Over the River and Through it All – Colleen First

GS Adventure June 2005 040

If exploring the world on two wheels is considered a passion then Colleen First (AKA Dante’s Dame) may be the most passionate person I have ever met. An adventure rider with thousands and  thousands of miles behind her, Colleen enjoys on a regular basis what most of us only dream about – a kickstart, followed by a journey, ending in an ocean or a mountain or a canyon or a desert.

When I saw the map that documents her journeys thus far, I have to admit I was quite envious. Envious enough to make a change in my life so that I can experience more of what she has? I sure hope so. I have printed that map and it now resides on my refrigerator as a constant reminder that the world extends far beyond my sleepy New England town.

Read on to learn how Colleen got into adventure riding, what tools she uses to get the job done and what is left on her exploratory bucket list.

Enjoy!

Greg Coutu – You’ve got one of those stories, Colleen, which begs the need to ask how you got into motorcycling. You obviously have a deep-seated passion for it so where did that passion come from? When did it start? Was there someone that served as your inspiration?

Colleen First – My passion came really late in life and it started out in a most unconventional way. I was attending college and living just far enough away from campus to preclude walking but not really far enough to justify a car. I happily filled the gap with an incredibly cheap mid-80’s scooter, with a max speed of 29 mph. My parents were not happy with this decision, although it was for the opposite reason I’d expect: I would never be able to keep up with traffic. So when the piston blew its ring (twice), I sold the scooter and bought a motorcycle. It is important to keep in mind that I knew of no one who owned or rode motorcycles. No one in my family had any interest whatsoever, and only years later did I learn that one of my grandfathers used to ride back in the 1920’s. I had only been on the back of one once, very briefly. So briefly, in fact, that I had forgotten about it until well after I had bought one of my own.

So I merrily read the local classifieds, found something incredibly cheap and drove my VW Bug over to see it. I knew so little about motorcycles at the time I had no idea what I was looking at. Tires? Chain? Mileage? Who cares! It runs! It was a dinosaur of a bike, probably a 1979 Honda 500 or something like that. The seller didn’t tell me much about the bike but took my $250 and handed me the key. I immediately handed it back to him, telling him that I didn’t know how to ride and would he ride it to my house? He agreed, and later that day I was standing next to it in the driveway, the proud owner of a motorcycle that I didn’t know with what to do.

In the next few days I found out that a friend of a friend knew how to ride and he came over to give me some pointers. I clearly recall that day: we stood on opposite sides of the bike as he pointed out the throttle, brake, rear brake, clutch, gear shifter… and then he looked at his watch and said “I’ve got to go”. And there I stood, staring at the bike, all alone.

Over the next few weeks I took it out by myself, riding carefully around my quiet neighborhood and popping the clutch a couple of times. Eventually I took the local MSF course. At least now I was legal to be on the street, even though I still had a lot of work to do.

But what about the passion? That would take years to develop. I got my license in 1991 and used the bike as merely a way to get around town. I liked riding a motorcycle more so because it was “different” and not so much because I found it “fun”. Surprisingly, this didn’t change after I moved from the relatively dull roads in northeastern Pennsylvania to the much more diverse landscape of Washington State in 1995. I had found more people who rode, but I needed a destination. When my friend Chris said “Do you want to go for a ride?” I replied with “Where?”. If he didn’t have a firm destination, I declined to go out.

Then the passion hit. I had moved from my original Honda, through a couple of other bikes and now had a 1991 Honda VFR 750. It was pretty and smooth – and fast. The local VFR riders invited me up to Mt St Helens. I probably wouldn’t have gone except that this was a destination that I actually wanted to see. I joined them and much to their benefit, they were very emphatic on encouraging me to “ride my own ride”. They promised that they would wait for me at the top of the mountain and I was to take my time, no matter how much time that was. And let me tell you, it was a long time. This can be a very scary road, as the volcano blast zone has been wiped clear of trees, leaving you with a view (and no guardrail) of the steep drop offs. I crawled my way to the top, where the rest of the riders were waiting patiently for me. They made me feel very welcome and on the ride back down, it finally dawned on me just how much fun riding a motorcycle could be. It only took me 5 years.

Greg – There are those bikers who are adrenaline junkies and then there are those who are more in tune with the senses of freedom and adventure that accompany the open road. At least from what I’ve been able to gather you fall into the latter category. To say you travel is an understatement. Please let the readers know where you’ve been around this great land (and beyond). Feel free to go into as much detail as you like.

