple red Harley Davidson Wide Glide! I had to have it. 1350cc, Evolution motor, last year kick start. I walked up to the counter and told Wayne and Hubsy, “I’ll take it, it matches my nail polish.” They cracked up and I wrote a check. Three days later I picked it up, then moved to PA.

I met a bunch of amazing people in Pennsylvania. I rode with the Baer Harley Davidson drill team, was a charter member of Ladies Of Harley, and active with the local Harley Owners Group. My car’s bumper sticker read “I’M NOT JUST A PRETTY FACE, I RIDE A HARLEY TOO.” By then woman were finding their place riding the open road as the pilot, not the passenger. In 2001 I road that Wide Glide up to Maine, my new home. I loved riding in Maine, but the season was short, and I live on a dirt road that turns massively muddy. I never dropped a bike or had a crash. It just felt like it was time. I had no problem selling it. It was still gorgeous with its added chrome, handmade saddle bags, and some other Bonnie touches. I still have my valid motorcycle license. I’ve had the urge to ride on a couple of occasions. I rented a bike from the dealer in Augusta. I just can’t get used to pushing a button instead of the thump thump of a kick start!  I guess I’m still old school.

I’m pretty certain that we all want something unattainable in our lifetime. I wanted wings and I sort of got them.

Not long ago I was gassing up my car when this young guy pulled in on an old Harley. It was a Shovel. I asked him what year it was . . . a 1976. It was his grandfather’s, now his, and he was working on restoring it. We had this great conversation. I love the look on these guys’ faces when this old gray-haired granny can talk bikes and suggest they add a Fram oil filter, gives you extra oil. Those Shovelheads run hot!

I’m pretty certain that we all want something unattainable in our lifetime. I wanted wings and I sort of got them. Instead of feathered, they were black and orange embroidered with a big gold HD in the middle that covered the back of my leather jacket.

Whenever I hear the deep rumbling chucka chucka of a Harley idle, or the ear-piercing crack of straight pipes, I close my eyes and fly in the wind. I relive the dream! Definitely some of the best years of my life!

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BH
Bonnie Hellwege

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