Jenell Volmer

When was the first time you ever rode a motorcycle and what bike was it? How did the journey as a motorcyclist start?

I grew up in a tiny town in Montana. All the men in my family road motorcycles – it’s just part of the lifestyle where most people farm and ranch. I was the only girl my age in town, so I ran around with my big brother, my cousin and a pack of boys. It didn’t matter that I was the only girl. I wanted to do everything they did, and I tried to do it better. My Uncle who rode a Honda Goldwing, gave my brother a 1970’s Honda 90cc and my cousin a 1970’s Kawasaki 100cc. I threw a huge fit until my Dad agreed the bike would go to both of us not just my brother. I was 7 years old.

The first day we tried to ride it, I volunteered to go first. My brother was 8 and was not nearly as excited as I was. My feet didn’t even touch the ground when I sat on it, so my Dad held on to the handlebar and the seat, holding me up while he explained the controls. As I slowly let the clutch out and gave it a little gas, he held on and continued walking beside me until I went so fast he had to run.

He finally let and I gave it even more gas. I hooped and hollered with excitement it was so thrilling! I rode all the way down the dirt road until it curved and then realized I had no idea how to turn. I slowed down until it just fell over and I jumped off. I asked my Dad to pick it up for me so I could do it again!

I rode that bike as much as possible. I was too short and the bike was too heavy for me to start and stop by myself so I parked it next to our propane tank. I used the tank to climb on and off the bike so I didn’t have to wait for anyone to help me when I wanted to ride. The feeling it gave me was even better than my bicycle because I could go farther faster. It was the most powerful feeling of freedom and independence I had ever had.  

From that moment on, I’ve owned a motorcycle (or two or three) and have been riding. 37 years later, I still hoop and holler when I ride.

 

How long have you been riding for?

I am a lifelong rider. From age 7-18, I rode recreationally – dirt, street, anything with two wheels I could throw a leg over. When I went to college, I couldn’t afford a car, so I bought a 1989 Yamaha Route 66 limited edition, 250cc in pearl white.  It was the first brand new vehicle I ever owned.

I rode every day while working a full-time night shift and went to school full-time during the day. My average commute took at least an hour 5 days a week in rain, sleet, snow or sunshine both day and night. I road every road East Texas had to offer.

With that much road time, it was inevitable that I would have a run in with a car. It was finally a 17yr old kid in a ½ ton dually truck that ran a red light and took me out. I was off my feet for a long time, it took the better part of a year for me to fully rehab.

I had a friend who was a lifelong biker from California in the 60’s and 70’s. He didn’t ride any more because his 1969 Shovelhead was in pieces hanging on the walls of his bedroom and in boxes all over his house. He said he had to take it apart after his wife left him with 3 kids to raise on his own. He told me if his bike was in one piece he would ride back to California and not come back, so he was waiting until his youngest kid turned 18 before he put it back together. He understood my need to ride again when everyone else thought I was crazy. He it was in our blood, a desire we couldn’t deny if we tried.  

He let me store my totaled bike in his barn until I recovered. He made me do the work, but he helped me rebuild it when I could afford the parts. I started riding again as soon as I could.

I eventually traded up my 250 for a Yamaha V-star Classic 650cc because it looked like a Harley Fat Boy, which is what I really wanted but couldn’t afford it. I started taking longer and longer rides with friends. We rode from Texas to Missouri and back several times and all points between. We would ride an hour just to get a cup of coffee in another town. We went on week-long rides with nothing but the gear we could strap to our bikes. No destination in mind, we just woke up every day and took the road that looked most interesting. We had no cell phones, no Internet and no agenda. All we needed was a paper map and some cash. It was one of the best times of my life!

One day I had a friend who went out drinking and riding, as we all did sometimes. We knew all the local roads like the back of our hand so it was no big deal to ride buzzed or even drunk. His buddy was on the back of his bike at the first bar and the next bar but when he got to the third bar he couldn’t find him. He had no idea his friend fell off the bike and died somewhere on the road. After hearing that, I vowed to never drink and ride again and I didn’t. Ever.

