Pilgrim: A traveler that is taken seriously – Ambrose Bierce
Throughout history, women have been taking pilgrimages and spiritual journeys. Often these journeys involve sacrifice, trials, and difficulty. I recently came across a book by a Scottish woman, Carolyn (Kari) Gillespie, who made a pilgrimage with her friend Ali along the Camino De Santiago (the Way of St. James). Her walking journey of 560 miles over 40 days took her through northwest Spain to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the reputed burial place of St. James, the apostle. She and her friend Ali were both 46 when they made the pilgrimage.
On the Camino
Kari and her friend Ali and another friend Jenny started out their journey at St. Jean Pied de Port. After a year’s preparation, Kari was nervous. She said, “I am not cut out for this. I have never done anything brave or impressive. I have lived a safe life and taken no chances.” But the Camino was tugging at her.
They got pilgrim passports before they started, to be stamped at places along the way to get a certificate of completion at the basilica in Santiago.
As they headed out of the starting point, just a few miles from the French border with Spain, they saw their first scallop shell way marker (a symbol of St. James), reminding them that “we were part of something bigger than ourselves.” Kari said a silent prayer, asking for strength, determination, and blister-free feet.
Kari was looking forward to a journey of solitude, with “time and space to sift through the muddle inside my head, to figuring out where the rest of my life was heading.” It turned out to be much more social, as they met other pilgrims on the way. Small groups would start early in the morning, meet mid-morning for coffee, then maybe lunch or an early dinner mid-afternoon.
There was an ever-shifting cast of characters around them while they walked and at the albergues (hostels/ way stations) each night. Many were primitive communal living that mixed up both sexes in various sizes of bunk beds. That usually meant shared bathrooms and many people snoring each night. Ali (a physiotherapist) would spend time every evening helping other travelers, giving them back rubs, and dealing with blistered feet and aching backs.
Although Kari and Ali felt safe throughout the trip, there was still danger. A traveler named Harriet told them about being accosted by a man when she was walking alone through some woods. She pushed him off with her walking poles and ran. “I had felt so strong,” she said, “and he made me feel so vulnerable.”
You might have chuckled about Kari’s concern about blisters, but feet and leg pains were a big problem for many on the Camino. About three-fourths of the way through, Kari began having leg pains that Ali suspected were tendonitis. There was no time to stop, and Ali helped by bandaging her leg, but a few days before the end that had to stop, because her skin was too raw to be bandaged. Kari managed to keep going, but every step was painful.
Kari spent time thinking about the difference between a pilgrimage and a long walk. “…for me, the stillness of the Way and the rhythm of my steps were almost hypnotic and often the walk became a kind of meditation. In some barely perceptible way, my consciousness was altered.”
Yes, they made it to the cathedral and received their certificates of completion. Did the experience change Kari’s life? I’m not sure. I’ll let you read the book and decide for yourself.
More Information on the Camino de Santiago Experience
Kari’s book Pilgrim: Finding a New Way on the Camino de Santiago is available on Amazon, but I couldn’t find it in any library.
There are lots of tours of the Camino, including bicycle tours and self-guided experiences, from a few days to several weeks. The most-traveled route is the last 60 miles, which will get you a pilgrim certificate. (The one Kari and Ali took was the black route shown on the map.
Bethany Hughes and Lauren Reed (calling themselves “Her Odyssey”) traveled through two continents starting in 2015 from Ushuaia in Argentina, and ending in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada. They traveled by hiking, backpacking, sea kayaking, river rafting, and canoeing across 14 countries, 18,221 miles. No, they didn’t do this all at once, but in multiple legs over almost seven years.
No book (yet), but this article describes some of their experiences. I love their goal of connecting with local inhabitants. Here’s the article in Paddling Magazine.
Stories about women dressed as men who fight as soldiers are common in many wars, so I wasn’t surprised when I found accounts of several women who fought in the American Revolution. Deborah Sampson was the most successful, living and working as a soldier for about 18 months before being discovered. This is her story.
Deborah’s Early Life
Deborah Sampson was born in 1760 in Massachusetts. Her family was poor and they didn’t have the funds to care for her. She was sent to relatives and was forced to become an indentured servant. At age 18, her service ended and she supported herself by teaching and weaving.
In the Army
In May 1782, when she was 21, she decided to join Continental Army. She was patriotic and a bit of a daredevil, and she was likely looking at making a better living than that possible for her as a teacher.
At this time the Revolutionary War had theoretically ended with the American victory at Yorktown in October 1781, but the peace treaty wasn’t signed until 1783. The area where Deborah served was “neutral” ground at this time, a lawless area with both Patriots and Tories (British sympathizers) fighting each other and terrorizing the people living there. George Washington was still commanding troops, 10,000 soldiers guarded the Hudson River, and there were ongoing small military actions and skirmishes.
Deborah joined the Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, disguised as a man named Robert Shurtliff. She was chosen to serve in the Light Infantry Troops, an elite unit that only took certain “men.”
Deborah took part in many of the skirmishes during this time. At one point she was shot in the shoulder, but she didn’t want her disguise to be revealed, so she left the bullet in and continued to fight.
