Girls Gone West
Centennial of two sisters’ transcontinental motorcycle trek
Adeline, left, and Augusta Van Buren were the first women to ride solo across America on motorcycles. This photo was taken in 1916 when they arrived in Los Angeles.
Photo by Van Buren Legacy Inc
In 1916, Adeline and Augusta Van Buren set out to prove they were capable of traveling across America on motorcycles. They wanted to be military messengers, despatch riders, a role once fulfilled by horses but shifted to motorcycles a year earlier.
“The military said hell, no,” says Adeline’s grandson, Dan Ruderman, of Great Barrington. “They flat-out rejected their request on no other ground than they’re women.”
The Van Buren sisters, both single, wouldn’t leave it at that. Instead, they planned a journey on the Lincoln Highway, laid out in 1910 but not fully accessible to motorized vehicles until 1918. In the Berkshires, it wound through Becket on Route 20, the road still known as Jacob’s Ladder, and was like a covered wagon trail at best—long stretches of mud and muck, or no roads at all. They not only faced physical and practical issues, but going against a societal norm that was only one generation beyond the Victorian era.
Adeline, 27, and Augusta, 32, were very athletic—riding horses, ice skating, diving, boxing, and racing motorcycles. Fully clad in leather from helmet to boot, they departed on July Fourth from their home city of Brooklyn on their Indian Power Plus motorcycles, with a 5,500-mile journey ahead. On good days, they rode 300 miles. On bad, three. Getting lost was their most overriding concern. Roads were often nothing more than farm trails. They carried rudimentary maps but relied more on directions from locals.
Adeline and Augusta stopped to talk to people along the way about supporting what would become World War I. Crossing a small creek posed a serious challenge. Getting stuck in a swamp meant walking until they found a rancher with a team of horses. They nearly ran out of water in a desert region of Nevada. Practical issues such as where to buy gasoline weren’t so easy because there were no gas stations, only pharmacies and markets carrying fuel. If they needed a part repaired, they went to blacksmiths—many of whom had never seen a motorcycle.
With all that, they became the first women to cross the continental United States on their own motorcyles. Their day-to-day agenda was ambitious, estimating they would be in San Francisco by mid-August. They arrived early September, three weeks late, and they continued on to Tijuana, Mexico.
Growing up, Ruderman heard many stories about his grandmother and great-aunt and how amazing they were. Ruderman, now 57, used to think he was too reckless to be a motorcyclist. Yet he was determined to commemorate the transcontinental trek. A few years ago, he and his son, Skyler, 30, received their licenses and planned to mark the centennial with their own ride. Ruderman’s daughter Sofié, 18, has a permit and will ride with her dad, and hopefully his wife, Ditte, can join briefly, too. They are being sponsored by BMW motorcycle.
As Ruderman began planning the journey with his second cousin, Robert Van Buren, he noticed a woman motorcyclist tour guide on Facebook and contacted her. Alisa Clickenger, 50, also was organizing a ride cross-country—and in a big way, calling the journey Sisters’ Centennial Motorcycle Ride. The Rudermans decided to join the caravan. “I won’t get arrested for wearing pants,” Clickenger says from her home in LA. “I won’t have my experience diminished because I am a woman. I won’t be denied the right to vote. We’ll stay in hotels. We’re not going to work on our own motorbikes. They needed to be shown how to fix theirs before heading out, and that’s why they went to Springfield, to learn how to do repairs. One was a navigator and the other was a mechanic.” This team of two also were the first women to reach the 14,115-foot summit of Pikes Peak on her own motorcycle.
Today’s trek will be taken by a core group of 55 people that includes a black woman who wants to break Bessie Stringfield’s record of the 1930s of the number of times going cross-country on a motorcycle; 74-year-old Pauley Rolf, taking the journey on a 250-rpm motorcycle; and Erin Sills, the fastest woman on a motorcycle in the world.
For their journey, the Van Buren sisters each purchased an Indian motorcycle, manufactured in Springfield, with gas-powered headlights for $275. There was no front brake. The rear was like a coaster brake on bicycles. The top speed was 60 mph, with 30 mph the average. The slender wheels looked like bicycle tires on steroids, even though they were very durable Firestones.
“It took a tremendous amount of self-reliance, confidence and courage that they can do this,” says Bill Murphy, whose Grace and Grit documents the journey of the Van Buren sisters and several others female motorcyclists of the 20th century. Memorabilia from the historic crossing will be on view at the Springfield Museums beginning on June 28. On July 5, members of the Sisters Motorcycle Ride will tour the exhibit and take part in a ceremony. Then they will pick up their journey that will be completed July 23 in San Francisco.
After their trek, the Van Buren sisters reapplied to the Army, which responded by saying that it was a nice thing that they did, says Ruderman, “but you are still women and can’t serve.” That, despite the fact that they more than proved their point.
Along for the Ride
Dan Ruderman and his son Skyler will be part of the Sisters Centennial Motorcycle Ride. You can follow the cross-country trek at Facebook.com/SistersMotorcycleRide.