This year, I treated myself to a giant dose of something unexpected. Other people I know have used words like “crazy, reckless, brave, stupid, naive, insane, ridiculous, bad-ass…” The list goes on. And while quite frankly there may be some truth in all of those words, I still like the word unexpected best. It was an unexpected gift- that I gave myself.
In May of this year I caught wind of a trip my friend Kevin Kubota was organizing in Italy for the fall. He was planning to lead a group of photographers around Tuscany on motorcycles for a week. And while there was also an option to ride in a van with the “non-riders”, there was something about this motophoto adventure that grabbed me by somewhere deep down in my spirit an shook me awake. Admittedly, I remember thinking through a very romanticized rose-colored filter- “A week on a motorcycle driving around Tuscany?!?! Ummm, YES!” Mind you, I had never ridden a motorcycle before- like, ever. I was a passenger on the back of one a couple times, but I don’t really think that counts. I also remember thinking- “I can totally learn how to drive a motorcycle, no problem.” And that was that. In not more than a few moments (ok, it was a couple of days), I had made a decision. I was going.
At the end of May I signed up for the trip. I asked Kevin for help picking out a motorcycle to reserve (since I legitimately had zero clue what to even look for), I put down a deposit, and THEN I looked online for a motorcycle safety class so that I could get my drivers license endorsement. I took said class near the end of June and only then did it all really begin to hit me. What have I done this time!?!? I remember taking my little certificate from the class to the DMV to get a new license and having a moment standing in line feeling truly horrified at my life choices. I mean, let’s be honest, I had spent all of about 4 hours total on a little dirt-bike in a parking lot never going over about 25mph or above 3rd gear. And now the state of Colorado was giving me a license to drive a motorcycle- on the roads with other motorists. I felt seriously under-prepared. But, as I had already committed to this adventure, I pressed on. My next step was to find a used motorcycle to buy so that I could practice driving it for a couple of months. That’s plenty of time, right? Well… maybe.
The weekend of July 4th, with the help of my sister and a friend of hers in Carbondale, we went and met a guy selling a 1982 Honda nighthawk. A classic. Cool! I hopped on and asked the guy selling if I could take it for a test ride, like I totally knew what I was doing. I remember my shaky start out of his driveway and a very short 10 minutes of riding it around the neighborhood. I pulled back into his driveway and handed him a wad of cash. It was mine.
I spent the next two and a half months driving my little Honda up and down Coal Creek Canyon right outside of Arvada to familiarize myself with windy, twisty, mountain roads, mostly because that was what I was imagining I would be doing in Italy. My confidence started to grow. I felt exhilarated and alive. I was having a blast! I got all the recommended protective gear. I only drove in the daytime. I stayed out of the city of Denver (because that was too dangerous), and I stayed off the freeways. I was all about staying safe, as I had promised a multitude of people that care about me that I was NOT planning on getting hurt (or dead) on my motorcycle.
And as the trip got closer, my anxiety started to build. I knew I was going to be on a very different bike in Italy and that it was going to be much bigger and much more powerful. So I decided to rent something similar for a day to familiarize myself with a bigger, faster, and much more beastly motorcycle. I showed up to the rental place where they pointed me to the bike I had reserved and I had a moment of panic wash over me as I thought “NO WAY! That thing is huge!” But, I rode it anyway. And it was awesome. And again, my confidence took a turn in the right direction. I’m doing this. I CAN totally do this!
On Sept. 26th I started packing my bags. I was going to Rome two days early so that I could deal with the jet lag before getting on that motorcycle. 24 hours later I landed in Rome. The first thing I did was leave my cell phone in the front seat of the taxi that dropped me off. I was standing on the sidewalk “somewhere close” to where I was staying when I realized it. HOLY CRAP! I had been in Rome for all of about 20 minutes and I had already lost my only form of communication. Not to mention my only form of a GPS. This. Is. Not. Looking. Good.
I said a silent prayer and stood there with all of my crap as a river of thoughts rushed through my brain. “Well- I still have my laptop… Worst case scenario, I find a cafe with wi-fi and contact my AirBnB host to figure out where I’m going…” and then I saw the taxi coming back. PHEW! The driver pulled up next to me and in a explosion of Italian said a whole bunch of things I didn’t understand as she handed me my phone through the open window. I thanked her profusely as relief flooded over me. My guardian angels were already there.
