Big bikes, scary snakes and high heels: City’s naturalist leads eclectic existence

Connie Deegan and her beloved 2012 BMW R1200GS dual sport motorcycle. Photo by Adam Campbell


By Jeff Keeling

She tromps around Johnson City’s woods and wetlands, teaching kids and grownups about our natural world. She bombs around our winding roads and motors along our mountain trails on a 1200cc dual sport BMW motorcycle. And when the situation calls for it, Connie Deegan – self-professed tomboy that she is – does the “girly-girl” thing, dressing to the nines and loving it.

A native northeasterner and world traveler, Deegan selected Johnson City, with the help of her daughter Hartney, in 2007. Several years ago, she put her degree in natural resources and education to work, and she continues serving today as Johnson City’s park naturalist program coordinator.

“When people walk through the woods, most people look at eye level,” says Deegan, whose knowledge covers a broad range of subjects but who specializes in reptiles – particularly snakes. “I’ve always looked down. I was like a log flipper, rock flipper kid.”

Deegan usually arrives at her “office,” a maintenance shed at Winged Deer Park, on her R1200GS, and when she isn’t working, she can often be found riding, or on weekends, teaching/coaching riding classes. Motorcycling is a passion Deegan has nurtured over four decades, through nine different bikes and on two continents, and she has found Johnson City and the Mountain South to be ideal riding country.


A different kind of love affair

Deegan remembers well what prompted her love affair with motorcycles. It was the early 1970s, and Deegan was starting high school in upstate New York.

“There was a kid that lived in my neighborhood and I saw him on a 50cc minibike,” recalls Deegan, whose BMW, is her ninth bike and the first she’s bought new. “I wanted a minibike so bad. I don’t even know the reason. It wasn’t because it was cool, but I was far from cool and was never going to be cool – I just liked something about it.”

Deegan, the third of four children, asked her parents for permission to save up money for a motorcycle and was told it was “too dangerous.” Instead, she and her younger brother, Joe, bought 10 speeds – a Raleigh for her and a Peugeot for him. “When my father said no, he meant no,” Deegan says.

So Deegan and her brother became familiar with the roads around Millwood and beyond, riding farther afield each time. She was still cycling and hadn’t so much as owned a car as she finished up her junior year at the University of Rhode Island in 1978. She snagged a summer job on Block Island, 12 miles off the coast, and it was on that 7-by-3-mile outcrop that it really began for Deegan.


When Connie met Harry

Deegan, who worked two jobs on the island that summer, met a fellow named Harry. Harry was selling a bike for a dealer on the mainland. “It was a Honda CB 200, and it was silver,” Deegan remembers. “It was 700 bucks, and I had no money at the beginning of the summer.”

By the end of the summer, she had money, she and Harry were good friends, and the bike was reduced to $400.

“I was like, ‘my parents will kill me,’” Deegan remembers. “Then I actually took a walk and sat out on the breakwall and thought, ‘my parents will always say no if I continue to ask them.’”

She told Harry she would buy the bike. He took her to the state beach parking lot, gave her the key and showed her how to start it. She had no experience, typical riders had no protective gear, and Rhode Island had no helmet law.

“I just took off, did a couple of circles, and I never got off that thing for a year.”

Deegan did have to spill the beans when she told her dad she had a fall job in Wickford, and they realized she couldn’t be riding her bike back to URI’s campus in Kingston that far in the middle of the night.

“He basically said, ‘did you buy a motorcycle?’ I said, ‘Yes, I did.’ It was kind of cool because I didn’t get killed as much as I thought I would.”


Free spirit

After graduation, Deegan – who had moved about a half dozen times with her family growing up – spent time in the British Virgin Islands and Ireland before winding up working with her sister, Katherine, in Denver. She had written up a “bucket list” that included doing an offshore sailboat delivery, learning to juggle and living in Ireland.

She headed to the Caribbean bikeless, naturally, but even managed to get some riding time in on Tortolla in the BVI, and in Ireland.

“I managed to talk people into letting me ride their motorcycles. Women didn’t ride then. People seemed kind of stunned at the question, and they’d be like, ‘you can ride it if you know how.’”

In Tortolla, she rode a Honda 360, while in Ireland she settled for “little dirt bikes” adding to a “cosmic” experience that included driving on the left side of the road and “lots of traffic circles.”


Safety, shmafety and stained glass

Deegan arrived in Denver with her second bike, a Honda 360, and eventually traded up to a Honda CX500 Deluxe. She worked with Katherine in a stained glass business, and took off a couple of weeks every spring and fall to ride around the southern Rockies.

