On July 22 John and I ride our motorcycles up north in Wisconsin. It’s a short, three-day trip, enough to give us a sufficient break from city living.

On the way home we pull into a truck stop in Green Bay to get gas. After I fill up, I turn my key, pull in the clutch, and start the bike. Nothing. I try a few more times. Still nothing. There had been no warning signs.

John pushes the bike off to the side, and over lunch we call a few friends who know bikes. None of us can figure out exactly what’s going on, so we decide to get a tow to the nearest Harley-Davidson dealership through Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) Roadside Assistance.

I am the only female in the truck stop café other than the waitresses, as I’m sure they’re referred to by the men: farmers, drivers, laborers with baseball caps and stained blue jeans who fill the booths and are lost in a Mitt Romney press conference on television.

Their attention is broken only when the tow truck comes for my bike, and they come alive. Eight or so of them slide out of their booths and crowd around the one with the best view.

“Well, look at that.” “That there motorcycle is dead.” “Look at that guy with tattoos all up and down his arms, you see that?” “I bet it’s his.” “Poor sucker.” “That there’s a sweet trailer.” “Someone ain’t going home tonight.” “Them Harleys cost your firstborn to repair.” “Yep.”

I had remained inside to finish my food. The tow truck driver and John get the bike turned around. The tow guy grabs the handlebars and John pushes on the back. They start to run with it. The men inside start to whoop.

“Look at ’em go!” says one, pressing against the window. “Don’t miss that trailer now!” says another. Laughter. I roll my eyes.

John and the tow guy run my bike up the ramp and inside the trailer. As it crests, the men inside collectively holler, “Whoa!”

I grab my helmet. As soon as I stand, the guys see me with my gear and they get real quiet and stare.

“It’s a broken down bike, so what?” I say.

I have to ride in the tow truck because John’s bike is not set up for a passenger. The truck is a behemoth and stepping up real high to get into it won’t cut it, so I have to hop a few times on one leg to get some momentum going. The driver and I pull out of the truck stop, with John following us.

The driver’s name is Gary. We start talking. Real nice guy, married, a father, been a tow driver a long time, and he has the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.

Gary grew up riding dirt bikes, he tells me. When he became an adult he bought a street bike.

“I passed my rider course, took my test and got my license the next day. My second time out I made a turn into some gravel. My wheels went out from under me and I slid about twenty feet. Messed up my hand and tore up my jeans. Got scars up and down my leg. I decided right then and there to just give it up.”

I tell him I don’t blame him. We talk about the dangers of motorcycle riding. That so far this season I know of six people who were killed when their motorcycles crashed. One guy was in the same H.O.G. chapter as me and John. A few weeks ago a Wisconsin couple lost control of the motorcycle they were riding and went down. They both died. They had three children.

“The roads aren’t what they used to be,” says Gary. “There are so many more of them, so much more traffic, and people drive like they’re only thinking about themselves.”

He tells me about some friends, a couple who were riding their motorcycle on a highway when the tire of the truck in front of them blew.

“There was so much traffic they had nowhere to go,” he says. “That rubber just came flying back at them. The bike tipped back and forth several times before he was able to regain control. When they pulled over, he and his wife stared at each other for two minutes straight without saying a word. He sold the bike after they got home, but a year later he couldn’t stand it anymore and bought another one. His wife refuses to ride anymore.”

Even though it’s 2012 and I think there should be more women riding than there really are, it’s still largely a man’s thing, and I am a girl who has always loved doing what mostly only boys do. I’m proud to have my motorcycle license.

But I don’t love riding the way John does. Before I got my license, I used to ride on the back of his bike, which we rode as far east as Maine and as far west as Idaho. One year we rode all the way around Lake Superior. Spectacular trips.

I used to take pictures back there. Sing songs in my head, do a lot of thinking. Get really bored. Every once in a while I’d look down at the pavement as it whizzed by beneath our feet. One false move and we’re down and it’s all over, I’d think. Then I’d look back up and try to forget about it.

Gary and I talk more about the people he has rescued over the years along the sides of various roads: stranded RVs, broken-down motorcycles, stalled cars. People from all over.

“Just last week I took a guy to the same Harley dealership I’m taking you to,” he says.

“You must see a lot,” I say.

He can’t even form the words and shakes his head instead. He gathers himself and tells me about the road rage, excessive speed, cutting across lanes, cell phones, texting, impaired driving, accidents.

“Truck as big as this, you’re up high,” he says. “You see everything.”

He tells me about a woman who broke down on the freeway he went to help.

“She was in her car when I pulled up behind her and threw on my red flashing lights. A car went around me, but I guess he didn’t see her when he pulled back over. He ran right into her. She died instantly.”

He runs his hand over his head. “Forty-one years old. Two kids, the same age as mine.”

We don’t say much after that.

The problem with my bike turns out to be minor: loose battery cables. On our way back to Milwaukee, I glance at the pavement passing beneath me. I am not anxious to the point where I pose a threat to myself or others on the road. But I am always respectful of the fact that anything can happen, anywhere, anytime. Bike or not. A point driven home to me two and a half years ago when my best friend Greg died suddenly of a massive heart attack. Then again last fall when my mom died ten weeks after her cancer diagnosis. Then again every time I get on my motorcycle.