As a young girl, Mattie Murrey was a daredevil. In her rural, religious Minnesota community, girls like her weren’t supposed to be doing anything on Sunday, much less racing motorcycles – but she was out there on the road, 12 years old and racing against cars on her Suzuki 125.
Her given name was Martha, but in those days, Mattie went by “Matt.”
“Matt was a tomboy. Matt would ride anything that went fast,” Mattie says. “Not for the adrenaline rush, just because I could, and enjoy the freedom, the wind in my hair.”
Mattie’s passion for racing was kept a secret when she was young. Because she was a girl, she feared she wouldn’t be taken seriously – or worse, she’d be banned from riding her motorcycle. To compete with the boys in her community that raced their bikes, Mattie dressed up as a boy and wore a helmet. And in all her races, Mattie says she won almost every time.
Mattie Murrey with her motorcycle, "Zeus."
“It wasn't about a competition with other people, it wasn't about a competition with the car, it was all about me and the discovery of my strengths,” Mattie explains. “And that had not been pointed out to me as a young woman or a young girl.”
As much as she loved the freedom of racing motorcycles, as she got older, Mattie was forced to give up her passion. She was going to a strict, religious college, and she decided to “grow up” and embrace the role that her community had laid out for her. For Mattie, that meant becoming a dutiful wife and mother as well as an active member of the church. As she left for school, Mattie started going by her birth name again – Martha.
“Martha was a very good homemaker,” Mattie says. “Martha was submissive. Never weak, but subdued.”
Mattie committed, and at college she found a man who would become her husband. He was kind and funny – but he forbade Mattie from riding motorcycles, something she missed. Despite this, for a while, she was content. Mattie supported her husband as he became a leader in their church, and she established herself as his faithful wife and mother to their children.
But she knew something wasn’t quite right.
One night, everything changed. Mattie was visiting a friend with her husband and went out into the garage to fetch something. When she turned on the lights, she suddenly saw it: a motorcycle. She asked her friend’s husband if she could go for a ride, and he agreed. The ride was everything that Mattie remembered. But what happened when she got back would start Mattie on a path that led away from everything she had ever known.
To hear the full story, listen to “Mattie And The Motorcycle” now.
Learn more about the host of Home. Made., award winning journalist Stephanie Foo on our host page.
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STEPHANIE FOO: In a rural Minnesota town, in the ’90s, most Sundays you’d find Matt sitting in a ditch, waiting. The ditches there are deep. So, if you drove by you most likely wouldn’t see Matt from the road. And that was the whole point. A car would come zooming down the road, Matt would grip the handlebars of an old Suzuki 125 motorcycle and start counting. Timing was everything. 3-2-1 GO!
MATTIE MURREY: And when the car passed, I would hit the accelerator kickstand already up and just race that car with all my heart, hair flying, big grin, bugs in my teeth at the end of the ride with just the weeds whacking my leathers.
STEPHANIE FOO: Matt would go faster and faster and then hit an incline and launch into the air. Picture it, 12-year-old Matt flying through the air at 45 mph. Now picture the look on the driver’s face as she sailed past them.
STEPHANIE FOO: Did they look at you with awe?
MATTIE MURREY: No, most of the time they didn't know I was there, so it was shock, a surprise.
STEPHANIE FOO: That sounds so fun.
MATTIE MURREY: It was.
STEPHANIE FOO: Matt’s given name was Martha but that didn’t really capture who she was.
MATTIE MURREY: Matt was a tomboy. Matt would ride anything that went fast, not for the adrenaline rush, just because I could, and enjoy the freedom, the wind in my hair. That was Matt.
STEPHANIE FOO: Matt was a daredevil. Never backed down from a challenge. In the religious community she belonged to, you’re not supposed to do much of anything on Sundays, let alone race cars on a motorbike. So, for years, she kept it a secret. But then Matt grew up. And she was told to stop hanging out in ditches.
STEPHANIE FOO: This is Home. Made., an original podcast by Rocket Mortgage about the meaning of homes, and what we can learn about ourselves in them. I’m Stephanie Foo. In this episode, a woman is forced to choose between her religious community and the one place where she felt most at home – on her motorcycle. Trigger warning. There is a very brief reference to domestic abuse in this episode.
