Bernadette Murphy and her friend are on the second day of their 5,000-mile motorcycle trek from Los Angeles to Milwaukee when a flat tire disables one of their bikes. They’re stranded on an empty highway in the middle of Wyoming, with no cell phone service and ugly storm-clouds fast approaching. The two women wait on the shoulder of the road, hoping a car or truck will pass by, when they hear the loud crack of gunfire coming from the wilderness just beyond the highway. Terrified, exhausted, and hungry, Murphy wonders, “How did I get to this place? And why?”
“Middle age is when our waists expand and our minds shrink,” a psychologist tells Murphy, and this seems to be the direction of her life at the opening of her riveting memoir, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk On the Road to a More Authentic Life. Murphy’s children have grown up, her marriage has gone stale, and her elderly father is dying of cancer. In the midst of these family struggles, the 48-year-old writer decides to chuck her usual response to crisis—taking care of others—and do something novel and entirely selfish: she takes riding lessons and buys herself a Harley Sportster Iron 883, radically changing the trajectory of her life.
“We usually grade someone’s success at midlife by how well they’ve removed [all these types of] transitions. And that…is unfortunate,” Murphy is told by the psychologist. Yet throughout life, transitions and risk-taking will actually “knock you off balance and keep you smart.” In facing death, divorce, and the end of motherhood, Murphy comes to find that it is change and self-challenge, rather than safety and stability, which puts her on the path to growing older healthfully and happily.
Murphy is an associate professor in creative nonfiction at Antioch University and the author of three other nonfiction books, including the best-selling Zen and the Art of Knitting. In Harley and Me, she explores the science and psychology of risk-taking to explain the role culture, genes, and hormones play in our aversion or attraction to risk-taking behaviors. She identifies herself as having the “risk gene,” which she feels accounts for recurring patterns of risk-taking behaviors in her life.
Murphy’s book is a hybrid: part memoir, part travelogue, part science-psychology. It’s a powerful call to reconsider our impulse to “settle in” during the second half of our lives. For Murphy, risks and new experiences are not exclusive to 25-year-olds. We’d all do well to look “into the Eyes of the Beast” more often, to lean into our fears, turn on the gas, and roll.
NONFICTION – MEMOIR
Harley and Me by Bernadette Murphy
Published May 10, 2016