Lillian Alling: The Woman Who Walked to Russia

In 1927, a woman named Lillian Alling supposedly began traveling from New York City to Russia by foot and by boat with her only friend, a stuffed Tahltan Bear Dog.

Alaska

In the spring of 1929, Lillian bought a rowboat with her hospital earnings, put it in the Yukon River, and began paddling west toward Alaska.

Photo By Fotolia/Galyna Andrushko

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In Hiking to Siberia (sunnyoutside, 2012), Lawrence Millman follows the trail of a woman who once tried to walk (and row) from New York City to Siberia. He also gets a ride from an apparent ghost in Iceland and attends a feast in Micronesia where the pièce de résistance is fruit bat penis. This stylish, often very funny collection of essays affirms Millman's place among the very best living travel writers. In the following excerpt from chapter 1, “Hiking to Siberia,” Millman hunts for clues concerning the Mystery Woman, Lillian Alling. 

One day in 1927, a thirty-year-old woman walked out of New York City, continued walking to Buffalo, crossed into Canada and then hiked all the way to Hazelton, British Columbia. To any question that came her way, she would reply in a heavy Russian accent: “I go to Siberia.” 

Wherever she went, this woman—whose anglicized name was Lillian Alling—inspired speculation. “Writes novels or perhaps a criminal,” observed one person who met her. Others thought she might be the Russian czar’s last daughter returning to her homeland on the cheap. “On the cheap” is at least correct: during much of her journey, Lillian wore a pair of mismatched men’s shoes and carried a lightweight shoulder bag that seemed hardly any bigger than a pocketbook. In fact, it may have been a pocketbook. She also carried a wrench for protection against bears as well as men.

The next spring, Lillian set out for the Yukon—the place where I first heard about her. An old prospector named Jack Goulding told me that he’d met her almost seventy years earlier. Or tried to meet her. In response to his offer of help, she frowned at him and just walked on. Hardly anyone paid much attention to her, he told me, because “folks used to walk in those days.” Another oldtimer disagreed. He said plenty of Yukoners took notice of Lillian because, as he put it, “she was completely wacky.” His evidence for this: she was a woman traveling alone.

The more I heard about Lillian, the more intrigued I became, and at last I decided to write a book about her journey, which struck me as being both remarkable and “wacky.” To cite just one example: she hiked the entire 330 miles of the Yukon Telegraph Trail, a formidable slog for an experienced hiker, but several notches above formidable for a lone woman seemingly unequipped for anything more daunting than a stroll in an urban park. That this woman does not look particularly robust in the few known photographs of her makes her achievement all the more remarkable, or perhaps all the more wacky.

For my book, I decided to follow in Lillian’s footsteps wherever possible, so I set out to hike at least a portion of the Yukon Telegraph Trail myself. Unfortunately, it was no longer a trail by this time, and I soon found myself plodding through a boreal hell composed of muskeg, virtually impenetrable undergrowth, and devil’s club, a plant armed with cat-claw spines. I was under constant assault by horse flies and mosquitoes, which seemed to work in tandem with each other. Here and there I saw skeins of old telegraph wire, and at one point I encountered a moose skeleton wrapped in wire like a mummy. The poor animal had gotten tangled up in the wire, and in trying to escape, had gotten even more tangled up in it, dying, I could only hope, quickly.

After five very unpleasant days, I gave up. But Lillian did not give up. She hiked on, sometimes staying with the telegraph linemen, who fed and clothed her, and in one instance, even died for her. Scotty Ogilvie was scouting out the trail for her when he slipped and fell into the Ningunsaw River. Due to heavy rains, the river was raging, and he ended up drowning. A short while later, the river returned to its former low level. Seeing it at this level, Lillian said: “How can a man drown in a dry creek? He must have been very stupid.”

A thoughtless remark, but hardly a surprising one. For Lillian had only one thing on her mind, and that was her journey. Human sympathy had no place in this journey, nor did humans themselves. When she reached Atlin, a town at the end of the telegraph trail, she was carrying the hide of a dog stuffed with grass. One of the lineman had given her a Tahltan bear dog as a pack animal. Somehow the dog had died, and Lillian stuffed it. “He’s my only friend, and he’ll always be with me,” she remarked of the dog.

A preference for stuffed animals over unstuffed people suggests that her emotional development may have been somewhat stunted. A Tlingit woman in Atlin more or less confirmed this for me. As a young girl, she had met Lillian when the solitary hiker was passing through town.

“What did she say?” I asked excitedly.

“Oh, she didn’t say anything,” the woman told me. “She just sat down and played dolls with me.”

Lillian’s journey took her to the Yukon town of Whitehorse, where she spent the night of August 28, 1928 in a cheap hotel. The next day, she began walking to Dawson City, with only a small loaf of bread for the 325- mile trip. By now, the territory’s newspapers were posting brief articles about the person they called “The Mystery Woman.” On October 5, she reached Dawson, where she decided to spend the winter. Shortly after she arrived, she got a job as a domestic servant at St. Paul's, a church-run hostel for orphan and part-Native children.

In 2002, I located a ninety-five-year-old nun who’d worked with Lillian at St. Paul’s, and I asked her what she remembered about the so-called Mystery Woman. Sister Anne-Marie paused for a moment, then said: “She was always stealing sugar from the hospital pantry.”

A typically Russian obsession with sweets? Fuel for the haul to Siberia? Or simply a kleptomaniac urge? The elderly nun did not know, nor could she even hazard a guess, although she did tell me that Lillian was “a troubled soul.”