STEPHANIE FOO: Matt grew up in northern Minnesota in a hand-cut log home in between Lake Plantagenet and the Schoolcraft River.
STEPHANIE FOO: Matt’s dad was a physician. He once tended to a woman in labor for 3 whole days during which the woman spoke to him at length about her religion. By the time she gave birth, Matt’s father had converted. And from that moment on, her family became very religious. They attended church on Wednesdays and Sundays. Sometimes twice on Sundays. And the church and other church members were the center of their world.
STEPHANIE FOO: As a little girl, how did you picture God?
MATTIE MURREY: I pictured God as a big man with the beard and long flowing robes. All seeing, all everything.
STEPHANIE FOO: If there was a movie star or something that God's personality was like, was there one?
MATTIE MURREY: So, God would be like Sam Elliot to me, ever patient, ever loving… just the best of the best.
STEPHANIE FOO: Sam Elliot, the actor with a southern drawl and big white moustache.
STEPHANIE FOO: Unconditional love.
MATTIE MURREY: Very, very much so.
STEPHANIE FOO: But, Matt says, that didn’t seem to be the same God everyone else around her was worshipping.
MATTIE MURREY: I was always reminded that I had to behave a certain way, act a certain way, dress a certain way. So, if you did something that wasn't pleasing to your father, your mother, your God, your church leaders, you were shamed, something was wrong with you. So, we were always trying to be perfect, we were always trying to follow all the commandments and everything that our church leaders had told us to do, because then we would be lovable, then we would be going to heaven.
STEPHANIE FOO: I see. So, it wasn't unconditional at all then?
MATTIE MURREY: No.
STEPHANIE FOO: Matt first rode a motorbike at the age of 10. She had 50 chickens and sold eggs to local residents. She needed a vehicle, so her father gave her an old yellow Honda Trail 90. Great for making deliveries. Also great for secretly riding around the backwoods. Large knobby tires with a single cylinder pushing out just 7 hp. A tiny, gutsy bike for a tiny, gutsy Matt. She tied a milk crate to the back where she would stack the egg cartons. It did the trick, but after a while, Matt traded in the Trail 90 for something with a little more kick. The Suzuki 125.
MATTIE MURREY: The Suzuki could go faster. I swear, it could climb a tree. And then that's when I began really doing my ditch racing.
STEPHANIE FOO: So, your parents, they never punished you for it?
MATTIE MURREY: I didn't tell them about the racing because they didn't want me riding on Sundays.
STEPHANIE FOO: When Matt turned 12, she took things to the next level. Racing boys.
MATTIE MURREY: If I cut my hair short, tied my boobs down, and with my helmet on, they might not know I was a girl, and they would let me race them.
STEPHANIE FOO: What was one of your most badass races, I guess?
MATTIE MURREY: A super cool race that I remember… we would start at the crossroads, and we would race up to the top of the hill. And one of these times, off I came off the throttle and I remember going up and over the hill, clearly won and I just kept on driving. Just kept on riding, stood up on my pegs and fist pump. It gives me goosebumps to this day. Glad you asked that question, I haven't had that memory in a long time.
STEPHANIE FOO: Man, so you were so good you didn't even need to, like, shove it at anyone's face. You were like, yeah, I know I'm the best.
MATTIE MURREY: It wasn't about a competition with other people, it wasn't about a competition with the car, it was all about me and the discovery of my strengths. And that had not been pointed out to me as a young woman or a young girl.
STEPHANIE FOO: Right because women weren't supposed to have strengths necessarily.
MATTIE MURREY: Nope. When I was little, because I had been taught and trained, my goal in life was to grow up and be a wife and a mother. That is what I pictured, me as a grown up. It would be me fulfilling the roles that my church had put out and my parents had put out for me.
STEPHANIE FOO: So, I mean, were you good though or did you win a lot?
MATTIE MURREY: Yeah. I think I won like almost every time.
STEPHANIE FOO: OK, so humble.
MATTIE MURREY: It was fun.
STEPHANIE FOO: But then it was time for other things. Was there a moment of saying goodbye to the bike?