In another skirmish, she was wounded in the thigh, but she dressed her own wounds, to avoid being discovered and to keep from having her leg amputated. Amputation was common with doctors at that time because there were no antiseptics then.
Deborah’s conduct during her service time also helped her to maintain her persona. She was daring and took risks, making her less likely to be suspected of being a woman, and her bravery and courage made it more likely that she would be treated well if discovered.
Life as a Soldier
It’s difficult to imagine the lengths Deborah had to go to in order to keep up her disguise all the time. She said she was younger (age 17) to avoid questions about her lack of facial hair. Every moment carried the risk of being caught out. Imagine sleeping on the ground or in a small tent with up to six other soldiers. At that time, people didn’t bathe regularly, and soldiers slept in their clothes, so she didn’t have to worry about that issue. She couldn’t drink, because that would mean letting down her guard and saying or doing something that would cause her to be questioned.
Alfred Young, author of her “biography,” says she was tall (probably about 5’7″), muscular, and very erect, which would have helped her maintain her disguise. She tied down her breasts with a linen cloth, her voice wasn’t high pitched, and she probably wore her hair short or in a “queue” (ponytail).
Young claims she fought at the Battle of Yorktown, but she didn’t enlist until over a year after the battle!
In October 1783 she was in Philadelphia on an assignment when she became ill and was taken to a hospital. The doctor found out her secret but told no one; he took her to his home and his wife nursed her until she recovered. She was given an honorable discharge in October 1783.
After the Army
Deborah married Benjamin Gannet in 1785 and they had three children. She wrote a book, “The Female Review: Life of Deborah Sampson, the Female Soldier in the War of Revolution, and she went on lecture tours across the country talking about her exploits. She became quite a celebrity during this time.
She died of yellow fever on April 29, 1807.
Why Deborah Sampson Is Important
Deborah’s legacy lives on. Although there were several other women who served in disguise in the American Revolution, she is the bravest and most successful.
She loved being in the army, where she had advantages that could never have been hers if she remained a poor schoolteacher. And the adventures!
In 2017, the Deborah Sampson Act, a bipartisan bill to address gender disparities at the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, was made law by Congress.
May 23, the day she enlisted, is Deborah Samson Gannett Day in Massachusetts.
Osa Johnson loved life! And she craved excitement, sometimes to a disturbing degree for us mortals. Osa and her husband Martin traveled the globe in search of people and animals to photograph. This sounds like a dream life, doesn’t it? Well, it was certainly full of adventure.
Osa and Martin
Osa Leighty was a scrappy teenager (age 16) when she met Martin Johnson in Independence, Missouri. Johnson was already a world traveler at 25, and he was giving a lecture with photos from his trip to the South Seas with JackLondon. There were cannibals in some of the photos, and Osa was horrified, leaving the lecture early because she couldn’t look at “people of such horribleness.” A week later she was introduced to Martin at a wedding, and “I found myself shivering very pleasantly,” she admitted. He asked her to lunch, and she told him about her dislike of cannibals.
They married soon after, and Osa realized she had married an extraordinary man. When she started talking about getting house and settling down, he said he’d go crazy if he had to stay in one place the rest of his life. “We’re going around the world, Osa!” he said. And she replied, ‘Well – all right, dear.” And away they went.
Osa and Martin’s First Big Adventure
Martin’s dream was to photograph cannibals to show people in big cities what they themselves were like half a million years ago. He wanted to find a tribe that was untouched by civilization. They gave lectures, Osa dancing in Hawaiian costume, to get enough money.
In 1917, they went to the South Seas on a small budget, where they had trouble finding an untouched tribe. Finally they learned of a small island called Malekula, part of the New Hebrides chain east of Australia. A French priest had lived on the island for 30 years, making few converts among the 400-member tribe, who were “wild and savage” and “treacherous.” Martin smiled when he heard about this tribe. The priest warned that Osa shouldn’t go, but she became angry, saying, “That’s what I came for and that’s how it’s going to be – the whole way.” “THE WHOLE WAY,” she repeated.
They took five men with them when they landed on the island. A black man stepped out of the jungle pressing his hands dramatically to his stomach. Osa thought he had a stomach ache so she gave him some pills, telling him to take them twice a day. He gulped them all down.
She walked into the dark jungle, Martin behind her taking movies. The natives grabbed them and dragged them away toward their village. They heard a British patrol boat coming into the bay, so Martin shouted, and the chief reluctantly released them. They took off, seeing the British boat leaving, and the natives chased them, and they ran through the jungle with the sounds of drums and shouts of savages behind them. They got to the beach and onto their boat just in time to beat the natives, only to encounter a tropical storm on their way back to the main island.
A few days later they got a letter from the British commissioner warning them not to go to Malekula, because the island “is in a very disturbed condition,” and “I trust you will not take your wife into the danger zone with you.”
They were back in a year with more funds and 25 men armed with repeating rifles and automatic pistols, to create their first major film Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Seas in 1918. On this trip, the natives became fascinated with seeing themselves in the movie.
Traveling the Globe
Osa and Martin continued their adventures, taking photos and making movies all over the globe, especially Africa, where they had many safaris, and to Borneo several times.
