Following the Sisters’ Centennial Ride

Riding the western half of a historical cross-country trip.

The Sisters’ Centennial Ride 2016.
Julia LaPalme, Sara Liberte, Christina Shook
This was the only time I was riding ahead of land speed record-holder Erin Sills.Sara Liberte

The streets were still dark when I loaded up my saddlebags. Dawn revealed the silhouettes of sky-high cliffs guarding the little town of Ouray, Colorado. The Centennial State’s normally big sky felt very small and claustrophobic as the day’s first light revealed heavy cloud cover. We’d better get moving.

At 6:15 a.m., I arrived at the hotel where Sandy Borden, my riding partner, was staying with the rest of the Sisters' Centennial riders. At 6:30, it was kickstands up for the two of us. Two turns out of the hotel parking lot and we were on the Million Dollar Highway. We had the pavement all to ourselves, and suddenly I had the overwhelming urge to really lean into some corners, so I took off. The first two turns out of Ouray are sweeping switchbacks, where the road climbs up and out of the box canyon.

One of the perils of early-morning riding stood around the next corner—a deer, hanging out on the roadside, enjoying the lush greenery for breakfast. I grabbed the brakes, stuck my leg out to warn Sandy of the potential hazard, and picked up the pace again, giving in to the hunger for an adrenaline rush only a twisty road can bring. Soon after, a second danger appeared—another deer, this one crossing the road. Okay, I can take a hint. Time to slow my roll.

I was fortunate to be traversing this part of the country with the conveniences of pavement and a modern motorcycle. The ride we were participating in, called the Sisters’ Centennial Ride, was a re-creation of Augusta and Adeline Van Buren’s motorcycle trip 100 years ago from Brooklyn to San Francisco. Let me repeat that: Two sisters rode two motorcycles across the country in 1916. Before they had even won the right to vote. Before most of the country’s roads were paved. Before it was acceptable for women to wear pants.

Augusta and Adeline Van Buren during their legendary 1916 ride.
Augusta and Adeline Van Buren during their legendary 1916 ride.Courtesy of the Van Buren family

These two socialites, descendants of Martin Van Buren, the eighth US president, wanted to prove that women could serve as military motorcycle dispatch riders to free up servicemen for other tasks. They were members of the Preparedness Movement and hoped their ride would bring attention to the suffrage movement as well. They rode 1,000cc Indian Power Plus “motocycles,” which they learned to maintain and repair at Indian’s headquarters in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Embarking on their ride a month before the inaugural Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, Augusta, 24, and Adeline, 22, also became the first women to motorcycle to the top of Pikes Peak. We repeated that trek as a part of the Centennial Ride, on which 100 women would retrace the pioneering sisters’ route on its 100th anniversary. Among those joining the ride were Adeline’s grandson Dan Ruderman with his daughter Sophie, as well as Adeline and Augusta’s nephew Robert with great-niece Sarah Van Buren.

Lake Powell reveals its stunning beauty at sunset.
Lake Powell reveals its stunning beauty at sunset.Julia LaPalme
Ffve ladies, Four Corners.
Five ladies, Four Corners.Christina Shook

Sandy and I rode up to 11,000 feet where the temperature dropped to 36 degrees. Carving through a beautiful serpentine road, it started to rain as we passed a waterfall cutting through the thickly forested granite hillside, making 36 degrees feel even colder. Crossing over Red Mountain Pass, we made our way down into Silverton for fuel, air, and hot coffee. As we gassed up, a truckful of locals asked, “Aren’t you ladies scared riding in the rain?” Silly boys, don’t you know who you’re talking to? Sandy and her husband Terry have been traveling the globe aboard their bikes for the past 10 years with their son in tow. This weather was nothing.

The rain stopped as we approached Molas Lake, and the view coaxed me right off the road. I pulled into the next turnout, a hard-packed dirt lot that led to a rocky, rutted dirt track winding down to the lake. Although I was aboard a BMW GS, it had street tires, and I'm no ADV rider. I wasn't sure what I was getting into, but I went for it anyway. I let out a woohoo! as I caught a little air going over one of the rocks. I could get used to this!

Halfway down my new favorite road of this adventure, I stopped to take in the view of Molas Lake not far below, with the San Juan Mountains off in the distance and wildflowers in bloom at my feet. I could have spent the rest of the day in that spot and been absolutely content. After some time spent lakeside, and picking up another Sisters’ Centennial riding buddy, Queena Deschene, the three of us headed farther up the road. We met up with a large group of riders at Molas Pass, including Sarah Van Buren. Inspired by her great aunts, Sarah got her M1 certification back in November, in her home state of New York. A cross-country trip is a heck of a training ground for a new rider, but Sarah seemed to be taking the miles in stride.

