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This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the August 11, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Putting Many Miles behind Her
Five thousand miles from Princeton, where she started her 15,000-mile, cross-continent, solo motorcycle trip, Karen Larsen, a graduate of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School and former Peace Corps volunteer, ran into a former neighbor. She was not happy.
"I nearly choked and looked at him again," she writes in Breaking the Limit, the just-published account of her trip. Then, in italics, "Dear God, please not let it be so." She mentally despairs his "clean trousers and expensive new sneakers" and his "fancy rental SUV." She decides that he has "that well-fed, rather impractical, investment banker or lawyer look to him that I had gotten so used to seeing on the streets of Princeton over the course of the last two years."
The investment banker/lawyer, we never learn which, had objected to the noise of Larsen’s motorcycle several months before. Despite that lapse, she acknowledges that, as the two stood in line at a tourist information center near Mount McKinley, "the Yuppie" was civil and friendly. But he carried unpleasant associations with him.
"It was at least 5,000 miles as the crow flies between western Alaska and central New Jersey," Larsen writes. "The route I had chosen, through the tiniest of towns and on the twistiest of roads, was longer than that and had evolved in part to put an end note on my time in the rarified, sterile, uncomfortably wealthy, and safe world of the Ivy Tower generally and Princeton particularly. Yet, here it was. Princeton, New Jersey, had trailed me all the way to Talkeetna, Alaska."
Larsen took her trip in 2000, after completing a graduate degree in public administration. She was in the midst of a painful break-up with her boyfriend and was planning to meet her maternal biological grandmother and her biological father and his family during the trip. Knowing that she is now happily married and that the reunions with her biological relatives had gone well, I thought that perhaps she was now happier, and in a frame of mind to think more kindly of Princeton. So when we met in Starbucks on Nassau Street in July to talk about her book, ahead of her appearance at Barnes & Noble on Tuesday, August 17, I had to ask if she had had a change of heart. Noting that she lived in Rocky Hill, hardly an inner-city sort of town, I was betting that she had.
But no. Not at all.
She is grateful to the university, she says, noting that she attended on scholarship. She adds that individuals in the community were welcoming. "There’s a lot to like," she says. But all in all, she finds Princeton society a "class-based system."
"I’ve been waiting tables at Mediterra," she says. "The back of the house is Mexican and Guatemalan, but they don’t sit at the tables. The people who eat there are white and affluent. It’s segregated along class lines."
While Larsen’s book is about the challenge of crossing the breadth of the continent on a Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200, it brims over with observations about those who live in places like Princeton and in Aspen, Colorado, its evil Rocky Mountain twin. For anyone with an acquaintance with Princeton, the judgments get in the way of the able descriptions of the gorgeous scenery along the route. But in a good way. They are a jumping off point to thinking about the towns we live in, and about diversity and wealth.
Yes, you may find yourself thinking, many people in Princeton are wealthy, and, sure, there is a measure of self-satisfaction. But there is also a diversity that is just not to be found in some of the remote places Larsen finds more to her liking. Places where, yes, everyone eats at the same diner, but where it is possible to go a lifetime without hearing an Egyptian or Israeli or Puerto Rican accent, where a gay couple would dare not stroll down Main Street arm-in-arm, and where anyone from out of town is suspect. Are there any places, in North America or on any other continent, where all men truly are equal in the eyes of their neighbors? Where everyone, regardless of race, religion, income, or national origin has exactly the same opportunities? Where all are welcome?
While upscale towns get the business in Breaking the Limit, so do cars. Larsen is not only angry at "car culture" on her own behalf, but on behalf of everyone who drives a motorcycle on roads dominated by the four-wheel beasts. At one point, she accepts a proof of payment coupon to Glacier National Park from a fellow motorcycle driver, thereby circumventing the admission fee. In colluding to deprive the U.S. Park Service of a few dollars, she writes that she and her two-wheel comrade were "thumbing our collective noses at car culture." It isn’t fair, she reasons, that motorcycles have to pay as much as cars to visit national parks despite the fact that "we motorcyclists take up less space, get at least three times the gas mileage of an average SUV, generally drive more cautiously, and never throw cans or bottles out open windows."
At the time that Larsen, a car owner herself, wrote the book, she had no compelling reason to rail against car culture, or not one that I could see. The car-directed anger would have been far more understandable had Larsen written the book more recently, after her husband, Brad Alexander, was struck by a hit-and-run driver near their home as he was out walking the dog. She describes the accident in vivid detail as we talk. Her husband, walking in a well-lit, marked crosswalk near the Rocky Hill Inn was mowed down by a car that never stopped, that left him for dead after he skidded across its windshield and grabbed onto its antenna before crashing down on the pavement. She is still full of pain and horror as she talks about the collision, a devastating crime that could have ended far worse.
The driver was never found, and Alexander, a cabinet maker, spent four months in a wheelchair and a year and a half in intensive physical therapy.
