Peace Corps Writers
Talking with Karen Larsen (page 3)
 Talking with
Karen Larsen

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In your book you write about how other women tend to have a bad stereotype of women motorcyclists. Did that happen to you on your trip?
Well, let me clarify. I mention in my book that I have rarely experienced prejudicial behavior based on the motorcycle that I drive or the leather jacket that I wear. On the rare occasions when people have been confrontational it has, sadly, tended to be other women. They have been women who assumed that am some sort of a slut or a renegade and that, whatever I was, they did not want their husbands, sons or boyfriends anywhere near me. I think that this fear — that I am some sort of a threat or a dangerous example of black-leather sexuality — is based on lack of experience with actual motorcyclists and the growing number of women who ride, race and tour.
     During the trip, most of the people that I met were curious about, and supportive of, women riding their own motorcycles. At worst, the reaction to what I did was couched in terms of “risky behavior” or “you look too small or too young” to handle that machine, or “where is your boyfriend or husband, you shouldn’t be doing this alone.” That sort of commentary happened often, daily actually, but I didn’t consider it to be confrontational. I had very few incidents where people treated me with anything but decency and respect.
After the trip, when you look back, what do you remember?
The North American continent is a stunningly beautiful place. I was truly amazed. There were so many places where I thought “this must be the most magnificent spot on the continent” and then the next week, a few hundred miles down the road, another awesome vista would open up. I loved the roll and the space of the Great Plains and would like to return to the wild places of the Yukon and Northern British Columbia one day. It is difficult to pick just one or two spots as “favorites,” but in terms of specific places where land and sky and weather conspired to perfection on the particular days that I was there, I might chose the cerulean blue of Crater Lake in Oregon or the hanging glaciers and rampart mountain walls that surround the Jasper and Lake Louise areas of the Canadian Rockies.
How do you go about writing the book? Did you take notes along the way, or make tapes of your impressions?
   Many of those descriptions did come from journal entries. I kept notes as I traveled, mostly because I wanted to tell family and friends, who were not overly enthusiastic about my spending the summer wandering around the continent on a motorcycle by myself, some of the specific things, both affirming and difficult, that had made this journey a deeply meaningful one. I wanted to provide “windows” into what had actually happened on a given day in Iowa, for example, not just a recitation of the roads that I had ridden or the towns that I had passed through.
     There are many people whom I remember vividly from my trip, so many who were kind, curious, helpful and welcoming, and who generously shared their lives and their communities with me even if it was just for the duration of a cup of coffee. There was Pat, for example, a lady whom I met in Logan, Kansas when I wandered into the local diner looking for information on how far away the nearest gas station was. I was running low on fuel, and in that part of rural Kansas community gas needs are often served by an unattended “co-op” pump for which one had to have a membership card. Pat got up from her lunch, took me down to the pump, filled my tank and then refused to let me pay for it. Two dollars worth of gas is a small thing, but her kindness toward a total stranger was indicative of the way I was generally received and treated by people living in the small towns through which I passed.
     There were many experiences that I now look back on and think how incredibly lucky I was to have been there. I had the great good luck to meet a man on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula who held a permit that allowed him to dipnet for salmon. The cohos were running in their schools of tens-of-thousands and the day that I spent with him on the water, pulling fish after fish out of into a small inflatable boat remains a highlight of the trip. What else? Storms blowing down off the high ridges of the Saint Elias Mountains, taking the ferry up the Inside Passage, riding through rainbows in Northern British Columbia, encountering a she-wolf on the road near Grand Cache, Alberta, I could go on and on. You’ll just have to read the book!
Okay, tell me — what was your motorcycle trip really all about?
   I cannot pretend that the intent of my book involved the development of existential, or essential, maxims for life and living. The trip was in some elements a search, in others a circus stunt, but always a personal journey. I am, however, always delighted when someone finds meaning, inspiration, or simply the resonance and temporary transportation, of a traveler's tale within those pages.
What are you doing now with your life?
What am I doing now? Pretending, unsuccessfully, that I have escaped writing and that this is something I no longer wish or need to do. I creep back to it; yellow sticky notes with a few lines of poetry, essay fragments on half-pages of graph paper, a trip to New York that spawns an essay about stained glass and diplomats. Meanwhile, I teach, and love that too in a more simple and understandable way.
     Declining student enrollment will eventually claim my job in this smallest of state capitols, but until then I will continue to teach high school Social Studies in Montpelier, Vermont. This year I have taught European History, Psychology, U.S. Civics, and Women's Humanities. The international element keeps creeping in and I throw nets around any foreigners who come within my reach; Rwandans sang to my students in November, Kyrgyz and Azeri educators have been visitors in these last weeks.
     Apart from that, I run and ski with my labrador-pit bull pooch, love my husband to distraction, and am currently building a beehive that will house a few tens of thousands of Russian hybrid bees come spring.
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