They bought a plane and were on tour in the U.S. in 1937 when their plane crashed in California. Martin died the next day, and Osa was severely injured. She continued to give lectures and write travel books until her death in 1953.
In her most famous book, I Married Adventure, Osa said
‘home was to be a schooner in the South Seas, a raft in Borneo, a tent on safari or a hut in the back Congo, sometimes a dash of Paris, interludes of an apartment on Fifth Avenue – but always a place to be going from.
Malekula today is a tourist attraction, and if you hike through it, you might find some bones and skulls or some Big Mambas performing traditional dances.
Osa Johnson’s Legacy
Osa and Martin’s adventures captured the attention of people all over the world, and her example as a fearless traveler has inspired many. There’s a Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas (Osa’s birthplace), and two sister museums, in Burkina Faso (a country in West Africa) and Malaysia.
Osa hosted a television adventure series called Osa Johnson’s The Big Game Hunt, starting in 1952. If you go to Disney World, there’s an ongoing exhibit in the Animal Kingdom Lodge with the Johnsons’ photos.
One last bit of interest: The animated film Up has many story elements that are similar to Osa and Martin’s story.
I read I Married Adventure for this post. Osa’s personality shines through, and I loved her gutsy, no-nonsense writing style.
Two women on a narrowboat chugging down the canals of England doesn’t sound very adventurous. But you’ll see why it’s much more thrilling than you might have thought.
This article is a departure from my articles about real Amazing Women. It’s about three women in a work of fiction, The Narrowboat Summerby Anne Youngson.
Three amazing women populate this book. Eve is an executive, never married, who is summarily made redundant (laid off, in American English). Sally has left her uninteresting husband and grownup children to find a new life for herself. Both are, I think, in their mid-50s. And Anastasia is older (70s?) facing cancer treatments, who needs someone to mind her narrowboat, The Number One, for the summer.
After a bit of negotiation, Anastasia moves into Eve’s home, then she schools Eve and Sally on how to operate a narrowboat, including the tricky locks up and down the canal system of the western part of England.
Narrowboats in England
Narrowboats are a kind of canal boat used in the United Kingdom (Britain, Scotland, Wales). The canal and lock system in the UK started as a way to transport goods during the Industrial Revolution, but trucks, trains, and planes can get the goods around faster. Since the 1970s they have been used as full-time and part-time homes or rentals.
Yes, you can get an Airbnb narrowboat! The ad I saw said the boat had a double bed and sofa bed, a kitchen, bath with shower, a “pump out” toilet, with both a log stove and central heating. As Eve and Sally found, it’s probably not a good idea to run your electric appliances, mobile devices, and electric toothbrushes on the boat, because the power supply is batteries and they can run down pretty quickly.
There’s only so much space on a narrowboat. The maximum size is 7 feet wide and 72 feet long, which means there’s not a lot of room for what you and I might think we need on holiday. Anastasia vetoed a lot of the the unnecessaries Sally and Eve wanted to bring, like books, clothing, kitchen utensils, anything that could fly about or cause damage in turbulent water.
Life on a Narrowboat – Lots of Work!
As with life in general, there are times when you can just glide along with little to do but steer, keep to the middle and away from other boats, and enjoy the scenery. But then there are the locks, a major physical challenge. And what about fires? Falling overboard?
After reading about Eve and Sally’s difficult experiences working on The Number One, I was impressed with their ability to learn something new and become stronger physically. I watched this video guide from the Canal and River Trust, and I was even more impressed. (Yes, I know this is a work of fiction, but I identified strongly with Eve and Sally.)
The Story of The Narrowboat Summer
Eve and Sally set off, wondering if they can survive the summer both physically and emotionally. They never met before their meeting on a towpath, so they must maneuver gently to see if they will be compatible. They also meet others on their trip, including Tompette and Billy, young people who seem to be living a “hippie” style of life, complete with music and drugs. They also meet others along the way, including and a vaguely mysterious man with some connection to Anastasia. And they find themselves helping Anastasia as she goes through her chemotherapy sessions.
And all the time they are learning the ropes (literally), dangers, and beauties of the narrowboat and the world on the shore.
“The joy of moving all the time, so slowly and without physical effort – leaving aside the locks – is that there is endless time for the mind to wander.”
As Sally said, “…any stretch of countryside with a canal running through it was transformed into a frame of tranquility.”
They were both trying to figure out what they would do in the next phase of their lives in this “gap year.” They read a book called Mr. Luckton’s Freedom, about a man who escapes his life for many years and finally comes back. His story becomes a metaphor for their journey, and their experiences during this summer helped them make the next step in their lives at the end of the summer.
“It was good to leave, but there is pleasure in going back.”
But can you really go back? Every experience, every interaction with others changes you in some way, and you become a different person at the end of the experience.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone who may have a turning point decision in life and considering whether to “feel the fear and do it anyway,” stretching the limits of the possible. I usually skim through fiction to get the plot basics, but I found myself engrossed in the details of their experience, slowing down to smile at the mild humor and linger over the language and the visual images.
