How Harley-Davidson Motorcycles Saved My Soul

Finding a new life at age 52 with a Heritage Softail and Road King

By Debi Tolbert Duggar, Winter Haven, Florida

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In 2007 I was 52 and facing an empty nest, empty occupation, empty bank account, a quantifiably empty love life, and a bankrupt ideology of what comprised my purpose in life. If Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs was correct, I was still a long way from the pinnacle of his triangular reference of life stages—Self Actualization. I was soul sick. I was left wondering, “Is this all there is?”

How Harley-Davidson Motorcycles Saved My Soul Debi
Debi and her current bike, a Harley-Davidson Road King named Bessie Two, striking a pose in one of their favorite places—a lone strip of asphalt somewhere theyd never been.

I arrived at this point in my journey and realized I was again alone on the road of life, and my role as supermom was coming to a close. For most of my life I had been cast in the role of someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone’s mom, or someone’s lover, and my psyche was howling for a new role in life I could call my own. My soul was screaming to be nurtured.

I didn’t realize it then, but on that sweltering day in July 2007, my declaration of “I’m gettin’ my own!” as I climbed off the back of yet another man’s motorcycle for the last time would be a metaphor for my life as well. Not only would I get my own motorcycle, in the process I excavated my own life from the dismal heap of circumstances that surrounded me.

At a time when other women in their 50s were accessorizing with red hats and purple boas, I signed up for the motorcycle training course at a nearby Harley-Davidson dealership. In January 2008, I bought my first motorcycle—a Harley-Davidson Heritage SoftailInamed Bessie—and proceeded to accessorize my life with leather and chrome.

How Harley-Davidson Motorcycles Saved My Soul Florida
Debi, photographing her best friend, Bessie One, on an oak draped, sun dappled Florida backroad.

I knew I wanted to travel on my motorcycle. I’m a self-proclaimed hodophile: lover of roads. Five months after I bought my first bike I embarked on my first solo long distance road trip up the east coast to Canada. I learned everything I didn’t know about the bike and the gear on that trip! And somewhere along the open road, I learned my soul was nurtured with each mile I clicked off on my beloved Bessie.

How Harley-Davidson Motorcycles Saved My Soul Solo Tour
Debi and Bessie One, triumphant after completing the solo tour of Lake Superior Circle.

From 2008 to 2016 I experienced crushing financial loss, the heartache of my youngest daughter’s estrangement (as of this writing in 2019 I have not seen her), love loss, a devastating accident on my Heritage Softail, an unhealthy career move, and the loss of my dad by suicide. I could have crumpled many times, but I chose instead to saddle up and ride through the adversity. I sought redemption in the wind. I knew that on Bessie, I could navigate around the cracked and shattered pieces in my life, find solace in the journey, and steer in the opposite direction of all the hefty circumstances bearing down on me.

How Harley-Davidson Motorcycles Saved My Soul Tail of the Dragon
After the accident on Bessie One, Debi needed to feel confident again with her skills as a rider. She set out with Bessie Two to conquer some of the most challenging roads in the southeast, such as the infamous Tail of the Dragon.

Fast forward to the present. There will always be potholes on the road of life. Some will be large, some small. There will always be the challenge of negotiating the next blind curve. My daughter is still estranged, but I’ve accepted that she is traveling her own journey. My career in education moved back on track. Six years ago, I met a brave man who has the courage to let me be myself.

Yes, I miss my dad. My dad was my biggest fan and staunchest supporter of my adventures on two wheels. After the accident on Bessie One, I bought a Road King (Bessie Two) and subsequently clicked off the lower 48 states, Alaska, and six Canadian Provinces. I find a piece of my soul lying out there on the asphalt ribbon. It might be a part that needs reclaiming or a piece that needs to be discovered, reminding me that life is beautiful despite the rough gravel patches.

Do you have a story to share? Please send it to us, but follow these submission guidelines.