Colleen - Hah – you ask for detail, but really, there are too many fantastic places that I’ve been to list them all here. I’ve done everything from a week in Oregon’s back country to Deal’s Gap in North Carolina, from the Arctic Ocean to southern Mexico.

To be fair, after my early “post-Mt St Helens” years, I was really hooked on the whole “speed” aspect of riding. The mountain passes of the Cascade mountains are a perfect venue for keeping those tires round. But over time I learned that I could enjoy my rides without that adrenaline rush, replacing it instead with the ability to absorb the beauty of the land around me, the road (or lack of road) under me and the sky above me.

This love of adventure started with a week-long trip from Seattle, WA to Custer, SD back in 2003. I fell in love the with idea of riding not just all day, but all day, day after day. The next year I took a two week trip from Seattle to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Seeing the Arctic Ocean, knowing that I had reached it through my own efforts, was beyond compare. The isolation of the Arctic tundra was a new addiction for me – I wanted to go where few, if any, people had been.

Mere months after my ride to Alaska, fortune lined up another trip for me, this time south to Baja, Mexico and then through most of mainland Mexico. Over the next few years I managed to explore the Pacific Northwest and a good portion of northern California and British Columbia. I’ve been through every Western state, have made a solo cross country trip and now that I live on the east coast, I’ve been able to explore Nova Scotia and the tiny little northeastern states.

 

Greg- Of all the adventures that you’ve had, which was your favorite and most memorable? What was it about the trip that was exceptional for you and why?

 

Colleen - Oh now that’s just not fair! Can I list the Top 3 instead? Trips are “favored” or “memorable” for different reasons
1) Alaska – this trip opened up so many doors to me, never mind how amazing the ride itself was. Dirt roads became my choice of routing and blitzing through desolate yet beautiful landscapes was a drug.
2) Oregon Backcountry trip – a week of back roads and camping with my now-husband. It was great to have a week of unrushed time to explore the hinterlands of Oregon. Doing so with a close friend made it even more special.
3) Mexico – Seriously, how can one spend over a month on the back of a motorcycle and NOT count it as one of the best rides? The people were great, the culture interesting and the riding seemed to never end. It was perfect.

Greg – By the looks of your “world conquest” map at http://dantesdame.wordpress.com/about/where-ive-been/, you’ve tackled quite a number of regions throughout this fine continent. What is on your agenda for the near future? Any plans to ship your bikes overseas and explore?

Colleen - Funny that you ask that now. My husband and I will be moving to Switzerland after the first of year. This is a permanent move for us (at least as permanent as anything is these days), so we will have plenty of opportunity to explore not only the European continent, but I’d also like to go south into Africa and east into the “‘stans”, as I so fondly call them. This should keep me busy for awhile.

Greg – For those who are interested in adventure riding, which bikes would you recommend? I would imagine you have a few for different terrains, etc. so give us a couple of your favorites and what is about each bike that tickles your fancy.

Colleen - My garage has finally been narrowed down to only dual sports. I used to have standards and sport bikes, but I always felt that the dual sport was *the* bike for me. I never wanted to be limited to where I could ride. One of my current bikes, the BMW R1150GS, allows me to eat up the miles in comfort and I’ve put over 50,000 miles on it, taking it across the country as well as on 4×4 roads in British Columbia. But I admit that its a heavy bike (especially with the 8 gallon tank and fully loaded with camping gear), so I will often chose my all-time favorite “go-to” bike, the Kawasaki KLR650. I’ve owned a KLR since the trip to Alaska in 2004, although I’m making arrangements to sell mine next month in preparation for the Big Move to Switzerland.

The KLR is a tricky motorcycle in the fact that people either love it or hate it. It is considered ugly, not good at any one thing, rudimentary, not very powerful for the street, too heavy for the dirt… the list goes on. But I have always loved the KLR. It is near indestructible, and believe me, I’ve tried. I took it on a dirt-course poker run and dropped it so many times I lost count and it never once did anything get damaged. I can pack just about anything on to the back of one of these bikes, I can ride it for 10 hours at a time on the highway (not recommended, however), I can ride it through the sandy mountain roads of northern Baja… I really feel that there isn’t much that this bike can’t do. And it’s cheap. Cheap to own and cheap to maintain. Yes, I’d have to say that this is my favorite bike.

