There’s no car camping hall of fame, but if there were, Alice Huyler Ramsey would be a shoo-in inductee. In 1909, over a decade before women were allowed to vote, then 22-year-old Ramsey made history by becoming the first woman to road trip across the United States. Her route, which we’ll re-create and riff on below in classic Luno fashion, took her from New York to San Francisco over the course of two months.
Ramsey was relatively new to driving at the time–the car had only been invented a few decades prior, after all–although it had quickly become apparent that she was a natural behind the wheel. Her husband, John Ramsey, actually disliked driving, but he gifted his young wife a windshield-less two-seater Maxwell Runabout after an automobile spooked the horse she was riding. After a couple of lessons at the dealership, she got the hang of driving the “horseless carriage.” In one summer, she put over 6,000 miles on the odometer exploring the country roads of New Jersey’s Monmouth County outside of her home in Ashbury Park. According to Dr. Parkin, a Professor of History at Monmouth University who’s written extensively on the subject, Ramsey was such a natural that she entered races, including a two-day race to Montauk, which she absolutely crushed, catching the eye of a Maxwell sales manager and automobile engineer, Cadwallader "Carl" Kelsey.
Most women weren’t driving at the time, and Kelsey saw in Ramsey a unique marketing opportunity. At Kelsey’s prodding, Maxwell offered to sponsor a cross-country road trip, and Ramsey accepted. Maxwell outfitted Ramsey and her three female companions (two older sisters-in-law and a younger friend, none of whom got behind the wheel) with a larger state-of-the-art touring car for the cross-country adventure. With Ramsey piloting the new, forest-green, four-cylinder Maxwell 1909 DA, the four women disembarked from New York on June 9th, 1909.
Their route to San Francisco was roundabout and rife with speed bumps. First off, paved roads were in short supply–only 152 miles of the 3,800-mile road trip were paved. If 3,800 miles seems lengthy, that’s because it was. According to Google Maps, such a route should clock in sub-3000 miles. But of course, roadways weren’t nearly as direct or well-mapped as they are now, and Ramsey and co. navigated by occasionally outdated Blue Book guidebooks and AAA maps. They often made wrong turns, hit dead ends, and re-traced their steps. Sometimes, according to Ramsey, who later chronicled the adventure in her memoir Veil, Duster, and Tire Iron, they simply followed the telephone poles that sported the most wires, figuring they would eventually lead to a town.
There were the inevitable mechanicals, too, that all road trippers fear to this day, including a dozen flat tires. They ran out of gas, overheated the radiator, and stopped in Syracuse to replace a coil. Ramsey had learned how to handle basic mechanics, and a Maxwell pilot car accompanied the team for much of the journey, assisting in times of need. Still, there were events that neither Ramsey nor her sponsor could’ve foreseen–events that seemed stranger than fiction. “They slept in the car when it got stuck in the mud, passed by a manhunt for a serial killer in Nebraska, got bedbugs from a Wyoming hotel, and were surrounded by a Native American hunting party, bows drawn, in Nevada,” according to a story on the historic trip in Roadtrippers Magazine.
Due to mechanical troubles, muddy and mangled midwestern roads, an illness befalling one of her companions, and a top speed of 42 miles per hour, a trip Ramsey approximated would take one month took nearly double. They arrived in San Francisco on August 7, 1909, to fanfare and a congratulatory albeit sexist and sentiment-revealing headline from the San Francisco Chronicle: “Pretty Women Motorists Arrive After Trip Across The Continent.”
Despite the misadventures, the trip only affirmed Ramsey’s love of the open road. After she returned home to the east coast, she would go on to drive cross-country a whopping 30+ times. According to Smithsonian Magazine, Ramsey was named the “First Lady of Automotive Travel” by the Automotive Manufacturer’s Association in 1960. The following year, she published her memoirs, and, per the Smithsonian, “later drove five of the six passes of the Swiss Alps, giving up the last under doctor’s orders regarding her pacemaker.” An icon of the road, Ramsey lived a long and full life, passing in 1983.
Like we said earlier, if there were a car camping hall of fame, Ramsey would be in it. Unfortunately, there’s no such establishment, at least not yet, although the legendary motorist was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 2000.
10 Cross-Country Pitstops: A Guide to Recreating Ramsey’s Epic Road Trip
Ramsey had it tough, and road-tripping these days is a breeze in comparison. We have GPS on our phones; paved roads, gas stations, and mechanics damn near everywhere; and cars with suspension, air conditioning, stereo systems, and top speeds just a bit above 42 mph. Not only that, but we’ve got Luno air mattresses and accessories that make life on the road exceptionally comfortable.
