News & Politics

Those Two Middle-Aged Empty-Nesters Rocketing Through Maryland and West Virginia on a Harley? Yeah, That’s Me and My Husband.

Two empty-nesters, two wheels, and becoming the people we wanted to be.

The author and her husband on a ride. Photograph by Kate Roye.

Brad reaches back to pat my thigh, his hand lingering. The Harley growls. Green light and we rocket forward. My knees press into my husband’s hips, my arms hug his middle. If I were truly a bad­ass, I’d ride my own Harley, but taking the curves in sync, pressed up close, is part of the thrill.

We leave behind Gaithersburg and Germantown, barreling down Maryland Route 117, the very road John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” memorialized. Back when that was a hit, I was a nine-year-old in Los Angeles, lifting my voice to the radio in my mother’s Buick Skylark. I didn’t know I was singing about a real future.

Brad and I take the byways that conjure stories as old as the chestnut trees: Turkey Foot, Muddy Branch, Keep Tryst. Sweat gritty on our faces, our heads bake beneath helmets until we blast through cool pockets secret from the sun, saluting other bikers with a low-hand wave.

We know these routes by heart, but I still feel like we’re strangers passing through. On a dare in 1997, we moved from our native LA for the prospect of good jobs. Intending to return one day, we didn’t anticipate landing here for good, to become guardians of the place our grown children now call home. We didn’t expect that after we raised two Marylanders, the tendrils of play groups and Cub Scouts, block parties and graduations, would make us unwilling to return to our own mother ship.

When Brad bought his first motorcycle—a Kawasaki—more than a decade ago, he’d recently turned 40. I didn’t respond the way he expected. In the past, when he’d mentioned adventures I thought too risky—skydiving, hiking Everest—I’d say, “We’ve got kids!” But this was different. For one thing, our son and daughter were teenagers. The bittersweet foretaste of the day they’d no longer need us was on my tongue.

About the same time, Brad took up guitar, then started a band. He said, “I’ve decided there’s nothing stopping me from becoming who I once wanted to be.” Some might have called it a midlife crisis, but I agreed with him. We’d weathered addiction-to-recovery and near bankruptcy early in our marriage. We wanted nothing to stop either of us from becoming the people we wanted to be. Including each other.

So I embraced that Kawasaki Vulcan and the Ninja after that and the first Harley and the second. I embraced them for him and for me. Tall and blue-eyed, my husband has always been easy to love, yet a piece of marital advice has stuck with me: To keep the spark alive, do daring things outside the bedroom. Over 25 years, this counsel has led me to become a woman who surfs, scales mountain peaks, and high-dives from boulders into deep water. At first, I did them to impress Brad. Later, surprising myself became an equal thrill.

When we ride, whim directs our route: Point of Rocks to Rocky Point Creamery for a cone. White’s Ferry to cross the slow-moving, green-gray Potomac, like Mark Twain heroes. In Harpers Ferry, we stop to take in a sign commemorating the 1859 slave rebellion John Brown led in the West Virginia town. As we traverse places once known to me only from grade-school history books—Monoc­acy, Antietam, Sharpsburg—I can almost hear long-dead soldiers calling out to each other.

When the sun dips, I draw closer to Brad, tucking my hands into the pockets of his leather jacket. Content to find my home with him, I watch our shadow blaze along the pavement, my hair flying out like a comet.

This article appears in the October 2017 issue of Washingtonian.

Andrea Jarrell

Rockville writer Andrea Jarrell is author of the new memoir I’m the One Who Got Away.