I proofed a lot of Across America by Motor-Cycle, by C.K. Shepherd, but from time to time other pesky proofreaders would grab some pages, so I was happy when it was posted to Project Gutenberg and I could at last read the entire book. The author was an Englishman who decided just after World War I to ride “across America by motor-cycle,” going from New York to San Francisco. Not something that would raise too many eyebrows these days, but back then there were very few paved roads. “Ninety-five per cent. or more, however, of America’s highways are dirt roads, or what they are pleased to call ‘Natural Gravel.’ In many cases they comprise merely a much worn trail, and as often as not a pair of ruts worn in the prairie. Very often, instead of being a single pair of ruts, there are five or six or perhaps ten, where individual cars have manifested their own personality. When this multiplicity of ruts crosses and re-crosses in a desperate attempt to achieve the survival of the fittest, the resultant effect on the poor motor-cyclist is somewhat disconcerting.”
Things aren’t much better in the cities: “I have seen places in Broadway where the tram-lines wander six or seven inches above the surface of the road and where the pot-holes would accommodate comfortably quite a family of dead dogs within their depths.”
“There are two classes of roads and two only. They are good roads and bad roads. Any road, anywhere, in the whole of the United States of America (and, I presume, her Colonies as well) is a ‘good’ road if you can ‘get through.’ The remainder are bad.”
Of course these roads were a little rough on his motor-cycle (nicknamed “Lizzie”). He bought it new in New York: “The machine was entirely overhauled on four occasions between the Atlantic and the Pacific, and on three of these by the recognized agents of the manufacturers. The engine cut-out switch was the only part of the machine that did not break, come loose, or go wrong sooner or later. I was thrown off 142 times, and after that I stopped counting! Apart from that I had no trouble.”
Protective gear? “I dispensed entirely with the use of goggles from beginning to end, and except at stops in large towns on the way I wore no hat.” No, they hadn’t heard of helmets back then!
The book describes his journey across country, and makes very entertaining reading, although the author does state, “The journey was comparatively uneventful. I never had to shoot anybody and nobody shot me! In spite of the relative wildness and barrenness of the West, there were always food and petrol available in plenty. I spent most nights at the side of the road and experienced neither rheumatism nor rattlesnakes.”
This post was contributed by rpc, a DP volunteer.