extract from “Riding Towards Shadows”

I woke up and the weather was utterly miserable. Of course it was! A thousand miles ahead of me and all the sky could think of was bloody rain. I left at 7am; the downpour was heavy, we had 13° Celsius  as I was heading north, straight towards my past. I started the engine and carefully drove down the steep and slippery driveway, a rush of pride running through my body. I was actually doing this, not just planning, I was really doing this. I quickly let down the visor so it didn’t have raindrops on the inside. The journey had begun. I was riding on memory lane.

Half an hour later my euphoria was gone completely. My hands were soaking wet. After years and years of wearing traditional leather gloves, I had opted for fancy high-tech super fibre Gore-Tex ones last winter. A lot of rubbish they were and soaking wet already, so were my feet in my cowboy boots. Wet through and through. You have to fight it, I decided. And I did. I didn’t even care that I burnt a big hole in my rainproof right at the very first petrol station because I came too close to the exhaust. Idiotic beginner’s fault! I hadn’t been paying attention. I was just off the motorway and spotted a DIY market across the road, decided to go in and bought a pair of working gloves. At least I’d have something to change then. Although they were of course not waterproof either. Had a coffee in the McDonald’s and enjoyed the eyes of the craftsmen in for their breakfast. You could see the questions in the face of almost every single one of them: She’s not on her own, is she? But what is she doing? Where is she going? But they didn’t ask, maybe they were afraid of answers.

Back on the bike I was greeting every little stretch of dry road with real happiness. I was not prepared to let my spirits drop and sang away under the cover of the helmet. Why do we always sing really strange songs on the bike? I opted for old fashioned songs like Summertime and my living was easy, I was sort of preparing for the dry Scottish sense of humour in all the wet misery where the only changes nature had to offer were different shades of grey.

Riding a bike is a much more intensive way of travelling than driving a car. It is noisier, colder, your back starts to hurt fairly soon. But when the weather dries up and the sun comes through – it can be real happiness, a joy you never really experience in a car. Not with the windows down. Not even in a convertible.

I had opted for a route through Holland and Belgium. I remembered vaguely that there was a ferry from Oostende. It was not signposted very well, but I found it. Unfortunately, the next ferry was due in a few hours’ time and it took four hours more to cross from here compared to Calais. It would be much too late to find a place to stay in Dover, so I chose to drive another extra hour to Calais and take the ferry from there. The wind along the coast was murder so I consequently tried to hide behind Polish lorries. Not very successfully, though. But I made it in the end and waited in windy queue number 900 for an hour to catch the late ferry. I felt a certain sense of pride. I had made it so far, a little over 500 miles. I was as wet and as tired as I had been 21 years ago and not a tiny little bit more comfortable. I had travelled alone then, too. All I had then was one address that of a fellow student who had left for Glasgow earlier than me and had already found a room. That had been my reason to go to Glasgow twenty years ago, a grant for Glasgow University. That young student of old was now a successful TV journalist and had other reasons for the trip but I was a biker still.

Would Rob love me now, the woman I had become? Was I still the woman he had seen in me?

In the pub on the ferry I sat down with a lager shandy, an egg and cress sandwich and some crisps. A few Dutch bikers sat close, nearer the windows. They nodded but did not come over to talk. That had certainly been different on my first trip to Glasgow, but why? Because there were more bikers about and the tradition of being open and communicative had changed or because I had changed? Did I look more tough and forbidding? Well, I am certainly not a young girl anymore. And people seemed to have a problem with unaccompanied middle-aged women. It is a non-standard form of behaviour. People seem to find it difficult to come to terms with non-standard forms of behaviour. They do not find it interesting, they find it disturbing.

The announcement came, we were in the Port of Dover already and asked to proceed to our vehicles. I did. There were about 12 bikes on the ferry. All racers. The Dutch guys, a small English group who did not look left or right never mind greet, and a Manx group talking races. We were all crammed together in a line, bikes secured with straps provided. In my fear of seeing my bike on the floor rather than standing once in Dover because of her not so stable side stand, I had strapped her tight, real tight. So tight, I had to muster all my strength and I still couldn’t get that bloody thing off. The lock had jammed.

I turned round and said: “Hey guys, can one of you give me a hand?”

They were there with the speed of light, started pulling and poking and cursing but they would rather have lost a few fingers than admit failure. It took them some time, but they managed to get my Harley free. I thanked them and looked into two big grins. My need for help had made them happy.

I had not liked to ask. A matter of pride I guess. But staying behind, strapped tight to the ferry, wouldn’t have looked much cooler, would it?

But still I felt more “girlie” than I was happy with.

