Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Are you among those who when first inculcated into the fantastic world of motorcycling made it a point to read every single bit of literature devoted to the subject? If you did, Melissa Holbrook Pierson’s The Perfect Vehicle: What It Is About Motorcycles must occupy a special place on your bookshelf. Her poetic ode to the joy of motorcycling stands the test of time and continues to inspire legions of new riders almost twenty years hence. We catch up with her to find out what she is riding and working on these days.

Rashmi Tambe
Editor, Global Women Who Ride


Melissa, your iconic book The Perfect Vehicle was published in 1996. Among other things, it was an account of your first few years of riding. Can you fill us in on the years between where the book left off and today? What have been the highlights of this journey?
The word “journey” is an understatement in this regard. In retrospect, motorcycles have influenced and shaped every major step along the way of my life–even if I did not know it at the time.

In brief, I gave up motorcycling (“forever,” or so I thought) shortly before I became a mother. I believed I had passed through the time when riding was necessary in my life. But when my marriage came to a sudden end the year my son was seven, I realized there was a void. And it was not only one left by the lack of a husband. Let’s call it a crater, then. One person alone–and at the time I had not even yet met him–somehow knew that a return to motorcycling would for me represent a return to life. So he kept after me, and kept after me. Finally… yes, I said. Yes yes.

At his urging, I bought the first bike I’d had in a decade, a BMW K75. And with it came new friends, a new purpose, and in the form of the person who knew what I needed (long-distance rider extraordinaire John Ryan), the subject of a new book, The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing: Long-Distance Motorcycling’s Endless Road.


Describe your current motorcycles and how you came to pick them.
The K75, for all that I was grateful to her for opening new worlds of happiness to me, was not a good fit. They’re great bikes–for someone stronger than me. The top-heaviness was a problem. So I tried out other BMWs, and settled on a 2004 R1150R. I really love the stalwart (and zippy) qualities of this bike. We’ve gone a lot of places.

The bike of my heart, though, is another Moto Guzzi Lario, the somewhat impractical but sensuous bike I had when I foolishly “gave up” riding. This new/old machine was a gift from a group of people who are, to me, like family. Better than that: a family of angels. I love this little V65: we seem to fit together, and to understand each other on an elemental level.

It’s a new thing for me, to have two bikes in the garage. It’s like having two children, in a way: you love both of them equally, but they’re both individuals.

Have you done any long distance road trips since your Europe ride you mentioned in the book?
It seems as though I can’t stay away from the Blue Ridge Parkway. I’ve now done it on every bike I’ve owned (four). And I’m about to do it again in a few weeks. Not that it’s like riding Alaska to Key West in record time (which John Ryan did, and others do every year): it’s slowed down, but it still gives me a thrill. I feel like I’m in a foreign land even in my own country.

One of my favorite things about The Perfect Vehicle was your chronicling of the history of motorcycles and motorcycling since their inception. If you wrote a sequel, what would its main themes be?
I think the main theme would have to be what motorcycles represent to us in the current age of instantaneous but often illusory “connection”: we have our touch screens, we have our so-called “friends,” we have a lot of busyness. But we need, as humans who evolved in a world where our senses kept us alive, a way to connect to them. Motorcycles exercise our senses in the way an elliptical trainer exercises our fitness. The sequel to my first book would today concern the cultural movement toward artisanal everything: how steampunk and craft-making are of a piece with bikes and their primitive realness. We need to make things and feel things in order to be fully who we are. Bikes make us human.

Your other motorcycling related book The Man Who Would Stop At Nothing is an account of Iron Butt rider John Ryan. How did this come about?
I had originally thought I had said everything I could possible say about motorcycling in my first book. Then I met John–an insider to a truly insider activity–and I realized I hadn’t. Long-distance riding seemed to me a complete distillation of what riding means. It’s stripped down and concentrated. It’s a passion, and it’s also an infection.

With John Ryan

What is the most joyous experience you have had while out riding?
That is the most difficult question you’ve asked. John Ryan (devastatingly, he has now passed on, and is riding in heaven for sure) always said, “There’s no such thing as a bad day on a motorcycle.” He’s right. Even in the rain and the wind–maybe, especially, then–you find miracles. Riding intensifies the experience of every moment. And I think I remember the times on a bike better than any other times. It cements those hours to your very atoms, so they become a part of you. How many times have I smiled widely and cried, “Oh my god! How incredible!” behind my helmet where no one could hear? Uncountable.

Do you still attend rallies like Laconia or some of the Moto Guzzi rallies?
I do. I’m not a rally rat by any means–my life as a single parent and as a freelance writer doesn’t permit it–but I go whenever I can. It’s a way to rejoin the tribe. I especially love Guzzi rallies, because those people . . . well, they’re sort of indescribable. But they’re the best, and they know how to have fun! In five days I’ll be back with “my people” in Massachusetts at the New England Guzzi rally. God willing, and if the creek don’t rise!

