If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that I’m not one of those “I am woman hear me roar”-type girls. I’d like to think that when I write about riding, or the motorcycle world in general, that it’s from the perspective of a biker first and a woman second. That being said, sometimes I enjoy the attention that comes along with being a woman rider.
I’ve seen plenty of guys people do double-takes when they see me on my bike. And I’ve received occasional props from people when they find out I ride my own. It’s 2009 and I’m still surprised at the variety of feedback I get because of my gender and motorcycling hobby. I wonder what it might have been like almost 100 years ago.
Back in the day, before women could vote and we were under the thumb of “the man” (any man really), two intrepid sisters had a dream. New York “society girls” Adeline and Augusta Van Buren (descendants of our 8th president) dreamed of serving our country by being motorcycle dispatch riders. With America’s entry into WWI looming on the horizon, the time was now (or then, actually) to prove that women could do it.
On July 4th, 1916 “Gussie” and “Addie” set out from Brooklyn heading toward the City of Angels. Now you have to remember, (as my husband is so fond of saying to me) prior to the Eisenhower interstate act of 1956 there was “no way to get there from here”. In fact it wasn’t until three years after the girls made their trip, that Dwight D made his trip in a truck convoy as a young army officer, which planted the seed of our future highway system.
Imagine crossing this country on a series of dusty, unpaved country roads and only seeing asphalt, brick or cobblestone when in a major city. That would be like riding 5,500 miles on conditions that today we go out of our way to avoid. And while were talking about the conditions of our country’s infrastructure, lets talk about the machines they were riding.
Back in the early part of the 20th century there were over 200 motorcycle manufacturers in the U.S. and at times the biggest of them was Indian Motorcycles. After sweeping the Isle of Man TT in 1911, most serious riders found themselves on an Indian. Although Harley-Davidson was a solid brand, it wasn’t so until WWII that they left Indian in the dust. Like other serious riders, Gussie and Addie Van Buren were no exception to the Indian rule. They both chose to ride the top of the line Indian Model F with the Power Plus 1000cc twin.
From Brooklyn, the pair headed north to Buffalo and then west to the big city of Chicago. After leaving Chi-town not only did the girls really find themselves in rural America, but on occasion they found themselves in handcuffs being arrested for wearing men’s clothing! But for the most part, they were able to talk their way out of most situations as they trekked through Omaha to Denver.
While Gussie and Addie were not the first women to ride across the USA on a motorcycle, they were the first to summit Pike’s Peak. I’ve ridden up Mount Washington on crappy asphalt, stone and packed dirt with no guardrails for your safety to an above the clouds height of 6,288 feet and that was fairly harrowing. They climbed more than twice that to 14,109 feet and made history becoming the first women to ever summit Pike’s Peak (a ride I’d like to do some day…).
Like most motorcycle journeys, the women found themselves in unplanned situations. Some roads were washed out, at times they dumped their bikes, they even got stuck in the mud and lost in the desert west of Salt Lake City. But just like happenings of today, they were helped out by fellow riders, good Samaritans and friendly town-folk.
Late summer in 1916 saw the girls ride into Los Angeles, completing their trip on September 8th. Apparently they were hungry for a little Mexican and since Baja Fresh hadn’t opened just yet, they rode down to Tijuana for good measure.
One of the best parts of a road trip is meeting new people and telling them your story. I’m sure that in the summer of 1916 two slender women in men’s clothing, on a transcontinental journey was a scene that turned plenty of heads. Stories like this inspire me to travel and seek out adventure. I might never be inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame, or the Sturgis Hall of Fame, but that doesn’t mean that each time I take the road I shouldn’t ride like I’m seeing the world for the first time.
Thanks to my husband for being such a history buff and kicking my butt to write this post!
If you want to learn more about Adeline and Augusta VanBuren check out vanburensisters.com, a website maintained by their kin.