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Retracing the Steps of History: The Sisters’ Centennial Ride

Jenny SmithJuly 28, 2016

“Woman can, if she will.” – Augusta Van Buren

 

Ride organizer Alisa Clickenger (far left) poses with some of the cross-country group in Colorado. (Photo: Christina Shook)

Ride organizer Alisa Clickenger (far left) poses with some of the cross-country group in Colorado. Next to Alisa is Robert Van Buren and his wife, and their daughter Sarah Van Buren is sitting on the Indian motorcycle. (Photo: Christina Shook)

It all started with a very modest idea: gather a small group—say 10 women—and ride across the country, New York to California. After doing a bit more research, ride organizer Alisa Clickenger stumbled across the story of two intrepid women, Augusta and Adeline Van Buren, who in 1916 set out to prove to the U.S. government that women would make perfectly capable military dispatch riders, freeing up the men for combat-related duties. Gussie and Addie, as they were known, saddled up on a pair of 1,000cc Indian Powerplus motorcycles, and set out from Brooklyn, New York, on July 4. They arrived in Los Angeles two months and 5,500 miles later, becoming not only the first women to cross the continental United States on their own solo motorcycles, but also the first women to reach the 14,115-foot summit of Pikes Peak on any motor vehicle.

Augusta (left) and Adeline (right) pose on their Indian "motocycles."

Augusta (left) and Adeline (right) pose on their Indian “motocycles.” (Photo: Sisters’ Centennial Ride)

Despite their achievement, their efforts to become dispatch riders were unsuccessful. In a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote, the sisters were arrested multiple times over the course of their journey—for wearing pants! Newspaper and magazine coverage praised the top-of-the-line Indian motorcycles, but played down the women’s accomplishments, with some going so far as to accuse the sisters of using their cause to escape their “duties” as housewives, and that they simply enjoyed the attention drawn by their khaki and leather outfits.

As Clickenger learned more about the Van Buren sisters and their descendants’ commemorative efforts (a 2006 ride retracing the sisters’ route by Bob Van Buren, a great nephew, raised money for the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund), she became determined to host her modest ride on the centennial anniversary, July 2016.

The 2016 BMW R 1200 RS turned out to be the ideal bike for this journey: a powerful engine, manageable weight, easy-to-use luggage, a comfortably sporty riding position, great handling thanks to the Dynamic ESA suspension--and heated grips (for that 36-degree morning in Lake Tahoe)--made for an enjoyable 1,500 mile loop. (Photo: the author)

The 2016 BMW R 1200 RS turned out to be the ideal bike for this journey: a powerful engine, manageable weight, easy-to-use luggage, a comfortably sporty riding position, great handling thanks to the Dynamic ESA suspension and heated grips (for that 36-degree morning in Lake Tahoe) made for an enjoyable 1,500-mile loop. (Photo: the author)

By spring of that year, the Sisters’ Centennial Ride had snowballed into something much larger than Clickenger ever imagined. Title sponsor BMW had jumped in with an escort car and two X5 SUVs to tow the support trailers, plus motorcycles for guides and participants to ride, and Indian Motorcycle and Suzuki also donated several bikes. Sena equipped the guides with Bluetooth helmet communication systems and Olympia Moto Sports outfitted them in the latest apparel. Two charities were selected to benefit from the ride efforts: Final Salute, Inc., which provides housing for the more than 500,000 homeless female veterans in the U.S.; and the Women’s Coalition of Motorcyclists, which provides funding for motorcycle train-the-trainer scholarships to get more female instructors and coaches on staff around the country.

A Sisters rider winds through Utah on an Indian Springfield. (Photo: Sara Liberte/Indian Motorcycles)

Robert Van Buren, a great-nephew of the Van Buren sisters, winds through Utah on an Indian Springfield. (Photo: Sara Liberte/Indian Motorcycles)

In the end, 68 riders, all but a handful of them women, made the 21-day coast-to-coast trek. They were accompanied along the way by riders (like me) who joined them for a day or two, or perhaps a week, culminating in a final triumphant ride across the Golden Gate Bridge in a procession at least 150 riders strong. We were met and escorted into and through the city by the San Francisco Motorcycle Club, the oldest club in the country (established in 1904).

