by Sheri Boggs
It was a race that makes the seven miles of Bloomsday seem like a trek to the kitchen cupboard in fuzzy bathroom slippers. On May 5, 1896, Helga Estby and her daughter Clara set out on foot from the offices of the Spokane Chronicle at Post and Main. Their destination? New York City and the $10,000 prize that awaited them there. Over the next seven months, the women would walk 3,500 miles, meet such historic figures as Williams Jennings Bryan and William McKinley, and defend themselves from hobos with a pistol and homemade pepper spray. They would also wear out several pairs of shoes each and almost lose their lives to rattlesnakes, lava plains and flash floods. In her new book Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk across Victorian America, Linda Lawrence Hunt, a former Whitworth College professor, tells their astonishing story.
"It's amazing to me that two women, walking alone in 1896 unescorted, would have survived the trip," says Hunt. "I think they, particularly Helga, really underestimated what was out there. There were flash floods, cougars -- there was terrain they didn't know. Just the hunger issue alone was daunting, particularly in the western portion of their trip, because the distances between towns were so great. They'd be lucky to get two meals a day."
Helga and Clara nevertheless averaged about 27 miles a day (using the railroads as their route), regardless of how the meal situation was unfolding. Part of their endurance stems no doubt from the fact that they were on a mission -- the outcome of which would change their lives forever.
The Panic of 1893 had hit the entire country hard, and young Spokane was no exception. Banks failed, wheat prices plunged and financiers foreclosed on everything from mansions in Browne's Addition to farms south of town. Helga and her husband Ole, both Norwegian immigrants who had endured tornadoes, wildfires and sod housing in Minnesota, had just moved their family of nine children to 160 acres in Mica Creek (20 miles south of the Spokane Valley) after living for several years in Spokane. As idyllic as their new surroundings were, they weren't enough to salve the constant stress of unemployment -- none of the local farmers could afford to pay for Ole's carpentry skills. Nor was it enough to restore health -- Ole suffered an injury that made it impossible for him to work anyway, and their son Henry died just days after his 12th birthday. Despite all that, the beauty and richness of the farm made the thought of losing it unendurable.
"You can understand the love and peace and beauty of the place through Helga's eyes," Hunt says. "She had a good home. It wasn't big, but it was a wood home with wood floors and outbuildings. She had come from a one-room sod house in Minnesota and from Spokane, which wasn't safe for her children. And here, in this beautiful place, her children were safe and she belonged to a community that she enjoyed. I wanted to convey that sense of love and her fear of losing all that."
So in 1896, when Helga was presented with a highly unusual proposal, it's easy to see why she decided to do what she did. Through the correspondence of a friend back East, Helga was invited to take part in a $10,000 wager. A mysterious individual, perhaps connected to the fashion industry, wanted to prove the physical strength and endurance of women. A formal contract was drawn up and Helga -- along with her 18-year-old daughter -- agreed to cross the United States on foot and arrive in New York within seven months' time. Along the way they were to earn enough money for food, shoes and replacement clothes; they were not allowed to beg or ask for rides; and they were to leave home with no more than $5 each. Once they reached Salt Lake City, they were to wear a controversial new "bicycle costume" (a gray flannel affair with skirts that daringly fell five inches above the ground). In effect, they were to become walking advertisements for both the outfits and the athletic prowess of women.
Helga and Clara carried with them a letter from Mayor Belt of Spokane, using it in many towns as a calling card. Their letter gained them admittance to the homes of the wealthy and influential along the way, but more important, it served as a form of credibility when the women went to local newspaper offices -- many staffed with skeptical male reporters.
"I can't help but wish some of those reporters had been women," laughs Hunt. "There were so many factual details I wanted to know. For instance, they didn't bring a change of clothing. A woman would have asked, 'Where and how do you change and wash and get things dry? And what do you wear while your things are drying? Or do you just wear it day in and day out?' So many things I'd love to know."
In the end, after 3,500 miles, an ankle injury to Clara slowed the pair down, they arrived several days after their December deadline. The mysterious New York party who had offered the wager refused to honor it and didn't even provide the two women with enough money to get back home. Starting out stranded in New York, it took Helga and Clara five months to get back home. Worse yet, Helga lost two of her children to diptheria during that five-month period, and when she returned, it was to a community that saw her as anything but a hero. Her remaining children, her husband and her neighbors resented her being gone so long for nothing, and the family ended up losing the farm. Helga quietly returned to ordinary life and let the story of her adventure go silent for fear of re-awakening old grievances.
The story survived only through the providence of a tiny chain of trusted women: Helga's granddaughter, Thelma Portch; her daughter-in-law, Margaret; and her great granddaughter, Dorothy, who in turn passed the story down to her own children, Darillyn and Doug (whose essay "Grandma Walks from Coast to Coast" first caught Hunt's eye back in 1984).
Still, Hunt hopes that her upcoming book tour and a Web site devoted to Helga and Clara's journey will continue to flesh out the parts of their story that remain obscured by time. And in spite of the heavy pall of disappointment, loss and grief that hangs over Helga's story, Hunt also points to the positive effects she carried with her for the rest of her life.
"When you look at the layers of her resilience, you see the tangibles she lost -- but she gained some wonderful intangibles that lasted the rest of her life," she says. "She was 36 when she left, so she still had the second half of her life ahead of her. She gained an absolute love and understanding of America and the people in it. When she came back, she was very involved in her community and had many good friends. So some good came out of it for her after all."
Publication date: 05/03/03