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Jane and Walt Ride West on Motorcycles

By Walter F. Kern

Part 1: Why we took up motorcycling

Our PC-800s
© 1999-2008 Walter Kern

It was August of 1993 -- the year of the great Midwest floods. I was stopped behind a car towing a trailer. A Wyoming state road employee was holding a stop sign up ahead. I was on my 1990 Honda PC-800 motorcycle. My wife, Jane, was immediately behind me on her twin PC-800. We had ridden up from Cody after an overnight rain had stopped. We were on our way to Bear Tooth Pass. After waiting for five minutes, I could see cars moving. I pulled in the clutch, jammed my left foot down to engage first gear, let out the clutch, gently rolled on the throttle, and began following the trailer ahead of me. That was to be a mistake.

Almost immediately I knew something was wrong. The road surface was becoming soft. Now it was mud. Then I realized that the drivers ahead of me had misinterpreted the signal of the person holding the sign and had taken the side of the road that was under construction. This mistake was no big deal for the cars. It was a giant mistake for anyone riding a motorcycle. My bike was now swerving. Then I thought of Jane behind me. I looked in my rear view mirror just as she fell.

It was only an instant in time before I reacted but before that, my mind raced recalling the events that got us here...

It started in 1989 when we traveled back to our hometown in Illinois. We always stayed with Jane's sister, Carol. Carol's husband, Jack, was a Renaissance man. He had no college degrees but was a self-made man who undertook everything with a passion for excellence. He loved motorcycles. He had a complete machine shop in his garage to maintain his own bikes. At that time he had two BMW motorcycles. He and Carol had traveled everywhere on those machines, even to the top of Pike's Peak. I had always harbored a secret desire to ride but had never acted on it. On our last day there we were standing in the garage seeing off Jack and Carol's son who was packing up his motorcycle to return to Chicago. I stood there looking at the bike for a long time. Suddenly, I knew that I had to learn how to ride before it was too late.

On the way back to New Jersey I brought up the subject and to my surprise, Jane was enthusiastic and said she had always wanted to ride but thought I would never go for it. When we got back, we acted quickly. Jane immediately found someone at work who had a used 400 CC Honda for sale. We bought the bike, got our permits and scheduled our road tests. We still didn't know how to ride. I had heard about the Motorcycle Safety Foundation classes that were taught at a local college. We enrolled in the 3-day course and passed. Now we needed a second bike and it had to be a new one.

By nature, I'm a pretty easy going guy and very conservative. I'm not into intimidation. So, the first time I screwed up enough courage to walk into my local motorcycle dealer looking to buy a new bike for Jane, I could just feel the intimidation as I stood there among those sparkling chrome machines. I could hear the subdued tones of the salesmen and customers talking about motorcycles using language I could not comprehend. There were rows and rows of machines all lined up like silent soldiers. I was afraid someone would come up to me and ask me to leave for being so much out of place. Oh yeah, I was intimidated by it all, but I was not going to leave.

We had decided that Jane would get the first new bike. She got a 1989 Honda Shadow VLX. We found that the people at the dealership were really nice people. In fact, we began to see that almost everyone we met was nice. The media image of motorcyclists did not seem to be true. Shortly thereafter I traded in our first bike on a new 1991 Honda Nighthawk 750.

We started going to rallies but had not joined any clubs. Jane needed to find other women riders who could act as a support group. We quickly found the Spokes-Women Motorcycle club. Jane joined and I became an associate member. Shortly thereafter, I heard about a group called the Polar Bear Grand Tour. This group had 400 members that rode throughout the winter to points within NJ, NY, PA, and DE. I figured there was no way Jane would want to do this. However, when I brought it up, she was all for it -- so long as we could figure out a way for her to stay warm in the 20 degree New Jersey winters.

On Halloween in 1992, we sat around a table in Lewes, DE at a Polar Bear gathering when one of the women said, "How would you and Jane like to join us on a trip out to Cody, Wyoming next year for the Rider Rally?" Well, that was something to think about. We knew that we would never know whether we had the ability to go on a long trip unless we tried one. And the fact that we would be going with experienced motorcyclists made the decision easier. However, we needed different bikes to do this 6000 mile trek. We ended up with twin 1990 Honda PC-800 bikes. We did a lot of planning into 1993 and ended up with four bikes and five people going.

Walt at Sturgis
© 1999-2007 Walter Kern

We had a lot of fun on this trip and learned a lot. We found that we could ride 500 miles in one day if we had to. We met many colorful riders and swapped hundreds of stories -- I'll save those for another time. We rode through the desolate Sand Hills of Nebraska where you can ride 50 miles without seeing another vehicle. We rode into Sturgis, SD where the giant Sturgis Rally was being held. We headed to Cody, Wyoming for the Rider Rally. Cody is the next town out of Yellowstone Park. We toured Yellowstone on two occasions and almost froze to death. Our Polar Bear electric clothing saved us.

Part 2: Off to Beartooth Pass

While at the Rider Rally we missed the guided tour of Bear Tooth Pass. Jane said she just couldn't ride 6000 miles and not see Bear Tooth Pass since we were only a few miles away. So we started out on our own. The roads were good for awhile but then I saw traffic stopped ahead and I started slowing down ...

Suddenly, my revere was ended as I leaned forward to look in my mirror to see what happened to Jane. She was sprawled in the mud about 50 yards behind me. She and the bike had parted company. I then became aware of my own situation. I was still moving but I needed to stop. Hopefully, I wanted to stop upright. All I could think of was the training I had received in my courses and the tips I had received from other riders. I gradually began applying the brakes gently so as not to lock up any wheel. I had to steer so as not to allow the bike to fishtail. Somehow, I got the bike stopped and my feet down in the mud, upright. I slowly turned the bike to the left and across the gravel median to the other, paved, side of the road and headed back up the hill toward Jane. My tires were coated with mud and they were slipping. I didn't know if I would make it back without falling down myself but, somehow, I did. I parked on the side of the road and moved Jane's bike across the median to my side. Jane was OK but covered with mud. We always wear leather jackets and gloves, and wear helmets so Jane had no perceptible injury except bruising. We just had to get all the mud off her and the two bikes. We decided not to continue to Bear Tooth Pass and headed back to Cody where we spent the rest of the day washing down everything and relaxing.

Jane and Walt at the Grand Tetons
© 1999-2015 Walter Kern

We were able to ride down to see the Grand Tetons before we had to head back East. Somewhere along the way, our party of five had split up. We were going to have to ride the 2500 miles back to New Jersey on our own. When we got back and related our stories, our kids couldn't believe our adventures. Our daughter Sue said, "Most parents worry about what their kids are doing. In this family, the kids worry about what the parents are doing."

We haven't taken another long ride since 1993. We do attend the Americade Motorcycle Rally in Lake George, NY every year in June. It's the biggest touring rally in America. We haven't had any accidents in the 19 years we've been riding. Maybe it's the training we've received or the fact that we pick the times we ride to be safe. I don't know. I do know that the thousands of good times we've had in motorcycling would not have been possible without taking that first step into the unknown and deciding to learn to ride.

Since 1999, we've each switched to a Honda Gold Wing Motor Trike. She rides a white one and I ride a red one.

On August 31, 2008, Jane was killed in an automobile acccident while on vacation with her friends. Jane and I would have been married 47 years just two days after the accident. She was greatly loved by her family and friends. She was a unique individual, always ready to test her boundaries and have fun. Now, I'm moving on in the wake of her legacy, trying to continue to live my life as I know she would want me to. Of course, that will continue to involve motorcycling.

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