In May 1903, George A. Wyman left San Francisco with the then-crazy idea of riding his motorcycle all the way to New York City.
In the Beginning
I stand at the intersection of Market and Kearny Streets in San Francisco. Tall buildings block the sun and reflect the noise of the city back onto the pavement while tourists and businesspeople scurry about until the little red hand icon tells them to stop, whereupon they stand at the curb and stare at their phones. I am invisible to the preoccupied masses as I admire Lotta’s Fountain, a 24-foot-tall cast iron relic from the 19th century. This fountain has born witness to plenty of history, from soldiers returning home from war to athletes celebrating championships. And in 1903, a 26-year-old fellow by the name of George A. Wyman mounted his newfangled motor bicycle and left Lotta’s Fountain with the idea of riding across the country.
From Kerouac’s On the Road to Fonda’s Easy Rider, the cross-country road trip is a quintessential piece of Americana, a right of passage, a promise of adventure with memories to last a lifetime. It wasn’t always like this. At the dawn of the internal combustion age, the idea of crossing the country in a gasoline-powered vehicle was little more than folly. J.D. Davis and his wife attempted to drive from New York to San Francisco in 1899 in a Duryea, the first American car. They failed. And in 1901, pioneering automaker Alexander Winton attempted to drive one of his own cars from California to New York. The deserts of Nevada and Utah stopped him in his tracks.
The greatest challenge facing those early cross-country attempts was the roads. Simply put, there weren’t any. In 1900, there were fewer than 200 miles of paved roads in the entire country. The rest were poorly maintained dirt roads that turned into mud bogs at the first sign of rain.
A member of the Bay City Wheelmen bicycle racing club, Wyman had ridden his 200cc and 1.25-horsepower California motorcycle—basically a bicycle with a motor attached—to a club race in Reno, NV, a year earlier, so he had some sense of the challenge ahead of him. He wrote that “crossing the Sierras, even when helped by a motor, was not exactly a path of roses.” His team lost but the ride gave him an idea.
So, on May 16, 1903, Wyman shoved off from Lotta’s Fountain and entered the flow of streetcars, horse-drawn carriages, pedestrians, and automobiles with the intent of not stopping until he arrived in New York City. Over 100 years later I followed Wyman’s tire tracks on a Zero DSR electric motorcycle, hoping to find traces of his journey.
Across the Fertile Valley
“It is just three miles from the corner of Market and Kearney streets, San Francisco, to the boat that steams to Vallejo, California, and, leaving the corner formed by those streets at 2:30 o’clock on the bright afternoon of May 16, less than two hours later I had passed through the Golden Gate and was in Vallejo …”
—George A. Wyman, “Across America on a Motor Bicycle”
It’s a passenger ferry these days, so I take the Bay Bridge to the East Bay and make my way to Vallejo. Once there, I charge at city hall and head to the ferry terminal hoping to find something from Wyman’s time. No luck—everything is too new. I get back on the road and climb soft hills the color of straw.
Motorcycle & Gear
“For thirteen miles out of Vallejo the road was a succession of land waves; one steep hill succeeded by another, but the motor was working like clockwork and covered the distance in but a few moments over the hour, and in the face of a wind the force of which was constantly increasing. The further I went the harder blew the wind. Finally it actually blew the motor to a standstill—I promptly dismounted and broke off the muffler. The added power proved equal to the emergency, and the wind ceased to worry.”
The land flattens and the sky grows as I enter the fertile Central Valley. Wyman rode alongside peach, pear, and almond orchards and had to deal with roads flooded by the spring thaw. I ride on I-80, the main corridor between the Bay Area and the state’s capital. It is straight, busy, and hot, and it saps my energy. I caffeinate at a donut shop and press onward.