More Information About Narrowboat Life
This article from the Inland Waterways Association has some pros and cons of narrowboat life. You may also find a guide to narrowboat living on Amazon. Of course, if you want to take a narrowboat holiday, check out Airbnb or one of the hiring agencies. I Googled “narrowboat holiday rentals uk” and found several. Of course, if you are really daring, try a self-drive narrowboat vacation.
In the meantime, I think you’ll find The Narrowboat Summer enjoyable and thought-provoking. (Note: You may also find it under the title Three Women and a Boat.)
Florence Finch didn’t set out to be a hero. She just wanted to help friends who were in concentration camps and living as freedom fighters during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines in World War II.
She was born Loring May Ebersole in 1915 to an American father, Charlie Ebersole, who came to the country after the Spanish American War. He married Maria Hermoso in 1907. She was already married with a daughter Lavinia, but he persuaded her to leave her husband and live with him.
Loring, the youngest child, remembered the plantation where she was born and evenings reading in the library, but that all changed when Charlie fell in love with Lavinia. He kicked Maria and her children out of the home and forced them to live in a cottage on the plantation in severe poverty.
When Loring was seven she left home to attend the Union Church Hall School in Manila. She would never return.
The school superintendent decided she needed a new name so he called her Florence, “blooming flower.”
From the age of 12, Florence was financially independent. She lived at the school and worked part-time to pay for meals, clothing, and her personal needs. She was an excellent student, skipping two grades when she entered the public high school. Like other mixed-race children, she was taunted, barely tolerated, not considered equal to the full-blood Filipinos.
Florence’s Work Life
Florence took secretarial classes after high school, and in 1935 she was able to get a job as the assistant to the business manager at the YMCA. While she was there, she met Navy midshipman Bing Smith, who was 9 years older, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
They married in 1941 and he shipped out to serve with the Navy. He was killed on Corregidor in February 1942, but Florence didn’t find out he was dead for many months.
She later worked for Carl Eberhart, a Major in U.S. Military Intelligence, on Bing’s recommendation. After the office closed, in July 1942 she went to work in the accounting department of the Philippine Liquid Fuel Distribution Union (PLFDU) in Manila. It had been run by the Japanese since they had taken over the Philippines in December 1941 (after Pearl Harbor).
Here’s where things get interesting…
Sending Relief Supplies to Prisoners
Florence’s work at the PLFDU involved handling and accounting for the vouchers and receipts for fuel supplies. She figured out a way to keep valuable fuel supplies from the Japanese and help American POWs at the same time.
She would steal genuine fuel vouchers and give them to someone to sell and give her the money. Then she would send the money to Carl Eberhart and other American POWsat Cabanatuan prison camp.
As a top military officer, Carl had taken on leadership roles in the camp and he had frequently written to Florence about the terrible conditions in the camp.
During the time when she worked at the fuel board, Florence was in constant fear for her life. Every part of the process was dangerous, and if she was discovered, it would have meant certain death. But she was determined to keep running her fuel voucher operation because she knew the needs of the prisoners.
After more sending more than 20 packets of money and medical supplies to Carl, she also started sending help to a group of Filipino resistance fighters who were hiding out in the forests. One day, the general manager of the fuel board announced that someone was stealing vouchers. Florence was questioned and let go, but a few days later she was arrested.
The torture she endured was unbelievable, and she finally confessed to a minor infraction, hoping that would keep her from being executed. She was sent instead to Bilibid prison in November 1944 and was transferred to a women’s prison n February 1945 The women’s prison was marginally better.
In February 1945 the U.S. invaded and drove the Japanese from Manila. Florence, on the brink of death, was rescued!
The Rest of Florence’s Life
When she was able to travel, she went to Buffalo, New York, to stay with relatives while she continued to recuperate. But soon she was restless, looking for a way to help her people. She signed up with the Coast Guard to go back to the Philippines, but the war ended so she never went back.
On November 7, 1947, Florence was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest recognition an American citizen could attain, for her “outstanding courage and marked resourcefulness in providing vitally needed food, medicine, and supplies for American prisoners of war and internees and in sabotaging Japanese stocks of critical items.”
Florence met and married Bob Finch, and they moved to Ithaca, New York, and they had two children. In 1995 the Coast Guard named a building in Hawaii in her honor. This was the first her children knew what she had done in the war. And in 2019 a Coast Guard fast response cutter was named FRC 56 Florence Finch.
Florence died in 1916 at the age of 101.
Why Florence Finch is Important
Courage comes in many varieties. It’s not necessarily courage in battle, but the quiet kind of courage shown by Florence Finch.
JRR Tolkein (channeling Gandalf in Lord of the Rings) said,
“Some believe it is only Great Power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”
I used the book The Indominatable Florence Finch by Robert Mrazek pictured above for most of my information. Carl Eberhart’s story of survival in the prison camp and deportment to Manchuria form another narrative of courage. A warning: The descriptions of her torture and treatment in prison are difficult to read, but they underscore her courage.
Zenobia was a queen of the Palmyrene Empire (modern Syria). She was called “The Pearl Necklace” in the history of the Syrian kingdom.
