2006.05.22: May 22, 2006: Headlines: COS - Romania: Adventure: Motorcycles: Travel: Bangor Daily News: In the spring of 2000, Romania RPCV Karen Larson set off in search of adventure - and her roots - on a Harley Davidson Sportster named Lucy

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Romania: Peace Corps Romania : The Peace Corps in Romania: 2006.05.22: May 22, 2006: Headlines: COS - Romania: Adventure: Motorcycles: Travel: Bangor Daily News: In the spring of 2000, Romania RPCV Karen Larson set off in search of adventure - and her roots - on a Harley Davidson Sportster named Lucy

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In the spring of 2000, Romania RPCV Karen Larson set off in search of adventure - and her roots - on a Harley Davidson Sportster named Lucy

 In the spring of 2000, Romania RPCV Karen Larson set off in search of adventure - and her roots - on a Harley Davidson Sportster named Lucy

Larsen served in the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe. While she loved the traveling, she hated life without a motorcycle. So when she returned to the States to earn her master's at Princeton, she bought Lucy.

In the spring of 2000, Romania RPCV Karen Larson set off in search of adventure - and her roots - on a Harley Davidson Sportster named Lucy

um alumna pens memoir of summer on the road

Monday, May 22, 2006

Bangor Daily News

f Karen Larsen had written the 1970s feminist anthem, it might've gone a little something like this: "I am woman, hear my engine roar."

In the spring of 2000, the University of Maine alumna set off in search of adventure - and her roots - on a Harley Davidson Sportster named Lucy. Her travel memoir, "Breaking the Limit: One Woman's Motorcycle Journey through North America," recounts her solo voyage from New Jersey to Alaska and back. It's at once an ode to the road and a testament to the power of a woman, no matter how small and alone she - or her bike - may be.

In the world of Harleys, Lucy isn't a "hog." She's more of a piglet. The thought of riding across the continent on something without cushy seats or a great stereo would be enough to discourage many adventuresome bikers - let alone those who prefer the air-conditioned safety of a car.

That exposure - "the taste of wet grass, deep woods, damp riverbanks and freshly cut hay that finds its way to the back of your throat" - was part of the appeal for Larsen. But it left her open to scrutiny, as well.

"I know every single day on that trip, someone had something to say about the fact I was a girl on a bike," said Larsen, who now lives in Cabot, Vt. "I don't think that was based on cruelty. I think that was based on a lack of experience of women on motorcycles."

Larsen says there are still activities, such as biking solo, that aren't perceived as equal opportunity. That didn't deter her, though, which didn't surprise her UMaine soccer coach one bit.

During her time at UMaine, Larsen worked to ensure that women were on a level playing field with their male counterparts. In the early 1990s, when Title IX legislation still was controversial, she fought tirelessly to have the women's soccer program upgraded from a club sport to Division 1 status. It was a long and at times frustrating process, but former coach Cid Dyjak says if anyone could get it done, Larsen could.

"The team looked to her for leadership," Dyjak recalled. "Her strength of will, her strength of character - she was willing to tackle issues all the time."

Dyjak spotted "Breaking the Limit" at Borders a while back. At first, he couldn't believe it was the same Karen Larsen he knew, but when he saw her picture and read the book jacket, he thought, "Yeah, that's Karen."

"She had this attitude of, 'This is what I'm going to do, and I'm going to be successful at it,'" Dyjak says. "It didn't really matter if it was unpopular. Whatever it was in front of her, she'd take it on."

Including a 15,000-mile odyssey. Alone. On a motorcycle.

She's felt the allure of the open road from a young age. Born in Ontario, she was adopted as an infant and raised in Carlisle, Mass., a suburb of Boston. At 16, she bought a secondhand Honda scooter that she rode with abandon. A bone-shattering fall did little to quell her love for the open road, and in Presque Isle, where she taught after graduating from UMaine, she got her first real motorcycle, a Honda Shadow 500 she named Rosie.

Larsen spent hours speeding through the woodlands and potato fields of Aroostook County, but she felt motorcycling was something she had to hide. It underscored the fact that she was "from away," and always would be.

"I showed up with my liberal feminist philosophy ... and I think I was a little bit aberrant," said Larsen, 35. "I was greeted with a certain amount of hesitancy."

There was no hesitancy when she served as the assistant soccer coach at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, however. The head coach at the time, Robert Grove-Markwood, didn't see much of Larsen's motorcycle, but he did see her intensity as a player and a role model.

"She brought a lot of energy and also a very high level of competence," Grove-Markwood said. "She was a good model, a good example and a good teacher."

Larsen enjoyed her time in The County, but when her father was diagnosed with cancer, she returned to Massachusetts and sold Rosie, figuring it would only make a bad situation worse. (She had kept the bike a secret from her parents because they saw it as a death trap.)

When her dad recovered, Larsen served in the Peace Corps in Eastern Europe. While she loved the traveling, she hated life without a motorcycle. So when she returned to the States to earn her master's at Princeton, she bought Lucy.

Two months before she graduated, she discovered a lump near her sternum that triggered a quest for her medical history. Though she had been in contact with her biological mother, she had never spoken with her biological father.

The medical background he provided - a prevalence of breast and bladder cancers, as well as brain tumors - left her cold, but his invitation to visit warmed her. So, too, did the news that her lump was benign.

So a few days after graduation, with three months free before she started a new job, she hopped on Lucy and embarked on the ultimate adventure. Though she faced relentless wind, bone-chilling rain and fog, steamy sun and drag-racing teenagers along the way, the kindness of strangers made the journey a happy one.

She never intended to write a book, but she kept detailed journals of her travels, which animated the characters and places she encountered. Her notes allowed her to paint the landscape so vividly that an Elle magazine reviewer wrote, "'Breaking the Limit' should come affixed with a warning label: May cause serious wanderlust."

The journey was emotional, as well. It helped her define the importance of family and home, and the meaning of being a daughter.

"Having the opportunity to re-examine these big life questions is really rare and really special," she said.

Larsen has since started a family of her own. Several years ago, a friend introduced her to Brad Alexander, a cabinetmaker who shares her love for long-distance motorcycling. They married and moved to Vermont, where she teaches at Montpelier High School. Her students know her as Mrs. Alexander, but they're familiar with the motorcycle memoir she penned under her maiden name.

Though she plans to write another nonfiction book at some point, she has enough on her plate at the moment. She and her husband just broke ground on an addition to their home for Karen's adoptive parents. And in January, the couple set off on their most exciting expedition yet: parenthood.

Baby Neil isn't quite old enough to hit the open road, but Larsen has already dusted off Lucy - her obstetrician "kicked her off" the bike during her pregnancy - and taken a few "fabulous" day trips on her own.

"Honestly, it was a little scary the first five minutes," Larsen said. "It's not just you and the bike anymore or you and the wonderful man in your life. Now, there's a baby, so there's more responsibility."

But motherhood won't mean the end of the road for Larsen and Lucy.

"Finding out precisely what it means to live on this continent, that's a journey that's going to take a lifetime," she said, "if at all."

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Story Source: Bangor Daily News

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