A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture by bestselling Chicano author Luis J. Rodríguez [Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A. (2005)]. He spoke about growing up Mexican in Southern California, and regaled us with tales of his sordid past: he joined his first gang at age 11, and then spiraled headfirst into a seedy underworld of drugs, guns, and gang warfare.
Ironically, membership in an East L.A. gang became his salvation. A schoolyard brawl had left Rodríguez with a fractured jaw and a physical deformity; unlike his cruel classmates, the gangbangers embraced his quirk. They crowned him, “Chin.” Finally, he was accepted for his freakishness. And together they tore shit up.
I was reminded of Rodríguez’s tale as I wandered the 72nd Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in the Black Hills of South Dakota last week. I’ve been a biker chick since I was 15; in Massachusetts you can get a motorcycle license a year before a car permit, so that’s what I did. I’ve also been a tomboyish soccer star; a scowling teenage punk; a sassy sorority sister; an intrepid small-town journalist; and a curious world traveler. I’ve got chameleon-like charms. I’ve been an outsider, flitting about the fringes of many different cliques, since middle school, so I take pride in a unique ability to slide in with any crowd. Which is why I wasn’t concerned about riding solo for 650 miles on a black-and-red Triumph Bonneville T-100 from Colorado to lose myself in the world-famous chrome and leather bacchanal. I knew that once I got there, I would have a great time.
That’s the brilliance of a motorcycle rally: at it’s very basic, it’s one big, blissfully judgment-free zone. All in attendance are bonded by a single trait: a passion for travel on two wheels. It’s when all walks of life in the motorcycling world–whether you ride a throaty Harley, sleek BMW touring bike, vintage café racer, foxy crotch rocket, or even a puttering moped–unite to cruise together for a week and revel in a kind of freedom that outsiders just cannot comprehend. I wore the same pair of (Seven) jeans for the duration of my trip–nine days, by far a personal best–and you know how many sideways glances were thrown my way? None. Got helmet hair? Throw a bandana on your bad self. Eyeliner smudged? Even better! Really, nobody gives a fuck. As strange as this high-maintenance clotheshorse felt at first going to a Friday-night concert in dirty dungarees and heavy boots instead of a trendy dress and sparkly heels, I fit right in like a worn leather glove. I let loose and made lasting friends, I’m sure of it.
What’s more, at a motorcycle rally nobody cares what you do, where you come from, or how much money you pull in a year. You might be a surgeon or a man of the streets–whatever your “real” persona, nobody asks about it. Humanity is leveled. The overarching goal is to enjoy some carefree, beautiful “runs” through our magical landscape and clink beer bottles to having a damn good time.
And so I believe that every fragile young adult should attend a motorcycle rally as soon as possible. The motto here is “Come as you are”; belonging doesn’t require any special skill or trait. Imagine how this kind of universal, unconditional–aside from being a rider, or simply appreciative of or curious about the sport–acceptance could positively impact millions of overtly self-conscious, self-loathing Americans: Young women might loosen up about having perfect hair or the hottest new accessory or the doting boyfriend. (Drunk old bikers think every broad who walks into their line of vision is a magnificent sweetie baby, and lighthearted compliments abound.) Adolescent dudes, on the other hand, might feel acceptance and into something bigger than themselves. They might puff up their chests and imagine themselves as renegades–which they are, by default, if they are there–but not too cockily. After all, gangbangers don’t take no shit from no one.