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.

You Could Win an Inn on Swan’s Island, Maine, for Just $99 and an Original Essay

A lighthouse in Swan's Island, Maine.
A lighthouse in Swan's Island, Maine.
Timothy Krause via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

For just $99 and a short, well-crafted essay, you could live out all your Gilmore Girls-inspired dreams and own a quaint New England inn.

The Harbor Watch Inn, located six miles off the coast of Maine on Swan’s Island, has two regular motel rooms with basic appliances, two rooms with full kitchens and balconies overlooking Burnt Coat Harbor, and a furnished one-bedroom apartment that the owner could either live in or rent out.

The island itself is pretty much the epitome of a sleepy New England town. It’s only accessible by ferry, 350 people live there all year, and the website specifies that “there are no McDonald’s, no strip malls, and no movie theaters.” There is, however, a lighthouse, a marine museum, hiking trails, and quiet, uncrowded beaches that might make you want to become the 351st permanent resident.

If owning your own piece of the tiny, water-locked paradise sounds like heaven, you can enter for a chance to win the Harbor Watch Inn here through March 31. In addition to answering a few questions about your experience, skills, and feelings about the small-town atmosphere, you’ll have to explain in 350 words or fewer why you believe you’ll succeed as an innkeeper and what you’d change about the inn.

For anyone willing to pen multiple essays and pay the $99 application fee several times over, go for it: According to a press release, there’s no limit to the number of applications one person can submit. They’ll all be evaluated by a panel of judges—led by retired school teachers—and the winner will be announced by mid-May. Not only will that winner get the property, they’ll also be awarded $25,000 to help them improve the inn and establish their business.

Contests like this one have gained popularity in recent years as a way to sell businesses to people who wouldn’t be able to afford them otherwise, but they don’t always go exactly according to plan—find out about the Humble Heart Farm, The Hardwick Gazette, and five other property prize stories here.

Why Do People Toss Beads During Mardi Gras?

Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images
Kameleon007/iStock via Getty Images

Each year, more than 1 million people descend on New Orleans for Mardi Gras, an organized parade of debauchery and alcohol-induced torpor that may be the closest thing modern civilization has to the excesses of ancient Rome. Saturating the scene on Bourbon Street are plastic beads, handed or tossed to partygoers as a kind of currency. Some bare their breasts or offer booze in exchange for the tokens; others catch them in the air and wear the layers around their necks. Roughly 25 million pounds of beads are in circulation annually, making them as much a part of the Fat Tuesday celebration as sugary cocktails and King Cake.

Traditions and rituals can be hard to pin down, but Mardi Gras historians believe the idea of distributing trinkets began in the 1870s or 1880s, several hundred years after French settlers introduced the celebration to Louisiana in the 1600s. Party organizers—known locally as krewes—handed out baubles and other shiny objects to revelers to help commemorate the occasion. Some of them threw chocolate-covered almonds. They were joined by more mischievous attendees, who threw dirt or flour on people in an effort to stir up a little bit of trouble.

Why beads? Tiny tokens that represent wealth, health, and other prosperity have been a part of human history for centuries. In Egypt, tokens were handed out in the hopes they would guarantee a happy afterlife; the abacus, or bead-based system of accounting, used trinkets to perform calculations; pagan pre-winter rituals had people throwing grains into fields hoping to appease gods that would nourish their crops.

Humans, argues archaeologist Laurie Wilkie, display "bead lust," or a penchant for shiny objects. It's one possible reason why Mardi Gras attracts so many people with their arms in the air, elated to receive a gift of cheap plastic.

Photo of a well-dressed bulldog celebrating Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
Mario Tama, Getty Images

The early beads were made of glass before more efficient production methods overseas led to an influx of plastic beads in the 1960s. Unlike some of the more organic predecessors, these beads have come under criticism for being a source of health problems and pollution. Made from petroleum, they often harbor lead that seeps into the soil and rubs off on hands. (One estimate puts the lead deposit after a Mardi Gras celebration at 4000 pounds.) In 2017, New Orleans paid $7 million in clean-up costs to remove discarded beads from drain basins. In 2018, they installed gutter guards to prevent the necklaces from getting into the system in the first place. Meanwhile, scientists have been working to create an even more eco-friendly version of the beads—like a biodegradable version made from microalgae.

Environmental hazards aside, the beads of Mardi Gras have become as much a holiday staple as Christmas stockings or Thanksgiving turkeys. But the passion and desperate need for them is only temporary; in 2018, 46 tons of the beads were removed from just five blocks of the main parade route on Charles Street. And no bacchanal should leave that much bad juju behind.

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