“I would take off by myself for two weeks at a time and just go,” Deegan recalls. Destinations included Arches National Park in Utah, the Four Corners area and other beautiful spots.

Safety just wasn’t a big deal back then, she said.

“I wore a helmet way more often than not, but when I started riding – and I’ll say this in class – unless you were competing professionally or something, you couldn’t buy safety gear. I rode for years in sneakers and a windbreaker or jean jacket.”

Katherine Deegan ended up getting married and Connie moved back to the Northeast, where she started a stained glass business in Wickford, RI. During her nine years as a small business owner, she moved into a Honda CB500 Custom, and later a Honda Sabre 750.


Bye bye Hondas, hello Hartney

A BMW dealer in Wickford was doing Deegan’s repair work and kept telling her she needed “to think about a BMW.” She wasn’t real interested until the company introduced its three-cylinder K series, and she bought a 740cc K75. It’s been BMWs ever since for Deegan.

“I really liked the engine. I liked the way it looked. I liked the speeds it was capable of, and the fact it was a bigger bike.”

Deegan also liked the reliability.

“I never wanted to be the bike on the side of the road. I’m not a great motorcycle mechanic, and I wanted to own a bike I could get on and ride to California just like you could in a car and not worry about it.”

While she confesses a bit of a need for speed – “I drive my bike a little bit faster than I drive my four-wheeled vehicles” – Deegan says she’s more about the overall experience. “I’ll take a good 30-mile-an-hour lean any day over 130 miles an hour straight.”

But something gave Deegan even more reason to exercise prudence on the road. She got married, and Hartney Deegan came along in November 1993. Deegan stayed married for 10 years, and several years was living in Connecticut with Hartney, when her ex-husband passed away. With nothing holding her to the high-cost area, and her daughter’s sense of adventure as keen as hers, Deegan began thinking about a move.


Deegan and area children during a salamander hike she led in fall 2013 in Hartsell Hollow, Buffalo Mountain Park. Photo courtesy Connie Deegan

Deegan and area children during a salamander hike she led in fall 2013 in Hartsell Hollow, Buffalo Mountain Park. Photo courtesy Connie Deegan

The internet starts the ball rolling, and a visit seals the deal: Johnson City it is

The pair did an online search for just the right place. They narrowed the field to six communities, visiting them all. They were looking for a good school system (Hartney would be entering high school), a “beautiful place,” and if possible, a local university. It came down to Johnson City and Blacksburg, Va., and Johnson City won out.

Deegan was riding her second K75 at this point, but she bought a larger bike, a K1200, shortly after moving. That was after her quick discovery that she had moved to a rider’s paradise.

“I remember taking some road from where I lived to Piney Flats – I think it was Piney Flats Road – and I was like, ‘this road is unbelievable!’ I had no idea that every road was unbelievable around here. Hartney was on the back at that time (she now has her own bike) and we rode a lot, just exploring the new place.”

Deegan soon traded her K75 for the biggest bike she’d ever owned, a BMW K1200. “It was a tank, but it was fast,” she says of her eighth motorcycle and third BMW. It was also around that time (2008) that Deegan began teaching motorcycle courses on weekends, which she continues to do on a part-time basis.


A good life, with occasional dress up days

Whether it’s teaching East Tennessee State University students how to cut trails in Johnson City’s growing park system, showing younger kids the whys and wherefores of salamander habits, or taking off with her boyfriend for a long weekend ride, Deegan continues to nurture her inner tomboy.

“My dad was kidding around one time and said, ‘Connie, you’re the best boy I’ve got.’ My brothers were always musicians, and I was the outside kid.”

On the other hand, Deegan says she has seen the percentage of female riders surge over the past 15 years or so. That’s a far cry from the 1970s and 1980s.

“I clearly remember the first day I saw another female rider not sitting on the back. I had been riding 10 years.”

Just since she began teaching, Deegan says, “the fastest growing demographic is women riders. I’d say it started really picking up speed about 10 years ago.”

You’ll rarely catch Deegan in clothes she couldn’t ride or hike in, but rarely isn’t never. “I’m a girl, and I’’m glad because girls rule and all that stuff,” she says.

“Sometimes it’s really appropriate, and I can slide into the girly-girl stuff easily. But it’s interesting, the occupations that have appealed to me as I’ve grown up and the stuff where I’ve spent all my time. I started out as a tomboy and have somewhat maintained that. I like outside stuff – I don’t make any apologies for it.

“But there are times when it’s really nice to get all decked out, big earrings and high-heeled shoes and all that stuff, and go to the wedding, and look the part and dress appropriately.”


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