Now, at last, the ride is under way, heading west under police escort on Route 20 out of Springfield, Mass. People wave from the sidewalk as the pack of riders, made up almost entirely of women, rolls by in two long, smartly staggered lines of motorcycles.
Exactly 100 years ago on this July, the Van Buren sisters struck out on this same road, themselves preceded by the phantoms of Native Americans for whom this had been an ancient trail through the southern Berkshires. Along the way, the sisters would cross deserts, climb the Rocky Mountains, and be arrested for dressing like men. Newspapers published articles criticizing them for forsaking their roles as housewives.
But on the eve of the nation’s entry into World War I, the Van Burens were determined to prove that women could serve as military dispatch riders. They departed on Independence Day from Brooklyn. Their first stop was the Massachusetts manufacturing center that produced their Indian Powerplus motorcycles. Addie was 32 and Gussie was 26. Photographs of the pair, now sepia-toned with age, captured their confidence.
More than two months later, when they arrived in San Francisco after enduring heat, rain, and the epic mud holes of the so-called Lincoln Highway—more a wishful name on a map than a navigable roadway—they discovered they arrived too soon. Women would wait another four years for the vote, another world war for the chance to serve in the military, and a hundred years for the venerable San Francisco Motorcycle Club to keep its promise to meet the riders who had left New York behind a long time before.
I’m not much of a joiner. The motorcyclist who is accustomed to the road as her solitary pleasure can find groups irksome. But I wanted to participate in this ride; unable to attend the formal launch in Brooklyn, I joined the group in Springfield.
Only twice in my life have I felt what I felt as we got under way, and that too had been while riding with women: the uplift of elation, a current of electric joy running between us. As Augusta humbly told a reporter, “Woman can, if she will.” Now it echoed like an anthem’s refrain at every turn of our cumulative hundred wheels.
In my left hand mirror I saw Sarah Van Buren, 35, of Hudson, N.Y. She is the great-grandniece of one of these pathbreakers, and she had broken her own trail by taking up motorcycling in order to join the Sisters’ Centennial Motorcycle Ride. Her skills were a bit hesitant but her spirit was not.
The day before we departed, Sarah had stood before an assembly at the Springfield Museums, where a permanent exhibit on her little-known forebears had been inaugurated. Here in a glass case was Augusta’s leather helmet. It crowned the motoring garb that had gotten her and her sister detained by police because wearing trousers was then against the law for women. (Think about that for a minute.) Tears filled her eyes as Sarah addressed the importance of keeping watch over the historical record, especially of a time when women’s accomplishments seemed to have been written in disappearing ink.
As I sat in the great hall, my hurriedly peeled-off gear at my feet—I had pulled up just as the mayor finished his speech to a crowd outside, a victim of my own travails involving detours and my resistance to the newfangled (all right, pricey) bike-specific GPS—I felt an unbidden tightness in my own throat. I had wiped what surely was a drop of sweat from my cheek.
The next day, as we rode out of Springfield, finally freed from the grip of urban traffic, I felt as if we were riding into living history—a vista of pure green that was very much like what the sisters saw as they fairly flew into their brilliant, challenging future.
We were flying too, inasmuch as a group can fly. (I lucked into the fast segment, which contained some phenomenally skilled motorcyclists, including Erin Sills. Sills is a 12-time World and National land speed record holder who has notched a top average of 209 mph.)
Some 40 miles after we started, Alisa glided to the shoulder. We had come to one of the few spots it is known for certain the Van Burens stopped, too. It is a shrine to passage, a repository of historic travelers’ hopes.
In 1910, when this road was opened as the first highway for the new horseless carriage, passersby left stones and artifacts in a sort of haphazard offering to the gods of travel. These were cemented into a lasting monument. Standing near the rock cairn on the Jacob’s Ladder Trail, we posed for photographs, and some of us felt a shiver. What did the sisters leave at this congeries of memory?
I for one couldn’t shake the feeling that exactly 100 years ago two brave women had surely placed here a memento. It might not have been visible, but in this moment of inception it seemed to be the gift of inspiration. It was meant for any woman who, like them, felt emboldened to refuse any answer that began or ended with “no.”
We mounted up again. There were places to get to. The destination turned out to be as much inside each of us as it was a point on a map. Old, young, black, white: we were riders all. Motorcycling had changed every one of us. Our plates showed we were from Colorado, Ontario, California, Illinois, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, New Jersey; our faces showed some of us had clocked quite a few miles on the road of life and some had destinations unnumbered yet to come. The eldest rider was 71; the youngest was 18.
We crossed the border into New York and broke for lunch. The spot was perfect, not only for its vast selection of a crucial foodstuff (ice cream) or for its lovely setting in the Catskill Mountain foothills. It also displayed the ambitious planning that had taken staff an entire year to research and plot every restaurant, gas stop, and hotel along thousands of miles of our route. But it was also perfect because this was the place where a transformation occurred: the riders had suddenly become sisters.
After sharing a peanut butter fudge cone, I had to split off. But my thoughts kept heading west. They traveled with the new family that any long road always makes of strangers. Every day, every mile, I knew, they would become as strong in themselves as in their bond together.
By the end, 65 riders would go coast to coast; about 250 joined for at least some part of the ride, which was documented on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The group would ascend Pikes Peak, as the Van Burens did. They would cross the Golden Gate Bridge as one. When they reached the end, they found they were at a new beginning. It would be the legacy of Augusta and Adeline to remind us that sometimes we must go back to get ahead.
So I was with them in spirit. But, secretly, I was also craving the next three hours alone on a favorite route south into the heart of the Catskills: home. My part of the memorial ride was short, but I was looking forward to an adventure of my own. It’s where I get my best thinking done.
— Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of two books about motorcycling, “The Perfect Vehicle” and “The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing.“
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