When we speak, Alisa Clickenger has been on the road for almost a month, riding a blue and white Chieftain motorcycle across the United States. She’s scouting the route for next summer’s Sisters’ Centennial Motorcycle Ride, an event inspired by the Van Buren sisters, the first women to cross the United States on solo motorcycles.
“Woman can if she will,” was a favourite saying of Augusta Van Buren, who, in 1916 at age 24, with 22-year-old sister Adeline, journeyed from New York to San Francisco. They, too, rode Indian motorcycles – albeit with gas-powered headlamps, and without today’s cushy seats and suspension.
On the eve of America’s involvement in the First World War, and at a time when American women didn’t yet have the right to vote, the Van Burens set out to prove that women could be dispatch riders in the military.
In leather pants, jackets and helmets, the sisters were reportedly arrested along the way for wearing “men’s” clothing. They followed the Lincoln Highway, though much of the then three-year-old road was unpaved and unmapped.
“We have Adeline’s scrapbook and pictures of some of these so-called roads in Iowa; it looks more like a horizontal luge track than a road,” says Dan Ruderman, grandson of Adeline Van Buren. “It’s just steep embankments of mud, and they had to choose if they were going to ride in the middle of it or up on the side. It was not easy going. One of the shortest days was three miles, that was as far as they could get.
“You have to consider also, we’re talking about two women riding alone. They didn’t have an entourage; they didn’t have backup riders with vehicles to help them out. They went from point to point all by themselves.”
After a two-month trek – during which they were also the first women to ascend Pike’s Peak by motorcycle – Adeline and Augusta arrived in San Francisco. Their accomplishment didn’t persuade the U.S. military to alter its stance on female dispatch riders, but they did etch an example on the annals of history for women of conviction and adventuring spirit.
Next year’s commemorative coast-to-coast ride will take three weeks and begins, as the sisters’ trek did a century ago, on July 4. Clickenger, an experienced motorcycle tour organizer, is anticipating up to 100 riders — plus staff and the extended family of the Van Buren sisters.
There are two ways to sign up. “One is a fully guided and supported ride,” says Clickenger. This is limited to 20 riders. “We’ll help them, carry their luggage, tell them where to be and when.”
Option B is a self-guided tour.
“You’ll ride your own ride,” Clckenger says. “If you like to get up late and pound miles, you can do that. If you like to get up super early and spend all day riding and smelling the roses, you can do that, too.”
Clickenger stresses that while the ride is geared toward women, it’s also open to men.
She also understands that not everyone can take three weeks to do the full trip. “We’ve created it in such a way that you can sign up and just do a segment. We have certain places where ladies can join and ride with us as long as they want. If they can’t make the start in New York and want to join us in Ohio and ride through the mid-west that’s fine. If they’re west-coasters they can join us in Carson City, and ride into San Francisco for the grand finale.
“When Adeline and Augusta arrived in San Francisco, they arrived to a big fat nothing. They rode their motorcycles, traversed and travailed for two months, they got to San Francisco and they were running behind schedule, but nobody came out to greet them,” says Clickenger. “So we want to make a big deal about the arrival to honour them, and do it right the second time.
“Riding across the country, even today, is a monumental achievement. We want to make these women feel like they’ve done something special, because they have,” says Clickenger. “Hopefully, they’ll take that and apply it to other areas of their life, and see what other things they can achieve that they hadn’t thought possible before.”
Registration for the Sisters’ Centennial Motorcycle Ride is open, with ride map and details at sistersmotorcycleride.com
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