“Her face was dark and of a swarthy hue, her eyes were black and powerful beyond the usual…, her spirit divinely great, and her beauty incredible. So white were her teeth that many thought that she had pearls in place of teeth. Her voice was clear and like that of a man. Her sternness, when necessity demanded, was that of a tyrant, her clemency…that of a good emperor.”
These were the words of a Roman historian around 270 A.D. describing Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, the city of Tadmor in today’s Syria, and also the name for the empire she ruled.
There have been many queens who went to war. In my reading about amazing women and a recent focus on warrior queens, I discovered Zenobia. She was tremendously brave and a fierce fighter, meeting and – for a time – beating Roman emperor Aurelius (Lucius Domitius Aurelianus).
To Set the Stage:
It was the 3rd century of the Common Era. Zenobia, sometimes called Septimia or Bat-Zabbel, was born around 240 CE in the Palmyrene Empire in Syria. She married Odeanathius, ruler of the city of Palmyra (sometimes called Tadmose), and when he was assassinated, she became the regent for her young son Wahballat. Some said she had him killed, but it’s difficult to know.
Zenobia claimed that she was a Ptolemy (the last ruling dynasty of Egypt) and a direct descendant of Cleopatra. She certainly was ambitious, and in 269 she decided to conquer Egypt. Within a year, her general Zabdas has secured most of Egypt and at the same time, Zenobia with other troops had taken most of Syria, as far as the Black Sea, under her control. At this point, she truly had an empire. But it wasn’t to last long.
Zenobia’s Battles Against Aurelian
The Romans didn’t like having territory taken away from them. The emperor Aurelian was a skilled military leader, and he immediately took back much of Zenobia’s empire, reconquering Egypt first.
Zenobia met him in battle, riding on her horse. The battle resulted in a horrible slaughter of Zenobia’s troops, and they fley to Palmyra. Aurelian besieged the city, cutting off trade and travel.
During the siege, Aurelian seems to have something of a grudging admiration for Zenobia. He sent her a message asking her to surrender, telling her he would save her city if she agreed. She responded with defiance.
Finally, in desperation, Zenobia tried to escape from the city to get help from the Persians. She got through a city gate and rode on a female camel (supposed to be faster than horses) to the Euphrates River, where she was captured as she tried to board a boat.
Zenobia was brought before Aurelius as a captive. When she was confronted with her “treasonous” (to the Romans, anyway) actions, she said she was just a “simple woman” who had been misled by her advisors. Against advice, Aurelian decided not to kill her, but he took her to Rome as his captive. I’m sure he saw the political capital to be gained from showing off his beautiful prize to the Romans.
In Rome, she was supposedly shackled with gold chains and paraded through the streets of Rome in Aurelian’s triumphal procession. Later, he went back to Palmyra, sacked the city, and ended the Palmyrate empire forever.
What Happened to Zenobia
After the parade, there are several versions of events, depending on which Roman historian you read. The most likely but, for me, the least palatable, outcome was that she Zenobia was allowed to live in an estate near Rome. She was said to have married a Roman senator and lived (relatively) happy ever after.
Zenobia has become something of a symbol for other women adventurers. Lady Hester Stanhope was determined to go to the ruins of Palmyra in 1911, where she styled herself as Zenobia reborn. She expected to be hailed as another Zenobia and “was not disappointed.”
Zenobia still shows up in popular culture. I’m not sure how I feel about these commercializations; for example, see this Zenobia T shirt, and this toy, in revealing garments.
Most of my information comes from Zenobia of Palmyra, by Agnes Carr Vaughan (1967). Because there is little known about Zenobia, Vaughan says she used her “imagination liberally.” Much of her information comes from the Roman historian Pollio. So, I guess this is a 3rd hand source.
Emma Gatewood had lived a rough life. Born in 1887, she was married at 19. Her husband started beating her during their honeymoon and he beat her many times – sometimes almost to death – through 35 years of marriage and 11 children.
After her divorce in 1940, she was looking for something to keep fit. She saw an article about the Appalachian trail in a copy of National Geographic magazine (August 1949). So she decided to walk it.
Her story is an incredible one of determination and just plain toughness. Ben Montgomery tells Grandma Gatewood’s tale exceedingly well, so I’ll just give you the highlights.
How She Walked
Emma started her walk on May 3, 1955, at the top of a mountain in Jasper, South Carolina. She was 67 years old and a great-grandmother! No one knew she was there except the taxi driver who brought her to the top of the mountain and her cousin Myrtle in Atlanta. She told her children she was going for a walk.
She had attempted the trail the year before (1954), starting in Maine, but she lost her way, broke her glasses, and ran out of food; she was ordered by Park Rangers to leave. She told no one about this aborted trip. This time she was determined to go the whole way.
She had no map, no sleeping bag, and no tent, and only a little money for food. She wore tennis shoes and carried a backpack with some essentials, including a shower curtain to use as a rain poncho. She had been preparing for her walk by walking, and she had gotten up to 10 miles a day by the time she started.
At the time she started, the official 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail was used mostly by day walkers or hikers; only a few men (and no women) had walked the entire trail. The trail was still in its infancy, still being developed, and only portions of it were marked. There were only a few shelters, and no one really knew much about it. So when Emma started walking, she was literally blazing a trail.