 

How have motorcycles impacted your life in a positive way and what do they mean to you?

Riding motorcycles is extremely therapeutic for me. It relieves my stress by making my mind focus. I feel directly connected to the elements around me and all of my senses are heightened. In a car you are removed from the cold wind, the sting of raindrops or the smell of flowers in the field. On a motorcycle you see, feel, smell and experience the world around you directly, it’s visceral. You’re forced to be a part of everything around you. My mind ceases to wander and it stays sharp and in the moment when I ride.

I didn’t know yet that riding was a tool I could use to find balance. There was a time when my career took off in my late 20’s and I was asked to move a lot for work. I moved to Vegas, Atlanta, Washington D.C. and twice back to Texas in less than 5 years.

This is the only period in my life when I stopped riding. I worked ALL.THE.TIME. I can’t tell if I was so far removed from friends or family at that time because I was so absorbed in my career, or if I was so absorbed in my career because I was so far removed from friends and family. I do know that I became depressed. I lost so much weight that when my friends finally saw me they thought I might be sick. I stopped eating and couldn’t sleep. I tried to fill what felt like a hole in my soul for years with anything and everything, especially alcohol and pills.

No one knew I was an addict, I didn’t know either. My career and responsibilities were always in order so how could I be considered an alcoholic? I took pills to sleep, pills for pain and pills for my emotions. When I realized I was probably drinking too much I decided to try cutting back. Part of my controlled drinking strategy was to start riding my motorcycle again, because I promised to not drink and ride. If I got back in to riding I would drink less, right?

That’s not how alcoholism works. No one tells you that it’s all fun and games until one day you cross an invisible line in the sand. You have no idea where it is or when you’ve crossed it, but when you do there is no turning back. It’s not that way for everyone, but it was that way for me. A thousand drinks are not enough and one is too many, as they say. I’m grateful that I hit rock bottom before killing anyone or myself. It could have happened a hundred times. The last day I drank I passed out, got sick and aspirated in my sleep. I am incredibly lucky that I woke up, I decided not to waste another day.

I asked for help, sought treatment and went to work on myself. I started riding again. I started volunteering to help others. I got busy unloading all the emotional baggage I had been carrying around and worked hard to find balance.

Helping other people really got me out of my head like riding does. The career I worked so hard for rewarded me with an opportunity to participate in the It Gets Better Campaign. It was an effort to help fight teenage suicide, something I dealt with growing up but had no resources to turn to for help. When I learned the video actually saved someone’s life I was overwhelmed with gratitude. I looked for other ways to help. I started working with the Mawuvio Outreach Program to help kids living on the streets in Ghana get a free education.

I haven’t taken a drink or used pills in 2 years, 4 months and 16 days. I ride a lot more than I have in years. My life is beautiful, full and amazing. Of course I still have shitty days but I have new skills to help me cope with it. I’m still an addict, I always will be. I don’t get to turn that switch off. But when I ride bikes, or standup paddleboard, or surf my mind is focused. The background noise stops and the anxiety, fear, anger, confusion or whatever I might be carrying falls away. I know now that I need those activities and connections with other people to feel whole.

Will I ever take another drink? I don’t know but not today and not when I ride. I just keep telling myself that one day at a time.

Photos by: Daniel Nguyen

 

Carolyn Smith

How old were you when you rode your first motorcycle, and what was it?

My first time on a bike was in college. I didn’t have a car and had started dating this cute guy with a motorcycle (a Nighthawk 750). I didn’t date him because he had a bike, but it didn’t hurt either! It was our only form of transportation for the first several years of college and that was challenging sometimes - I remember pushing him back and forth on it in front of the dorm one cold night while we were trying to push-start the damn thing so we could go out. And I remember my mom wasn’t at all thrilled the first time we rolled up on it at my parents’ house! (Honestly, even 20 years later now, she’s still not thrilled about it but she did recently ask about going out for a ride sometime so maybe she’s finally coming around a bit!)