I still felt fit enough to drive although it was already 10 pm on my inner clock and the shandy had made me sleepy. I cruised along the deserted waterfront looking for a room; I hadn’t pre-booked as I hadn’t done then. I ended up a few miles away in Folkstone in a cheap and formerly glorious Grand Hotel run by some Spaniards from the Canary Islands who made me think of Manuel in Fawlty Towers. The hotel didn’t feel English and was certainly not clean in the lobby. The room was all right though, I was too tired to care. All I wanted was a shower and a bed. I took a shower and enjoyed the feeling of hot water running down my back immensely. I went to bed straight away, with my hair still wet. That is the good thing about travelling on a bike – you do not have to worry about the state of your hair. It will always be a mess, whatever you do.

Before I fell asleep my thought drifted back to my first trip. I remember meeting some English biker on the ferry and following his bike when we came to Dover. He knew where rooms could be had; it had been late then, too. Can’t remember a name or face, just the kindness he had shown to a stranger.

 

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Ready to Rumble

I had my Harley, I had my tattoo, and I was flying high now, like Rocky dancing on the top of the stairs in Philadelphia. I was ready, my time had come.

This was a quest of sorts. I had questions and I wanted them answered. I wanted to know where to go from here. This was not a journey to Glasgow and back. I set off towards the past and my own shadows, not knowing if this road would take me anywhere. It was like travelling in a time machine, only not naked, but nearly. My Sportster had a very small saddleback on one side and space for my waterproof roll bag behind my single seat on the rear wheel cover. No rucksack of course, I wasn’t going to look like a student on her way to lecture. That was me, luggage wise.

Riding Towards Shadows Nellie Merthe Erkenbach

Normally my luggage was massive and heavy, all these things I felt I needed to take when travelling, clothes, extra clothes, shoes, more shoes, hand and foot cream, make-up, disinfectant, painkillers, lipstick, charger, notebook, cables….

I simply had to define luggage and therefore myself in a new way, or rather the old way where I had been twenty years ago. For the time being I had leather gear for the bike, one pair of denims for the evenings, a few cotton shirts, socks, underwear, all black, some things to wash, no make-up, the rainproof, leather-vest. That was more or less it. I did not even take a book. And I was notorious for taking books when travelling. I had rented a holiday home in Tuscany once and taken over twenty books along for two weeks. Well, those were the days before Kindle and I had taken the car, then.

Nellie Merthe Erkenbach Riding Towards Shadows

On the night before my trip towards the past I hardly slept. So many things went through my head. I knew this adventure of sorts would not be a real adventure. This is Europe, not the wilderness. I was willing and able to use my credit card, and my mobile phone. I was travelling on public roads and therefore not really in danger of anything but cars misjudging motorcycles.

All I had was one address and phone number, one guy from the past I managed to track down. He had given me a few leads and the offer to come and see him. He had moved to the Highlands. But I was aiming for Glasgow.

Still I had a certain respect for the whole adventure, an underlying fear of what I might find. I was acutely aware of the pain I might face and was concerned about all those little everyday things, which can make life uncomfortable, cheap hotel rooms for example. I had probably seen too many of them.

I feared cold, exhaustion, and loneliness more than anything, on an emotional and a physical level. What if I didn’t find anything or anybody I could still connect to? What if everything had changed, if there was no going back at all? What, if the weather was bad? If couldn’t find, what I was looking for. What was I looking for? Understanding and redemption?

 

Riding Towards Shadows

Nellie Merthe Erkenbach: Riding Towards Shadows

 

This is an excerpt from Riding Towards Shadows, ebook available on Amazon.

 

summertime … and the riding is easy

Shieldaig, Torridon

What is the perfect ride?

Scottish HighlandsMay be many things: a busy rally, a desert trip, a cruise along Sunset Boulevard – there are so many bikers out there, so many different ideas what a perfect ride should be like.

Even my own idea of a pefect run differs occasionally.

But very often, this one song goes through my head as my bike takes me to the horizon: Summertime and the living is easy….

 

chopper dreams

sea and gorseA perfect ride – what does it take?

Fun, for a start. And sun, not to forget. Me and my bike and some breathtaking scenery – that is a perfect ride for me. No breakdowns, no annoying cars, not a soul in sight.

Just summer and the coconut smell of Scottish gorse, a sea breeze and a powerful engine roaring through the wilderness.

….and the riding is easy indeed.

 

With a little treat – a fruit scone, home-made jam and cream when the road takes you back into civilisation.

Perfect!

 

Age starts in the head

on the roadFor a biker age is always the enemy, no matter what age he or she is.

Just think back on the time when you were a teenager and just could not wait until you were of age and finally allowed to ride.

How can you passionately wait? Who can count the endless nights you lay in bed dreaming of your future bike?

Age is agony when you don’t have it.

Things get better in your twenties. With a driving license and a passion for bikes, you are as close to heaven as you ever will be. You take on the most impossible trips, ride in the most impossible conditions and simply believe it is absolutely and utterly impossible that you will ever get old.

You do and you do realize that in your thirties, but nor because you feel any less about riding or ceased dreaming about it. No. You cherish and polish but underneath the sparkly surface you begin to feel the pain. After you have lost the first friend on the road, you see that age is: age is what some people never have.

