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.

  • Hiking To Siberia Cover
    “Hiking to Siberia,” by travel writer Lawrence Millman, gathers an intriguing collection of essays, including one about a woman named Lillian Alling who allegedly traveled from New York City to Russia.
    Cover Courtesy sunnyoutside
  • 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

  • Hiking To Siberia Cover
  • Alaska

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.

9/14/2013 11:37:50 PM

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