Trying to keep the pace, I follow Ola as she rips up the soft earth of a forest trail on her nimble KTM690. Lucy, my camping-gear-and-beer laden Suzuki DR650, is no match for Ola’s bike – or her skills – but I’m chasing after her nonetheless, falling into a certain rhythm, until we get it just right, and the last hundred miles or so disappear under our mud-splattered tires in one fluid, almost synchronized, motion.
Even after covering thousands of miles on dirt and racing several cross country rallies, it still takes me some fifteen minutes or so to get into it, to relax my hands and forearms, to start breathing normally whenever I hit dirt tracks riding with someone else. On my own, I’m cool; I’ll putter along slowly at first, warm up a little, wiggle my toes, shake out my shoulders, yell a war cry or two in my helmet, giggle at said war cry, and then get going. Whenever I’m riding with other people, though, I still tense up a lot at first. I guess somewhere at the back of my mind, I still worry about keeping up, even though by now, I can, and I do. But old stories die slowly.
So when Ola, my friend, badass boss lady, and a motorcycle nutter from Warsaw invited me for a weekend ride with other women – an off road campout in Western Poland, women-only, let’s go was what she said – I was a tiny bit reluctant at first. I was always shy of crowds, even pre-Corona. Besides, I had so much work to do, and Lucy wasn’t exactly a lightweight dirt bike, and…
“Pack. We’re going”, was Ola’s reply.
So I did, and we went, and if there was a soundtrack to all that happened, it would be Girls Go Wild by LP. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Bonfire Witches
It’s already getting dark when Ola and I roll up to the campsite near a lake. We ride straight into the middle of the campground, greeted by camera flashes and shrieks. I feel a little giddy: the whole affair looks like your regular adventure and dirt bike gathering, with motorcycles, bike trailers, and tents scattered all over the place, a fire already going, wooden campground tables covered in food and beer bottles.
But there’s one difference.
All the forty participants of the off-road campout are women.
There’s literally not one dude in sight, and as Ola and I get off our bikes, we’re swept up in a beautiful bedlam of hugs, “hellos”, and slaps on the shoulder; a girl in a pink robe pushes shot glasses in our hands – “it’s homemade, you guys, a bit like Malibu, but better, yeah?” – while three Northface – clad women are already helping us unload the bikes and pitch the tents; I don’t know anybody here except Ola, but I’m already being hugged, fed, helped, and watered by the entire gang.
As we leave our bikes and tents and make our way to the bonfire, my throat is burning a little from the Homemade Malibu shot, so I fish some beer out of my pannier and sit down by the fire next to a brown-haired gal. She shakes my hand. “I’m Monica”, she says simply. We get to talking; Monica was planning to ride to Pakistan this year, but because of the COVID-19, she’ll have to be content with the Balkans instead. The girl in the pink robe, Izzy, has a small horn-shaped shot glass hanging around her neck on a string, and she’s gong around the bonfire offering everyone a shot of “homemade, too, but this is a bit stronger, hehe”. She’s wearing pajama bottoms underneath the robe, and she dances like Shakira in front of the fire. Earlier today, Izzy dug a hole in the ground with the rear wheel of her GS because the campsite owner refused to lend her an axe, and she felt like a little avenging was in order.
She’s nuts, and I love her already. I chat to other women; some, like Monica, travel hard and far, others have just gotten their bike licenses, others still are into hard enduro or simply enjoy trail riding, but I have already forgotten that I don’t speak Polish and don’t know anyone here, because by now, I do, simply by being here. The atmosphere at the bonfire is sparking and sizzling as if the very air is electrified, fuelled by the feverish energy of forty women unable to sit still because this is sheer joy – and it is so rare, so impossible to have so many of us together in this one lonely spot near a dark lake, it never happens like this, ever, because we are always the tiniest minority, we are always the girlfriends or the wives or the tag alongs at motorcycle events, we are always the odd ones out, the unicorns or the objects, the outsiders or the intruders, and even among the friendliest and most amazing of guys, boys, dudes, men, even among the best of them, it’s not the same. But here, at this campout, at this bonfire, it’s us and us alone. We are the roaring, laughing, giggling, dancing majority, and we are loud, we are graphic, and we are drunk on the unspoken camaraderie and Izzy’s shots.
