It’s not every day you see a young woman riding around on a Harley-Davidson Panhead chopper. I have to admit it’s often bewildering when someone pulls out their cell phone at a stoplight and starts snapping photos of me, as if I’m some sort of outlier. I grew up around choppers and don’t think of myself as anything special. Motorcycles have been an all-encompassing part of my life from the very beginning, and I wouldn’t change that for the world.
I was eight years old when my Uncle Wayne passed away unexpectedly in a car accident – a tragedy that sent a jolt of devastation through my family. After some time had passed, my father was given his brother’s most prized possession: a 1949 Harley-Davidson Pan-Shovel Chopper. I remember that day so vividly; my Mom and I in the car, following my dad as he rode that very special bike from my Aunt’s house to its new home with us.
At the time, I didn’t understand the significance of that day or the influence it would have over my life. But soon enough I would.
I immediately began going on rides with my Dad, and it didn’t take long for my Mom, who was never one to ride on the back, to want a bike of her own. She ended up buying a brand-new Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic, and eventually she and my father began to build her a chopper of her very own – a chopped Shovelhead. They’ve since done thousands and thousands of miles together across the United States and Canada.
This was my normal. I did not realize that not all parents were riding around on motorcycles, let alone on choppers.
For me, it was never a question if I would ride. Just when. I grew up on dirt bikes and knew deep down that when I was old enough, I, too, would have a Harley-Davidson of my own. When I turned 18, I quickly signed up for a motorcycle safety course and got my M1 endorsement. And it was at this point that my Dad and I began my build. I remember the first piece he collected: the rear wheel. What began as a single wheel eventually began to look more and more like a real motorcycle. My parents traded their 1954 Ford truck for my 1964 Panhead engine, and that’s when the excitement really began to percolate; it was all coming together! It took six-and-a-half years for my bike to be “finished,” and I use quotes here because anyone with a bike, especially a vintage bike, knows they’re never truly “finished.”
I was born and raised in Torrance, California, a suburb of Los Angeles right along the coast. Torrance and its surrounding cities make up an area known as the South Bay, which has a rich history in motorcycling and custom/chopper culture. Many a chopper legend made their mark in the South Bay: Richard “Fats” Noriega, Dick Allen, Joe Hurst, Angel Marc, Randy Smith and Nasty Nez Nesbit, to name just a few. My Dad grew up surrounded by this culture, and each of our family’s bikes is a reflection of South Bay chopper history.
Mine was built with a 13-inch over Fat’s springer front end, a Dick Allen two-into-one exhaust, a ‘South Bay Swoop’-style sissy bar and an auxiliary gas tank made from an old stainless steel fire extinguisher mounted to back of the sissy bar, a common trend for South Bay bikes dating back to the 1960s. I did my best to design the bike, not only with South Bay history in mind but in keeping with the time period. From the king and queen seat to the custom paint, I wanted my bike to be as period-correct as possible, while still being safe and reliable for the long-haul.
Last summer was my first experience trekking with my parents on a true chopper trip, logging more than 5,000 miles over a three-week period. Beginning at our home in Torrance, we made our way up the coast through Oregon, Washington and into Canada. We rode a few hundred miles East and came back down into the States through Idaho, into Montana, Wyoming, and stopped by Sturgis, South Dakota. From there we ventured back through Wyoming and Colorado, stopped by the Four Corners Monument and then headed home. Epic is too weak a word to describe that trip, but it was definitely not short of setbacks and breakdowns.
From my Mom’s front wheel bearings needing to be replaced in a gas station parking lot just outside of Glacier National Park, to being stranded on the side of the road in the desolate plains of Lodge Grass, Montana, due to my Dad’s bike blowing a head gasket, our trip seemed destined for extra pit stops.
Only by the saving grace of numerous strangers, who have now become lifelong friends, were we able to continue our trip. My parents had toured like this for many years without hiccups like these, and they quickly began joking that the problems we were having were due totally to my presence on the trip. Nice, eh?
My bike ran without a single issue. (Take that, Mom and Dad!) I felt like I had a decent connection with my bike before setting off on this adventure, but it wasn’t until riding 100 miles through intense hail, 60-mph wind gusts and pouring rain that I really felt as one with my machine. We rode through it all: severe storms, 115-degree deserts, dark, smoke-filled mountain highways surrounded by forest fires, and tranquil, winding roads lined with picturesque pines. There is nothing quite like riding a hardtail chopper for thousands of miles, though I have to tell you that my kidney belt and gel seat cushion were absolute necessities!
We made it back home safe and sound with memories that will absolutely last a lifetime. It may sound cliché, but honestly, you cannot ask for much more than that. Even with the troubles we encountered, the adventure was truly life-changing, and made even more special by the fact that I got to share the experience with my parents – who, after all, got me into this two-wheeled adventure in the first place and helped me build my bike. I’m eternally grateful for that.
Even better, the three of us will be riding to Alaska later this summer. We’ll ride up to Washington, ferry to Alaska and then ride the beautiful Alaskan Highway across the state and through Canada. I’ve been looking forward to this trip since the day I returned home from our trip last year, and knowing that we’re now less than two months away has had my brain in ‘La La Land’ thinking about the adventures to come.
If you ride, and I’m sure the vast majority of you do, there is nothing I can recommend more than loading up your bike with only the essentials and heading out on a motorcycle adventure. No experience is more freeing, humbling or gratifying. Motorcycles have been an all-encompassing part of my life from the very beginning, and I very much plan on keeping it that way. I’m pretty sure this new gig will help ensure it!
So thanks, Uncle Wayne. Your legacy lives on, and in a very big way.