First Gear - A Motorcycle Memoir
A story about courage and hope, survival and recovery, First Gear is ultimately a story about the anguished relationship between a daughter and her mother. 50 years old, living with Multiple Sclerosis and looking for a re-direction in her life, Lorrie embarks on a motorcycle trip through Northern Ontario, Manitoba and Western Quebec on her 2009 Harley-Davidson.
Ride along as she discovers the vast beauty of the Canadian Shield and revisits her childhood growing up in the Ottawa Valley in the 1970’s. Her father was a violent man, who exerted an iron control over his family, dominating his wife and abusing his children. Her mother, an alcoholic, survived her marriage by being compliant and denying the impact of her husband’s violence on her children.
Lorrie talks frankly about the effect of years of physical and sexual abuse by her father and after a suicide attempt and hospitalization she finally goes to the police. Charges are laid and during the justice process, that comes to a shocking and unexpected end she uncovers a secret long held by her mother that will change her life forever.
Horses in the Sand
Published in June 2022, Horses in the Sand is a follow up memoir to First Gear – A Motorcycle Memoir (2015).
The opening story, Chain Wallet and Zippers, is an endearingly honest tale of what it was like to grow up as a girl who was starkly different from ‘normal’ and how coming out became a lifelong process of self-acceptance and changing identities.
Horses in the Sand Reviews
"Here's rare and clear-eyed insight, without self-pity into the complex
life of a woman unafraid to have non-traditional dreams and to follow them. What a pleasure to read the story of a woman who has the courage to be all she can be, in the ways she wants to be it, with respect for the people around her and for her trade, but taking no guff. Thank you Lorrie Potvin!”
– Kate Braid, author of “Journeywoman: Swinging a
Hammer in a Man’s World” and “Hammer & Nail:
Notes of a Journeywoman.”
All My Relations: Reflections on Horses in the Sand
One might wonder why Lorrie Potvin invited me to review her utterly compelling memoir, Horses in the Sand. On the surface we have little in common. I’m a tried-and-true scholarly sort, not a single tattoo on my body, and a straight-up cisgendered heterosexual white woman. I am keenly aware that I have lived a life of extraordinary privilege.
Lorrie avoids wearing skirts because wearing them once made her fearful and identified her as female, which singled her out as “prey.” One of my favourite pre-pandemic pastimes involved driving to New York City, dressing up in a velvet gown, and attending an opera at the Met for a full-on evening of over-the-top Puccini arias. Unlike Lorrie, I have never owned a Harley, nor have I have ever wondered about the identify of my birth father. I don’t battle a chronic illness. I couldn’t imagine forging a career as a welder — my few nearly fatal brushes with a welding torch only reinforce my respect for Lorrie’s skills.
But carpentry I get. Next to the velvet dresses in my closet are my work clothes. In the opening of the book, Lorrie writes:
It was the summer of 2019 when I drove in the last screw holding the bottom stair rail to its post. The rata-tat-tat of the drill echoed sharply through the acreage of trees and across the mirror-like surface of the lake. It only took a few seconds for the drill to stall, satisfied with the set of the Robertson screw… I sighed heavily when I stood, the moan coming from finishing the porch stairs as much as it did from the pain of my back and knees trying to right themselves.
I can picture the scene. I expect readers who have built their own homes, sheds, or workshops will feel the same. Indeed, Lorrie and I have built many things together at Wintergreen Studios, an educational retreat centre a mere 20 minutes from where she lives. We talk tools. We share tools. And we solve problems that invariably arise when building or renovating – problems as gnarly as the most complex geometric theorems. As a small woman in her early 60s, I can picture just about everything Lorrie writes about the building process, although in her case, the physical limitations come from living with MS. She tells the story of having several big pieces of glass to move, about starting with the lightest one to build confidence, moving to a heavier one next. That strategy (I know it well) is illustrative of the deliberate planning and choice-making in this kind of creative work.
I get teaching, too. I taught for decades at the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University where Lorrie received her teaching credentials to become a secondary school shop teacher. And make no mistake, Lorrie is a gifted teacher. I have learned much from her (and not just about carpentry). But her subject and appearance raised eyebrows in the school system. Asked by a student if she was a real teacher, she writes:
When I said that I was, she looked confused and said in a voice only teenage girls who know they’re always right can muster, “Teachers don’t wear jeans and black leather biker jackets, you know.” It wouldn’t be the last time someone asked me this question. It usually came from girls who were unable to reconcile my look with what they thought a “girl teacher” should look like. I wore men’s clothes and had my hair cut short, and a couple of my tattoos were visible when I wore short sleeves. The art made some kids gasp and point…The older boys would say, “Nice ink.”