MATTTIE MURREY: No. It was like the dog left on the porch when the child goes off to college and the child doesn't even look around. I did not realize I was leaving that great love behind.
STEPHANIE FOO: Matt left the motorcycle behind in a friend's barn. And she went to a religious college where the rules were strict. No alcohol and she had to wear a dress to take tests.
STEPHANIE FOO: So, what was your relationship with religion in college? I mean, obviously, this was happening all around you, but like, were you embracing it? Were you chafing against it?
MATTIE MURREY: I was embracing it because that's all I knew. And so, I followed, I did what I was supposed to do.
STEPHANIE FOO: It was time to take her faith more seriously. At college, Matt fell in love with a guy named Greg. He was funny, and quick, just like her. Lots of fun. Greg was also very religious, very traditional. So, they married right away. And Greg, traditional as he was, said: “Drop this Matt business. Use your given name, Martha.”
STEPHANIE FOO: Who was Martha like?
MATTIE MURREY: Martha was a very good homemaker. Martha was submissive. Never weak, but subdued.
STEPHANIE FOO: So, did you become that image that you thought you would become when you were a little girl?
MATTIE MURREY: I did.
STEPHANIE FOO: For a while, Martha rode a small scooter on campus. Just to get around. But Greg said proper women didn’t ride motorcycles.
STEPHANIE FOO: He explicitly like, sort of forbade you to ride motorcycles?
MATTIE MURREY: No, you didn't have to be that strong with me. Just say, "That's not a good idea." And I'd go, "OK."
STEPHANIE FOO: Because you wanted to be a good wife.
MATTIE MURREY: Right.
STEPHANIE FOO: Despite Greg’s rules, Martha loved her religious community. So, when Greg later became a leader in the local church, and she embraced her role as his supportive wife.
MATTIE MURREY: We would pray together. We would sing together. We would study together. It was a family. The church was a family for me, and I enjoyed that sense of home and sense of friendship.
STEPHANIE FOO: Was there a moment where you, or Martha, that you missed Matt?
MATTIE MURREY: No, I don't think there was a moment where I missed Matt. I believed I lived Matt to its fullest. I raced every ditch, everything I wanted to do, but I missed the freedom. I missed being able to make my own decisions. And I missed being able to have the autonomy in my own life.
STEPHANIE FOO: Right.
MATTIE MURREY: I missed that.
STEPHANIE FOO: When did you first notice that there was something wrong with your husband?
MATTIE MURREY: Probably around when we had our first child. We'd been married about 7 years, and I began to notice that sometimes his reactions were unexpected. I would say one thing or do one thing and he'd be upset about it. Like, maybe that I hadn't used the right forks at the table. Salad fork versus a dinner fork. Something unreasonable in my opinion. I know some people like properly set tables. That's not an important thing for me and so it was in those instances where I began to see some little cracks coming through.
STEPHANIE FOO: She and Greg had four more children. And over time, she says his behavior became more erratic, more unnerving. Eventually, doctors diagnosed Greg as having schizophrenia. His condition worsened. Life at home got tough.
MATTIE MURREY: People didn't understand and when I reached out to my church leaders we were told, we were sinning. We weren't holy enough, we weren't attending our meetings, "Pray better, do more, work harder, and it'll be solved." And it wasn't.
STEPHANIE FOO: Everything came to a head on the 4th of July 2008. They were at a party thrown for a bunch of homeschooling families. Martha’s friend, the host, asked her to grab something from the second refrigerator in the garage. She walked in, and as her eyes adjusted to the dark, Martha could make out a motorcycle in the back corner. A big shiny Harley. She couldn’t resist.
MATTIE MURREY: Just had to be near it. I'm sure I reached out a hand to touch it and my friend's husband came out and he said, "You like motorcycles. Let's go for a ride." My first impulse was, "You're somebody else's husband, it’s not proper to go on a ride with you.” He says, "No, no, it's fine. Let's go for a ride." One of the first times I ever went to my husband and didn't ask for permission I said, "I'm going to go for a motorcycle ride."
STEPHANIE FOO: What did it feel like being on that motorcycle after so long?
