The Woman So Homesick She Walked From New York to Alaska

Despite living in one of the mostly densely populated cities in America, Lillian Alling felt completely and utterly alone. A Russian immigrant, the 25-year-old Alling was introverted and reserved, furthering her sense of isolation. She perceived the New Yorkers of the 1920s to be aloof and elitist, looking down their noses at a foreigner struggling to feel like she belonged.

Alling had worked steadily since arriving in New York two years earlier, saving up money to board a steamer ship back to her native Russia. Despite her best attempts, she never had enough. Low on funds and desperate to return home, she packed a handful of possessions and began walking. Her plan was to make the more than 5000-mile trek on foot, refusing anyone who asked for an explanation.

Over the next several years, Alling would become known in the Yukon as a mysterious figure who hiked along paths that proved difficult even for experienced outdoorsmen. She was headed for Siberia, she said, and nothing—not winter, sickness, or the law—would stop her.

 While Alling would later morph into a folklore heroine of plays and poems, her biographers have been unable to uncover only traces of information about her past. It’s likely she arrived in New York City in 1925, but whether she was accompanied by any family or was compelled to move to America for any specific reason is unknown. Alling herself was of little help, answering only“I go to Siberia” when asked about her walk. She would later admit to making frequent trips to the New York Public Library to study geography, drawing herself a path that police would later declare an impressive piece of amateur cartography.

She began her trek by walking to Buffalo in late 1926 or early 1927. From there, it was on to Canada, and across the country into British Columbia. Alling was an unusual sight, with her mismatched men’s shoes and bedraggled clothing. It wasn’t often that females were found strolling alone for miles—Alling carried a metal bar for protection—and sometimes locals would feel compelled to ask who she was and what she was doing.

“I go to Siberia,” she repeated, barely slowing down her gait.

By mid-1927, Alling had gotten as far as Hazelton, British Columbia and the mouth of the Yukon Telegraph Trail, a rugged stretch of land covering over 1000 miles that linked Canada's far north with southern British Columbia. Every 20 to 30 miles, Alling would come across a cabin occupied by one of the trail’s linesmen, men responsible for maintaining communications equipment. Early in the trip, she was intercepted by a telegraph operator who found her appearance remarkable—her clothes torn and her skin stretched thin over her face, thanks to a diet of bread, roots, and berries that made her appear malnourished. Concerned, he called authorities.

The constable who answered the lineman’s call, J.A. Wyman, was distressed by the woman’s goal and feared that allowing her to continue would be unethical. He arrested her for vagrancy; a judge sentenced her to several months at the Oakhalla Prison Farm in Vancouver more out of concern than punishment. There, she’d be sheltered and fed until she regained her strength.

At the end of her time, Alling wasn't any less determined to continue her journey, though she stayed in Vancouver through spring 1928 to work and save money before resuming her walk. The judge had no legal grounds to interfere, but made her promise to continue checking in with the occupied cabins along the Telegraph Trail. She fulfilled the promise, accepting warm meals, changes of clothing, and even a canine companion from the sympathetic linesmen through the summer of 1928.

Word of Alling reached the town of Dawson City before she did, and local newspapers delivered breathless reporting of her progress and refusal to become a hitchhiker. “Mr. Chambers offered to give her a ride to the fork of the read but she declined,” read one piece. And in another: “The people of Dawson have been looking forward with an unusual degree of curiosity for her arrival there.”

The “mystery woman” arrived in town just in time for winter, where her stubborn forward motion would finally slow. She took a job as a waitress and used the money to buy a small, dilapidated boat, which she spent her free time repairing. When the weather grew warmer, she began paddling across the Yukon River to Alaska, where she is reported to have made it at least as far as Nome. From there, she would have to convince native people to take her across the Bering Strait and into Siberia. After years of traveling on foot, Alling was closer than ever to home.

 Alling’s modest boat was left on the coast of the Bering Strait in 1929. It would be the last physical trace of her that anyone was able to definitively identify. If she made it back into Russia, it would have been difficult for word to come back to the curious residents of Dawson City or any of the other towns she had passed through. At minimum, she had walked 5000 miles, with the spacing of the linesman cabins indicating she had often logged as much as 30 milesa day.

For decades, Alaska's Bering coast was where Alling’s story ended. Then, in 1972, an author named Francis Dickie published an account of Alling’s trip in True West magazine. Shortly thereafter, Dickie heard from a reader named Arthur Elmore who wrote in with a compelling postscript. Moore claimed that he had visited a town called Yakutsk in Siberia some seven years earlier. There, Elmore met up with a friend who had been in the Russian town of Provideniya in 1930.

Moore’s friend relayed the tale of a woman in tattered clothing who had been standing near the shore of the Bering Strait surrounded by native people from the Diomede Islands, which lie in between Alaska and Siberia. The entire party was being questioned by officials, who were suspicious of the visitors.

He overheard the woman talking about how she was an outsider in America and felt like she had to make a journey back home. She had walked a great distance, she said, but finally made it.

No one can say with certainty the woman of Elmore’s story was Lillian Alling. But to think she had spent years in dogged pursuit of her goal only to perish so close to the end seems improbable. Only about 50 miles of the Strait remained, and Alling had proven herself to be resourceful and stubborn beyond belief. Having come so far, the mists of the Bering and its dangerous waters seem inconsequential. For what little we truly know about Alling, one thing is a certainty: She would do anything to get home.