I spent the next two days exploring Rome on my own and getting my clock turned around. I was mesmerized by Rome. The history of that city is like nothing I have ever experienced. And while I had an incredible time wandering aimlessly, taking in the sights and the newness of it all, my nervousness started creeping back up too. Italian drivers are NUTS. I was almost hit by a car crossing the street. I watched the traffic flying around the main streets, the side streets, the round-a-bouts, with all “American” versions of road rules seemingly nothing more than suggestions. I knew that I had to get that motorcycle OUT of this crazy city and only then did I begin to regret never taking my Honda into Denver-proper. For comparison sake, imagine that Denver is like a domesticated kitten, and Rome is like a wild tiger.
And just like that, the morning the group was to meet at the rental garage to get our bikes was upon me. And while the bike that had my name on sticky note attached to the windshield was gorgeous, it was BIG. A BMW 800GT. I felt my heart start to beat faster and faster to the point I thought I might actually have a heart attack. I was excited but also a little sick to my stomach. Those last moments before we mounted up are a blur. I was lost in a sea of my own insecurity, nerves, doubt, and massive amounts of fear. The last thing I remember before I put my helmet on was our Italian tour guide, Max, saying something along the lines of “Ok people, we have to get out of the city and we have to stay together. You need to be aggressive. If you hesitate, that’s when things go wrong….” I hit the ignition button and heard the moto roar to life. My heart was practically beating out of my chest and I was sweating bullets.
Lean in, Frances. Lean in. It’s go time. And we were off.
I can’t remember being more hyper-focused about anything in my adult life. I knew that basically my life was at stake. I know that sounds dramatic, and while I can certainly be dramatic, I assure you, I was not being dramatic. I was being real. And as we maneuvered around and through the mid-morning traffic and began to move away from the city center I finally felt my heart rate begin to slow and my initial panic begin to subside. A little.
Once out of the city, we stopped for a quick check in and some high fives. I was so relieved to be out of Rome! I was quickly getting familiar with the power of the bike I was on and now that the “hard part” was behind me I was finally able to allow myself to feel excited about what was to come.
We spent the next 6 days riding nearly 850 miles around Umbria and Tuscany, stopping in beautiful mid-evil villages, staying in remote private villas, dining in castles, but mostly experiencing the country-side in a way that I truly never could have imagined. And in the spirit of being transparent, getting out of Rome on the moto day one was not the end of my fear by any stretch of the imagination. Over the next 6 days we did all kinds of things on those motorcycles that were totally new to me and that scared the crap out of me. We drove faster than I had ever driven on freeways. We split lanes of traffic with zero room for error (In America that’s called a “no-no”). We maneuvered steep hills and sharp corners on slippery cobblestone with cars and people and tour buses. We drove on gravel roads. We rode the bikes at night in the dark. It was a crash course (without the literal crash part) in advanced motorcycle riding. And while I had a couple of shaky moments- and yes, I did drop my bike more than once- I can say that I left Italy a week later without a single scratch (can’t say as much for the moto) and as a MUCH better rider than I arrived as. Like light-years better.
It was the scariest thing I have ever done. And, I can say with absolute sincerity that I have never done anything that left me feeling more alive. I stared fear in the face and I won. I took a chance on myself and I will carry the reward in my heart and my mind for the rest of my life.
Thank you so much to everyone that was a part of this incredibly journey! To Kevin and Clare for being the most fantastic hosts and travel partners! To Max and Cristiana for making us feel like family and sharing your beautiful home and country with us so generously. Thank you to Kevin, specifically, for believing in me and having faith in me that I could do this! Thank you to Max for being our fearless moto-leader and for keeping us all together and safe. To Jeff and Tina for being awesome riding buddies! To Sherri, Catrina and Ben, Benita, Sheri & Brooks- I loved spending time with ALL of you! I hope to see you all again on another adventure.
It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve been home getting back into my normal routine and all I feel is gratitude. I am so thankful that I listened to my instinct and took that leap of faith. I am proud of myself for facing something really intimidating and pushing through my doubt, my fear, my insecurity and DOING IT ANYWAY. I am reminded what the phrase “leaning in” is really about. It’s about living instead of merely existing… I am forever changed.
Kevin wrote a beautiful story about our adventure and you can read about it here. P.S. In case it’s not clear, “she” is me. 🙂
I hope you enjoy some of the photos from the trip. I have included some of Kevin’ photos (below) that he took of our moto gang as well! THANK YOU KEVIN!!!