Nervous laughter floats across about a dozen women as they head out to the football-field-size parking lot to choose the motorcycle they will ride for the next few hours. “All right, ladies, let’s go have some fun,” Sue Barenholtz calls out.
Today, they are attempting a beginner’s lesson at TEAM Arizona Motorcyclist Training Center in Gilbert.
Coach Earl Thompson circles the women, now sitting atop their bikes.
Barenholtz, 57, grins beneath her black and gray helmet. “This isn’t so easy. This thing is heavy,” she whispers, attempting to stay upright.
Stretched in a single line, the women follow orders and turn on their engines. “Go slow,” Thompson says. “Walk it with your feet.”
Barenholtz’s bike lurches and quickly stalls. She laughs and looks around. She’s not alone. Several women struggle against the weight of the bikes and fight to stay upright. Within the hour, at least three will tip over.
“Easy Rider” this is not.
It’s one of the more adventurous outings for this group of women in their 40s, 50s and 60s, a fellowship known as Wild Boomer Women.
Barenholtz is the self-appointed queen.
After an amicable divorce in 2006, the Phoenix resident came up with the idea of coaxing female Baby Boomers out of their comfort zones with the promise of making friends and exploring new activities. Wild Boomer Women events run from the mild — bowling, going on wine tours and learning to make biscotti — to the wild — rock climbing, river rafting or pole dancing.
Upcoming events include a self-defense class and a ride on the Dolly Steamboat on Canyon Lake outside Apache Junction.
On a recent Friday night, a set of another dozen members turns out to bowl a few lanes, down some pizza and mingle. Again, Barenholtz leads the way. She stands behind the foul line, shimmies her shoulders and takes a deep breath.
“You got it, Sue, you got it,” a teammate calls out. Barenholtz, who’s trying to pick up a spare, turns and grins. Another breath and she swings the bowling ball back and then forward, releasing it into the air about 3 feet off the ground. It lands with a loud thud and spins down the lane toward the remaining five pins. Barenholtz stands frozen, watching as it veers left and into the gutter. “Oh, dear, not so good,” she whirls around. But no worries. This night is meant for fun, not fierce competition.
The group might never have been created if Barenholtz had more friends willing to help her celebrate her divorce. At the time, she was re-energizing her career as a business consultant and thought going out with friends would be the perfect way to christen her next chapter in life.
She sent out e-mails inviting close friends to a male dance revue. She was shocked and saddened by many of the replies.
“They wrote, ‘I’m not comfortable with that’ and ‘I’ll be happy to meet you, but after the show.’ I had always been a wild child and my response was, ‘Really? What’s wrong with gorgeous men?’ It just blew me away. I thought, ‘I’ve got to find some girlfriends who want to go out and have some crazy fun.’”
With no children herself, Barenholtz said most of her friends were married with families and a different lifestyle. She figured there were others like her, Boomers who had found it hard to form new friendships to do more than just grab a movie and dinner.
“I wanted to be fun again, like I was in my younger years,” Barenholtz says.
One Monday, she put the word out on Meetup, an online network of groups with common interests. By Friday, she had heard from 100 women wanting to know more. The women were from a mix of life situations: single, married, divorced, widowed. Some in longtime relationships, some with kids, some without.
“At this age, you’re faced with so much,” Barenholtz says. “There are different burdens now, like taking care of your elderly parents. You may be experiencing an empty nest with the kids gone and you and your spouse or partner having to figure each other out, anew. So you need to get out of the house, you need your girlfriends.”
Most members first attend a happy hour to find out what this club of midlife go-getters is all about. It’s not hard to distinguish newcomers from members. The regulars are the ones wearing the sparkly tiaras, the women with purple and red feather boas draped across their shoulders.
Barenholtz’s crown sparkles atop her shiny brown bob at these monthly events. She’s there to greet potential members, more often than not, and introduce them around so no one feels ignored or unwelcome.
“I say: ‘This is Kathy. Be nice to her.’ I look back five minutes later and it’s like they’ve known each other forever. That brings me joy and it reinforces the fact I’m doing something good.”
Barenholtz often hears how much people enjoy the group when newcomers show up for a second event. “There was a woman who was going through a divorce after 38 years of marriage. She pushed herself to come and she had told me that she felt the group saved her life.”
Those responses motivated Barenholtz last year to transition the organization from a social group to a business, with an eye on national expansion. Annual memberships begin at $59; women can pay $99 and receive access to special events and the opportunity to host their own events.
To date, about 400 women from across the Valley have joined, including 48-year-old Peoria resident Kerry Press.
She wasn’t immediately a fan of the concept or the group’s name. “Honestly, I consider my mother a Boomer baby,” Press explains. “And the ‘wild’ part? I thought it was just going to be elderly women trying to regain their youth.”
A breast-cancer survivor, Press says she didn’t want to spend time on something that wouldn’t enrich her life. But she soon discovered the group was composed of “well-rounded, well-educated women” all looking for the same thing: a good time. “When I realized it was about having fun, that kept me coming back,” she says.
She gushes over one of her favorite outings. A professional chef from Italy invited the women into his home and plied them with Italian wine, Italian cooking and even broke out into song, in Italian, of course. “He sang while we were eating,” Press recalls. “It was wonderful.”
Douglas Kelley, a communications professor at Arizona State University, has spent years researching relationships and points out that close ties can shrink as people age.
“There are a lot of women who have kept long-term friendships that were based on their kids” and now that the children are grown, the reasons for those bonds no longer exist, he says. Still other women are becoming single at middle age because of divorce or death of a partner.
But friendship can be vital to one’s physical and mental health, he says. “One of my favorite quotes on the subject is from Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘A friend may well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.’”
Kelley, 56, says friendships are often more resilient than the connections people have with family or romantic partners. “You may not talk to a friend for six months and then sit down with a glass of wine and just easily connect and care deeply and love each other and all those beautiful things. … Friendships can be very safe places.”
And people in their 50s and 60s can still explore life and make new friends. After all, Kelley says, “You may have to ride out 30 years. You’ve got to have new choices.”
Barenholtz wants women to feel inspired, vibrant. “Life is very fragile and goes so quickly,” she says.
Do you know some potential Wild Boomer Women? Get out your contact lists and start a group today. You never know who you’ll meet!