My first thrill came as a surprise as we shot off Acorn Lane and onto Randall Road, accelerating onto the asphalt.
Wind smacked into my face, and the whirring of tires ricocheted in my ears, louder than normal because I no longer had the large metal parts of a car surrounding me. Instead, I rode in the open air on a bright blue scooter.
A Kymco 250cc scooter, to be exact. The scooter belonged to Mardi Kobus, president of the Fox Valley Scooter Club.
At noon on a sunny July day, Kobus and five other members of the club met up for a ride and to see horses race at Arlington Park and invited me along.
I had harbored dreams of riding on a scooter ever since watching Audrey Hepburn zoom around Rome on a Vespa in “Roman Holiday,” so I gladly accepted their offer.
The Fox Valley Scooter Club, which was formed by Kobus in 2009 at the suggestion of Bruce Erbeck, who owns Flat Squirrel Scooters in Lake in the Hills with his wife, Christy Erbeck, usually meets once or twice a week during temperate months.
The club, which has 273 members, meets at Flat Squirrel and often rides along the back roads of McHenry and Cook Counties, taking in the scenery and then gathering for dinner or an excursion. For an upcoming club event, Bruce Erbeck reserved 100 seats for a screening of "Larry Crowne," the movie starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts that prominently features scooters.
On the particular Sunday I went with the club, we had s a fun and varied bunch. There was Flat Squirrel owner Erbeck, who's 43rd birthday was that day. He's clearly the group jokester. "Anyone need gas?" he asked before the group takes off. "'Cause I've got plenty of Beano."
There was Aleks Rys, 17 years old, of Huntley, who does maintenance work at Flat Squirrel. (
"My friends just laugh when I tell them I have a scooter," he tells me. "But they don't realize how fun it is."
There was Nancy Hameister, 60, of Elgin, a retiree whose scooter, a Honda Silver Wing 600cc, harbors the most power.
There was Michelle Hutchinson, 42, of Crystal Lake, who runs a company in the same city called KnowPlace Pet Services. There was Janet Funk, 50, a nurse from Huntley who stuck 20 bucks in a slot machine at Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin and won a $3,000 jackpot — which she promptly used in April to buy her red, Buddy 125cc scooter.
And there was Kobus, 53, a grandma who looks two decades younger than her age and who would be responsible for keeping me upright on her scooter. For safety, we wore matching red helmets that make our heads look like two maraschino cherries.
After several minutes of adjusting my hands, I settled on gripping Kobus' shoulders. I had to apologize because I made her shoulders a bit moist with my sweaty hands. I told her it was due to the heat, but it was also a sign of my nervousness at being on a scooter.
With so many public service announcements reminding us to fasten our seat belts, it felt odd to be on the road with nothing harnessing me into a motorized vehicle. It was just me sitting astride a black seat, hands clammily resting on Kobus' shoulders.
"You see, that's called freedom," said Erbeck later of the feeling. "There's just that little amount of danger — not a lot, but just enough — that gets you to the edge. Who wouldn't want to have that feeling every day?"
I definitely felt more vulnerable, but with the group, I also felt safe.
"We always ride as a group," Kobus said often during the ride, adding that if part of the group gets separated at a traffic light or by a car, the front of the group waits to catch up.
The group leader constantly uses hand signals, communicating to the group about whether it should stagger or ride in a single file. At stop signs, we formed a stream of scooters in an intersection and often received some kind-spirited honks by drivers tickled to spot us.
After cruising down Randall Road for a brief stop at Jared's in Algonquin so that Erbeck could pick up a silver birthday watch, we headed east on Algonquin Road before turning onto West County Line and Lake Cook.
A spin on a scooter is a completely different experience than riding in an enclosed vehicle. I looked down as my legs seem to come within a foot of car bumpers. I felt the wind blow against me, tempering the extreme heat. At stoplights, I heard birds and wildlife chirp and coo. Every road bump sent a little bounce through my body.
When a fleet of Harleys rode past, I stuck two of my left fingers out in what Kobus told me was a "motorcycle wave." To my delight, the Harley riders stuck their fingers back out in response. It's a sign of camaraderie you just don't get while riding in a car.
As we scooted past the horse farms in a topographically diverse Barrington Hills, I noted how trees arched over us and enclosed us in what felt like nature's hug.
"This is why we ride!" shouted Kobus, who rode motorcycles in high school but now prefers the automatic "twist and go" ease of scooters.
She stayed at about 40 to 45 miles per hour for the whole journey to the racecourse, including when we ventured onto Northwest Highway.
"With the Fox Valley Scooter Club, we're not about speed," she said. "We're about the ride."
After pulling into Arlington Park, we grabbed fajitas and hot dogs for lunch. Everyone but Rys, who's not quite old enough to gamble, placed a few bets on the races but with the exception of Funk, who once owned horses, not many of our picks win.
That didn't seem to bother anyone, though.
Not when they had each other to crack jokes and converse with.
And certainly not when they knew that upon leaving, scooters awaited.