Her father had always told her, “Pick up your feet,” so that’s what she did. She just started walking. At the end of each day, she would start looking for a place to stay, asking politely. Sometimes she was refused, sometimes welcomed. When she was refused shelter, she slept on the trail. When she ran out of money, she would work for a few days. She would accept rides to nearby towns for food and a place to sleep, always requesting that she be returned to the trail where she left it. Most trail walkers today follow this requirement if they want to claim to have walked the entire trail.
The trail, from Mt. Oglethorpe in South Carolina to Mt. Katahdin in Main, held many dangers. There were mountains to climb, rivers with rapids to cross, and stretches of unmarked pasture land to get lost in. Many dangerous animals – mountain lions, black bears, and rattlesnakes to name a few – and people roamed around. (This was still the time of hillbillies and moonshiners.) Towns were few and far between.
When she began her trip in May, it was cold and snow was still on the mountains. Many days it rained and stormed. As she got further north, the hot summer sun beat down on her and the humidity brought out mosquitoes. And don’t forget the poison plants – dangerous to eat or to get close to. As Ben Montgomery said,
“There were a million heavenly things to see and a million spectacular ways to die.
But she was inspired by the beauty of the sights she had seen and her interactions with the kind people she met. She said,
“The forest is a quiet place and nature is beatiful. I don’t want to sit and rock. I want to do something.”
The Public Begins to Notice
In early June, near Roanoke, Virginia, Emma was approached by two Appalachian trail club members who wanted to tell her story. She was reluctant to let them publish anything about her because she still hadn’t told her family about her journey. She finally agreed to a picture and a story.
Word spread “like wood smoke” and soon she found that local reporters were joining her on her walk just to talk with her and get her story for their newspaper. She was welcomed in some towns and treated like a visiting dignitary, which annoyed her; she just wanted to keep moving.
Emma Gets Addicted to Walking
Grandma Gatewood didn’t stop with one more trip through the Appalachian Trail. She made the trip two more times, the third time completing her first attempted trip. Then she walked across the country, from Ohio to Portland, Oregon. And she did more trips, climbing six mountains in the Adirondack Range,
At age 71, she walked the Oregon Trail from Independence, Missouri to Portland, Oregon. Everywhere she went, reporters and crowds followed and she was asked to appear on television, including the Groucho Marx show. She said she was starting to feel like a “sideshow freak.”
Back at home, Emma set out to encourage hiking but working to establish hiking trails in Ohio. She often walked around her home in Ohio, where she would set off on walks on a whim, covering 20 miles in a day.
Her lifetime of walking counted up to 14,000 miles. In the spring of 1973, she bought a bus ticket and visited 48 states and 3 Canadian provinces. shortly after her return, on June 4, she collapsed and died. (As I reviewed my notes before writing this article, I thought I’d made an error in the date, assuming that she couldn’t have made such a long trip so shortly before her death. But she did.)
Honors and awards followed, including her 2012 induction into the Appalachian Trail Hall of Fame. Emma (Grandma) Gatewood’s story was inspirational to me. She survived a brutal husband, had many children and grandchildren, and she was tough enough to start on her dream later in life. She never stopped walking and encouraging others to walk.
Pick up your feet, Jean!
Sources and more information
The quotes and most of the information in this article is from Grandma Gatewood’s Walk by Ben Montgomery. In 2018, the New York Times included Grandma Gatewood in their Overlooked series of people who should have had NYT obituaries.
Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to Amazon.com, and I receive (a little) money if you buy a book from one of these links.
It’s 1932. A woman with a bicycle is standing on a mountain looking at the eastern frontier of Russian Turkestan.
“…from the heights of the Celestial Mountains, I could [see], on a plain far away and further still to the east, the yellow dust of the Takla Makan desert. It was China, the fabulous country of which, since my childhood, I had dreamed.”
I almost cried to read these magical words – “China,” “Celestial Mountains.” Such a vision. but she couldn’t get to China. No visa could be had at that time and it was too dangerous. She explained,
“If I went on I should be arrested at the first Chinese village. Sadly I retraced my steps, turning my back on the limitless unknown that beckoned.”
But Ella Maillart was determined to get where she wanted to go. And there weren’t many places she didn’t go.
Ella Maillart’s Early Life
Ella was born in Geneva, Switzerland, in February 1903. She was the only child of a wealthy fur trader and his Danish wife. A sickly child, she spent her time reading adventure books and maps and she dreamed of travel. Her adventurous life began with learning how to sail, and she and her friend Hermine de Saussure won their first sailing race at age 13. From there, she went on to many more adventures.
According to Brian Fagan*, by the age of 30, she had:
Taught French in a Welsh school
Competed in a sailing competition in the 1924 Olympics (the only woman in the race)
Acted on the stage in Paris
Captained the Swiss women’s field hockey team
Assisted at an archeological excavation in Crete
Studied film production in Moscow
Published a book about her walk through the Caucasus
Ridden a camel across the desert in what is today Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan
Sailing turned to skiing and she competed for the Swiss in four world championships from 1930 to 1934. At the end of the trip above, when she was turned back at the Chinese border, she continued to travel alone back to Europe, through the southern Soviet republics, without permits and avoiding checkpoints where she could have been jailed – or worse.