In the spring of 1929, Lillian bought a rowboat with her hospital earnings, put it in the Yukon River, and began paddling west toward Alaska. A local journalist who’d been tailing her noted that she didn’t seem to know anything about boats, even how to paddle them.

As it heads in a westerly direction from Dawson, the Yukon’s current is relatively gentle, usually no more than five or six knots, so a person without any knowledge of boats could just go with the proverbial flow and probably end up in western Alaska. But no one living on the river reported a small boat with a woman in it during the spring or summer of 1929. That summer a woman did drown in the river not far from Eagle, Alaska, but she was a Native, and she’d probably committed suicide.

Could Lillian might have encountered another solitary, William Yanert, in his hermitage of Purgatory on the Yukon River? Yanert put scary-looking sculptures around his cabin to scare off potential visitors; he composed his own gravestone epitaph, the last line of which reads “Mush off, and let me be.” If he and Lillian had indeed met, they probably would have frowned at each other, and then gone their respective ways, he to constructing his gargoyles and she to her paddling.

Later in the same year a Yupik Eskimo man reputedly saw a white woman pushing a two-wheeled cart along the beach near Wales, an Alaskan village situated on the Bering Strait and the closest spot in North America to Siberia. The cart in question had a stuffed dog lying on top of it…or so the story goes.

As I was pondering what I would do with so many “reputedlys” and “probablys,” a friend in Whitehorse suggested that I turn Lillian’s journey into a novel. Maybe she was pursuing a lover, or the husband who’d abandoned her, to the Yukon goldfields. Or maybe I could turn her into a female version of Chris McCandless, the hero of Into the Wild, except that I shouldn’t be too obvious about it—i.e., I shouldn’t let her go near a schoolbus.

Here I might add that novelist Amy Bloom did turn Lillian into a fictional character several years ago. In her bestseller Away, she named this character Lillian Leyb, although

Ms. Bloom does not acknowledge (shame!) the fact that her Lillian is based on a real-life Lillian. For my part, I had no desire to fictionalize a person who seemed to me like fiction already. Likewise, I figured my persistence would pay off sooner or later. I also figured that if I got a book contract, I could finance a trip to the Alaskan and Siberian sides of the Bering Strait, where a bit of sleuthing would help me discover Lillian’s fate.

The editor who’d worked on my previous book was not enthused about the idea. “What if you don’t get any more material?” he said. “Readers don’t want to be left with question marks, nor do they want to be left in the dark about whether the person they’ve been following for several hundred pages made it to her destination.”

“Well, there’s some anecdotal evidence that she did make it,” I told him.

Which was true. In 1965, a Californian named Arthur Elmore visited a Russian friend of his who’d spent his boyhood in the Siberian town of Provideniya. As they were reminiscing, the friend recalled an incident from around the year 1930. One afternoon he was walking near the town’s harbor, and he saw the police interrogating a very worn-looking Caucasian woman. The woman was with three Alaska Yupik men who had transported her across the Bering Strait in a skin boat. Eventually, the police led all four away.

“According to the story, the woman knelt down and kissed the ground once she got out of the skin boat," I said.

“Is Arthur Elmore still alive?” the editor asked me.

“Google doesn’t seem to think so,” I said.

“The story’s just too vague. We don’t even know if the woman in Provideniya was your mystery woman, or what became of her after the police hauled her off.”

Not long after we’d had this conversation, a nonfiction book about Lillian Alling was in fact published. Or I should say that The Woman Who Walked to Russia tries hard to be about Lillian, but the author, an Australian writer with the extremely writerly name of Cassandra Pybus, keeps running into dead ends. A few pages before the end of the book, seemingly desperate, she proposes that Lillian must have been pursuing a mate. There could have been no other explanation for her marathon trek, Ms. Pybus concludes.

I could think of several other explanations, but it didn’t matter, since I was getting frustrated by dead ends myself. Then just as I was about to jettison the idea of a book, I got a job as a lecturer on a cruise ship whose itinerary included, among other Siberian ports of call, Provideniya. Suddenly my interest in Lillian Alling was revived. I imagined myself meeting an elderly man in Provideniya and having him tell me something like this: “Dear Lillian! She was a bit odd, but we had many good times together…”

What I did discover in Provideniya turned out to be nearly as good. In return for an extra lecture or two, the cruise’s expedition leader allowed me to do some exploring on my own around the town. I wandered among picturesque izbas (log cabins), dined on whale blubber and salmon eggs with a Chukchi man, and at last ended up in a cemetery that looked like it hadn’t been tended in quite some time. Having a knowledge of Russian, I began reading some of the more legible inscriptions on the gravestones. All at once I read these words:

lillia lvovna Alling  

Scarcely able to contain my excitement, I cleared away a bit of lichen, and then read the following words:

konets putee  

Konets Putee means “Here the Journey Ends.” At last—a significant clue in my attempt to solve the mystery woman’s mystery! With trembling hand, I reached for my camera and began photographing the inscription.

Actually, I did no such thing. For between ushering the passengers on and off the ship, on and off the town’s only bus, in and out of the town’s museum, and away from locals trying to hawk Lenin medals, I didn’t read any revealing inscription on a gravestone or even visit a cemetery. Nor did I see a single picturesque log cabin anywhere in the town, for Provideniya consisted almost exclusively of Soviet-era block housing whose architectural model appears to have been Hitler’s bunker.

If the truth is at once stranger and more elusive than fiction, it can also be quite a bit more mundane. Lillian Alling never seemed to understand why anyone would be interested in her journey. In all probability, she was just going home.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Hiking to Siberia: Curious Tales of Travel and Travelers, published by sunnyoutside, 2012.