Lorrie tells many stories about her teaching days, and those of us who have spent time in the classroom will recognize her as one of the teachers we would wish for our own children.
There is, in this book, much darkness. The little girl who took a stick and drew horses in the sand on a gravel road was lost for many years to violence, addiction, and psychological cruelty. In her childhood years, she and her brothers were taught to “keep secrets, lie, cheat, steal, yell, scream, and beat each other up … to meet every demand, conflict, difficulty, indecision, uncertainty, and fear with anger… it was raging anger built on a bedrock of resentments. It was how we lived, and we knew it as normal.”
Her early work as a tradeswoman only continued the injustices and cruelty where “sexual harassment, bullying, abuse, lower pay, and paternalistic and hierarchical structures” were the order of the day. Lorrie’s desire to live a better life was seeded from a life with much darkness, coupled with those impulses to make art in the gravel.
Even before Lorrie discovered her Indigenous ancestry (and believe me, that’s a story that you will want to read for yourself), she had great reverence for the natural world. When she began the decades long process of building her home, she mused about what it is like to build in the bush, about how she learned that “when you build in the bush, the temperamental forces of Mother Earth—the wind, water, and fire, along with her plant and animal nations—immediately start taking over. Some would say they were claiming rightful ownership … by resisting our intrusion.” Here is another place where our worlds intersect. There are many small cabins in the woods at Wintergreen, and non-human guests are a constant. After railing against the unwanted inhabitants, I finally came to understand that there would always be ants and phoebes, deer mice and grey rat snakes living in the crevices, and moreover, that they had every right to be there. There is an Indigenous expression, “all my relations,” that captures this notion. Lorrie writes:
When I [say] all my relations, I [am] talking about our relations with self, family, friends, and people. But I [am] also talking about being in kinship with the world we live in: the four-leggeds, the swimmers, the fliers, the crawlers, Mother Earth, the water, Father Sky, the tall standing ones, the plant world, the stars, the energies of Grandmother Moon and Grandfather Sun, the wind, the thunderers, the rain, the snow, and all the great mysteries lived and yet to be lived. Nothing is lesser than the other and each are vital to the whole. That is all our relations.
You will read about how Lorrie’s immersion into Indigenous sharing circles and ceremonies led her back to that young child who drew horses in the sand, how sharing circles and ceremonies were places where she felt accepted and started to heal her “feminine spirit.” She explains that “it was important to recognize my femininity, which I had denied for most of my life, so I could heal the little girl that had been abused and cast aside. At the same time, it was essential I recognized how strongly I carried the masculine spirit and acknowledge the shame and harm I’d done to myself in trying to hide my true nature.”
Because Lorrie’s writing about teaching and about building the house that she and Paula now call home rings so true, it makes me trust the rest – the stories about worlds that are not mine. This is what makes the work so powerful. It is not just evocative writing, full of beauty and metaphor: it is authentic writing. The details in the particulars illuminate a path which, if we follow, we just might learn to live with all our relations. I am convinced that if we are ever going to mitigate the climate crisis and heal the deep and growing divides in our country, we will only do so when we come together as a truly inclusive community. How to do that? By listening, by forming friendships, by reaching out to those who, on the surface, may not seem to have much in common with us. That is the gift of Horses in the Sand. Read it. Learn about Lorrie and her struggles and triumphs, and in the process, learn more about who you are, and what we must all do to thrive in the tender years to come. With all our relations.
Rena Upitis, FRSC
Founding Director, Wintergreen Studios
Professor Emerita, Queen’s University
First Gear Reviews
" Jorgensen captures the back and forth process we all experience in working through our turmoil. She has nailed the ride."
A Ride in the Dark – excerpts from the review
A motorcyclist takes us on a trip to her painful past.
