Monday, March 9, 2015
The Long Walk Home of Lillian Alling
Sometime around 1925, a woman in her 20s emigrated to New York City. In America, she went by the name "Lillian Alling," an anglicized form of her birth name, which may have been "Olejnik." Although her exact origins are uncertain, Cassandra Wyman, who wrote a brief book inspired by Alling's story ("The Woman Who Walked to Russia,") concluded she was probably a displaced Jewish woman from Belorussia.
Alling found her life in America to be a hard one, with the added burden of intense loneliness. She had no family in the country, and her reserved, somewhat prickly nature made it difficult for her to find friends even in the immigrant communities. She was left completely alone to struggle with a series of tedious, low-paying jobs in a loud, bustling city that was frighteningly different from anything she had known.
Before long, she decided she had made a horrible mistake in leaving her native country. She longed to go back to her home, a land that may have been harsh, but at least had the virtue of familiarity. But how could that be done? She knew it would be nearly impossible for her to raise the money for the passage back. She seemed trapped.
But then, this remarkably determined woman had an idea. Studying maps of North America in the New York Public Library, she developed a plan of action: she would walk home.
She traced out a route that would take her from New York to Canada, then across the Yukon Telegraph line to the Bering Sea. From there, she anticipated it would be easy to cross the water and enter Russia.
It was, of course, an utterly daft undertaking, but never underestimate the will of a woman with an itch to get the hell out. One day in 1926, equipped only with a backpack and an iron bar to defend herself against both animal and human predators, she set out for home.
A young woman walking on her own across the continent would be an unusual enough sight today. In the 1920s, it was quite startling enough so that there are numerous eyewitness reports of her incredible trek. She was spotted in Chicago, followed by Minneapolis, then Winnipeg, and finally, in the fall of 1927, Alling was observed making her lonely way in Hazelton, Canada, headed for the Yukon.
At Hazelton, the authorities felt that to allow her to venture into the Yukon with winter approaching would be tantamount to permitting her suicide. For her own safety, the local police arrested her for vagrancy and sentenced her to two months in the county jail. When they searched her small store of belongings, they were aghast to find she carried only three loaves of bread, a bit of tea, twenty dollars cash, and her trusty iron bar.
They hoped this setback would be enough to convince Alling to give up her seemingly impossible quest. They were quite wrong. By spring of 1928, she was again on the road north. Linesmen working along the telegraph trail monitored her astonishingly quick progress--it was estimated that she must have walked an average of thirty miles a day. These men readily gave her what practical aid and moral support they could. She stopped for the winter in Dawson City, where she took on odd jobs and worked on repairing a small, abandoned boat she planned to use for the last leg of her journey. In the spring of 1929, when the ice began to thaw, she set sail in her little vessel, headed down the Yukon River en route to the Bering Sea.
If this story was a Disney movie, it would now end with Alling making a triumphant return to her hometown, where she would be acclaimed as a heroine. She would then find the love and prosperity which had so far eluded her, and settle down to a long, happy life sharing her incredible memories of a one-of-a-kind road trip.
Well, life ain't no Disney movie. Our last certain glimpse of Lillian Alling is of her lonely, valiant figure sailing down the Yukon into who-knows-what waters. We simply are not sure what happened to her after this point. It is said she reached Nome. Some time later, near the Alaska/Siberia border, an Eskimo reportedly saw her pulling a small cart containing her few belongings. She may have been seen making arrangements with Eskimos to take her by boat across the Bering Strait. At any rate, Alaska saw Lillian Alling no more. One researcher, Arthur Elmore, recorded a story he claimed he heard in 1965 from a Russian friend. This Russian told him that 35 years earlier, when he was a boy in the Soviet area of Provideniya, he saw a young woman being taken into custody by local officials. Word was that she had come from America, where she had been badly treated. This Russian source did not know what became of her after that. These reports are all plausible, but unconfirmed.
Was the grueling last leg of her epic trek finally too much for her, leaving her to die alone somewhere in the Yukon wilderness? Even more depressingly, did the Soviets arrest her as a suspicious character and send her off to spend the rest of her days in some gulag? Or did she, against all the odds, make it back to her native town and disappear into a foot-weary obscurity?
We can only hope she had something of a Disney ending, after all. Surely, such courage and hardihood deserved no less.