Well, the cute guy and I married a few years later and he ending up selling that bike for a car. We later moved to Phoenix and the weather was so great there much of the year it seemed a shame not to have a bike, so I surprised him with one (Suzuki Marauder 900) for April Fool’s Day. He was elated when he came home to it sitting in the garage, but I’d had to have the sales guy ride it there for me since I didn’t know how. So, after we moved back to Austin a few months later, I took the MSF course and found that I loved riding by myself! But then I tried to ride the Marauder after getting my license. After embarrassing myself – and worrying about damaging it – by dropping it a few times, I gave up.

Several years and several children later I was ready to try it again, though. I started on a V-Star 650 and got the hang of it pretty quickly that time. I remember practicing in the

The next time I did it, I leaned enough to scrape the peg! He was impressed and I was stoked. From then on out, I just kept practicing, building my confidence, and building my skills. And now riding is my meditation.

How do motorcycles help you meditate? In what way?

I’m a NICU nurse and my shifts start early, so riding to work wakes me up and gets my mind ready for the day. Riding home afterward can be a decompression if it’s been a rough day, and a “rough day at work” in healthcare can be a very bad day.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to either ride or work as much as I’d like lately because I found a lump in my breast last fall. I’ve finished four months of chemo and recently had a double mastectomy. I’ll start radiation very soon.

Not just riding motorcycles has been my support though. So many people in the motorcycle community have been, too. When I first found my lump, it was very large and fast growing and I have three sons, two of whom are quite young. I worried that if something happened – if I died – would they really remember who I am, what I’m like? So I contacted Dalton, who I know through riding and is an amazing photographer. We talked about what was happening, what my fears were, what kind of positive things I wanted to try to do with this experience, and he offered to do photos and videos with me of the whole cancer treatment process. So his generously working with me, someone whom he really only knows through bikes, has helped me so much to process through some of my fears, through losing my hair, through doing chemo, through losing my breasts, and now through trying to learn to be comfortable in my own skin again. Meanwhile, other riders have brought my family food and offered encouragement the whole way. There are so many people that ride that are amazing, kind, creative, adventurous people, and having their support has made this whole thing easier.

Finally, I haven’t been able to ride for months at a time during my treatments because of pain and just being too weak to feel safe on the roads but even when I couldn’t ride, motorcycles have still been my main coping mechanism. To keep my mind busy instead of going crazy with “what if” and worries, I use motorcycles to keep me looking forward instead of looking backward. I’ve been researching what bike I might want to get next and comparing one model against another, looking at what kind of mods I would want to do to them, how much insurance would be – it gives me something within my control I can work on, even when I’m in the middle of “the suck.” Also, since I just had my surgery a few weeks before MotoGP came to Austin, one of my recovery goals was to be able to attend the race and some of the associated events. And I did it! I got myself weaned from pain meds, got my post-surgery drains removed, and started figuring out my new normal enough be able to get out and do it just two weeks after surgery.

Would you ever go as far to say that motorcycles are like medicine?

I’ve been taking a daily “happy pill” for depression for a few years but, for anyone who has experienced depression, you know it tends to suck the energy out of you. Motivation to get out and do anything becomes harder muster. Even if it’s a beautiful day out, my inclination sometimes will still be to just want to stay in because getting dressed and going out seems like a lot of work. I’ve found that if I can push myself a little bit to just get out on the bike on my favorite winding back road, just a few minutes into the ride it’s as if my whole sense of self will be lifted by the wind flying past me, the smell of cut grass, the focus on the road, and the feel of the throttle twisting in my hand. It’s a near-instant lift.

Photos by Dalton Campbell & Daniel Nguyen