Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Easy Riders

Story Slim Smith | Photographs Luisa Porter

Eight years ago, Becky Fussell figured it was “her time.”

The divorced mom of two and grandmother of three was living in Jackson, working as a banker. She had just turned 50. “It was time to do something for Becky,” she says.

That “something,” was a bit of surprise to her family and friends and, in truth, it even surprised Becky a bit.

“I had only ridden on the back of a motorcycle once, back in 2012 and it kind of scared me,” she says. But a motorcycle friend persisted and finally, Fussell was ready to ride. On the day she bought her first motorcycle, a Honda, she spent two hours learning how to ride on a dirt bike, then brought her new purchase home with her.

Now, eight years later, the prevailing feeling Fussell experiences when she climbs onto her prized blue pearl Harley Davidson Street Glide is not fear, but freedom.

“I can’t explain it, really, but to me, it represents freedom,” she says. “It was something I did for myself and now, well, I can’t imagine not riding.”

Fussell is not alone. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, motorcycle ownership has increased steadily over the past 25 years — there are roughly nine million registered motorcycles in the U.S. More and more of those riders are women. Today, one in four motorcycle owners are women — up from one in 10 a decade ago.

But it isn’t just women who are responsible for the steady growth in motorcycle ridership. Today, one in four riders are age 50 or older.

Although motorcycles have been around since the end of the 19th century, the real boom in “bikes” began in the post World War II years. Hollywood’s portrayal of the youthful angst of the 1950s and 1960s was often closely associated with motorcycles — from Marlon Brando in “The Wild One” (1953) to Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in “Easy Rider” (1969).

In addition to serving as a “vehicle” for rebellious youth in pop culture, the emerging image of outlaw motorcycle gangs cast an unsavory — and inaccurate — shadow on the motorcycle.

Today, of course, those stereotypes don’t prevail. Motorcycle clubs are a fixture at benefit events, often staging rides for charities. You find them lending moral support at funerals of fallen officers and soldiers, often as unofficial color guards.

In fact, motorcycle riders defy all demographics of gender, age or race. And while there are still outlaw motorcycle gangs, thousands of motorcycle clubs throughout the world are formed around far less sinister interests. In fact, one of the largest such groups is the Christian Motorcycle Association with more than 125,000 members in 1,200 chapters in every state and 31 foreign countries.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Robert Walker, 51, of Starkville, has been a member of the CMA’s Starkville chapter, Riders of the Son, since the chapter was first organized 20 years ago.

For Walker, the chapter combined two of his greatest interests -— ministry and riding.

“I’ve been riding motorcycles for probably 40 years,” Walker says. “So being involved with the CMA just made sense for me. We go to just about every motorcycle rally we can get to, like the Sturgis Rally, and hand out water, gatorade or just help any way we can. It’s our ministry.”

Although Walker is a member of a large group, his chapter is relatively small.

“I’d say we have about 10 to 15 members right now,” he says. “It fluctuates.”

The small number is pretty common among the thousands of motorcycle clubs and associations throughout the country. Most are informally organized among riders who share the common interest.

Motorcycle groups rarely ride together as a group. Aside from one or two big rallies, the groups are generally a pool of riders. If a member wants to take a ride, he or she can work the contacts in the group to find others who are available to ride on that particular day.

“We have about eight members right now,” says Waynond “Rainbow” Evans of West Point, a charter member of The Sundance Riders club. “It’s a close-knit, family-oriented club, just some guys from Oktibbeha and Clay counties who got together a long time ago.

Evans, 62, says he believes The Sundance Riders is the oldest continuously-operating motorcycle club in the Golden Triangle.

“We’ve been together for 37 years,” he says. “There’s only a couple of us old guys still in the club. It’s been passed down to the next generation, our kids.”

Tragedy struck the club in August 2015, when Evans’ son, Carlos Walker, was killed when his motorcycle was rear-ended by a car in Clay County.

It served as a reminder of the danger that is often associated with motorcycles. The U.S. DOT says about 5,000 motorcyclists are killed in accidents each year.

Riders do not take those risks lightly.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

“I think riders have an obligation to drive safely,” Walker says. “But in so many cases, it’s not the motorcyclist who is at fault. My attitude is to not do anything stupid and put my faith in God.”

The potential for danger isn’t enough to dissuade motorcycle enthusiasts, though.

“I really can’t get enough,” Fussell says.

Fussell is a member of the Columbus CMA chapter, One-Way Riders. In addition to going to rallies in the region, the group also meets each Thursday evening at the Sonic on Highway 45 North in Columbus, where they mingle with other riders who have made the Thursday night get-together a weekly ritual. At those informal events, Fussell and other One-Way Riders pray for riders, bless their bikes and minister to the needs of their fellow riders.

While she enjoys those CMA events, it hardly sates her appetite for riding.

“I don’t think anybody is as crazy about it as me,” says Fussell, who is now a bank officer in the Tupelo branch of BancorpSouth. “I’ve had my Harley for a year, and I’ve already put close to 14,000 miles on it.”

For Walker, there is no better stress reliever than taking off on his motorcycle.

“I work in AutoCad computer drafting for an electrical engineering company,” he says. “It’s desk work and can be stressful. So, for me, after a stressful day or week, you can’t beat getting together with a few friends for a ride, just to see the scenery.

“It’s hard to explain, but the scenery is so much better when you’re on a motorcycle. It’s just an experience you don’t get riding in a car.”

Fussell understands.

“You know, it doesn’t much matter where I’m going,” she says. “When I am on a ride, every ride is the perfect ride.”