A cross-country road trip is the stuff of legends, tall tales and bucket lists. Many people dream of doing it, far fewer actually do. Full disclosure: I’ve driven coast-to-coast three times. It is as much a labor of sleep deprivation, clogged arteries, random pit stops and butt numbness as it is one of tolerance, appreciation and endurance. Also, an air-conditioned vehicle with robust 4G LTE cell service is increasingly becoming a necessity instead of a nice-to-have.
Now imagine traveling those thousands of miles via dusty roads, hazardous conditions and being completely exposed to the elements — because you are on a motorcycle. I sense some heads shaking, “No.” Yet this is exactly what Augusta “Gussie” and Adeline “Addie” Van Buren did 100 years ago in order to prove a point: That they could.
In 1916, women were still four years away from being allowed to vote and even farther away from being considered equals to men. However, the world was also at war. To demonstrate that women could contribute to America’s eminent war effort, the Van Buren sisters decided to undertake a cross-country moto journey to showcase that:
- Women are pretty damn tough
- They could serve as motorcycle messengers, thus freeing up men for the front lines. And on the Fourth of July, their adventure began.
Native New Yorkers Gussie, 32, and Addie, 27, suited up and mounted their 1916 Indian Powerplus motorcycles and departed from Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, arriving in San Francisco eight weeks later on September 2. Easy peasy at a leisurely pace? Hardly.
Keep in mind that the Interstate Highway System would not officially exist for another 40 years leaving the Van Burens to navigate their 5,500-mile route via rough, rutted, muddy, unpaved and sometimes washed out road surfaces — with a dash of mechanical issues, fatigue and discrimination thrown in along the way. Grit and determination were not attributes these sisters lacked.
“They had guts, to say the least, and I reckon a palpable distaste for the status quo,” says Sarah Van Buren, a great-great niece. She adds, “Hundred-year anniversaries don’t come too often, and my family is thrilled to have the opportunity to honor our ancestors’ achievements alongside the achievements of all women who dare to chart new territories. As Augusta Van Buren once said, ‘Woman can, if she will.’”
To celebrate the historic journey as well as promote the continued growth of women motorcyclists, the Sisters’ Centennial Motorcycle Ride (sponsored by BMW Motorrad) will loosely retrace Gussie and Addie’s route, kicking off this Sunday, July 3, in Brooklyn. Riders – including Sarah and other descendants of the sisters — will stop in several key cities before arriving in San Francisco on July 23. Click here for more information on the pre-planned events scheduled for Massachusetts, Ohio, Iowa and Colorado.
The Van Buren sisters claimed two motorcycle distinctions upon arrival in Northern California: They were the first women to ride across the continental United States, and the first women to reach the 14,115-foot Pikes Peak, the highest summit on the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. One would also hope, even 100 years ago, that they also earned the admiration and respect of their peers, women and men alike.