The San Francisco Motorcycle Club's clubhouse in the Mission District of San Francisco is rich with history. The wood-paneled walls are covered with old photographs, banners and trophy cases with awards recognizing achievements such as "Best Uniformed Club, 1936." (Photo: Christina Shook)

The San Francisco Motorcycle Club’s clubhouse in the Mission District of San Francisco is rich with history. The wood-paneled walls are covered with old photographs, banners and trophy cases with awards recognizing achievements such as “Best Uniformed Club, 1936.” (Photo: Christina Shook)

As the story goes, the SFMC was supposed to meet Gussie and Addie upon their arrival, but because communication was difficult, there was no way to notify the club that the sisters were delayed and they arrived to the sound of crickets. For the centennial ride, the club wanted to “make things right,” as they explained—and make things right they did. We were escorted across the bridge and taken on a scenic tour of the city, including the Presidio of San Francisco, Sea Cliff and the Great Highway along the beaches on the far western edge of the Sunset District, then around Twin Peaks into the Castro and finally ending at the clubhouse in the Mission District, where a spread of meats, cheeses, fruits and veggies awaited us.

Three riders pause on the way up Pikes' Peak. The ladies were initially held up at the base of the mountain, with the road closed due to snow. They were eventually allowed up, but slush and snow remaining at the top made the pavement slippery. Imagine how much more difficult it must've been for the Van Buren sisters, on unpaved roads in 1916. (Photo: Christina Shook)

Three riders pause on the way up Pikes’ Peak. The ladies were initially held up at the base of the mountain, with the road closed due to snow. They were eventually allowed up, but slush and snow remaining at the top made the pavement slippery. Imagine how much more difficult it must’ve been for the Van Buren sisters, on unpaved roads in 1916. (Photo: Christina Shook)

A lot has obviously changed in the 100 years since the Van Buren sisters made their record-setting crossing, and women now represent about 13 percent of the motorcyclists in the U.S. When you think about it, though, we’re still only three full generations removed from that era, when a woman could be arrested for the crime of not wearing a dress. A ride like this is empowering and proves that women are more capable than we’ve been given credit for—and it’s also a little scary. For several of the women I had the pleasure of meeting while on the ride, this was something they weren’t entirely sure they could do. And so they were proving it to themselves just as much as to their husbands, friends or family.

Summer thunderstorms threaten in the Utah desert. (Photo: Christina Shook)

Summer thunderstorms threaten in the Utah desert. (Photo: Christina Shook)

All of the cross-country riders had their own reasons for committing three weeks of their lives (not to mention the $5,725 cost for the all-inclusive tour) to participate in the historic ride. I sat next to one at dinner in Ely, Nevada, where I joined the group for the last two days’ of the ride. Mary is from North Carolina and a bookkeeper for a fast food franchisee, who up to this point had never ridden farther west than the Appalachians. The idea of doing something like this excited and inspired her, and it also terrified her. She confided to me that she had a few “moments in the ladies’ room,” as she put it, where as the time grew near, panic would set in as she realized the magnitude of what she was doing. She’s been riding since 1976, and up until recently her husband would join her, but he decided he’s getting too old to ride. She knew this might be her last chance to do something like this. He discouraged her at first (I guess we still aren’t that far removed from those antiquated attitudes after all), telling her that she’d fail: she’d get sick or the bike would break down or she would just get tired and lose her will to finish. At dinner in Ely, two riding days from the Golden Gate and the finish, I smiled at her and said, “He’s going to be so proud of you when you succeed.” She looked at me, nodded and calmly replied, “I think he’s getting to that point.” Three weeks of summer heat, thunderstorms, deserts, winding mountain roads and extreme altitude shifts had made her strong.

