ADV:Overland celebrates the spirit of adventure and exploration. Our Petersen Museum exhibit runs from July 2021 – April 2022.  These are the stories behind the vehicles in the exhibit, and others we need to tell because they are amazing, like this nearly forgotten story of a pioneering naturalist making his way across the USA in 1915.

The rusting remains of an old motorcycle on the edge of a Vancouver Island property stirred rumors for years.  Nobody could prove it, but they might be the bones of Barking Betsy, a machine at the heart of a story lost for a century.

Checking the map: a mere suggestion of the possible routes in an era where no roads existed west of Illinois. Hamilton Mack Laing on Barking Betsey in 1915.

In 1915, Hamilton Mack Laing rode his Model 11-F Harley-Davidson, nicknamed Barking Betsy, from New York to San Francisco to see the Panama Pacific International Exposition, carrying on northward to Portland.  Over the winter of 1915, Laing used his handwritten notes gathered on his journey to produce a manuscript, but waited until 1922 to send his 148-page story to Harley-Davidson, thinking they might serialize the tale of his epic journey in The Enthusiast magazine.  Perhaps his story was too old by then, as Laing’s article went unpublished, and his story forgotten.

More than 100 years later, Vancouver-based author and motorcycle travel writer Trevor Marc Hughes learned of a manuscript resting in the British Columbia Provincial Archives in Victoria. Realizing the significance of the story, he worked with publisher Ronsdale Press to bring Laing’s story back to life. Better late than never, Riding the Continent was released in the fall of 2019.

Barking Betsey made an ideal mobile birdwatching platform for Laing the naturalist. [Richard Mackie]
Although not the first person to make a transcontinental motorcycle trip, Laing was among the first to write a book about the journey – had it been published. In 1903, George A. Wyman rode his 1902 California motor-bicycle from San Francisco to New York, and he wrote a series of stories that appeared in The Motorcycle Magazine [Note: Wyman’s story is part of our ADV:Overland exhibit at the Petersen Museum]. And, in 1919 Captain C.K. Shepherd rode a Henderson Four from New York to San Francisco and recounted the adventure in his 1922 book, Across America by Motor-Cycle. Neither of their tales would have a naturalist’s viewpoint as did Laing’s, though.

“Laing loved birds,” Trevor Marc Hughes says, “he got to know birds at a very early age, and he eventually saw the motorcycle as an ideal way to get out into nature because it was accessible and affordable. It wasn’t on rails, and it wasn’t the conglomeration of the automobile. He could just get out there, shut off the engine, and listen to the birds.” Laing was born in 1883 in Ontario, Canada but was raised on the family farm in southern Manitoba. He spent long days, essentially working as the ‘warden’ for the operation. Laing became a sharp marksman fending off natural predators with a rifle and learning to confidently recognize birds by sight and song. A teacher by 17, Laing taught at several area schools, and from 1908 to 1911, was principal of Oakwood Intermediate School. While teaching, he took a National Press Association correspondence course and wrote his first freelance story for the New York Tribune. In 1907, he bought a 4 x 5″ glass-plate Kodak camera to photograph wildlife.

Hamilton Mack Laing attending his 1915 Harley-Davidson 11-F beneath a Locust tree in Pennsylvania. [British Columbia Archives]
Looking for a change, in 1911 he gave up his principalship and attended design and art school at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. He supported himself writing, illustrating, and photographing stories for the likes of Recreation, Outing, Field and Stream, Country Life in America, and Tall Timber magazines. In 1913, Outing Publishing Company compiled Laing’s stories into a book called Out with the Birds. Remuneration for his writing was good, so much so that in 1914, when in his early 30s, Laing bought his first Harley-Davidson, a 978cc Model 10-F. That summer, he rode the machine, nicknamed Flying Maria, back home to Manitoba. He liked to spend the warm months at an Oak Lake camp he dubbed Heart’s Desire. This riding adventure was written up and published in the summer 1915 edition of Outing magazine as “Gipsying on a Motorcycle: How a Greenhorn Rode from New York to Winnipeg and Enjoyed the Whole Way”. By 1915, he’d given Flying Maria to his brother, Jim, and bought a brand new Model 11-F that he called Barking Betsy. Most importantly, he’d invented a new title for himself, that of Motorcycle-Naturalist, and decided to embark on his cross-country sojourn.