“Lorrie Jorgensen’s First Gear: A Motorcycle Memoir takes the reader on lonely roads like Ontario’s Highway 11 as it arcs north over Lake Superior, and in memory through incest, rape, alcoholism and, perhaps worst of all, the court process of confronting her
Jorgensen writes passionately about motorcycling, and she puts the reader on the bike. “The centre dashed lines rip by like newspapers coming off a printing press,” she says. “My boots are inches away from asphalt that races past like the belt on a sander.” These are images any rider will have, but would not have formulated, and she or he will nod in recognition with “its abrasiveness always waiting to scrape the best off of you, leaving your body bleeding and broken. The gap is the difference between exhilaration and death.” It is not all exhilaration. She renders the strain of backing a loaded bike up an incline, the hassle of getting in and out of rain gear, the problem of peeing in parking lots (you get backsplash from asphalt; ditches are better). Jorgensen knows the ride.
She celebrates the spirit of Northern Ontario, a quirky combination of humour and perseverance embodied in the giant flying saucer at Moonbeam, the huge raptor in Mattice, and the three-storey high snowman, wearing sunglasses and holding a fishing pole, in Beardmore. And the emptiness, the wonder of being able to travel for 200 kilometres in Canada’s most populous province and see nothing, no town, no settlements, scarcely another vehicle. Jorgensen also renders the mental ride, the movement in and out from reverie to the road. There is a meditative aspect to motorcycling that is not at all like sitting on a yoga mat. Slippery tar strips suddenly yank your mind back to the road. The buffeting from big trucks shakes even a big Harley. Yet this empties your thoughts. Then the solitude and the rhythm of the engine return you to reflection, and you get deeper by moving in and out, each time a little further out, beyond the superficial hurt, or hate, or love to explore the deeper, subtler aspects of your own responses, your exchanges with others.
Jorgensen captures the backandforth process we all experience in working through our turmoil. She has nailed the ride.”
"Her life story is filled with so much emotion and insight. lt’s a brilliant biker tale. I want to thank her for being so brave. l’m sorry when the story ends but then I realize that it doesn’t. Only the book ends."
Reading from the Good Book – excerpts from the review
reviewed by Nancy Irwin
Canadian Biker Magazine – April 2016
“Many people enjoy impressive international adventures on bikes with knobby tires, but this is different. Lorrie starts in the Ottawa Valley. She’s 50 years old and looking back. Her solo trip deseribes places as they were in the 1970s-how they got their names and what they have become now, layered with stories from her childhood and youth. She and her Harley, Thelma D, make their way to Winnipeg, and loop back touring Ouebec and Ontario.
The official reason for the journey? She needed to clear the cobwebs out of her head. lt’s that story, and an impressive one.
Her life story is filled with so much emotion and insight. lt’s a brilliant biker tale. I want to thank her for being so brave. l’m sorry when the story ends but then I realize that it doesn’t. Only the book ends.”
"I really felt as if I got to know Lorrie, her wry humour, her skillful story telling and, as the story unfolded, so equally rose my respect and admiration."
– Lisa de Nikolits, author of A Glittering Chaos, The Witchdoctor’s Bones, and The Rage Room
“This is a book about courage, about rising above circumstance and claiming your life as your own. First Gear is a first rate memoir about confronting the demons of the past and dealing with the vicissitudes of the present. At times, while reading the book, I wanted to rush in somehow and stop Lorrie from having to experience the nightmares that no one should have to go through. I really felt as if I got to know Lorrie, her wry humour, her skillful story telling and, as the story unfolded, so equally rose my respect and admiration. An inspiring read that tells you in no uncertain terms that it’s never too late to take charge of your life and travel down the road that you want to.”
An inspiring read that tells you in no uncertain terms that it’s never too late to take charge of your life and travel down the road that you want to.”
– Rena Upitis, Professor of Arts Education, Queen’s University and President, Wintergreen Studios, author of Raising a School
“Told with searing honesty and peppered with vivid imagery, First Gear is a memoir that will leave you marvelling at Lorrie Jorgensen’s intelligence, generosity, and resilience. When I was a teenager, I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and learned much from it. And while Jorgensen’s tale is also a journey by bike, it goes far beyond the philosophical musings in Pirsig’s compelling work – because truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction. Stranger. Fiercer. And ultimately, much more forceful. long after I turned the last page, this memoir has stayed with me. I often find myself musing about Lorrie’s teachings – about family, wisdom, friendship, self-reliance, and survival.”
"You will marvel at the crisp lucid language and—above all—the honesty of this document of persistence, and the courage it took to write it down."
– Robin Collins, a good friend and a good man, currently working on his story, My Escape from Certainty: A Memoir of the 1970s and 80s in the Ultra-Left.