Alexander, now recovered and about to open his own cabinet making business in Montpelier, Vermont, where the couple moved in late-July, is back on a motorcycle. The two, in fact, met as a result of their common love of the machines. Larsen, back from her cross-continent trip, was working for Isles, the Trenton non-profit, and living in Trenton. A friend told her that Alexander too was planning to ride to Alaska, and suggested that she share her experiences with him.
Larsen’s biological family on both sides attended the wedding, where they met her adoptive family for the first time. She was worried about the encounters, but reports that all went well.
When Larsen packed a couple of changes of clothes and a small tent and headed west on her motorcycle, one of the rare women to attempt a 15,000 tour of the continent solo on a two-wheeled vehicle, she says that she had no thought of writing a book. She made notes as she went along largely to let her parents know what she was thinking as she headed to Canada to meet her biological relatives. Her mother had had a hard time accepting the fact that Larsen wanted to meet the people who had given her up for adoption. An account of the trip, Larsen hoped, would put the quest in perspective.
Larsen grew up in a suburb of Boston, the daughter of Scandinavians who arrived in the United States by way of Ontario. Her father, Niels, is retired from the Federal Reserve and now consults to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Her mother, Doris, is a retired nurse.
In accordance with the rules under which she was adopted, Larsen and her biological parents could each register to be put in touch with one another when she reached the age of 18. She and her biological mother did so, and she had met her well before she began her epic motorcycle journey. She had reason to explore the paternal side of her biological family when, as a student at the Woodrow Wilson School, she was diagnosed with a large tumor in her chest. Since it was probably genetic in origin, her doctors advised her to contact all of her relatives to determine whether any of them had had similar tumors. Her father and his family cooperated enthusiastically, providing the information that, yes, there was a family history of tumors. It turned out that Larsen’s tumor was benign, but she was advised to be watchful, and the brush with disease provided an opening to get to know another branch of her family.
While Larsen kept a journal of the trip to give her parents a window on her thoughts and experiences as she headed to Canada to meet her biological family, she had a mentor, John McPhee, who urged her to turn her account into a book.
She had not enjoyed her course work at the Wilson School, and applied to take McPhee’s writing course to add interest to her curriculum. She says that she was surprised to be accepted into his class of 15. He encouraged her to write, telling her that she could make a living as a writer, something she had never thought of doing. When she returned from her trip he kept at her to turn it into a book. She reluctantly wrote up 25 pages, quickly secured five agents, and sold it to Hyperion. She left Isles, took a cottage in the Pine Barrens, and wrote a 700-page draft.
The final version is rich with descriptive details, many of them about weather. There is lots of rain on the trip, and for much of it Larsen, whose motorcycle lacks a rain screen, is soaked, frozen, and muddy. She is on a budget and sleeps mostly in campgrounds, often in a puddle. It is possible that the weather conditions, along with the constant pounding of the wind, contributed to her bleak view of her car encased fellow travelers. When questioned about an angry outburst in the book against those who travel via auto or escorted motor coach, she admits that she was wet and exhausted, and only lashed out to justify to herself the value of her trip, the value of riding 15,000 miles in the elements.
She also admits that she missed a lot of the flavor of the country she passed through, either because of time constraints or because clouds or sheets of rain obscured the landscape. What she was after, and what she got, was a sense of the sweep of the continent, the vastness, the contrasts – the sheer distance. She also was able to get a little bit of a feel for the people living on isolated farms, in the Alaskan wilderness, and in small towns. Everywhere she stopped, there were comments about the Harley-Davidson Sportster from New Jersey – and the fact that its driver was a lone young woman. Sometimes the interest was admiring, sometimes derisive, but almost always there was at least a little conversation.
Everywhere, too, there was kindness. Larsen doesn’t comment on it in any sort of universal sense, but to a reader it is remarkable that in diner after diner, campground after campground, free mugs of coffee were pressed into her hands when she was wet, and invitations to share a beer around a campfire were tendered night after night. All along the road, she was treated to meals. On more than one occasion she was handed a campground’s best cabin for the price of a bare site.
Throughout the trip, though, Larsen continued to be bothered by those who drove cars, and by the way they crowded, ignored, or cut off motorcycles, which, she insisted, are almost always driven more responsibly than are cars.
I was thinking about this on a recent drive down the southern end of the Garden State Parkway as a group of motorcycles were blithely weaving in out of lines of slow-moving cars approaching the Exit 10 stop light. Increasingly free-wheeling, they ignored lanes altogether, and squeezed between cars to make a little forward progress. Then one motorcyclist pulled up to a car just ahead of us, and banged on the window.
Oh no! This was just the sort of thing Larsen had been writing about, the clash of two-wheeled and four-wheeled vehicles. There was going to be a fight!
The woman driving the car rolled down her window. And the guy on the motorcycle said, with a big smile, "Aren’t you the prettiest thing!" The driver, a blonde of a certain age, blushed and guffawed. "Oh, get out of here," she said, her day clearly made.
I wish Larsen had been there to see it.
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