After his epic 1915 cross-continental ride, Laing joined the Royal Flying Corps in Canada in 1917 to become a gunnery instructor.  After the war he became a renowned naturalist, traveling the western and northern regions of Canada as a natural history specialist, working with the likes of the Smithsonian Institution and National Museum of Canada. He also sailed to Kamachatka and Japan on the HMCS Thiepval. His remarkable life was documented by B.C. historian Richard Mackie, who catalogued Laing’s papers after his death in 1982. Mackie’s book, Hamilton Mack Laing: Hunter-Naturalist was published in 1985. In that book, Mackie could only dedicate two paragraphs to the remarkable unpublished manuscript Laing had left behind.

Laing at the Continental Divide on the summit of the Rocky Mountains. [British Columbia Archive]
Enter Trevor Marc Hughes. Like Laing, his interest in motorcycles began at a later age. After graduating from Simon Fraser University’s School of Communication, Trevor was in his late 20s when he bought a Yamaha Seca 400. He rode that while freelancing for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and then stored it while he moved to London for a year to work with the BBC. There, he became fascinated by the motorcycle courier culture, but when he returned to Canada, he sold the Yamaha and focused on raising his young son. In 2008, he got back into motorcycling and picked up a 2003 Kawasaki KLR 650. “I did a ride up and down Vancouver Island,” he says, and continues, “it was probably the longest ride I’d ever done, and the biggest appeal was getting off on my own and getting to places off the beaten path where I could shut off the engine and just ‘be there.’”

In 2012 he rode another KLR 650 all over B.C. and wrote a book called Nearly 40 on the 37, a tale about the Stewart-Cassiar Highway, or Highway 37. He describes the road, the communities, and the people who live in the remote northern regions of the province – topics that don’t get much attention. Other B.C. travel adventures aboard motorcycles followed, and Trevor wrote another book, Zero Avenue to Peace Park. This is a tale of riding the highway that closely follows the 49th Parallel and the Canadian/American border.

Laing picnics with Barking Betsy in 1915, somewhere in North America. [Richard Mackie]
As a freelance writer, Trevor had submitted a book review to Richard Mackie, editor of The Ormsby Review. From their website, “The Ormsby Review is a lively and inclusive Vancouver-based online journal devoted to the literature, arts, culture, and society of British Columbia. We find BC reviewers to review books written by BC writers or concerning BC topics.” In Trevor’s bio that went with his review, he mentioned his love of motorcycles. “After that, Richard said to me, ‘I think there’s something you’d like to read’ and pointed me in the direction of Laing’s papers in the B.C. Archives.” In 2018, Trevor, who was raised in Victoria but now resides in Vancouver, returned to his home city, and held in his hands for the first time Laing’s languishing manuscript.

“First of all, I was overwhelmed by the sense of how long these pages had been in existence,” Trevor explains. “And then, holding the actual handwritten journals that Laing kept in his panniers while crossing the country – the feeling of the time it all comes from is quite special and it’s a very cool experience.” But technology has changed our lives, and using his iPhone, Trevor photographed every page of Laing’s manuscript. Returning home to his computer, Trevor began transcribing and editing Laing’s work. He sent pitches to a few publishers, and the first to respond favorably was Ron Hatch of B.C.’s  Ronsdale Press, ‘a literary press specializing in Canadian poetry, fiction, belles lettres and children’s literature’. And now, a pioneering motorcyclist’s story of crossing North America in 1915.

In 1917, Laing owned a third Harley-Davidson V-twin, a Model J, the last motorcycle he owned before moving to Vancouver Island and giving up personal mechanized transport entirely.