Amazon's Best Black Friday Deals: Tech, Video Games, Kitchen Appliances, Clothing, and More

Amazon
Amazon

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Black Friday is finally here, and Amazon is offering great deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

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Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

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Video games

Sony

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Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

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Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

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Beats/Amazon

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Movies and TV

HBO/Amazon

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Amazon

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Casper/Amazon

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Ganni/Amazon

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The Trailblazing Story of Alexandrine Tinné, the Victorian Explorer Who Attempted to Cross the Sahara Desert

Alexandrine Tinné was an avid explorer.
Alexandrine Tinné was an avid explorer.
Haags Historisch Museum, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A well-chaperoned Grand Tour of Europe offered wealthy Victorian women a way to safely admire civilization’s wonders, but such travel held little interest for Dutch heiress Alexine Tinné. Having studied books on geography, archaeology, and botany at the Royal Library in the Hague, Tinné longed to explore uncharted regions. Her travels would bring her along the White Nile and later, deep within the Sahara Desert.

An Escape From Victorian Life

Alexandrine Tinné, circa 1855–1860.Robert Jefferson Bingham, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the mid-19th century, exploration was considered a gentleman’s pursuit. The Royal Geographic Society had never financed an expedition led by a woman (and wouldn't until 1904). But Tinné didn't need anyone to authorize or fund her trip, having inherited a fortune when she was 9 years old after the death of her father, Philip Frederik Tinné, a wealthy Anglo-Dutch sugar merchant and shipbuilder [PDF]. She could afford to travel in luxury with her mother, Baroness Henriette van Capellen, a former lady-in-waiting to Queen Sophie of Württemberg. When Tinné was 19, she and her mother traveled Europe and Scandinavia before heading to Egypt to enjoy pleasure cruises on the Nile.

According to Mylinka Kilgore Cardona, a history professor at Texas A&M University who is reworking her dissertation The Six Lives Of Alexine Tinné [PDF] into a book, Tinné’s travels offered a chance to escape the narrow confines of Victorian life. “She got to be her authentic self when she was outside of Europe,” Cardona tells Mental Floss. “She got rid of the corsetry and the crinolines and dressed like a local, albeit a wealthy local. Had she gone back to Europe she would have most likely been forced back into those expectations and highly encouraged to marry.”

Eventful Expeditions

Tinné was so intrigued by Africa, she launched an 1863 expedition to what is now Sudan to discover the source of the Nile, something European explorers had sought since Roman times. Ornithologist Theodor von Heugelin and botanist Hermann Steudner joined Tinné’s 1863 expedition, which required a flotilla of boats to ferry her entourage of soldiers, maids, porters, and clerks, as well as the required camels and donkeys. Tinné’s five dogs, carried in panniers by porters, also accompanied the group.

Though she didn't find the source of the Nile, her adventures were still fruitful. Tinné documented her travels along the region’s waterways and settlements, compiling photographs and drawings now housed in museums. The plants she collected and pressed became the basis for Plantae Tinneanae, a book on the botany of Bahr el-Ghazal, and her letters, sent home by dispatch, described experiences that included traders promising to proclaim her Queen of the Sudan and receiving a marriage proposal from a sultan. 

To a niece, Tinné wrote of her intention to travel beyond Bahr el Ghazal in South Sudan. “When you look at the map you will see there is at the SouthWest of the Equator, a large space empty of names, it’s there we want to go to.”

Accounts of her travels not only thrilled newspaper readers of the day, but also were presented at The Royal Geographic Society. Yet some critics called Tinné a dilettante and claimed women were ill-suited to risky endeavors. “Exploration was this very macho masculine thing in the 19th century,” Cardona says. “To be out exploring and facing your fears. Then you have this 20-something-year-old woman doing it. How manly can it be if she is doing it too?”

Troubled Travels

Alexandrine Tinné's travels were far from solitary.Die Gartenlaube, 1869, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Tinné’s excursions were far from a leisurely holiday. Her entourage grew as she traveled, straining their resources. When food supplies ran low, her soldiers threatened to mutiny. In self-taught Arabic, the heiress persuaded them to continue, but she soon had to reverse course: While in Bahr el Ghazal, several members of her expedition became severely ill. Tinné and von Heugelin survived, but her mother, Steudner, and two maids died.

Tinné returned to Khartoum, where Adriana van Cappellen, an aunt who had previously left the expedition, had remained. Only weeks after Tinné arrived in Khartoum, Van Cappellen died unexpectedly. Despite suffering yet another devastating loss, the young explorer chose not to return to the Hague. “And now you will probably ask yourself what I am going to do,” she wrote to her niece. “And I don’t think you will be very astonished when I tell you I am going to stay in the East.”

For the next four years, Tinné lived in Alexandria, Tunis, and Tripoli, sailing the Mediterranean, but still longing to explore uncharted regions. In late 1868, she launched another expedition, aiming to be the first European woman to cross the Sahara. It would be her last.

The expedition began in Tripoli, but ended before ever leaving the country. In August 1869, at the age of 33, Tinné was killed during a fight between her camel drivers and guides while traveling between Murzuq and Ghat [PDF]. She knew the dangers inherent in exploration, at one point expressing her preference for an interesting life: “If you hear today or tomorrow that I have been sent to the other world, then don’t think my last moments were lived in bitterness.”