Walking over to my bike to get a few more beers, I notice a little group of campers huddled around a smaller campfire on the edge of the grounds. Several guys and a couple gals, probably out for the weekend; they’ve got some music on and they’re cooking sausages over the flames. One of the guys notices me rummaging my panniers and walks over to me, saying something in Polish. I tell him I don’t understand, and he giggles shyly, looking back at his friends. “I, um…I want to ask.. your motorcycle? What make?”, he finally stammers out, pawing at his phone with Google Translate on the screen.
I take a long look at his face. Because I can, because this is my turf, because he is wild-eyed at the mayhem of dozens of women revving their engines, chopping wood, drinking moonshine, and throwing their heads back laughing; he is alone here, even with his few friends.
I cock my head to one side, something electric fizzing in my chest, a strange effervescence inside, and I wonder for a split second if it’s really there, or is it because I’d just finished reading Power by Naomi Alderman for the second time. I don’t look away, I don’t cross my arms in front of me, I don’t try to make myself smaller, I don’t touch my hair or shrug.
“It’s a Suzuki DR650”, I say finally. I smile, still staring at his face, and he shuffles back to his friends. I walk back over to our roaring bonfire, but I walk slowly, and I know that tonight, there’s no need to watch my back. This entire two-wheeled witch covenant has it.
Into the Wild
In the morning, I crawl out of my tent blinking at the morning sun and try to locate coffee. I have a tiny mechanical espresso machine, but I need hot water, so I make my way to the nearest table where some women are making breakfast and chatting. I ask for some hot water for the coffee and sit down. Ola joins me and makes me eat a sandwich; “here’s some cherry tomatoes. Oh shut up, you need to eat vegetables”, another woman offers; someone has cookies, and someone is sharing green tea. We go over to the gathering spot, our bonfire now a smoldering mound of coals, and the pack leaders Kasia, Agnieszka, Emilia, Asia, and Elsa explain there are three tracks we can choose from today. A paved route, an easy dirt trail ride, or a “hard” off road version with muddy trails and single track thrown in; pick whichever you want, bail and join another if you feel like it, lunch at five or thereabouts, kickstands up in half an hour.
Ola and I pick the hard version, even though we’re not on dirt bikes, but we’re joined by girls on heavy GS’s, a Transalp, a few XT660’s among lithe Huskies and KTMs, and we take off in a colorful and messy cavalcade making our way through the Polish countryside. I can see that our track designers and leaders are badass she-devils on dirt bikes, and they could go much faster and much harder, but this is not about that, and we stop often, we pick each other’s bikes up, we gawk at Karolina, a tiny girl on a quad who drifts around corners like a Dakar devil on the chase; I tell her she’s incredible, she doesn’t speak English much, so she smiles and does a donut in the sand on her quad, her dark ponytail whipping on her back; and we ride on and on leaving the forest trails behind, we come across a military base where a group of American soldiers are working on tanks – “tanks make these really cool tracks, man, it’s soft earth but you’ve got jumps, too”, one of the gals explain; we must be a sight to behold, a swarm of filthy dirtbike riders in tutus descending upon an unsuspecting band of NATO soldiers – we take a few photos and braaap off in a mayhem of mud splashes and dirt roosts, chasing each other on the wide tracks mangled by the tanks’ caterpillars.
One of the gals’ batteries die unexpectedly, so we hook up the quad to charge it. As we work on the broken-down bike, one woman quickly calls her husband to check up on the kids. Some of these gals had to cover more than 500 miles a day just to get here, leaving their work, children, and men behind for the weekend, breaking free and getting covered in mud and smiles.