Sisters cross-country rider Mia kept a journal of sorts on the windscreen of her Honda NC700X. By the end, a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge graced the center. (Photo: the author)

Sisters cross-country rider Mia kept a journal of sorts on the windscreen of her Honda NC700X. By the end, a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge graced the center. (Photo: the author)

At lunch the next day, somewhere in the middle of Nevada, I sat with Group 1, about eight women who have all been on the ride since New York and who have formed a bond after three weeks together. Four of them met at one of Ken Condon’s Riding in the Zone skills classes in Massachusetts the week before the ride, but I was startled when I asked when each of them decided to go. One of the four pointed at another and announced, “She decided two days before the ride started!”

Karen heard about the Sisters' ride 48 hours before it was scheduled to begin. That was all she needed: she made the arrangements, paid the entrance fee and headed to Brooklyn to take part in history. (Photo: the author)

Karen poses with her BMW F 700 GS. She equipped it with Jesse luggage for the cross-country journey. (Photo: the author)

“She” turned out to be Karen, an instructor for a payroll tax certification firm and a rider of six years. She’s the kind of lady who orders her burgers medium rare and opts for the ghost pepper cheese that the waiter described as “like eating a raw jalapeno pepper.” The other three ladies had told her about their upcoming adventure at the class, and as she puts it, “I was tired of always saying, ‘someday.’ I decided that someday was now.” And so with less than 48 hours before the ride was scheduled to begin in New York, she made arrangements with her employer, paid the entrance fee and headed to Brooklyn with her new friends.

Secret was all smiles when we reached the Golden Gate. (Photo: Sara Liberte/Indian Motorcycles)

Secret was all smiles when we reached the Golden Gate. (Photo: Sara Liberte/Indian Motorcycles)

Not everyone was new to the idea of a cross-country ride. Secret, a jovial lady with an ever-present smile, was on her 18th crossing of the United States aboard a brand new Indian Roadmaster—and she was clear that this won’t be her last.

Then there’s Marjorie, who lost her son in a motorcycle accident. Many women, perhaps even most, would never ride a motorcycle after something like that. Not Marjorie. She went out and got her endorsement, and decided that doing this ride was the best way to honor her son’s life and memory. I can only imagine the emotions she was feeling as she passed beneath the sunset-colored arches of the Golden Gate Bridge to finish her journey surrounded by new friends.

There were many more women on the ride and many more stories, but they all shared one thing in common: strength and will. As Augusta Van Buren said, “Woman can, if she will.”

Riders cross the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. (Photo: Sara Liberte/Indian Motorcycle)

Riders cross the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. (Photo: Sara Liberte/Indian Motorcycle)

"We made it!" Photo: Christina Shook

“We made it!” (Photo: Christina Shook)

Riders wind through the mountains of Colorado. (Photo: Sara Liberte/Indian Motorcycles)

Riders wind through the mountains of Colorado. (Photo: Sara Liberte/Indian Motorcycles)

The best way to see San Francisco is atop a motorcycle, being escorted through traffic along the most scenic avenues in the city. Helmet-cam shot courtesy of my Sena 10C. (Photo: the author)

The best way to see San Francisco is atop a motorcycle, being escorted through traffic along the most scenic avenues in the city. Helmet-cam shot courtesy of my Sena 10C. (Photo: the author)

The group poses for a photo on the tarmac at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts. (Photo: Christina Shook)

The group poses for a photo on the tarmac at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, Massachusetts. (Photo: Christina Shook)

5 comments

  1. Augusta and Adeline Van Buren — The Original, TRUE, Badass 1%’ers.

  2. Thanks, Jenny! It was a pleasure and honor having dinner with you!

  3. Jenny! Such a pleasure riding with you, and sharing a looooong lunch during our stop in Middlegate. Thanks for riding with us, as well as for your terrific write-up! 😀

  4. Interesting that Harley didn’t support or encourage this Tour. And actually, I don’t care why. These Women did a fantastic ride and I respect and Cheer them on !

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