Pierson has the insight to report on the combination of insecurities, contradictions, and fearless self-analysis that makes us riders.
In this installment of Women Who Ride, we look to Pierson who rode inward through her own psyche to understand the allure of motorcycles and the people who ride them
Story by Jim Trumm
The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles by Melissa Holbrook Pierson, begins with a lyrical passage that reads like a description of a religious rite. "The key is slipped into the ignition at the top of the steering head. Then the rider swings a leg over the seat and sits but keeps the weight on the balls of the feet. With a push from the thighs, the rider rocks the bike forward once, again, picking up momentum until it starts to fall forward and down from the centerstand. The key turns; idiot lights glow. The starter button on the right handlebar, pressed, begins a whirring below. A simultaneous twist of the right grip pulls the throttle cables and the engine bleats, then gulps, then roars. There is contained fire within inches of the rider’s knees."
Given Pierson’s attentiveness to the rituals of the ride, it’s not surprising that many pages on, she tells of her visit to a motorcycle museum in Otterbach, Germany in spiritual terms: "We admired all the fine old bikes, from Aermacchi to Zundapp, sure, but I think we were at least as appreciative of the fact that they were housed in a former church. It was still a place of worship as far as we were concerned.”
But what begins as ritual soon becomes a psychological inquiry. To invert Pierson’s subtitle, what is it about motorcycles? It’s certainly more than just the ride. The closest she comes to giving a direct answer is to say that “motorcycles are a way into yourself, and a way out.”
By writing The Perfect Vehicle, Pierson had hoped to communicate the essence of motorcycling to a general audience. But that's not the way it worked out. The book was popular among motorcyclists, but non-riders took little note of it.
"I would know the sound of a big Guzzi in my sleep," says Pierson
In an interview for this article, Pierson also laments how technology has affected her connection with her motorcycles. "Now I feel a tad distant from my bikes. This extends to the ride because I’m no longer able to pay the close attention I once did to the inner workings of the stationary motorcycle. Or to relate in a physical way to much of what’s happening when underway. And that’s because I can’t—it’s all inside the invisible workings of a chip that is not ‘read’ by me, but by a computer.”
Pierson came to motorcycling in her mid-twenties, after getting her bachelor’s from Vassar and her master’s from Columbia. Once she discovered motorcycles, a different kind of learning took hold of her. She discovered the joy, power, peace, fear, vulnerability, and happiness that can visit a rider in just ten miles.
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She rode around New York City and its near environs. She rode America through and through. She rode in Europe. But the real travel is through the landscape of the psyche. The Perfect Vehicle is as much of a travelogue as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is about the highways of the northwest. Which is to say that it isn’t really about those roadways at all.
To make these inward journeys, Pierson doesn’t ride trail bikes, crotch rockets, or plush cruisers. She favors the sculpted, sinewy, Italian designs of Moto Guzzi: “I would know the sound of a big Guzzi in my sleep. It concentrates its aural energies in your upper chest, ringing through your bones. It is…the sound of joy.”
Melissa writes so that you are on that bike, the wind rushing by, and feeling every bump and bend in the road. Beyond summoning the exquisite sense of riding a motorcycle, she summons the bike’s physicality in its lines and weight, but especially in its sound.
– Amy Cherry, Vice President & Senior Editor, W. W. Norton & Company
Despite her status as a female rider, Pierson is careful not to attempt to speak for all women motorcyclists. "I don’t think riding itself is a gendered experience," she said in an interview for this article. "It’s the way the rider is perceived that’s gendered. Women have to push through an extra layer of resistance sometimes, in that we may have to first take back a basic right to do what we want to do without censure. In cultures that have strong gender prescriptions, this can be at the risk of physical punishment, but in many of the most dramatic instances where this is the case worldwide, there are now examples of women who have taken to motorcycles even under pain of physical harm, which is a new and amazing development. Men don’t face that.”
Pierson's second motorcycle book, The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing: Long-Distance Motorcycling’s Endless Road, was published in 2011. She hadn't planned to write about motorcycling again until she encountered the extreme long-distance motorcycle subculture, people who ride 1,000 miles in a single day in "iron butt" marathons. "It's such a loony, all-absorbing pursuit, I knew I’d have to write about it," Pierson remarked. "I still think those people are nuts. But they’re among the smartest, most generous humans I’ve ever encountered. There’s got to be a connection there.”
More recently, Pierson took a trip through India, another one of those journeys that broadens the mind, the soul, and the horizon.
And she’s still discovering what it is about motorcycles.
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This story is part of a larger feature by Jim Trumm for ConsumersAdvocate.org and is republished here with permission.