Lillian Alling: The Woman Who Walked to Russia

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“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.
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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.

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

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

“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,

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.

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