Kara Kolodziej is following the group in her truck. Although her motorcycle isn’t running, she may be the grittiest among us, a former bike-messenger who is proud to show off the skull tattoo on her ass any time. She’s raced motorcycles for years, and placed first in the 250cc vintage flat-track class this September. Her city bike is a fussy 1971 Triumph Tiger Daytona that stalls in traffic and causes a scene as she thrusts her trim, muscular frame down against the foot shifter to kick-start the bike—all the while cursing as cars honk and swerve around her. Kara says her mom, in contrast, is a proper lady. Her grit was internal, dressed up in business suits and expressed in political ways. In the 1970s and 80s, Kara’s mom presided over a league of women voters in Massachusetts, and was a senior systems analyst in corporations dominated by men.
Then there’s my mother, a veterinarian who wears a chain wallet and doesn’t touch makeup or shave her legs. As a child, for any acts of feminine vulnerability—squealing at a mouse, for example—she would accuse me of acting like a “dink.” But when I became absorbed in novels about sex, crime, drugs, and adventure, she praised me for reading. It turns out that Corinna, the woman who haphazardly launched the Miss-Fires, had the same fictional heroes as I did: male characters in books by Kerouac, Dostoyevsky, Miller, and Burroughs. We didn’t want to marry these guys; we wanted to emulate them. If we could be equal in the workplace, why not in adventure? After all, our liberal, east-coast upbringings taught us that nothing was off-limits.
Lesley begs Suzie to slow down… Suzie bluntly answers no
But three decades later, courage in the face of danger remains an attribute celebrated among men, whereas women embrace displays of caution, support, and consideration for others. Motorcycling embodies the former, so the machine becomes a dead give-away for ladies who place a high value on so-called masculine traits. What I interpreted as chaos on my first rides with the Miss-Fires was, in hindsight, a display of fearlessness, and a tease for the less-confident riders to catch-up and harness their own power. At a rest stop during one ride, Lesley begs Suzie to slow down so that she can keep up on her 250cc Honda Rebel. Suzie bluntly answers no. But a month later, Lesley buys a Harley Sportster with an 883cc engine, and offers to sell her slower “starter” bike to a Miss-Fire-to-be.
Onlookers may mistake the very public love between members of ladies-only motorcycle groups as outpourings of their nurturing feminine natures. If that were true, the all-women writing groups, book clubs, and knitting clubs I’ve belonged to in the past would have felt this way—and they don’t by a long shot. Instead, the thrill is the elation of finally finding women who embody all of the things we know our gender can be, but often isn’t: brave, curious, and daring. Or, as Kara puts it: “To say, I want to ride a motorcycle, and then go out and buy one, and get a license, and ride on these streets, that’s what I want to see—women with some fuckin’ life in them.”
With the summer sun still high in the sky, the Miss-Fires turn onto a country road and into a parking lot. We hike down a slope into the woods to where a river rushes beneath a bridge. Still moving like a pack, we scramble over boulders that jut into the water. On a flat rock of an island, we drop our heavy leather jackets, yank off our boots, strip down to our bathing suits, and jump into a swimming hole where the frigid water collects before streaming further down the mountain. Dragonflies hover over our heads as we bounce chin-deep in the river, our toes sinking into the earth. Our badges of honor are self-appointed and invisible to the world, but we see them on one another, rippling beneath the surface.