Ruth Orkin bicycle trip featured in Adventure Cyclist


Ruth Orkin, age 17 in 1939 on bicycle trip across the country.

Excerpt from article below:

Ruth Orkin left Los Angeles, alone, at the age of 17, to visit the World’s Fair in New York City in 1939. She traveled by car and train over the long stretches and stayed in youth hostels and people’s homes. Her experiences must have had a profound effect on her life and career as she went to Europe after the war and became famous for her fine photographs with the well-known “American Girl in Italy” taken in 1951. Not surprisingly, that photo was part of a series originally titled “Don’t be Afraid to Travel Alone.” Clearly, she wasn’t!

The bicycle craze of the 1890s went out of fashion quickly and Americans at the dawn of the 20th century were fascinated by all things motorized. Moving pictures, airplanes, motorcycles, and early automobile trips across the continent captured the public’s imagination. The hip factor was gone for cycling and it received scant attention in the press — except for cyclists injured by streetcars. Cyclists who undertook continental journeys were viewed as “eccentric

travelers,” essentially the same as those walking or pushing  eelbarrows across the continent. John Burns rode from New York to the San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exposition in 1915 and along the way he visited the Reno Gazette office in Nevada where reporters were surprised he “wasn’t walking coast to coast for a $20,000 purse and wasn’t selling postcards.” Well, he was selling postcards (like the one in this month’s cover photo), as did many travelers to help cover their expenses. Photo postcards provide a wealth of information about many of the early transcontinental cyclists, as well as occasional short articles in local newspapers. Foreign around-the-world cyclists received more press attention, and the Boston Globe ran a long article with a photo of Quichi anaka on his arrival in that city in 1915. Other Japanese, Indian, and European cyclists also crossed America on their world journeys during this era.

Most cyclists were content to pedal across the continent in obscurity, but a few devised clever methods to gain attention. Tony Pizzo rode from Los Angeles chained to his bike, and when he reached New York claimed he wouldn’t do it again for a million dollars. But the stunt was rather profitable, so he rode across twice more! Claude Murphey and Clarence Darling (featured in the May 2012 Adventure Cyclist article “1904: Around the United States by Bicycle”) rode a convoluted route through every continental state and territory in 1904-05 selling aluminum trays with photos of themselves along the way. Bicycling came back into favor briefly during the Depression for obvious economic reasons. During that decade, a number of cyclists pulled trailers across America and James Fagg was on the road for three years with a well-designed home on wheels. Jim and Elisabeth Young rode a bicycle built for two in 1938 and attracted attention riding a machine that was a visual throwback to the 1890s, although it was actually a modern three-speed English tandem. Because of gas rationing, the years during World War II saw an increase in general cycling, but there wasn’t much transcontinental travel. Margaret Stovall cycled across in 1944 and was likely the first woman to take on that challenge alone.

Ruth Orkin traveled across with a bike in 1937, but she mostly traveled by train and car. Annie Londonderry (featured in the June 2013 issue’s “The Machine that Set Women Free”) was famous for her around-the-world exploits in the 1890s, but also traveled by train and did not ride alone as she claimed. Norma Jean Belloff, whose ride is the best documented of that era in the book Once Upon a Chariot, left San Diego in 1947 for a leisurely trip across and set a record of 53 days on her return ride the following year. These women were pioneers, but other than a few stories in local papers never received the recognition they deserved because cycling was so out of favor. So bicycle use in America was essentially in hibernation for the first half of the 20th century. Most of the bikes manufactured were heavy, designed to look like motorcycles, and made for children. Without question free spirits were traveling by bicycle, but there was little evidence a revival of cycling in America was just over the horizon.

-John Weiss

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