Here’s the story of a remarkable person and her gutsy fight.
A friend handed me a book called First Gear, which he picked up at a reading. The cover shows an embroidered patch on leather, and says it’s a motorcycle memoir. The author’s face on the back resembles that of many women I ride with, but I didn’t know Lorrie Jorgensen until I turned the page.
I quickly realized this was no sweet tale told by a prim and proper lady. This is the story of someone who’s led a fairly rough life. At first I thought it was about outlaws … you know, those Harley riders who are drug dealing, gun-toting criminals that we love to hate but secretly wish we were a part of and are now on TV? Not you? Not me. I really can’t afford to be a part of any group that treats women like property. But this is not that story.
In the 1980s she rode a 400 Kawasaki, then a 650 Honda. Now she rides a 1600cc 2009 Dyna Super Glide Custom, and her life is a bit less safe than mine. She has multiple sclerosis. This could be the story of one woman’s battle with the disease—and she does do battle with it—but it’s not that story either. She writes, “Riding a motorcycle, I imagine, is like flying in a glider or parasailing, free and unrestrained, only a little noisier, with an internal combustion engine pushing the steel and rubber down the road.”
She speaks of the gap between her boots and the asphalt “waiting to scrape the best off of you,” being “the difference between exhilaration and death.” On a scorching summer day her armour is a half helmet, tattoos, jeans and a T-shirt.
She’s a survivor. “Experience tells me to always be aware and be on the lookout for the next person that’s going to kill me. I hope to see them first.” All this in the second chapter.
Many people enjoy impressive international adventures on bikes with knobby tires, but this is different. Lorrie starts in the Ottawa Valley. She’s 50 years old and looking back. Her solo trip describes places as they were in the 1970s—how they got their names and what they have become now, layered with stories from her childhood and youth. She and her Harley, Thelma D, make their way to Winnipeg, and loop back touring Quebec and Ontario.
The official reason for the journey? She needed to clear the cobwebs out of her head. It’s that story, and an impressive one.
She stops in motels with a history rather than the pristine, new ones. And when people question her choice of ordering soda at a bar she explains that she used to drink, and was really good at it. At AA meetings she heard the slogan that “one is too many and twelve not enough.” She relapsed twice and tells us that with one swallow she’d be heading toward the “ultimate intention of every addict. Death.”
The more I read the book, the more surprised I became. It’s the life story of a woman who reads like a man, who simply could not manage lipstick or dress any better than most guys can. There’s a sad but comic tale of one attempt working as a secretary when she fell off her heels and tore the blouse and nylons. After taking an Auto Body Repair program at Algonquin College she found her first career. And she found pride and self worth buried beneath the tragedies of her childhood and the way her mother tried to shame her by calling her what she was: butch. Lorrie is like so many women I know.
Bikers claim to be different, but often wear the uniform that goes with each make or model. But what’s it like when you don’t fit the expected gender image and get questioned every time you use a washroom? For me that trouble began with my first bike, and friends telling me I was dressing too masculine. You try kick starting a 500 Triumph in girly shoes! If I needed the steel shank in the arch for the Triumph, I really needed it for the 850 Norton! So that meant boots. Always. And in the 1980s, just wearing a leather jacket and riding meant I was male. So I got misgendered way back then because of riding a motorcycle. Still do. So does the author. Like me, she has a girlfriend, but from what I read, she’s not like me. She isn’t as fluid as I am. Never wears a dress and doesn’t have a choice. I make sure I stand out, loud and proud, for those who can never hide.
The sad thing is that so many children have experienced the same kinds of abuse as Lorrie. To quote Pat Benetar, “Hell is for children.” Not all get to grow up in the perfect 1950s family as portrayed on Leave It To Beaver. Why don’t they show week after week of loud drunken arguments, physical beatings and then the sexual predator who creeps into the bedrooms of the nation like a bad dream, promising worse if you tell?
Some parents are fighting against updated sex-ed in Ontario schools, which teaches children they have rights over their bodies and who they should tell if those boundaries are being crossed. They fight because it includes a lesson on homosexuality! And so the song of Luca, who lives on the second floor, continues to be sung.
Lorrie Jorgensen is the girl next door, telling about life in the small town Ontario she grew up in as she rides. Her honesty about fearing the road some days brings me back to my days of fearing border crossings and new countries. I’m always afraid dirt riding, too! Lorrie tells it one day at a time as we ride with her on slippery wet gravel, over a metal grate bridge, keeping eyes open for deer or moose. And like all rides, this could be the last. We never know what life will be like tomorrow, and if it will be a deer, advanced MS or some other thing that will stop us from riding or breathing. It’s good to remember that, and to cherish every ride.
In 1989 Lorrie took a position back at Algonquin College teaching Auto Body Repair. In 2002 she was accepted at the Tech Ed Program of the Faculty of Ed at Queens University. After graduating she taught shop at a secondary school in the Ottawa Carleton District. Do I need to point out how remarkable that is, in a world when less than one percent of women work in the trades? She no longer teaches full time due to health reasons. But she sure made it!
And then she wrote this book! Her life story is filled with so much emotion and insight. It’s a brilliant biker tale. I want to thank her for being so brave. I’m sorry when the story ends—but then I realize that it doesn’t. Only the book ends.
(First Gear is published by Inanna Publications. www.inanna.ca)