MATTIE MURREY: You know how when you go camping and you bank your coals for the night, and you're hoping that when you get up in the morning that you can uncover them and wave on them? You're just not sure if you've got enough coals in there, if you've got enough wood, if it's hot enough ... Getting back on that bike was like a flicker of orange ember where I could feel that visceral pull back to memories of my dirt biking days and my ditch riding days. It's a pretty powerful moment, but it was just a glimpse.
STEPHANIE FOO: Just a tiny ember.
MATTIE MURREY: Hm-hm.
STEPHANIE FOO: That ember turned into a house fire later that evening. Greg had been furious about Martha’s bike ride.
STEPHANIE FOO: And how did he take that out on you?
MATTIE MURREY: Um, do you want me to go there?
STEPHANIE FOO: If you don't feel comfortable going there, we don't have to go there.
MATTIE MURREY: Um, the reason I'm hesitating is I'm not sure what I want my children to hear.
STEPHANIE FOO: Greg had a mental health episode. A bad one and eventually, Martha got an order for protection.
MATTIE MURREY: I don't think he intentionally... There's a difference between abuse because you have a mean person and there's difference when you have abuse at the hands of somebody who's mentally ill.
STEPHANIE FOO: Afterward, the religious elders told Martha to divorce her husband. Unusual for a religion that discourages divorce in general. Martha was now a single mother of five children. But still, the elders expected her to maintain her church responsibilities and keep contributing money.
MATTIE MURREY: I thought, "Well, what about me? What about my children? I need this money right now." I was told, "If you are faithful, if you are following what you're supposed to be doing then you will be blessed." I had done that my whole life and look what had happened. I knew that I wasn't sinning, and I began to think that maybe what I had been taught was not the way for me.
STEPHANIE FOO: Years ago, Martha might’ve continued to contribute to the church. But, after all she'd been through, she needed to make a different choice.
STEPHANIE FOO: I think it's really impressive that you knew deep down inside, and you asserted the whole time, like this was not my fault.
MATTIE MURREY: Thank you. I was born in those ditches, that core.
STEPHANIE FOO: Tell me about the core. Do you think that core was Matt?
MATTIE MURREY: Yeah, I do think that core was Matt. Because Matt was the one that rode the bikes, and tied the boobs down… and was Matt.
STEPHANIE FOO: Matt knew who you were.
MATTIE MURREY: Uh-huh.
STEPHANIE FOO: In the end, Martha left her religious community.
MATTIE MURREY: It felt sad because I loved my community, and I loved the idea of so many things that were taught that I still carry through to this day. And so, I felt like I was leaving behind a friend.
STEPHANIE FOO: She realized she was also leaving behind Martha. Martha was submissive and subdued. It was time for a change.
MATTIE MURREY: Not many people get the opportunity to redefine themselves, recreate themselves from almost an embryonic state like I felt I was at.
STEPHANIE FOO: So, Martha chose a new name. Mattie.
MATTIE MURREY: Mattie. Fun name. And the moment that came out of my mouth, I’m like, yeah, that just sounds right. That just sounds me. It's a combination of the old, the new and the positivity. And my friends looked at me kind of like, OK Mattie.
STEPHANIE FOO: And what does that feel like when you hear that name?
MATTIE MURREY: I love it. It adds to the energy that I want to bring to my life every day.
STEPHANIE FOO: Do you remember a moment that felt really empowering where somebody told you couldn't do something, you weren't allowed, and you decided no, I decide what I want to do now.
MATTIE MURREY: It was when I bought my first car. I hadn't made my own purchases before. I hadn't managed my own money. I hadn't done my own taxes and that wasn't what I did.
STEPHANIE FOO: How did that feel?
MATTIE MURREY: It felt scary because I was worried about making the wrong decision and it, to me, was a chunk of money. I think it was $8,000. It didn't last a whole lot of time, but I learned the lessons that I needed to learn from it and that felt good.
STEPHANIE FOO: New name, new life outside her former community, but Mattie didn’t want to totally step away from God, from having what she calls a “way back to heaven.” So, she sought out other churches, other religions. Even went to some of their services.
MATTIE MURREY: I remember the first time I walked into a church other than my church of my youth and thought for sure the ground was going to open up. I realized the world is not falling apart. I'm not getting struck by lightning. I know that sounds like I'm overdramatizing it, but until you test those waters you're not sure.