We ride on, opening the throttles wide on the fast-flowing gravel tracks, getting deeper into the forest, crossing creeks and streams, helping each other out, rescuing a drowned KTM, waddling though deep slick mud, getting up steep hillclimbs, waiting for each other, chasing each other, and finally coming out back into town, dirty, exhausted, disheveled, and grinning from ear to ear. We occupy a local restaurant and order a big fat dinner, swapping stories and taking photos, and by now, it’s s tight-knit sisterhood of she-wolves out on a quest to savor every single moment and every single mile of dirt and dust.
Finally back at camp, we’re covered in mud and grime from head to toe. I ask Izzy if there’s shower facilities on the campground; she laughs and points at the lake. “Come on, chica, we’ve got to wash this stuff off”, she says, and we make our way to the shore. We’re joined by a Russian lady with raven-black hair and Adrianna, a honey-eyed girl on a Husky. The sun is still out, but it’s not warm, and the lake will be freezing cold. Adrianna gingerly walks over to the water, then yelps and grabs her foot. “Bastard!”, she yells, hopping back towards the bench. She got stung by a bee. Izzy picks the stinger out of Adrianna’s foot, and we sit on the wooden bench, blinking at the setting sun. “This place, man… This whole…I’ve never been to a gathering like this. It’s…”, Adrianna doesn’t finish her sentence. She doesn’t need to. We sit there for a moment with our eyes closed, our exposed skin prickling at the cold, and we’re content, like a pack of big cats of prey basking in the sun, stretching our bruised limbs, almost purring with delight.
We jump in the water, and it’s freezing cold, but it’s good, the dirt washes off, and peals of laughter echo across the still lake. Adrianna’s eyes glower in shades of amber and gold, and Izzy floats on her back, her hair spreading around her head like seaweed. They’ve both got jobs and kids and houses and responsibilities and important things and ironed shirts and office pantsuits and stress and too much espresso and not enough time, but today, on the dirt bikes, in the forests and swamps and farm fields, and in this lake, right now, they are creatures of the wild, and they are beautiful.
Back at camp, the fire is already going, and we settle in for another night of talking, joking, messing around, doing Izzy’s shots and dance moves – she is wearing a leopard print onesie tonight and insists we all must visit her in Eastern Poland some time – we’re chatting and laughing our butts of, there’s an unmistakable smell of weed emanating from one corner, and there’s an unrestricted supply of “kilbaska”, a type of Polish sausage, being grilled over the fire on sticks. Little by little, we settle down and just sit together, staring at the fire, knowing this is coming to an end, but feeling like we’ve been given a very rare and precious gift we’ll carry with us now, like a little seedling, a tiny bud of something powerful that connects us even if we don’t ever meet again.
In the morning, there’s a flurry of goodbye hugs and engine revs, and we don’t linger, Ola and I have to cover some five hundred kilometers back to Warsaw, and we’re a little sore and a little hungover and it’s a bit overcast, so we hug everyone, we thank everyone, and we jump on our bikes and go. Ola leads, and this time, I don’t need a warm up, I follow her and we just ride skirting undulating wheat fields and muddy forest trails and gravel roads and sandy tracks in the hills, we don’t stop and we don’t talk, we ride, and we’re so in sync it feels blissful and breathless. And in the late afternoon, when we get back onto a paved road and fuel up, and munch on protein bars, we hit the backroads and we don’t stop again, filtering through traffic, overtaking other riders on the road, two filthy little dirt bike fiends shooting past the unsuspecting world in a blur of muddy tires and screaming exhausts.
It has been weeks since the Baby na Motory women’s off-road campout in Poland, and I’ve already put more than a thousand miles on Lucy since; I’d washed the dirt off, dried the boots, and repacked the bike, but the gratitude and the feeling of sisterhood, that little seedling, – I’ve been carrying it with me ever since.