The trip to Russia and her walks through the Caucasus whetted her appetite for the Far East. Her first books, Among Russian Youth (1932) and Turkestan Solo (1932).
By 1935 Ella was back in Asia, ready to tackle China again. She and English journalist Peter Fleming (brother of James Bond creator Ian Fleming) went from Beijing to Kashgar and India, back to the place where she had stopped three years earlier.
In Forbidden Journey, she tells the story of this journey. It’s just about the best travel writing I have read in a long time.
Ella wanted to get “as far as possible from the world of luxury hotels and stream-lined expresses,” and by this time she was an experienced traveler. When she and Peter first talked of traveling, he told her she could come with him.
She stopped him and replied, “I beg your pardon. It’s my route and it’s I who will take you, if I can think of some way in which you can be useful to me.” She knew the dangers of travel and took precautions against them. She was appalled at Peter’s lack of planning and his refusal to get the vaccine against the typhus that was rampant in China at that time. Ella said her two biggest worries while traveling were toothache and appendicitis; she had had a tooth filled by Austrian sisters before her latest trip.
They walked most of the time, lived in traditional Chinese hogans, and ate local food, including “to-fu” and with food “served in little heaps in which nothing is whole and entire.” The visited Kumbum monastery in eastern Tibet, as had Alexandra David-Neel a few years before. Ella was charmed by the colors of the place and the holy men who looked like “perambulating tulips.” They ate Tsamba, a Tibetan food made from toasted barley meal and buttered tea (I know it sounds gross, but it seems to be the only drink in Tibet.)
In central Asia, they traveled in caravan – 250 camels, 30 horses, and 80 humans. Every night Peter would say, “Sixty li’s (measure of distance) nearer to London.” Ella felt the opposite. She said,
“I was so completely absorbed in the life of the trail, …the life of the beasts, of the elements, it was as though I had always been living it.”
In the mountains, Peter’s eyes suffered from the extreme light. He had neglected to bring along goggles even though she had told him to. Their interactions became curter and their bantering not as nice. Peter thought she was too serious, and she didn’t understand his British humor. She wanted to understand the “thousands of diverse lives that make up humanity,” and he just wanted to get back to England.
on June 4, 109 days after leafing Peking, they came to Sinkiang (now Xinjiang province) in northwest China, home to many ethnic groups, including the Uyghur people (Muslims that are currently being persecuted by the Chinese). Their travel became even more monotonous, and Ella recited poetry over and over to herself to keep on going. The most exasperating thing about the journey was fleas. She had to “engage in mortal combat” with them almost every night.
During their trek through this part of China, they were stopped often by soldiers who asked for their papers.
There’s much more in Ella’s story, but I’ll stop here in the hope that you will be interested in reading it. On September 12, at 17,000 feet, they ended their trip in Kashmir, in India.
Ella was sad to say goodbye to the “careless life of the trail” and head back to Europe, where “shadows of war” were hovering.
‘Suddenly I understood something. I felt now, with all the strength of my senses and intelligence, that Paris, France, Europe, the White Race, were nothing….The something that counted in and against all particularisms was the magnificent scene of things that we call the world.”
Ella’s Later Life
Peter Fleming went back to England, married actress Celia Johnson later in 1935. He continued to explore and write about his adventures, including Brazilian Adventures (still in print). He died in 1971 at age 64.
Ella Maillart continued to travel, including trips to Afghanistan, Turkey, and Iran. In 1939 she traveled to Kabul, Afghanistan, but this trip was cut short by the start of World War II. During the war she was in India studying Hundu philosophy. She returned to Tibet in 1986, then retired to her home in Chandolin, Switzerland, a virtual recluse after so many years of adventuring. She died at age 94 in March, 1997.
SPOKANE. Wash., May 4.(1896) -Mrs. H. Estby and her daughter, aged 18, leave tomorrow morning to walk to New York City. They are respectable, but will “rough it” as regular tramps and carry no baggage. Their object is to wear a new style garment, which they will exhibit when they reach New York. Mrs. Estby is the mother of eight children, all of whom are living with their father on a ranch near here, except the one going with her. The family is poor and the ranch is mortgaged. Mrs. Estby, seeing no other way of getting out, concluded to make the journey afoot.
What would you do for $250,000? That’s the equivalent today of the $10,000 promised to Helga Estby for walking across America in 1897 in an effort to get money to save her family farm. Helg’s story is amazing. Even if she only had one adventure, it was quite a big deal.
Helga’s Life Before Her Walk
Helga Estby had a tough life all around. She was born in Norway in 1860. Her father died, her mother remarried, and in 1871, when Helga was 11, they moved to Michigan. At sixteen she married Ole Estby, they had eight children, and they lived the first part of their married life in Minnesota. Their lives were like many pioneer families; the winters in Minnesota were brutal, they had to endure prairie fires, illnesses like diphtheria, hunger and the death of children.
In 1884, seeking an easier life, the Estbys moved to the area around Spokane, Washington. they bought a home in Spokane Falls and lived there with their six surviving children. But bad luck seemed to follow them. Helga was injured in a fall on a slippery street and injured her pelvis, requiring an operation. The family moved once again, to Mica Creek, about 25 miles southeast of Spokane, to a community with other Scandinavian immigrants.