In his book, Laing wrote of his 1915 Harley-Davidson, “We were off. I say ‘we’ for always I feel that the machine Betsy is more than an inanimate steed; rather a partner, a comrade of the Road, alive, and yet somehow, too, a part of me. I always address her in the feminine. In spite of her gruff voice she has very feminine traits. Anyway, it is far more poetical to call her Betsy than Bill. If she had not been christened Betsy then it must have been some other sweet and euphonious female name. I confess it came near being Growling Gertrude.”

When Laing and his brother Jim met on Berthous Pass after climbing the Rockies. [British Columbia Archives]
Riding the Continent is not divided by chapter, rather ‘Meter’ readings, or the mileage Laing had traveled each day as he crossed the U.S.A., from New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California. In Nebraska, he met his brother Jim, who’d ridden Flying Maria down from Manitoba. The two traveled westward together from there, and picked up a third traveling companion in the West when fellow Harley-Davidson rider ‘Tan’ joined the adventure. “Laing wanted to get away from people, and leave New York after being there for four years,” Trevor says. “What’s interesting in the book, though, are his moments of discovery, from the descriptions of bird and natural life to the times when he did meet people and some of the friendships and insights he learned on the road.” Here’s a sample:

“At Moline a brother rider picked me up and led me at a furious pace to Davenport. He was a road-burner, I was not. But as he had volunteered to pilot me out of the next city I tried to keep him in sight. He could not understand why I would wish to stop on the long bridge and take off my dusty cap in silent homage to the great Mississippi, the Father of Waters. To him I think this huge aorta of a vast continent was doubtless at its best but a muddy old river. For, with most of us, familiarity and contempt are two little sisters walking hand in hand.”

Laing rode for a short while in the Midwest with a motorcyclist he nicknamed Texas. On one of the roads they traveled, Laing recalled, “The running was much better that we spun along rapidly, and once I spun where I should not have. A little wet patch on the road scarce bigger than a tabletop was deemed too insignificant to be worth dodging, although Texas who was leading deemed it so, and I picked myself up from the side of the grade where Betsy prone on her side had dug a furrow with her foot-boards and her face. That mud patch was alkali! My comrade ahead heard the rumpus and came back, and after we got Betsy on her feet and the half-dried mud detached from parts of her, also got the handlebars straightened, she was ready again. But she had a new dreadful appearance. There was not more than a square inch of glass in the lamp and it was knocked awry and jammed and battered shockingly. Texas who was an authority on cyclones said we had the appearance of having weathered a good one.”

A hand-written diary entry from Laing’s 1915 trip, using the date and ‘meter’ (distance traveled) as chapter heading. [Trevor Marc Hughes]
Laing’s feathered friends are prominent throughout. At Meter 1842, for example, Laing described the morning like this, “There was a sunrise of marvelous color-loveliness to greet us at dawn. It was a plainsland day birth where all the sky is in sight and the clouds to the east and west and north and south all catch the tints of morning holding them suspended for awhile. And the world of sound was as harmonious as was that of color. Here we heard the first real singing of the lark buntings. The black and white males were very full of dawn song and the species was abundant. They filled earth and air with a tinkling, rippling, sylph-like chorus that seemed to come from everywhere, yet from no spot in particular.”

Trevor Marc Hughes and his BMW F650GS, which led to his discovery of the Laing diaries. [Trevor Marc Hughes]
What’s interesting to learn in Trevor’s afterword, is although Laing bought one more Harley-Davidson, a 1917 J Model, he soon gave up riding to focus on his expeditionary work. He also soon realized mechanized progress was degrading the environment. Laing lived for decades in Comox, B.C., on Vancouver Island. There, he’d not have a vehicle at all. “He would become what we would now term an environmentalist,” Trevor says. It’s not known if any of his motorcycles survived, and those rumored rusted remains of Barking Betsy will never be verified. But thankfully, Laing’s book survived and has been given the life it deserved. Riding the Continent is an enriching read, and it’s available from


Greg Williams is a motorcycle writer and publisher based in Calgary who contributes the Pulp Non-Fiction column to The Antique Motorcycle and regular feature stories to Motorcycle Classics. He is proud to reprint the Second and Seventh Editions of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics series. Follow him on IG: @modernmotorcyclemechanics
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