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11 thoughts on How Harley-Davidson Motorcycles Saved My Soul

  1. What an inspiring story! It’s amazing how our love for the open road on two wheels can give us the strength and courage to make it through life’s darkest hours. Ride on Debi!

  2. Thank you for sharing. I love these encouraging articles.

  3. Thank you to all of the fearless women riders who have so kindly responded to my story! My book—Riding Soulo—was released October 1, 2019 and is available online where all books are sold. #Bessieandme #RidingSoulo #AgeBoldly

  4. Wonderful life story and how motorcycling can save us, refresh us, pick us up, and help us reach our goals.Thank you … this came at great time for me to get my butt back in the seat!

  5. Great read, thank you for sharing your story. After losing a couple of good friends in a short period of time I sold my bike. I was scared and nervous to ride but it’s been like missing part of me. I’ve been thinking I’ll buy another this winter. Happy travels to you.

  6. Ten years ago (at the age of 50), I learned to ride. In July, I purchased a Harley-Davideson Sportster, rode 11,000 miles in my first season, and attended my first women’s motorcycle event—”Celebrate Women Riders” in Milwaukee. Karen Davidson was so kind to sign her book for me, the very first in my collection of books written by WindSisters.Today, I submitted my mileage form to HOG (Harley Owners Group) for my 100,000 mile pin (actually I’m at 104,500) and have been reminiscing about all of the phenomenal women riders I have met along the way and have had the privilege to ride with! I have been inspired by riders like Susan Loucks, Ellie Rains, Amy Skaling, Viv McCain, Lori Stegle, Diane Meier, Cat Hammes, Cris Sommer Simmons, Vicki Roberts-Sanfelipo, Gloria Struck, Lori Struck DeSilva, Colleen Moriarty, Sheri Ciecko Sandoval, Robin Cullen, Susan Kenealy, Linda Dalton, Greer Stewart, RiderCoaches, and so many more. Thank you for the 100,000 smiles, the 100,000 waves, and the 100,000 friendships! Wonder what a 1,000,000 miles will feel like?

    1. Wow! Thank you for sharing your story. While all of these women named here inspired you (and many more riders just like you), you yourself are an inspiration for others! Keep on riding and showing the world that women ride too!

  7. Thank you Debi for showing me that I can do this. I learned to ride just over a year ago at 52. I was in an accident that kept me off my bike for half a year. I am finally back on and slowly gaining my confidence again. You have shown me that I can accomplish my dream of riding my girl, Sophia, to and in the lower 48 states plus Alaska. I have lived through a divorce, three career changes, and the loss of my mother to a heart attack (on her way to come to take care of me after my accident). I know that I can overcome it all and reach my goals.Again, thank you!

  8. First and foremost, I’m so proud of you.I, too, rode on the back of my husband’s bike, but only once. I went home from work that week and declared, “I’m gonna take a class this week.” He asked what for, and when I told him he said, “You don’t like riding on the back of my bike?” I laughed and said “Noooooo!”I took the class and bought a brand new Harley Sportster in 2001. I learned to ride on it and dropped it a few times. In 2003 I bought a 100th anniversary Heritage Springer Softail and I love it. Be safe and keep the rubber on the road.

  9. Thank you for a most inspiring article. I can relate to your expressing being soul sick at a time in your life, for various reasons. I have a million things to be grateful for and I am very blessed, but this year has proven to be one of the toughest. My daughter’s illness, being alienated by my sisters, and a career that has completely sucked the life out of me, are just a few of 2019s challenges. But when I get on my bike and ride, you can literally feel the release of all of the overwhelming pressures life throws at you. The dark cloud of depression is in your rear view and who wants to look back. Looking forward to the opportunity to explore the world, two wheels at a time, as I know today’s heartaches will only make me stronger.

  10. Great article Debi! I, too, began my motorcycle adventures at the age of 50. We share several life adventures in common. I, however, do not have your courage—I admire you for striking out on your own!

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