Helga’s Desperate Wager
In April 1893, an economic depression hit the U.S. Ole couldn’t work because of a back injury, and they took out a loan on their property. But they couldn’t pay back the loan. They were in danger of losing their farm. In desperation, Helga somehow found a wealthy sponsor for a trip across America. She would receive $10,000 for making the trip with her 18-year old daughter Clara.
The conditions for the trip were specific: They had to work to get money, they were required to wear and publicize a new type of woman’s clothing (illustrated in the photo above), and they had to arrive by a specific date, no more than seven months later. They also had to get a signature from the governor of every state they passed through, to document their travels.
Helga’s family and neighbors were not happy about this trip. The trip was seen as irresponsible, unseemly for a woman, and even scandalous. They were advertising Ole’s inability to care for his family, and women in traditional communities should never seek publicity.
I wasn’t able to come up with a name for the mysterious sponsor. One source said it was a woman, and others said it was someone in New York. Being naturally suspicious of anonymity, I read of Helga and Clara’s adventures with increasing concern.
Helga and Clara’s Journey
Helga, 36, and Clara, 18, started on their 3,500-mile journey on May 5, 1896. They had to walk and decided to follow railroad tracks to keep from getting lost. They knew the tracks would take them into towns where they could buy things and find work. “Putting one foot in front of the other,” they set off, taking only a few things: a revolver, homemade pepper spray, and a curling iron for Clara.
They endured rain and sleet and were not welcomed in some of the towns because they were seen as “scandalous vagrants.” To cross the Blue Mountains, they had no blankets, boots or food. Averaging 27 miles a day, they were in Baker City, Oregon on May 24. In Boise, Idaho, they got their first signature.
In Park City, Utah, they found the Mormons more welcoming, and they got another signature. At this point, they picked up their new ankle-length bicycle skirts and continued.
Through Wyoming, where they were lost in forests and had adventures with mountain lions, they moved into Greely, Colorado. At this point, they needed new shoes (they wore out a total of 32 pairs of shoes on the journey). They were able to find shelter most nights and were often fed, especially as their story became known.
Somewhere after Park City, Helga and Clara started to gather more publicity. Railroad workers left jugs of water by the track for them, and they often received welcoming parties in the towns they visited. Clara injured her ankle and they had to rest for 10 days. This was a bad setback, putting their trip 10 days behind schedule.
Congressman William Jennings Bryan and his wife welcomed them in Lincoln, Nebraska. Bryan was in an election contest for the presidency against William McKinley of Ohio, so both he and the Estbys got publicity from the meeting.
In my research, I found an article Helga wrote while after her trip while she was stranded in New York trying to earn money to return home. The article in a Norwegian newspaper describes Helga’s experiences as a gold and silver miner She used an ordinary frying pan to pan for gold in Boise, Idaho and she was able to go down into a silver mine in Park City, Utah.
Helga and Clara arrived in Des Moines, Iowa on October 17. They bought new shoes and raincoats and headed to Chicago. The weather was turning to fall, which meant rains and cold nights. In Canton, Ohio, McKinley signed a letter for them. They quickly marched through Pennsylvania, fending off two attackers with their revolvers.
They continued trudging onward. Linda Lawrence Hunt, author of Bold Spirit, says, “Each new destination strengthened Helga’s sense of achievement” and her confidence.
The Sad Aftermath of The Journey
Finally, on December 23, 1896, they arrived in New York, at the agreed-upon location of the New York World magazine. The sponsor refused to pay, saying they had arrived late (only a few days, and mostly because of Clara’s injury). They had no money and had to work to survive. All the mother and daughter wanted was to go home. Finally, a wealthy railroad owner gave them a ticket to Minneapolis, but it took them until the spring of 1897 to get back home.
Things got worse. During the time they were stranded in New York, two of her children died of diphtheria. The family blamed her for not being there to care for them. (Yes, that’s irrational; she probably couldn’t have saved them, but it was her duty as they saw it.)
Helga had made extensive notes and kept a journal of her trip, and she hoped to write a book about it for money. She started writing, but couldn’t finish. I was able to find one magazine article from the Minneapolis Star Tribune, that reproduced an article from an interview with Helga.
After Helga and Clara returned, the family farm was sold. They hadn’t saved it after all. Friends and neighbors turned their backs on the family and the family never talked of what had happened. When Helga died in 1942, a daughter burned all her notes.
It was only recently that one of Helga’s descendants found some material, which set Linda Hunt on a search for more, resulting in her book Bold Spirit.
Helga became a supporter of the women’s suffrage movement in later life. I think her journey made her think differently about women’s place in the world and how women can do anything they set out to do. She was brave, if naive, and I admired her courage.
Most of my information came from Bold Spirit. This article from HistoryLink was also a source.
Disclosure: The books featured in my posts have links to Amazon.com, and I receive money if you buy a book from one of these links.
Helga died in Spokane in April 1942. Her obituary in the Spokane Daily Chronicle made no mention of her amazing trip across the U.S.