Heading back out on the Million Dollar Highway, our duo had doubled in size, and we were now a squad of four: Sandy, Queena, Magda Jusiewicz, and myself. The road opened up, and we hauled ass all the way into Durango. This would be our longest day, covering 340 miles, and we still had quite a way to go.

The farther we rode, the heavier my heart got. The Rockies were slipping away too quickly. The terrain changed from alpine to high desert to low desert, marking our entrance into the West as we headed toward Four Corners, the temperature 60 degrees higher than it had been that morning. The skies changed too, threatening rain. It wasn’t until we got to Four Corners that the clouds caught up to us. It seemed we were destined to be damp, from either rain or sweat. Whose idea was it to ride through Arizona in July?

We still had it better than the Van Buren sisters back in 1916. At one point, they got lost in the desert outside Salt Lake City and were rescued by a local rancher when they ran out of water. With that in mind, I was doubled up on hydration packs and had enough protein bars and jerky stashed in my tail bag to last me a week.

Pulling into Page, Arizona, Queena and I parted ways, me heading into town to my Airbnb, her joining the others at the lakeside resort. After cleaning off the day’s dirt and sweat, I called a taxi to take me to the resort for dinner with the crew. The sunset enhanced the beautiful red rock cliffs that surround the lake, and the scene was breathtaking.

Riders traverse the numerous twists and turns of the Million Dollar Highway in the rain.
Riders traverse the numerous twists and turns of the Million Dollar Highway in the rain.Sara Liberte
The author’s loaner BMW F700GS alongside the long Loneliest Highway of Interstate 50.
The author's loaner BMW F700GS alongside the long Loneliest Highway of Interstate 50.Julia LaPalme
The Sisters’ Centennial’s oldest rider, Holly, 71, aboard her Yamaha Virago 250.
The Sisters’ Centennial’s oldest rider, Holly, 71, aboard her Yamaha Virago 250.Sara Liberte
Sarah SeCCRet Moreau completed her ninth roundtrip motorcycle cross-country route with the Centennial Ride, beating her idol Bessie Stringfield’s count.
Sarah SeCCRet Moreau completed her ninth roundtrip motorcycle cross-country route with the Centennial Ride, beating her idol Bessie Stringfield’s count.Sara Liberte

The route to the next day’s destination, Bryce Canyon National Park, was shorter, which I was thankful for because the previous day’s journey had me moving slowly that morning. As Sandy, Magda, and I made our way toward the town of Bryce, we came on striking red rock formations roadside and later rode through a double-tunnel pass under the red rocks. Bryce Canyon itself was a landscape from another world. Getting up before dawn the next morning, I rode to Sunrise Point and, with a quick hike, viewed the hoodoos as the day’s first light hit them.

Back at the hotel that morning, one of the control riders, Karen Thomson, offered to take me on one of the side trips. Karen owns Avid MotoTours and was one of the lead riders who planned the alternate Centennial Ride routes. We headed toward Escalante on Highway 12, picking up fellow riders Porsche and Ellen at a lookout point along the way. At Hell’s Backbone Grill we joined another group of ladies from the Centennial Ride for lunch in the shade.

Karen led me down Burr Trail into a narrow canyon where red cliffs towered on either side of the creek. The trail went on farther than we had time for—a week would have been just about right—so after a handful of our sister riders caught up with us, we began the return route back to Bryce. The following day we moved on to Ely, Nevada, our stop for the night. The roads straightened out, and the heat hammered down. The town of Ely welcomed us with neon lights and casinos but little fanfare. Entering Nevada meant California wasn’t far, and the end of our trip felt much too close. I joined an impromptu party in my neighboring Sisters’ room with a small crew of other ladies: Beth and Robin, the hilarious duo, Carolyn, Judy, and Magda. Filling my belly with junk food and laughter, I felt so welcomed by these women I’d been riding with all day. I was grieving the beginning of the end of this amazing journey and went down to the bar to join Sandy and Moira Zinn for a few shots of tequila.

The rest of Nevada passed in a flash, almost literally, on the many long, straight stretches of Highway 50, also known as the Loneliest Highway. For a time, Sandy, Moira, and I rode with land speed record-holder Erin Sills and Trevor Richter of RawHyde Adventures. As throttles twisted, we ate up the miles. How ever did Adeline and Augusta survive this part of the country aboard their World War I-era machines? As bleak as the landscape was, it was serene, and Carson City appeared on the horizon all too quickly.

