by Dave Weathers
1915 was a year of firsts. The first Charlie Chaplin movie was released in theaters, the first tank was built for use in the first World War, and motorcycling saw the first transcontinental drive across the United States of America by a woman when twenty-six-year-old Effie Hotchkiss drove from her native New York to San Francisco and back again with her mother, Avis, riding along in a sturdy sidecar. In an era of rigid gender expectations, Effie found herself fed up with a dull clerical job and determined to prove that a woman was just as capable as a man. Avis was, in many ways, the complete opposite of her daughter. Where Effie was brash and adventurous, Avis was a gentle homebody, but she insisted on joining Effie to keep an eye on her, hoping that her presence and added weight would be enough to slow down her notorious speed demon of a daughter. And so, one of the oddest pairs in motorcycle history was born.
Effie and Avis Hotchkiss in Salt Lake City? 1915
They set out in May from their home in Brooklyn. Effie drove a Harley-Davidson that she’d bought specifically for the trip using money inherited from her recently deceased father, whom Avis had divorced many years before. They charted a course through the center of the country, averaging 150 miles a day as they passed through Chicago, St. Louis, Santa Fe and the Grand Canyon on their way to Los Angeles. The journey was a rough one, because the highway system was unfinished, particularly in the country’s interior. The pair of women faced oppressive heat on the road, reaching over 120 degrees as they drove through the San Marcos Pass near Santa Barbara. It also became a regular occurrence for the motorcycle to break down, at which point Effie would have to coax her mother out of the sidecar so that she could reach the toolbox stowed there and put her well-honed mechanical skills to work. Sometimes the motorcycle would get so entrenched in a patch of mud that Effie, Avis, and whoever happened to be passing by would have to work together to pull it out. Just outside of Chicago, Effie had to patch five tire punctures and one blowout in a single day. But to the bewilderment of the people she encountered on the road, none of it seemed to deter her in the slightest, although Avis might not quite have shared her daughter’s resolute confidence in the situation.
When they reached California, Effie dipped her front tire into the water and poured out a jar of Atlantic ocean water that she’d carried for the occasion, as it was custom at the time for the rare travelers to make it from coast to coast to join the waters of the two oceans together. Effie and Avis then drove up along the coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco and were received by a raucous crowd at the Harley-Davidson dealership in the city as fans gathered to see the history-making women and the vehicle that had carried them so far. After taking in the sights, Effie mounted her motorcycle and Avis got comfortable in her sidecar to do the whole trip over again in reverse, driving back across the blazing deserts, endless plains, and unfinished roads to return home.
Effie and Avis at the Pacific Ocean 1915
Once back in New York, while Avis was relieved to be off the road, Effie found herself unable to settle back into her former job and life, feeling wistful for the freedom and openness of the West. She began a correspondence with an admirer she’d met on the journey, a man named Guy Johnston. The smitten young man eventually journeyed to New York to meet her, and they were shortly married. Effie quit her job and moved with him to a farm in Oregon accompanied, as ever, by her mother, Avis. They made a life for themselves in the rural farmland, with Effie in particular becoming an able farmhand and proficiently running a general store, while Avis became renowned in the ever growing family for her wonderful cooking and home-making. They lived out the rest of their days on the farm until Avis died in 1958 and Effie died in 1966. Today, over a hundred years later, Effie and Avis Hotchkiss are still remembered as motorcycle pioneers, and riders regularly commemorate their journey by following their path across the United States and back again.