By PAUL GIANNAMORE, For Prime Times
WINTERSVILLE — The “Live to Ride, Ride to Live” badges on many Harley-Davidsons represent the biker’s spirit.
For one Aliquippa, Pa., woman, it’s more than a motto on her bike’s primary drive cover.
The lone rider on the red Harley Davidson Heritage Softail, with the black leather bags and the fringe, is not only an iconic American image but also, just possibly, someone’s grandmother.
Jeanne Burchett of Aliquippa, Pa., is a regular at Neidengard’s Harley-Davidson, 284 Canton Road, which recently sent certification into the national Harley Owners Group to get Burchett a 200,000-mile patch. She proudly wears a T-shirt stating, “I drove 200,000 Hog miles,” and a leather vest with patches for her other mileage milestones.
Burchett said she turned her 200,000th mile on Interstate 376 on the way past Pittsburgh International Airport on June 19. The Harley Owners Group awards pins, patches and medallions to members beginning at as little as 1,000 miles. The club gets a bit more exclusive as the miles mount, with a H.O.G. spokesman saying 200,000 is a significant milestone. He said there are even a very few with more than 1 million miles on Harley-Davidson bikes.
Burchett’s accomplishment grows a bit more astonishing when one hears that Burchett turned those Harley miles on just two bikes: A Sportster she bought in 1997 and the red Heritage Softail she has been riding since the Sportster was damaged and out for repairs after an accident in August 2002.
Now consider this: Burchett didn’t start riding until age 43, on a Honda back in 1983, and she’s 72 now.
And still riding almost every day, alone if there’s nobody to go with her, as she had from her Aliquippa home to her favorite Harley dealer one recent warm day.
“If there’s someone with me, that’s good. If there’s not, that’s good,” she said. “I love to ride. It takes your mind off all of your problems. And I might as well be dead if I did not have my Harley.”
She’s accumulated more than 8,000 miles in 2010 already, and riding season is far from over, if it ever actually ends for Burchett. She’s known to take her bikes out in the winter if the roads are clear.
Burchett said it’s not uncommon for her husband, David, to come home from work and find she’s off on her bike, after doing housework and other household duties. Burchett worked as a clerk at Pittsburgh International’s mall shops until layoffs came after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Burchett remembers the day her black Sportster was hit by a drunken driver on Route 19 in Portersville, Pa., in Butler County. She flew off the bike and landed under a tractor-trailer.
“They said it would take four months to fix my Sportster, so I bought this Softail 10 days later,” she said, not wanting to stop riding for injury or motorcycle repairs.
The accident, and a later scare from a brain aneurysm in the fall of 2003, didn’t keep her out of the saddle. She has a shunt to keep fluid from accumulating in her brain, and she never shied away from riding again.
Her first ride in February 2004 came four months after her last surgery, and it was from her home in Aliquippa over to the crossroads of state Routes 46 and 14 near Youngstown.
When she was starting to ride on a little Honda in the early 1980s, she already was an award-winning powerlifter. Her friends said she was crazy to take up motorcycling, but within six weeks, she was riding alone to East Liverpool to visit friends.
“They said I was going to get killed,” she said. But she kept on riding.
“I love it. I love the sound of the pipes,” she said. “Once you start riding, then you come here and you start buying accessories. You become addicted to it, addicted to Harleys.”
She figures her longest solo trips have been to Cleveland and to Cambridge. She and David ride regularly on long trips, too, to the Smokey Mountains, Niagra Falls and to the rallies at the Harley plant at York, Pa. David rides a 1987 Electra Glide.
They don’t use intercoms, either. “We talk at red lights,” she said.
Even more amazing is the absolutely original state of repair on her Heritage Softail, which has accumulated more than 118,000 miles, without even a change of the drive belt. Most belts, she said, get worn from gravel hitting the bike, or from hard take-offs, but she takes care of her motorcycle and treats it well.
As for taking up riding after age 40, it’s not for everyone, according to this mileage maker.
“You have to have a strong desire. Some can do it, some can’t,” she said. Burchett is an advocate of wearing the right gear, too, including her boots and a helmet — “I had one on when that drunk hit me,” she says.
None of her three children or nine grandchildren ride, she notes.
She figures that, after the wreck and the aneurysm, God just wants her to live and keep on riding.
“It’s all about doing what you want to do in life,” she said. “You’re only as old as you feel. I don’t feel that old at all.”
John Neidengard, owner of Neidengard’s Harley-Davidson in Wintersville, gives Jeanne Burchett of Aliquippa, Pa., a hug as the dealership celebrates Burchett accumulating 200,000 miles on Harley motorcycles.