As for other bikes, I would really be hard pressed to make suggestions. The only other adventure-touring type bike I’ve ridden is my husband’s F800GS, but he likes to ride it, so I don’t have a lot of experience with it. I will say that it is a leading contender as a new bike to get once in Switzerland. Other bikes in the line-up include the Yamaha Super Tenere, possibly a Triumph Tiger or the Honda NC700 X… or something exotic that isn’t currently available in the States.

 

Greg – Here’s a question that I think a lot of folks would like to ask because they would want to steal your secret and apply it to their lives (I know I want to). How is it that you are able to do so much traveling? It must take up an immense amount of time and if any of the readers are like me then they only can find time to get to the corner store and back. How could one do what you do if they were so inclined?

Colleen - I don’t really have a secret to share, I was just really quite fortunate for a few years. When I traveled to Alaska I had been working at a job for 7 years and had finally amassed two weeks of vacation. They laid me off shortly after I returned, giving me time in between jobs to spend a month in Mexico. When I came back to Seattle I found a job with a company that was based in the UK and offered a UK-based vacation package. This meant that on my first day I had 4 weeks of vacation and two weeks of personal time. The Europeans really know how to do it right.

Anyhow, that’s how I managed to have time off for so many more great long distance trips. Add to that the fact that I was single and had all of my weekends free, I had a lot of time to really pile on the miles. Motorcycling was my hobby and my life; nothing else competed for my attention. So I guess the secret is not to have a life.

Now that I’m married and living on the east coast, my riding time has been greatly reduced, for two reasons. First of all, my husband isn’t quite as enthusiastic as I am about riding. Where I’m happy to go out for 8 hours just to be out of the house and on the bike, he’ll be less likely to want to go, or to be gone for that long. I often go without him, just to clear my head. Secondly, I have a hard time finding inspiration to ride around here. I realize that there are some beautiful places nearby (the Catskills, the Poconos, the Adirondacks) but to me, nothing compares to the vistas of the West coast.

Greg – I couldn’t help but notice while looking at your map that you managed to completely avoid my home state of Massachusetts. Is there a reason for the snub (JOKE) because I’d love to meet up with you for a spell if you were ever in my hood? Any plans on coming back East in the near future?

Colleen - As you might have guessed by now, I no longer live in Seattle but instead live in New Jersey, the Garden State. In other words, there’s no excuse not to meet up with you. However, I would like to point out that I have ridden through Massachusetts on my way to Nova Scotia. I just didn’t linger for very long.

Greg – Lastly, please choose 5 adjectives that describe what motorcycling means to you and briefly explain each of your choices.

Colleen - Apparently I do nothing “briefly”

Adventure” – This rather sums up the five adjectives, but to me adventure riding is more than just riding – it is the ability to go where others generally don’t. Any motorcycle can take on The Dragon, but not every bike can take on the Deadhorse Highway in Alaska.

Mobility” – I don’t just tour on my bikes. I commute, shop and run errands.

Isolation” – I like the idea of it being just me in my helmet. I rarely listen to music when I ride, and while Dan and I have recently purchased Sena communication units, we haven’t used them yet. And we only got them because we figured that they would come in handy in our new foreign playground.

Individuality” – Some people ride Harleys and others ride 2 stroke dirt bikes, and no two riders are the same. Everyone expects something different when they get on the seat of a motorcycle, so no two rides are ever the same, either.

Exploration” – There are many ways to explore our world. Walking is ideal because you can really study the environment as you pass through it and greet people as you see them, but it is a slow process. Bicycle riding is a little better, but still a lot of work and also fairly slow. Cars are useless for exploration: they keep you out of the elements in a cozy chamber of conditioned air, music and filtered odors. Airplanes are only really good at getting you to distant locations in a short time, but I find that the “missing link” of getting from one place to another to be a serious flaw in air travel. Therefore, motorcycles are the best mode of exploration. You cover the ground quickly, people are generally interested in your story, you experience every change in the weather and fresh (or not so fresh) smell along the way and you have a definite sense of the amount of ground you’ve covered to get where you are.

Thank you, Colleen

Greg Coutu – Circle One One

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If you’d like to learn more about Colleen First and her adventures, please visit her blog at http://dantesdame.wordpress.com