Wednesday, October 13, 2010

The enigma of Lillian Alling, the woman who walked across North America

Lillian Alling and her dog photographed by a telegraph operator in British Columbia in 1928.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 13, 2010


Here is what we know about Lillian Alling — not much.

She arrived in New York in 1925. Give or take a year.

She was Russian. Or Polish. Or Estonian. Or perhaps some other nationality.

She worked at low-paying jobs, likely as a domestic cook. Or as a maid.

She frequented the public library, where her lack of English did not hinder cartographic studies.

She mapped out a route across North America. And then, in the winter of 1926, or the spring of 1927, she began an epic journey — on foot.

Along the way, she was asked her destination by those whose path she crossed. Her invariable answer: “I go to Siberia.”

She is thought to have trekked through Chicago and Minneapolis before turning north to Winnipeg and west again through Edmonton. Her slow, determined march eventually took her over the mountains into British Columbia.

It was here that she ran afoul of the law, spending time in jail, before resuming her quest.

Her story — a mystery with a beginning but no certain end — has inspired novels, films, and an opera, which is to debut in Vancouver later this week.

It is as if learning about her eccentricity causes madness

“Everyone who hears about Lillian gets obsessed with her,” said Susan Smith-Josephy, who has spent the past two years researching the story.

The Quesnel author is completing “Lillian Alling: Walking Home,” a non-fiction account to be published by Caitlin Press of Halfmoon Bay.

A far more difficult task confronts those who wish to separate fact from fiction and truth from myth.

What intrigued her about Alling?

“It’s a long way to walk,” she said. “I wanted to see where she goes, and did she get there?”

Her research has given her some insight into a character who fascinates us more today than she did her contemporaries.

“I think she was eccentric and I think she didn’t handle crowds very well. Being in New York was the wrong place for her. When she’s around a lot of people, she tends not to be terribly reasonable. Crabby. Swearing. Snapping at people.”

Ms. Smith-Josephy, who has a history degree from Simon Fraser University, worked as a reporter until recently for the Cariboo Advisor newspaper which has since closed. A few years ago, she curated an exhibit for the Quesnel and District Museum’s “River of Memory” project. She traced the family tree of Jean-Baptiste Boucher, a Metis interpreter and guide who arrived in what was known as New Caledonia in 1806. Known as Waccan, perhaps a derivative of “watchman,” he had a reputation as a fair policeman and a fierce trader. He died of measles in 1849 and was buried in an unmarked grave. His name, including such spellings as Bouche, Bouchie, or Buschie, can be found gracing place names through the Quesnel area. As well, hundreds of his descendants still live in the Cariboo.

This earlier work gave her valuable experience in tracking down archival information, as the story of Lillian Alling has frustrated others.

In 1927, Alling reached Hazelton, where she turned north to follow the Yukon Telegraph Trail. She collapsed in exhaustion at an isolated cabin on the trail. An alarmed telegraph operator wired the police, who arrested her for carrying a concealed weapon, either a handgun, or a metal bar she used for protection. They feared she would die if she continued on foot in winter. A justice of the peace sentenced her to a few months in jail and she was sent south to do her time at the Oakalla Prison Farm in Burnaby.

George Wyman, a constable with the B.C. Provincial Police, said, “She was the most determined person I ever met.”

The next spring, she resumed her journey, tramping northward.

The historic evidence shows she made it to the Yukon, where she sailed a boat solo along the Yukon River. She is next heard from in Alaska, where she could have hired a boat to take her the short, but sometimes treacherous, journey across the Bering Strait.
But then what happened?

“She could have froze to death,” Ms. Smith-Josephy said.

“She could have kept walking.

“We don’t know.”

The author will make a journey of her own this week from the Cariboo to Vancouver, where she has prime seats for the opening night of the Vancouver Opera’s “Lillian Alling.” She wants to see how others interpret a story of compelling ambiguity.