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By Susan VanBoening
“Rise and Ride,” was the mindset 28 women fostered when they set off for a 48-state motorcycle adventure in memory of Bessie Stringfield, the mid-century legend known as “The Motorcycle Queen.”
For the group of women, including Shannon Midgette, St. Louis MEPS test control officer, the idea to take on the cross-country ride came about in late 2019.
Midgette, a retired airman and member of the Bessie Stringfield memorial committee, was approached by another committee member on ideas to keep the memory alive of Stringfield. “Bessie Bells,” as the group was known, had previously taken motorcycle adventures to as far away as Florida and Wisconsin, but nothing as significant as this endeavor. Midgette knew her feeling about the ride right from the start.
“I immediately bought in,” said Midgette. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it but I bought in.
Midgette and the other organizers knew the preparation for this ride differed from the eight other annual rides they’ve hosted. The distance would be long and battering on both mind and body, and bikes needed to be able to take significant wear and tear.
The goal also had an ambitious time window; 48 states in eight days. Vetting other riders’ skills and assessing cohesion was necessary for the trip’s success. Interest in participation came from far and wide. Female doctors, attorneys and teachers applied from Florida, California and New York.
“We had about 10 ladies on the planning committee for this ride,” she said. “We had to think about everything that would matter in making this successful. Riding experience, commitment to being safe, motivation and inspiration to complete the ride.”
For the ride to be done as quickly as possible, the group needed to meet in the same start location. After months of planning, Midgette left Illinois on July 1, 2021, and headed to Maine. In the planning phase, her group consisted of six riders. However, there were obstacles even before the start. One member was hit by a car en route to Maine. She survived with minimal injuries, but her bike was unserviceable. Others experienced mechanical issues on their way to the starting point.
Riders trickled in on July 3 and 4 and the event officially kicked off in the early hours of July 5. Broken up into eight groups, with anywhere between four to eight riders per group, departures were staggered 30 minutes apart. Spacing bikers decreased traffic hazards and increased efficiency when refueling.
By the end of day one, the first group covered 15 states and ended in Ohio. Then they covered 800-1,000 miles a day for the next four days. Strategic planning paid off for the riders. They took the most efficient routes, which didn’t always include interstate highways, and secondary roads, to cross the most land in the shortest time.
There were shared laughs at gas stops and amazement of the sights in transit along the way. Gas receipts were kept and submitted to the Iron Butt Association to prove that the riders were actually in each state. The 75,000-plus-member motorcycle club verifies fuel receipts, which allowed the ladies to be recognized for this cross-country undertaking.
There was little downtime because of the narrow eight-day window to complete the trip from Maine to Washington State. Time spent in hotel rooms was short and sweet, just enough to shower and grab some sleep.
“For the ladies on track to make the trip in eight days, we weren’t in the hotel for more than four hours a night,” she said.
For Midgette, things were smooth sailing until she got to Arizona. The temperature was hovering at 100 degrees, typical for Arizona in July, and while on her 2016 Road God Special Harley, the clutch suddenly went out. In the middle of traffic, squished between cars and 18-wheelers, she was finally able to downshift and get off to the side of the road, eventually making it to a gas station.
Much like Stringfield’s obstacles as a woman traveling alone cross-country, Midgette suddenly became her own mechanic. She called friends to seek advice and tried to call local repair shops looking for a clutch to continue the ride. None of the parts were available. However, Midgette didn’t panic; a modern-day motorcycle queen, she knew exactly what to do.
“I waited a little bit,” she said. “I let the bike cool off and checked the fluids to make sure everything was okay. It was just hot and my bike was taking a beating.”
She continued on to Las Vegas the same day and into California, where temperatures hit 120 degrees. The trip north through California, Oregon, and Washington was a welcome relief. They embraced the cooler temperatures and relished their major accomplishment at the finish line, in honor of the legend, Bessie Stringfield.
“When we rolled in that last night in Washington, we were so excited,” she said. “There were tears, dancing, laughter … everybody was really tired but we were so excited to make eight days.”
Some riders were behind the leading pack but eventually pulled into the final destination on day nine. The group of women from different states, backgrounds and occupations all shared the same battle anthem no matter what order they fell into at the finish line.
“Whenever we get together we always say ‘I am Bessie’ because we feel her with us and what she did as a black woman,” she said. “We ride in her memory and honor.”