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Breaking The Limit Reminds Us What The Freedom Of The Road Is All About

From the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which Larsen attended.
From the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which Larsen attended.
Photo: Scott Olson (Getty)

It’s a hell of a rare thing for me to even want to consider sitting on a motorcycle, let alone riding one. But after reading Breaking the Limit by Karen Larsen, I was ready to quit my job, cut my ties, buy a motorcycle, and trek across the entire country on two wheels. That, my friends, is the best possible impact a good book could have.

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(Welcome back to the Jalopnik Race Car Book Club, where we all get together to read books about racing and you send in all your spicy hot takes. This month, we’re looking at Breaking the Limit: One Woman’s Motorcycle Journey Through North America by Karen Larsen, which is about exactly as it claims: Larsen’s two-wheeled trip from New Jersey to Alaska and back.)

The Book Club went on something of a hiatus a few months ago as Life proved, once again, that it gets in the way of literally everything. By the time I finally got a chance to sit down and read Larsen’s book, it was just as I was booking a summer trip to Iceland. Before I read Breaking the Limit, I’d planned on a three-day bus tour. After, I booked a week-long trip with the intention to drive the entirety of the island because I was just wholly fascinated by Larsen’s freedom. I needed it for myself.

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Illustration for article titled iBreaking The Limit/i Reminds Us What The Freedom Of The Road Is All About

Larsen’s situation was pretty simple. At 31, she’d just finished her Master’s degree. She was waiting for her job to start up in a few months. Her boyfriend seemed less than enthused about the whole ‘relationship’ thing. Her biological father, whom she’d never met, had had a health scare. She had never actually seen her own country. So, she decided to hop on her Harley 1200 Sportster and ride out to Alaska, stopping to see the country and her family along the way.

I knew next to nothing about motorcycles before embarking on this book’s journey. I knew there were, like, choppers and Harleys and dirt bikes but was absolutely hopeless when it came to understanding the variations that are included between all three. I assumed some bikes would be better suited for long distance drivers than others in the same way that some cars are better that way. But if you’d asked me to name a bad long distance bike off the top of my head, I couldn’t do it.

And I still can’t—but I can tell you a few traits that leave a lot to be desired for a long distance bike because Larsen is pretty clear to her readers that her bike is not ideal for the task at hand. It’s a rigid bike with a small tank and wheels that leave a lot to be desired on the gravel roads Larsen encountered. But it was Larsen’s bike—her Lucy—and she wouldn’t have made the trip on any other.

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I think what I loved most about Larsen’s book is how surprisingly relaxing it was. I’ve done a few cross-country trips, but never with the intention of enjoying myself. It’s always been a frantic Cannonball-esque push to get from Point A to Point B as fast as possible so as to take as little time off work as possible: don’t stop for gas, food, bathroom, or sleep until two or more of those things become so pressingly important that I physically cannot go on.

But Larsen makes the case for a leisurely trip with the bare minimum. When she took off, she did so with a small budget and very little money in the bank—enough for gas and the occasional hotel, but that’s about it. Her intention, though, wasn’t just to speed across the country. It was to enjoy everything around her at her own, slow pace, making sure to drink up as much of the scenery and culture as possible. The path she carves across the country isn’t straight; it dips up to Niagara Falls and down again through Detroit, winds through deserts, crosses mountains.

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There’s certainly nothing glamorous about riding through heavy storms to make it to a damp campsite where you crack open a can of spinach (seriously) for dinner—but Larsen’s authentic voice makes it sound like the most incredible possible way to spend an evening. It feels genuine. It feels refreshing.

Easily the most fascinating aspect of this book, though, is how Larsen addresses her gender. After all, it’s not common for women to make solo trips across the country in anything, let alone a motorcycle. It’s not an overtly feminist manifesto, nor is it a guide on how to travel alone. Breaking the Limit instead focuses on Larsen’s quiet confidence in herself, the surprise many people felt when she mentioned her plans to them, and, surprisingly, the wonderful kindness of strangers who were often willing to do a little more to help this woman traveling on her own.

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It was refreshing, honestly. Yes, Larsen knows that she is a novelty, even in the midst of the Sturgis Rally, a massive national biker meetup. But that knowledge isn’t a source of anxiety, nor does it dominate the book. Instead, being a solo woman acts as a way to start conversations, forge bonds, move forward, and stop to enjoy the view along the way.

Reading this book and planning my own solo trip around a country (albeit on four wheels) as news about Davey G. Johnson’s disappearance and death unfolded made for an especially poignant experience. I was watching both sides of the coin unfold at once, both the best and worst case scenarios on traveling by motorcycle alone. It was a reminder that, for as beautiful as the isolation of a solo journey can be, it is just as important to make connections and touch base along the way.

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This is one of those books that appeals to people across the board: motorcycle riders, women, and people who just want to relax with a damn good travel book. It feels like Larsen is taking you on the trip right along with her—and that’s tough as hell to accomplish.

And that’s all we have for this month’s Jalopnik Race Car Book Club! Make sure you tune in again on November 4, 2019. We’re going to be reading Beast by Jade Gurss. And don’t forget to drop those hot takes (and recommendations) in the comments or at ewerth [at] jalopnik [dot] com!

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

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DISCUSSION

dudeoutwest
dudeoutwest

I’ve ridden and driven across the country a few times, on both two and four wheels. With four wheels, you’re fairly anonymous. You’re another person in a cage.

But when you show up at some diner in the middle of nowhere Nebraska for breakfast, dressed like an astronaut (BMW rider here - safety rules), you’re going to meet the locals. They’ll ask if you rode there, they’ll ask what all that gear is for (aren’t you hot in that?), they’ll want to know where you’re going. At the same time, they’ll share their reality and their life if you just take a couple minutes to ask.

Touring on a bike is how you actually see the country and meet the people that live in it. Along the way, you’ll smell the fields, feel the chill or heat of the day and be more in touch and present than you are at any other time of your life.

WRT women riding alone: I’ve been in the big national BMW club for almost 30 years. It’s populated with many women of all ages that tour the country relentlessly, often traveling alone over great distances. Some of them have been doing so since the 70s now. Some of them ride 100K miles per year. If you want a perspective on what riding motorcycles by oneself around the country is like, they’re the ladies you want to talk to. Lots of them are in their 50s and 60s and they are made of 100% badass and are among the best riders I’ve ever had the privilege to meet.

In the world of riders I’ve inhabited for the last 40 years, the BMW riding world, women have long been part of the Long Distance Riding community. We lost Karol Patzer last year, but her obituary describes the kind of person she was and the adventure she had: https://www.washburn-mcreavy.com/obituaries/Karolyn-Patzer/

The ladies are out there on their bikes and they’re likely less unusual than one might assume.