Seventy-eight times bigger than Israel and the only state in the US with 100,000 glaciers, three million lakes, 29 volcanoes and dog-mushing as the official sport, Alaska has always been an attractive adventure- vacation destination. The great majority of visitors get there by plane. A few arrive the hard way.“As soon as I suggested this motorcycle trip to Jonny, a seasoned motorcyclist, he was packing his buck knife and his traveling toothbrush,” writes Diana Bletter in The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle: Life Lessons on the Road to Alaska. “Before I had a chance to come to my senses, before the kids were even out of the house, he had bought a blue BMW something-or-other for himself and, for me, a red BMW 650 GS. (Or was it a G 650 GS?)” Her book is an account of the demanding 51-day, 16,463-km. trip Bletter, then 52, took with husband Jonny Kuritsky, from New York to Alaska and back.Her search for adventure was prompted by the typical life changes that surface with the approach of middle age. Originally from New York, Bletter had raised six children and an “unofficially adopted” young Ethiopian woman, in a lovely home on a small moshav in the Western Galilee. In 2009, with her two youngest about to enter the army and an empty nest looming, Bletter felt she needed to reshape her life and wasn’t sure how.Most people manage to find less arduous methods to get through similar periods. Bletter, it appears, loves a challenge.Although she rode a “cute little Vespa Piaggio” scooter to get around locally, Bletter had never ridden a motorcycle where she had to change gears.She came up with the idea for the trip after receiving a “sign” – something that seemed overly coincidental – in a parking lot in Westhampton, New York. In a different New York parking lot, Bletter took just six lessons on her brand-new 650-whatever, convinced the whole time she was going to crash into the lone lamppost standing in the middle of all that empty space.“Jonny is an experienced motorcyclist. Before this trip I’d sit behind him and be totally oblivious of what it took to drive one. It never interested me at all,” Bletter says. “My first time on the street, the teacher led me around the block on a long leash. It was the scariest thing.”They had to be selective about what they would take. “Jonny is organized, and he loves gear and packing. He limited me to four shirts and a down vest. He made me leave my fleece sweatshirt behind,” Bletter says, laughing. Even so, when she was seated her bike weighed over 600 lbs.Though Bletter wore a special BMW vest that heated up when plugged into the motorcycle, which was also equipped with heated hand grips, she froze through the Canadian Rockies and eventually bought herself a sweatshirt in Alberta, Canada.
“I had no idea what I was getting into,” admits Bletter.
“I never thought of doing the trip alone. From the beginning the idea was that Jonny and I would do it together. Physically, I could have done it,” says Bletter who is tall, thin and athletic. “But I don’t think I would have gotten as great a sense of accomplishment if I’d gone alone.”In fact, Kuritsky did much of the route planning – and the worrying. He was certain his wife could make the trip, but he was constantly aware that they were taking a real risk. The roads they were traveling had “moose out there like land mines,” Bletter writes, quoting a man who had been in a car accident caused by one and was lucky to have only suffered two broken arms. She says Kuritsky’s biggest fear was to have to tell the children that something tragic had happened to their mother.Being on the bike for hours, alone inside her helmet, “was kind of like meditating,” Bletter says. “It was like being in a moving monastery. I had to concentrate on the road every minute, but I still had time to think. One day I tried to remember one event from every year of my life. It was harder than you’d think. But it gave me a different perspective on my life.” Early on in the trip, Kuritsky decided to ride behind Bletter so that he could always have her in view. It could be frustrating for him because he had to match his speed to hers. This is how Bletter describes a stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway: “I had been daydreaming while riding in the flat prairies but now I was back to being point guard again. Look ahead, look to the left, to the right, glance into my right rearview mirror and then into my left where I’d see Jonny either giving me a curt nod, a thumbs up, or can’t you ride a little faster?” For Bletter, being in the lead could be nerve-racking.
