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.