Most of my travels have involved adventure and volunteerism; I’ve always felt these are the best ways to connect to a new culture. But I decided to up the ante when I wound down my medical practice in 2016. I thought about summertime as a Nebraska native. It always meant Rand McNally road trips—which, with speed and an open road, had a certain allure.
When my youngest daughter turned 18, I signed up for the California motorcycle safety course and bought my first motorcycle. It was easy to join the vibrant community of SoCal motorcyclists, which is powered by year-round warm weather and beautiful, twisty coastal and mountainous roads.
As a woman, I was in the minority—only 14% of American motorcycles are registered to women—but I immediately felt comfortable with the community’s laid-back and welcoming mindset. My first bike didn’t have the most reliable gauges. One time I ran out of gas on the 101 South, and a burly man on a Harley stopped to help before I even had a chance to call AAA. He shook my bike to get the reserve gas flowing and led me to the nearest gas station.
I loved the feeling of the ride: the pressure and sound of the wind, the sense of connection to the details of my surroundings, the intensity of my thoughts, the immersion in something beyond myself. These things created a feeling of utter freedom. I was immediately hooked.
I practiced with canyon rides around Malibu and Ojai before branching out into international travel. Japan was on my radar, and it dawned on me that seeing a country of such volcanic majesty and island coastal wonder might best be achieved on two wheels. So in November 2016, I rented a BMW adventure motorcycle in Tokyo and set out on a three-week journey. As I was leaning my bike into the endless curves and inhabiting each moment, I realized that exploring by motorcycle was a cure for any worries.
There’s a unique sort of joy that piggybacks onto the dirt and bugs that accumulate on your visor and gear. My bike and I became a touchstone for interaction with people, as they were surprised to see a petite blonde woman emerge from a full-face helmet into the sea of gorgeous jet-black hair. My appearance became an unexpected asset; people showered me with kindness, and I made friends easily.
In the midst of the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia
The one and only time I had difficulty starting the motorcycle, four motorcyclists out on a weekend ride stopped and helped me resolve the issue. Earlier this year I hosted these new Japanese friends at my home.
I followed up with a three-week motorcycle trip to Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. This proved to be a journey of dramatic landscapes and extremes. I rode over the highest motorable pass in the Andes; through the vast, dry Atacama Desert; and over the Bolivian salt flats, which form part of the famous Dakar Rally.
My initial fear of riding on gravel was soon conquered out of necessity—only about 20% of the roads I traveled were paved. I became familiar with dirt, gravel, sand and remote border crossings on a rented motorcycle into and out of a communist country. Border guards dutifully completed hours of document inspection and paperwork to ensure my trusty bike was not stolen.
So when an email arrived this May asking if I would transport a BMW 700 GS to Anchorage, Alaska, the deal was sealed in minutes. How hard could that be? It’s the United States and Canada!
I soon discovered it wasn’t quite as easy as it sounded. I encountered powerful dust devils and 50 mph winds riding though the Mojave Desert. Three days into the journey there was a morning blizzard as I rode through Zion National Park; I promptly found out why motorcycle gloves have a built-in wiper on the left thumb. Visibility is key.
I pressed on, becoming more familiar with apps that update road conditions—only to discover that some of the roads I was hoping to take were closed because of heavy snow. Adjusting and improvising the route infused every day with joyful spontaneity and surprise encounters that, for me, felt like a treasure hunt.
Seeing a female motorcyclist continually seemed to surprise people, all the while making me more approachable. Every rider I ran into was male, and they were eager to find out what I was up to on the road. A Native Indian at a roadside diner in Iskut, British Columbia called me a city slicker because I was so “neat and tidy.” Given that I’d been without makeup and a blow-dryer for weeks, this was an unexpected compliment!
A sculpture made of salt bricks in the Uyuni Salt Flats
You must travel light with motorcycling—packing only essential gear and emergency tools, only what fits in the saddlebags. I learned early on to embrace simplicity and relinquish all the feelings of control I have at home.
Connecting with people is always one of the most rewarding aspects of travel, and I Iearned a new way to connect during the trip to Alaska. For the first time, I used Instagram (@badass_blonde_md) to share the adventure, and I found it to be not only fun but helpful.
As the trip unfolded, I used social media to get tips from fellow motorcycle adventurists who’d been down these roads before. I also came across a small but growing community of female motorcyclists, who encouraged and helped me on my journey from civilian to adventure rider. I hope to inspire other women the way they have inspired me. These human interactions, even small ones, continue to show me that travel is about me being with others in the world, not me going around the world.
Motorcycling has broadened my perspective on what’s possible to achieve and has given me a much deeper bond with nature. Riding lends itself to taking roads less traveled, and the inevitable solitude has allowed me to absorb the sounds and scents of the world in a new, unfettered way.
My newfound perspective has also inspired me to collaborate with other professional women from around the world through a program called Homeward Bound (homewardboundprojects.com.au). Starting in November, I will spend a year with experts in the fields of science, technology, engineering, math and medicine (STEMM).
The program is designed to create a global network of 1,000 women in STEMM who will go on to influence policy and decision-making as it shapes our planet. The journey culminates in a three-week adventure to Antarctica, where we’ll see firsthand how fragile our ecology is … and where I’m hoping I’ll be the first person to ride an electric, non-polluting motorcycle!
As the mother of two young women—one training as a software engineer and one as an Air Force pilot—I am honored to drive forward together with all women who dream big. Like my career in medicine, motorcycling has been a major means of empowerment for me; I’ve got two-wheeled wings on my back and am excited for every bump and bend of the miles I’ve yet to ride.
Mary Jo Ford can be found on twisty roads all over SoCal. Follow her adventures on Instagram @badass_blonde_md.
The writer riding across an old railroad trestle bridge in Alaska