These are people you have probably never heard of, but they invented the term “adventure touring” long, long before any of us knew that BMW made a GS. Before, in fact, BMW was even making motorcycles!
We’re talking 100 years ago, more or less; blacktop or even “improved” roads were basically non-existent. You think hopping on an Interstate — or even a “Blue Highway” — and riding coast-to-coast is and adventure? Try doing it in 1910 — that’s right — 1910. Two-wheeled transportation was brand new and that coast-to-coast ride meant plowing new trails (literally) on 3.5 horsepower machines with leather belt drive and 28″ wheels.
But wait — that’s not all. Many of these true adventurers were women! In 2012, that should come as no surprise, because we’re (hopefully) enlightened enough to realize the sexes are indeed equal. But 1910? This was a time when there were specific expectations for women:
” ‘Proper’ girls of this time, especially in urban America and Great Britain, spend much of their days in ‘correct’ clothing, engaged in pursuits such as sewing, reading, playing the piano, and other genteel pastimes which guaranteed that they would not get dirty, sunburned or exposed to unsavory persona and behavior’ “.
Grace and Grit: Motorcycle Dispatches From Early Twentieth Century Women by William M. Murphy is a very detailed and well-researched book that describes just how some of these “proper girls” completely smashed any and all of the expected norms of behavior to follow their dream.
Murphy first takes us on a well-documented survey of the U.S. landscape of 1900 to 1920, describing a time that none of us remember or could imagine. Once you were off the cobblestone streets of the big city, even by a few miles, you were riding in the same conditions experienced by the original pioneers on horseback.
This history of American road development is an interesting story in its own right, but it then leads into a discussion of the American “love affair” with the motorcycle. The second half of the book then describes “The Victorian Girls Breaking All the Rules”, including detailed histories of Della Crewe, Effie and Avis Hotchkiss and the Van Buren sisters and their incredible around-America two-wheeled adventures.
Their barrier-breaking stories are very detailed and comprehensive and they basically put to shame any modern-day adventurer with that $20,000+ motorcycle, cell phone and modern conveniences. And these women did it purely for the challenge.
The shock for the modern reader comes from our assumption that we know it all and have done it all, only to discover that our efforts are puny in comparison. Thanks to Arbutus Press and William M. Murphy for bringing these stories to the attention of modern motorcyclists!