The sidecar rig had an unlikely driver, a small woman with long, braided, graying hair. Some might have dismissed her as just another biker chick. But as I was about to learn, there was much more to her than the suntan and shades indicated. We were both on our way to Alaska and stopped for the night at a campground in Alberta, Canada, far from our Midwest homes.
WindBlownAmy, as Amy Jean Nichols calls herself, is a self-employed artist, working in glass, copper and porcelain enamel, along with pencil and ink drawings. Some people like to claim the title of artist; skeptic that I am, I checked her credentials after I got home. She is the real deal. Her long list of accomplishments includes such prestigious credits as the Year of the American Craft permanent White House collection, and The National Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C.
The Bath Township farm Amy calls home is nestled in northeastern Ohio’s Cuyahoga River Valley. The property has been in her family since the Civil War, and is still a working concern. Bordering the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, the gently rolling terrain and tree-lined back roads are an ideal place to ride motorcycles. In the past, Amy also enjoyed riding mounts of the flesh-and-blood variety. Today, much of the township has been developed into large estates. Judging by the equestrian themes gracing the gates, it is evident the more recent transplants also love horsemanship.
Amy purchased her first motorcycle in 1987, a 1973 BMW R 75/5 Freedom combo she calls “Rigadoon.” The name recalls an old-fashioned, lively dance performed by a couple. Rigadoon has carried Amy and her wares over 180,000 miles. The destinations: art fairs, shows and bike rallies across the land. In the process they covered much of Canada, parts of Mexico and 47 states. Most of this riding was done alone. For the ride north, she acquired the rig I was examining, a new, at least to her, 1978 BMW R 80/7 Ural combo. Amy nicknamed it “The Old Man.” This was to be his shakedown run. After a tour of Western Canada and the Last Frontier, her 48th state, she planned to attend a BMW rally in Idaho.
As it often happens on northern highways, I crossed paths with Amy again, this time at Mile 0 Campground in Dawson Creek, British Columbia, right on the Alaska Highway. The BMW’s gas tank was lying in the grass. Tools were scattered all around. Amy was checking the charging system with a multimeter. The problem was elusive and plagued her entire trip, but she elected to press on. As her pace was about half of my average 600-mile-per-day clip, I joked that I’d wave as I met her on the way back from Alaska.
I never did see Amy on my return ride. I later learned that the Beemer’s alternator had given up the ghost in Fort Nelson, British Columbia. The town is a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to be stuck there without wheels; aside from the excellent Museum of the North there’s not a lot going on within walking distance.
The breakdown necessitated a weeklong layover while a replacement part was trucked in. Time constraints forced a change of itinerary, so Amy consoled herself with a tour of some of the more remote parts of British Columbia. Considering the real estate involved, this wasn’t a half-bad proposition. But even while battling electrical gremlins, she still made it to Alaska, with a stopover at the isolated enclave of Hyder.
As most of us know and accept, riding, whether two-wheeled, three-wheeled or even of the four-legged variety, carries certain risks. Disaster struck this past April, in the form of a car pulling into Amy’s path. The crash resulted in a badly broken left thumb and wrist for the rider, and a bent front fork for the machine. Thankfully, Amy is on the mend. Her adherence to the ATGATT (all the gear, all the time) credo, minimized the physical damage. Rigadoon’s front end took the brunt of the hit. It now stands forlorn looking in its berth, the front wheel pushed into the frame.
Amy has recently begun going for short stints on The Old Man. An “easy clutch” modification that reduces lever pull has made this possible. The old saying “get back on the horse that threw you,” comes to mind, even if that particular mount is temporarily out of commission.
This latest episode wasn’t Amy’s first brush with death. She was also involved in an earlier crash of the car-pulls-in-front-of-bike variety. That one resulted in a fractured arm and wrist. Undeterred, she chalked it up to experience and motored on.
With one look at her garage/studio complex, the dual passions of Amy’s life are obvious. Rigadoon is in the process of being restored to its former glory; probably better. Another vintage BMW shares a stall, a 1956 R69. It begs for a sidecar of its own. As for Amy, she will continue to produce her artwork, carrying her goods to shows and festivals far and wide in her trusty BMWs.
WindBlownAmy lives the handle, eschewing any form of wind protection on her machines. She also rejects the comforts of a roof and soft bed when on the road, preferring to camp 100 percent of the time, good weather or bad. There may be a few of these diehard types left, but not many. Amy Jean Nichols is the toughest rider I know.
WindBlownAmy’s website is rigadoonglass.com
(This article appeared in the Riding Around section in the April 2014 issue of Rider magazine.)