Have you formed any close female friendships due to motorcycling?
The women I have met, the true-blue riders, are my real sisters.

Are there women riders today who inspire you?
I admire the heck out of so many of them. The women, like Voni Glaves and Ardys Kellerman (god rest her soul), who ride the heck out of life but don’t make a big deal of it. They’re true ambassadors for riding. The women who teach safe riding technique. And the young racers: wow. They break barriers every day. The great thing about riding now, in this moment, is that women motorcyclists aren’t an anomaly: we’ve arrived, finally.

Are there writers who inspire you?
Too many to list, really. Although she wasn’t a rider, Joan Didion remains a god to me. A fierce intellect, and a model (if an unfollowable one) for what a writer can do: take on anything and everything.

What are you working on these days?
I have just finished the most difficult book of my life; its writing was interrupted by the life event mentioned above, and by the writing of my second book on motorcycles. It was very hard to pick up again and finish, after I myself was transformed. Therefore the subject was too. It’s about the science of behaviorism, as manifested in dog training, and will be published in the spring of 2015 as The Secret History of Kindness.

Are you creatively satisfied in life?
You know how to ask the tough questions! No. No, I’m not at all. If I were satisfied, I’d lay down and die. At this point it seems to be a race against time. There are so many books I want to write that I know I don’t have enough life left to do them in. The most burning one at the moment is a collection of my shorter motorcycle essays: for a couple of years, I wrote a blog that kept me afloat emotionally, as well as a writer, though it simply seemed imperative in the same way eating and sleeping must be done. I had no goal other than to get down in words what riding and other riders meant to me in a difficult time.

On to something lighter now. What are your favorite rides to do when you’re home?
I have a little circuit that takes me up over a “mountain” (well, a big hill with some first-gear S-curves) and drops down into the village of Woodstock, then I turn and head west farther into the Catskills to end at the village of Phoenicia. On a nice weekend day I can count on finding at least a few bikes parked while their riders enjoy some pizza outdoors and gaze at the mountains. I’ve made plenty of friends this way–of course, it’s not hard making friends with other riders on a beautiful day in the middle of great riding roads.
[Link to Route]

Riding to Phoenicia with the CitiBeemers

What does a typical day look like for you?
There is no such thing as typical for me! Which is both bane and boon. I’m my own master. That means I have unlimited time to procrastinate, and I’ve succeeded in bringing that skill to its highest form.

What music are you listening to right now?
I have my “writing music,” which is anything with an imperative beat but no lyrics (or no lyrics I can understand and get waylaid by). I’m a big fan of TuneIn Radio, with its millions of choices for whatever mood you choose to indulge. Much of the time that’s so-called world music or electronica. I happen to think we’ve entered a great new age for pop music. If I want to feel big sentiment, I listen to Coldplay (a guilty pleasure).

Do you have any favorite books?
No fair. Books are, and have always been, my life. Am I allowed to say Herman Melville and Thomas Hardy? Now, I read mainly the books that work puts in my way: I’m a reviewer, and I also proofread. It’s a little like being a restaurant critic: some days it’s sort of blech, and other days it’s “OMG. I can’t believe how great this is.” That said, I think–as stated above–this is music’s moment, not literature. It will come around again, though. These things are cyclical.


Any favorite foods?
Pizza is the top of the food pyramid for me. The best I ever had, of course, was in Italy, in Mandello del Lario, and I’ll never forget it. I’m a vegetarian since 1975!

If you were to give advice to a young person starting out, what would you tell them?
Go! Find your family: the best people are the people who ride bikes.

Oh, and of course, take a course.

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
If anything, one that says simply: Openly embrace your loves. State them out loud. People will remember you if you do.

Any thoughts about the Global Women Who Ride project?
It warms my heart, truly. Because I do not have a nation but that it’s the motorcycle nation: we understand each other across all borders. In doing this project, you highlight the ways we are similar, not the ways we are different. It’s truly a peacemaker. And that is what the world needs now more than anything. We are all one race, in the most important ways. Nothing makes me happier than seeing women going forth, grabbing their joy. Divisiveness is momentary; togetherness is immortal.


You may have to take my word for the fact that travelling by bike is superior to traveling by car. All right – I will allow that it’s very, very different. Especially in the dark: the road seems to tilt ever upward, and you start imagining things. There will be rivers rushing in the blackness near the roadside; there will be a cliff looming overhead. You can ride into imaginative space, which is real traveling, because you are not anchored by anything. Look around. There is nothing between you and the weather, the smells, the color of the sky. All impress themselves on your consciousness as if the ride had turned it to wet cement. And there they will stay, apparently forever, so you can recall those sensations with any almost frightening precision years later.

Excerpt from The Perfect Vehicle

Want more? Check out Ms. Pierson’s website for more info on her work.

All content on this site is copyrighted to Global Women Who Ride and cannot be featured on any other site without the site owner’s express permission. For details, contact