Still, to this day, there’s a special kind of magic to a cross-country road trip. Just in case you’re interested in re-creating Ramsey’s coast-to-coast expedition (or at least daydreaming about doing so), we pulled together a few notable pitstops from Ramsey’s itinerary below. These pitstops were detailed in A Reliable Car and A Woman Who Knows It by Curt McConnell–worth reading if you’re looking to learn more on the subject–and for each pitstop, we included a tip or two about what we’d do there.
Ramsey’s first stop outside of NYC, Poughkeepsie is due north from the Big Apple on the east bank of the Hudson. If you swing through, check out the Walkway Over the Hudson. There’s also a fair share of outdoor recreation to be had, with excellent road biking (think winding country roads), hiking trails, golf, fishing, and more.
Ohio doesn’t rank particularly high on most road trippers’ bucket lists, but sometimes those low-expectation pitstops yield the highest reward. Our advice? Check out the 60-acre botanic gardens, camp at Maumee Bay State Park, and bask on the banks of Lake Erie.
Another stop that’s not a top destination for car camping: Chicago, Illinois. If you’re in the heart of the city, try going for a run on the Riverwalk (early morning is best, before it gets too crowded) or climbing in Maggie Daley Park. Looking for a quieter place to camp? Ditch the city and head out to nearby Indiana Dunes National Park.
Cedar Rapids, IA
Whether you’re a leisurely walker, a runner, or a cyclist, checking out the Cedar River Trail is a must. A well-maintained 12.6-mile trail that meanders through downtown Cedar Rapids, it’s a rad example of purposefully integrating nature into urban planning. Connect it with the Cedar Valley Nature Trail for a longer route.
Car campers start to get a little more familiar with Ramsey’s route once you hit Wyoming. Cheyenne’s most famous for its rootin’-tootin’ rodeo fest, Frontier Days, which goes down for the 127th time from July 21st to 30th. But there’s more to the town than that: it’s a gateway to unreal outdoor adventures, from climbing in Vedauwoo to fishing the alpine lakes and crystal clear streams of Medicine Bow National Forest.
Rawlins is another classic pitstop on the cross-country road trip. The town is small, but like Cheyenne, it’s an excellent launch point for adventure. Case in point: Seminoe State Park. Not only is it a picturesque place to camp, but there’s everything from fishing and horseback riding to hiking and biking.
Salt Lake City, UT
Utah’s major metro is a gateway to the Wasatch, one of our favorite mountain ranges on the planet. Why? The world-class skiing would be enough, but the biking, fishing, and climbing in the summer are pretty special, too. While the Wasatch is notorious for its crowds–that radical reputation isn’t a secret–if you’re willing to drive a little further, the Uintas are an idyllic car camping destination, too. If you’ve got time, head south and check out the Mighty 5 National Parks, which include Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion.
Ely is located about halfway between Salt Lake City and Las Vegas–in other words, it’s in the middle of nowhere. It is, however, a stepping stone for adventures in the incredibly stunning and underrated Great Basin National Park.
Also known as “The Biggest Little City In The World,” Reno is weird–and we mean that as a compliment. Whether you’re picking up supplies before heading to Burning Man, hitting the tables at the casinos, launching a shred trip to Tahoe, heading south to scramble through the majestic Eastern Sierras, or checking out local breweries, Reno has adventure on tap.
San Francisco, CA
Funny how one of the hilliest cities in the United States was the last stop in Ramsey’s cross-country road trip–her tired Maxwell must’ve been in dire straits on those fabled hills. We’re big fans of this section of the California coast, whether we’re cruising through Big Sur, surfing in Santa Cruz, exploring the bay, or venturing north to check out the redwoods. A fitting place to end–or start–any road trip.
No Matter Your Destination, Take A Leaf Out of Ramsey’s Book
One of many striking aspects of Ramsey’s story was that after her publicized voyage from New York to San Francisco, she quietly road-tripped across the country another 30+ times. Clearly, she wasn’t in it for the fame–she simply loved life on the road. And that’s pretty freakin’ rad. Whether you’re planning your own cross-country trip or thinking about a weekend expedition in your backyard, we hope Ramsey’s passion inspires you to get out there, explore, and embrace adventure.
Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you on the road,
The Luno Crew
PS. Need road trip ideas? We pulled together 10 of our team’s all-time favorite road trips here. Want to learn more about how to car camp for free? Check out our comprehensive guide to free car camping here.
Photos from Smithsonian Magazine, Library of Congress, Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library