On the Alcan (Alaska) Highway, somewhere outside of Dawson Creek, riding down a mountain in the rain, Bletter writes, “With one hand, I could almost touch the rocky cliffs on the left side of the road; and with the other, I could feel the cool air where the cliffs plunged far below, the drop steep as an elevator shaft... I heard someone’s breaths, so raspy and static that I wanted to strangle her until I realized it was me.”Before starting the trip, Bletter searched online for other women motorcyclists.Initially, she was excited to find the website of a woman who had taken a similar trip to Alaska – until she realized the woman had ridden behind her husband. In fact, Bletter saw many couples sharing a motorcycle (with the man always sitting in front, driving), but she saw only one other woman riding her own.Besides being a travel adventure/ memoir, the book is also a love story – about two people who suddenly find themselves very much together. Of course they have disagreements along the way, exacerbated by the discomfort of hours of driving in dangerous and extreme conditions with wet, sore bottoms, but they also experience a renewed appreciation and tolerance of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.Insights into Bletter’s childhood, her experiences as an American raising Israeli children, and glimpses into her personal connection with religion and spirituality are sprinkled among descriptions of the places she and Kuritsky see and the people they meet along the way. She also dispenses interesting details about the history and culture of Alaska.“I wanted the reader to feel like they were on the trip with me – to get a sense of the geography and the environment – the things I didn’t know before I left,” Bletter says. “There are so many little-known facts about the culture and the history. For instance, I didn’t know the Alcan Highway was built by African- American soldiers.”In 1942, over a period of nine months and working under horrendous conditions, 10,000 US Army soldiers finished almost 1,400 miles of highway. The almost 4,000 African-American soldiers included in that number (in a still-segregated army) were allowed to use only picks, shovels and wheelbarrows because “their officers believed they could not be trusted to handle heavy machinery.”That length of road is just a small stretch of the total mileage they covered.“It really made Israel feel tiny. In one day we would ride almost the same distance as the whole length of Israel,” Bletter says.In fact, in 51 days they drove 30 times the length of Israel, taking a few much-needed breaks along the way. In Anchorage they visited Bletter’s college roommate who made her home there, and they took a guided trek on the Matanuska Glacier, about which Bletter wrote an article for The New York Times.ON THE return trip, readers are introduced to son Ari, who was working in Kansas City at the time, as well as to a few other friends. But the drive back to New York was much less dramatic. “We were done by then,” Bletter says. “Really drained. We mostly just rode right through.”From the beginning, Bletter planned to write a book about their journey.Having kept a journal for years, she was careful to write entries and take notes along the way that she could refer to later. She also took lots of photographs.Back in Israel, her next challenge was to write the book and get it published.
Bletter, who writes both non-fiction and fiction, says, “Travel writing is different. I didn’t want it to be a travel diary. I wanted it to be an adventure. And, in reality, it could have ended in tragedy.”Bletter’s sense of humor comes across well, as does a healthy sense of irony – when she writes about something that had the potential to be tragic that did happen – not to her, but to Kuritsky.The writing took three years. “Finishing it felt like another huge accomplishment,” Bletter says. Not long into the search for a publisher, the manuscript was accepted by a literary agency. “But just then the whole publishing industry was crashing and the agency was doubtful they could place it with a traditional publisher. I knew I’d have to do a lot of the work myself anyway, so I decided to do the publishing and the marketing as well.”An editor from the agency had already suggested some rewrites before Bletter began the self-publishing process. “Actually I had a few editors; the first with the agency and then I hired two,” she explains.“Each saw things a little differently. One was a parent and could relate to what it took for me to leave my kids in order to make the trip. Another wasn’t and couldn’t. But for anyone who is thinking of self-publishing, I would definitely recommend hiring a professional editor. They notice things the author can’t.”Marketing the book has been still another challenge. Bletter feels it is important to use social media to generate interest. She writes a blog hosted by Wordpress, which she says is easy to set up and use. She has written about her own publishing experiences and those of other authors. She speaks to groups and writing clubs and gives workshops on writing and self-publishing.The whole process, from writing to marketing, has been a learning experience – and she’s not done yet. Bletter is aware the book would benefit from a map and plans to add one in the next printing.For Bletter, one of the best things to come out of the journey and the subsequent book is that her identity crisis is a thing of the past. In its place she has a real sense of achievement – and she and Kuritsky share a renewed sense of couple- hood.“Jonny was into me doing something that he loves, something we could share. Sure I could cook Friday night dinner and make a home for us and our children, but this was something we could share in a different way.“Before the trip I never understood what Jonny saw in motorcycling. But because of the trip I became a partner rather than a passenger,” Bletter says.She seems to be referring to other aspects of her life as well.She sees in her story the message that anyone can do anything they set their mind to. Bletter often quotes, “To be more yourself, you sometimes have to be less yourself.” What she seems to mean is that sometimes a person has to leave their comfort zone in order to find out who they are and what they are capable of.It certainly helps to have someone like Kuritsky bringing up the rear. Those less adventurous can just read the book. There’s definitely something to be said for being able to live vicariously.Bletter is currently finishing a novel about the women who run the burial society in a small village in Israel on the eve of the 2006 war with Lebanon. She blogs at thebestchapter.com.