Reborn On The Road

PTA set trades housework for leather boots and Harleys

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Val Kaufmann of Payson looks the part of the classic American rebel. Astride a black Harley Davidson motorcycle and wearing black leather chaps, a fringed leather jacket and boots, she doesn't seem the PTA type.


But after raising two children and living a life dictated by school plays, football games and business obligations, she welcomes the chance to step out of character and onto a Harley.


"It's a different life," she says. "When we're out on the bikes, we don't think about all the responsibilities in life -- the kids, our business. We feel a little freer."


Kaufmann and her husband, Daryl, are two of 16 motorcycle enthusiasts who meet in Strawberry on Sunday mornings to worship the open road. They ride the big bikes, letting the roar of the engines reinvigorate their souls.


The congregation comes from all walks of life. Among the faithful are contractors, bookkeepers, business owners, claims adjusters and electricians.


Pine retiree Ron Kimball has been a Harley devotee since the '60s. He remembers the times when bikers were known for their "bad boy" ways. But now he welcomes Kaufmann and her new breed of bikers -- the yuppies or "RUBS," rich urban bikers -- to the faith.


Kimball, who owns three motorcycles, including two 1967 models that he restored himself, understands why more blue- and white-collar types are joining the ranks.


"You have your knees in the breeze," he says. "You are kind of like the cowboy of the Old West. It's the feeling of freedom."


It was Kimball who founded the Sunday riding ritual with his regular stop at the Sportsman's Chalet for a cup of java before his weekly ride along the Rim.


Today the group heads north on Highway 87. The bikers wind their way up the Rim, the wind whipping at their faces as they lean into the curves. They turn west on 260 and race across the Rim to Camp Verde -- the first of three stops on this trip.


Most of the riders aren't wearing helmets. The state of Arizona doesn't require it, a fact that encouraged rider Damon Ramey to move back to Arizona from California.


"I couldn't wait to get back here and feel the wind on my face," he says.


He rides a bright yellow Harley with green flames painted on the gas tank. His girlfriend Julie Altstatt rides on the back, her long, strawberry-blonde hair whipping in the wind.


Altstatt, the youngest of the riders who range in age from 24 to 62, wants a bike of her own.

Ramey is quick to insist that she will wear a helmet when she's piloting her own bike.


"I want my own because I want to be in control," she says. The other women in the group agree.

Altstatt's father, Robert, is along for the ride on his Honda.


"I should (wear a helmet) but I don't like them," he says glancing at his daughter. "I know one of these days I'm gonna split my head open."


He knows the dangers that lurk around each bend. The bones in his left leg are fused -- the result of a motorcycle accident many years ago.


Back on the road, the riders move in unison -- turning on instinctive cues like a flock of geese, as they migrate to Page Springs -- a little spot north of Cottonwood on a twisting two-lane highway.


The motorcycles roar in and out of the cottonwood-lined curves that bend through Oak Creek Canyon. It is a time for solitude and reflection powered by 60 horses.


"I see more, I feel more aware (out here)," Kaufmann says.


After eating lunch in Page Springs, half the group calls it a day and heads for home, worried the wind chill will drop later in the day and make for a miserable ride over the Rim.


Half a dozen riders, however, head south toward the former mining town of Jerome, which is perched precariously on the side of Mingus Mountain.


The riders must each maneuver 700 pounds of metal through the blind curves and switchbacks that lead to the ghost town turned tourist attraction. The prize at the top -- socializing with other bikers in the Spirit Room, a favorite spot for the motorcycle crowd.


More than 30 bikes -- Harleys, Hondas, and Yamahas -- are lined up neatly outside the tavern.

Inside, a less tidy group of bikers line the bar. A band plays a mix of rock and salsa while people dance, drink and talk. Occasionally, some go outside to compare rides. They talk about paint, modifications, accessories, then the riders climb back on their bikes, head through Verde Valley and rumble across the Rim while the sun sinks in the west.


Once they reach Strawberry, the riders part and motor back to their everyday lives to wait for their paths to cross again at the church of the open road.

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