STEPHANIE FOO: I asked Mattie about Sam Elliott and how she'd lost that kind of God – patient, kind, thoughtful. I wondered if she found, in one of these new churches, a God who provided unconditional love.
MATTIE MURREY: No, I did not find that unconditional love in any of the churches. I found that on the back of my motorcycle.
STEPHANIE FOO: One day, Mattie visited a new friend, Mark, who lived on a farm. They were walking around when Mark headed into a barn and wheeled out an old dirt bike – a Kawasaki 250. Mattie’s face lit up.
MATTIE MURREY: And he said, "Do you want to take it for a spin?" And I did. And it was a pasture. It was full of little manure piles, and I jumped on the bike. It was a kickstart. Kicked it, started driving. And I remember weaving my way through the manure piles and tufts of grass.
STEPHANIE FOO: Tell me about what happened to the ember.
MATTIE MURREY: Riding around in that field made me feel like... It confirmed that I do have embers, I do have strength that I can tap into as I need to and I'm going to be OK coming through what I've come through because I have that fire. And I just remember realizing that, for me, religion is not a church, not a place you worship, but it's a sense of spirituality and so that was when, it was in that field where I'm like, this is my religion.
STEPHANIE FOO: Describe to me, I want to feel like, what God on a motorcycle feels like.
MATTIE MURREY: When you're on the back of a motorcycle, and you go down into a dip, the air gets cooler. When you drive by a field, you can smell the crops. When you come up and over a hill, you can feel the warmth of the sun. You can hear, feel, taste, smell, everything is alive on the back of a motorcycle. And to me, that's what God is like. God is not about subduing or limiting. God is endless.
STEPHANIE FOO: After the visit to Mark’s farm, Mattie bought a used Yamaha 600 and taught herself how to ride again. How to find the right balance between her front and back brakes. One without the other meant she could go flying over the handlebars. As she practiced that, Mattie also found balance in life.
STEPHANIE FOO: These days, she is free. Her five children are all grown up. She works as a speech therapist and she rides with a group of women. And she rides her forever bike. Mattie called it Zeus.
MATTIE MURREY: Alright, Zeus. Ready to go for a ride?
STEPHANIE FOO: A 2014 Indian Chief. A beast of a road bike. Zeus, father of all gods and humans.
STEPHANIE FOO: Have you had some meaningful realizations on the back of your motorcycle?
MATTIE MURREY: I have. I have realized that nobody's holding me that, hey, you have to put your kickstand down. Or you can't ride a big motorcycle because you're a woman, or we're going to limit you on where you go and what you see and what you do.
STEPHANIE FOO: So, you are saying that what you missed all of those years was freedom. And this felt like kind of the purest form of freedom.
MATTIE MURREY: It did. Being able to choose for ourselves and be positive about those choices.
STEPHANIE FOO: On a recent visit to Denver, Mattie did make a bad choice. She was visiting her son and decided to take his friend’s bike for a spin. A crotch rocket they called it. Small and very fast. Mattie turned onto the freeway and started gearing up. That’s when she saw a police car turn on its lights behind her.
MATTIE MURREY: And then I realized I don't have my driver's license, it's not my bike. And so, I thought, well, what if I try to outrun them? And I quickly opened it up. I think it was six gears, then wound her out, quickly put distance between myself and the lights in the background, took the next exit and found my way back home and pulled in and I said, thanks for the ride. I do not think I told him. I said, “We should put this away in the garage now.”
STEPHANIE FOO: Mattie knew it was wrong. But there was something in that isolated incident that brought back that little kid hiding out in a ditch in rural Minnesota. Sitting on the back of a Suzuki 125. The place she felt most at home.
MATTIE MURREY: Martha probably would've been cheering from the sidelines, but probably would've not climbed on the bike for a variety of reasons. And Mattie would tell Martha, go on, get on the bike. You know you can do it.
STEPHANIE FOO: You’ve been listening to Home. Made. by Rocket Mortgage. My name is Stephanie Foo. You can reach us at rocketmortgage.com/homemade. Thanks for listening.
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