There, many riders joined us for the Sisters’ Centennial Ride’s last leg into California, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and into San Francisco. The last day took us up into the Sierra Nevadas and around the north shore of Lake Tahoe, then onto I-80 for a dash to the Bay. By the time we got to Roseville BMW (just outside Sacramento) for a barbecue lunch hosted by Women Riders Now, the temperature had risen to the 90s. I was looking forward to San Francisco’s mild weather.

In Sacramento we hit terrible traffic, and the heat became exhausting. At one point the fast group I was riding with had to pull over just to hydrate and cool down. We continued to slog through the sluggish stream of cars headed west, riding down into Vallejo where the temperature finally dropped into the 70s, then taking Highway 37 around the north end of the Bay where we merged onto Highway 101, the home stretch.

The ride’s organizer, Alisa Clickenger, leads nearly 200 riders through the hills of San Francisco.
The ride’s organizer, Alisa Clickenger, leads nearly 200 riders through the hills of San Francisco.Sara Liberte
Sarah Van Buren, aboard an Indian Powerplus, like the ones her great-aunts rode across country, and her cousin Sophie Ruderman.
Sarah Van Buren, aboard an Indian Powerplus, like the ones her great-aunts rode across country, and her cousin Sophie Ruderman.Sara Liberte
Fellow GS riders, Trevor Richter, Erin Sills, Sandy Borden, myself, and Moira Zinn.
Fellow GS riders, Trevor Richter, Erin Sills, Sandy Borden, myself, and Moira Zinn.Sara Liberte
Crossing the Golden Gate with 200 riders.
Crossing the Golden Gate with 200 riders.Sara Liberte

We convened at Fort Baker to meet up with the San Francisco Motorcycle Club and any additional riders joining us for the ride across the Golden Gate Bridge. The SFMC is the second-oldest motorcycle club in the country and was originally supposed to meet the Van Buren sisters when they arrived in San Francisco in 1916. But because the sisters were weeks behind schedule, that welcome never took place. Now SFMC members were eager to make up for that. Not only did they meet us at Fort Baker, but they led us on a parade ride through the city.

We gathered for a group photo then began our procession of about 200 riders, merging with traffic onto the Golden Gate Bridge. Looking in my mirror, it was an amazing sight to see so many motorcyclists passing under one red tower, then the next, on a bridge that hadn’t even been built yet when the sisters made their trek a century ago. Over the bridge, we followed the coast past Baker Beach, rounded the point past the Cliff House, and then rode down along Ocean Beach. Members of the SFMC controlled traffic for us, allowing our incredibly long stream of bikes to stick together along the coast and through the city. At the top of one of San Francisco’s many hills, I again looked back in my mirror and saw the line of riders filling the lane behind me, all the way down the hill, and up the other side. It was an incredible sight to see.

Rounding the corner from 16th Street onto Folsom, we arrived at SFMC headquarters. With 200 motorcycles to park, we filled the center lane of the street, minimizing our impact on traffic. This was the end of the ride, and it elicited a mix of emotions. So many ladies were whooping and hollering for the success of their journey, particularly Sarah SeCCRet Moreau—CCR stands for “cross-country rider”—who had just completed her ninth round trip of the country on a motorcycle, beating her idol Bessie Stringfield’s tally. The welcome we received inside the club’s HQ made up for missing the chance to greet the Van Buren sisters all those years ago.

The Sisters’ Centennial Ride honors two young ladies who, a century ago, used motorcycles to deliver the message that women were capable of more than society gave them credit for. In Augusta’s words, “Woman can, if she will.” Later, on the last night of our modern ride, we gathered, ate, drank, and told stories of the thousands of miles we had ridden over the past three weeks. Like the Van Burens, we felt a strong sense of family, brought together by our shared love of motorcycles and the adventures we find aboard them.

The Sisters’ Centennial Ride from Brooklyn to San Francisco covered 15 states and about 5,000 miles, including scenic side routes. I joined the route in Colorado Springs.
The Sisters’ Centennial Ride from Brooklyn to San Francisco covered 15 states and about 5,000 miles, including scenic side routes. I joined the route in Colorado Springs.©Motorcyclist
Sisters Centennial group at Golden Gate Bridge
The group of riders gathers at Fort Baker for a photo before crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, led by the San Francisco Motorcycle Club.Robert Pandya