Which then, in your forties, makes you wonder about the things you don’t have but always wanted. This is, where the Harley kicks in, at least it was in my case. And you fulfill that dream because now, you can. Now you must, because if you don’t, it might be too late.

HD Sportster 48 edition

rainy driveWith a lot of people I know, age becomes awareness of being old when you have turned fifty. Some never stop talking about it. Others try to hide it by dressing like they did thirty years ago. Most just don’t ride anymore because they feel old: their eyes find it difficult to focus at close range, their backs hurt after two hours straight riding and cold, rainy weather makes their bones sore. Age kills will.

I talked to the guy today. He used to own my other bike, the customized Suzuki Intruder.

I sold her because I found her just too difficult to handle and I never did more than two, three hundred miles a year on her.  I am 62 now I am too old for this so I bought a BMW. he said.

Suzuki VS 1400

I am determined never to get that old!

In my head I never want to be as old as that. I shall never resign to a BMW.

A bike is not for comfort, it is an expression of who you are. I thought so In my twenties and I do think so still.

And I am NOT a BMW!

 

 

 

wherever the road may take me

What is joy?

When the sun sends sparkling calls in the morning, when you have time to spend on what looks like a warm lazy summer’s day, and the road outside just seems to wait for you.

Joy is, when you have time to take the bike for a run and the weather is kind.

 

You get your gear together, that in itself is joy because you are anticipating what is to come, the smell of leather seems like the memory of past miles driven.

I can’t stop smiling. I take the bike for a run, I say.

Where are you going?

Now that is as philosophical as it can get.

Where am I going?

The most amazing fact about the solution to this quibble is – there is no need to know.

Utmost freedom is the answer. And that is pure joy.

I do not need to know where I am going. I don’t need a plan, a map a schedule. There aren’t many roads to take here and I know them all. I can’t get lost. So I can give the answer that includes all the freedom you can have on a bike.

I go wherever the road may take me.

Simple as that.

 

900 miles (part 1)

early startThere was no time to worry about it. After two days of travelling back from South America to Europe (a bus, two flights and a rental) I arrived home late at night, had a beer, repacked and went to bed. The jet lag would disappear somewhere along the 900 miles I had to go I hoped.

Next morning I woke up at 3, got up at 6 and started the engine at 7am sharp. The sound made my heart jump. I was on my way North; 900 miles just me and my new Suzuki Intruder. We had to go on this run north because I need a bike where my partner lives, which is unfortunately rather far from where I live.

The Harley stays at home.

I know my VS1400 is not a touring bike, far from it but all the more reason to feel great about doing it and about doing it alone. I like to have the freedom of riding alone. Yes, sometimes I miss the thrill you get out of riding in a posse. But my trip was different and personal.

I had got a lot of amazed incredulity when telling people what I was going to do – ride a chopper in two days from the South of Germany to the Scottish Highlands. Alone. Most women looked seriously shocked at the mere thought. Men mostly looked uncomfortable.

every 100 milesI wonder why? I have a credit card I can use; the bike is insured and has road coverage. My route takes me along busy European motorways, no deserts to cross anywhere, hardly an adventure, really.

So what is the problem? The only one I encountered on the first part of the trip to Rotterdam was my bum. Yeah, the seat looks great but it doesn’t feel it after two hours.

I must admit I was a bit nervous about going up the ferry with that long fork but it turned out no problem whatsoever.

There was a group of racers from the Isle of Man on the ferry with me. We gave each other a nod, no more. They must have thought it weird as well, that woman all by herself. So they rather didn’t talk.

nothwards boundHad I been a man, I am dead sure they would have been over in two seconds.

If a male biker is on a trip alone he is either cool or independent.

A woman on a bike, alone and unattached is strange and awkward to handle, it seems.

As if there was a difference.

No matter how far I travel, women still have a long way to go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Harley City

I never expected this place to be a Harley place. Tells you how much I know about this world. Brazil is new territory for me.

HDI am in Rio de Janeiro and they are everywhere, parked on pavements, squeezing in between dense rows of traffic and roaring along the beach front late at night.

This is Barra de Tijuca, a noble suburb of Rio de Janeiro. It is young and it is rich and it is always warm, mostly sunny: A perfect place to own a bike. But the crime rate being as high as it is, it makes you wonder how on earth they manage hold on to their machines.

Barra de TijucaThe bikers seem as artificial as this place full of high rise flats and hotels along the vast stretch of white sand and blue water. I sat in front of a bar with a tattoo studio the other night and  the local MC turned up, one after the other. All shiny new Harley-Davidson models parked in a row. The guys sat down and their colours were as shiny as their exhausts. Brand new.

Owning a Harley-Davidson and wearing colours seem the necessary ingredients for life in one of the most intriguing cities in the world. It seems to go with the mentality of showing what you’ve got that seems an integral part of all areas of Brazilian life.

In a way a motorbike is equivalent to a new handbag or expensive shoes. Show-off material to let others see you are cool and you’ve got the means.

The upper middle class is taking over. At least in Harley city.sunrise