Recently Divorced, New Job, New House, New Life, and Motorcycles!

Please don’t ask me why

Story and photos by Emily Zebel

Some questions break us down. Some questions break us open. Some do both. For a long time, I carried it in the container of why. Why stay? Why go? Why choose this path or that one? Inevitably the questions become quicksand. I am knee deep and sinking, and there is no hauling myself out. This is when motorcycles entered my life.

New Beginnings

“Alrighty everybody, let’s see if we can get them in neutral,” Coach Dean says. His hands are on hips and slightly bemused as the four of us toe the shifters of our motorcycles, our feet like those claws in the toy machine that can’t quite grab the stuffed animal. Finally, I find it! After a few minutes of stall-outs and near-starts, all of us are aligned in our success, and await our coach’s next instruction. It’s mid-December, just before Christmas, and the air crackles with my breath. It’s downright cold, and I can’t feel my fingertips.

I am new on the motorcycle in this beginner riding course, but new in a lot of other ways I could have never expected for myself, too. I’m freshly split from a ten-year marriage and without a solid home. I am also searching for a better job that can support myself and my nine-year-old.

Emily Zebel motorcyclist
I find myself fighting the impulse to look forward and backward at once daily. I am overwhelmed with the pressure to understand why everything fell apart, how to make up for lost time, and how to tie it all up neatly with a bow and just move on. But these things don’t happen cleanly, or quickly, I know.

Signing up for the Harley-Davidson Riding Academy new rider course was the first actionable, immediate thing I could think of to grab onto. It had been a curiosity of mine for years, tucked away per my partner’s safety concerns. But now, in the sharpness of winter, I giggle inside my helmet as I trace the lines around the range in each exercise on my Harley-Davidson training bike. I realize I’m not just learning something new now. I have initiated the process of redefining myself and exploring a new identity. There isn’t time for questions. Only an opportunity to do things differently, to decide what to focus on and what to neglect.

Emily Zebel canyon
I am getting a running start for my new life, ready to hold onto my whole self and jump the length of the canyon that wants to swallow me up.

Building Skills, Experience, and a New Life

I successfully receive my Class M license and one week later, I buy my first motorcycle, a sparkly little blue Honda 250 Rebel. When I need to take it for inspection (my first real ride on roads and highways of consequence, in January no less) I ask my mom to watch my daughter for me while I run out. Gearing up in thick pants, an insulated shell, and my warmest gloves, with a clenched fist of nerves in the pit of my stomach, my mom looks at me squarely before I walk out the door and asks, “Why are you doing this? You’re going to die!”

I haven’t died yet. But I have logged thousands of miles. And I have been slowly and steadily building a new life for myself, with the motorcycle as an existential, essential keystone to this life. I’ve graduated from that unassuming Rebel to a sleek Triumph Thruxton 900. I’ve ridden across state lines and weather patterns, from the Rocky Mountains with lightning storms nipping at my heels, to quiet, gentle moonlit Pennsylvania backroads. I’ve stood under the awnings of gas stations, waiting out downpours, chewing on chocolate bars and stale coffee, feeling like a queen. And I’ve ridden through grief, through the darkest nights of the soul, untangling the crippling heartache of a loved one’s suicide.

Emily Zebel Triumph
Taking a breath to watch the sunset in Michaux State Forest, Pennsylvania.
Emily Zebel Colorado
Silky dirt roads in the Colorado backcountry.

Why Ask Why?

What do you turn to when you’re denuded of all you know? Why? Of all the decisions I’ve made in life and all the passions I pursue, why I ride motorcycles is the question and sideways look I get most often. When I answer that question, it’s simple: because it’s fun as hell! But mostly, I don’t want to answer that question, or know how to. Is it really a question that must be asked?

The problem with “why” is that it assumes something is wrong.

Sure, asking “why” can have value. After all, it can give us context and comfort, and help us correct our course in a positive direction. But asking why can colonize the mind. It can pirouette from a question to a lament. It’s not a call to action at all, but a back-to-front question that can lead us in the opposite direction of where we want to go. If I continued to ask, “Why leave?” mid-tailspin in an unhealthy marriage, I might still be there. If I continued to ask, “Why ride a motorcycle?” I might have never mapped all those sunsets and serene skies or opened the door to a new kind of freedom.

Emily Zebel Blue Ridge Skyline Drive
Taking a stretch break with my twin sister, Sarah Fiore, along Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park.

Sometimes, you just need to trust the impulse and do the thing. A life, after all, is really only the distillation of time, and time is fickle, time is fluid. It can’t be found, but it can be lost. So why are you still standing here? Go after it.

Emily Zebel
Just me, my bike, and many miles of wild country.

Editor’s Note: If you enjoyed Emily’s story and photos, please check out her amazing photography and design work at her web site,

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