Book review: “Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America”

In an attempt to prevent foreclosure on the family farm, Helga Estby and her daughter Clara, ages 36 and 18, walked from Spokane, WA to New York City in 1896. They walked over 3,500 miles in 7 months and 18 days. Taking into account stops “aggregating about two months” to work and to recover from injuries and illness, they may have averaged about 20 miles a day, though they often walked considerably faster. Their satchels weighed about 8 pounds and did not include a tent or blankets, but did include lanterns for night walking. By today’s standards, their thin leather ladies shoes and foul weather clothing were shockingly inadequate.

What makes this extraordinary walk a particularly fascinating read is the finely drawn historical, social, economic, political and cultural context provided by Linda Lawrence Hunt in Bold Spirit: Helga Estby’s Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America, Anchor Books 2005.  The book does at times read like re-worked doctoral dissertation (which it is). Nevertheless, it is a great story, well written, and sensitively constructed to portray the larger landscape of American cultural history in general, and women’s studies in particular, through which they walked.

What follows is a brief synopsis of the story. Read the book to get a sense of the transformative effects of a long distance trek on the women who undertook it, and to get the full picture of the tragic outcomes that resulted from such a bold, convention-breaking adventure. A wonderful bonus is a final chapter offering insights into the phenomenon of silencing of family stories, a phenomenon which nearly succeeded in hiding Helga’s story from history and from her descendants.

To win a $10,000 prize and pay off the mortgage, Helga took up a wager from a mysterious wealthy East coast woman that seemed to be designed to promote a new type of woman’s wear. The wager was also apparently designed to demonstrate the physical strength and mental fortitude of women in a period of shifting perceptions that promised greater freedom, rights and respect for women. The stipulations of the wager were that they:

  • walk unescorted. They carried revolvers and pepper guns for use in warding off unwanted attentions from tramps, hobos, cowboys, etc.
  • wear the “reform costume”, a bicycle skirt introduced at the 1893 Worlds Fair as the latest apparel for “the new woman”. As one advocate of “leg freedom” noted, “until a woman is allowed to have ankles there is not hope for her brains”.
  • leave with only $5 apiece and earn money along they way their food, lodging, replacement clothing, etc. They worked along the way but soon found that doing newspaper interviews and then selling photographs of themselves to the public was the most efficient way of earning money.
  • not beg.
  • visit state capitals in the West and city halls in the East, and get signatures of leading politicians along the way. They fulfilled this requirement splendidly and met presidential candidates William McKinley (whom Clara supported) and William Jennings Bryan’s wife while Bryan (whom Helga supported) was off campaigning.
  • arrive in New York City by “early December” 1896. They departed Spokane in mid-June and arrived in New York December 23. By some accounts the wealthy sponsor would not allow extra days for illness and injury.

As a physical feat, the walk was a triumph of endurance, faith, confidence, intelligence and resourcefulness. Mostly they walked on or along the railroad tracks to avoid getting lost. A sample of the adversities they encountered includes:

  • taking off precious time to recover from illness and injuries;
  • getting lost in the desert of Idaho for three days without food;
  • trekking for days through high passes in snow, ice, and mud;
  • walking through territory thick with rattlesnakes;
  • traversing Indian reservations (they soon got over their fear of Indians),
  • being followed by a mountain lion for 12 miles and then building a bonfire and staying up all night to protect themselves,
  • fording swollen rivers and walking in water 2 feet deep for six miles before they could scramble up the opposite bank;
  • dodging and shooting at aggressive long horn cattle;
  • shooting a particularly persistent tramp in the leg and using pepper guns to ward off other “unsavory men” who harassed them; and
  • occasionally being shunned by communities which disapproved their boldness in undertaking this walk.

On the whole, farmers and townspeople received them warmly and with supportive curiosity. Helga and Clara often enjoyed the kindness of strangers, a treat experienced by many long distance walkers, and examples of “trail magic”, such as railroad men leaving bottles of water along the tracks.

Sadly, Helga’s bold choice to risk everything and break Victorian codes of female behavior had tragic consequences. The unknown sponsor of the wager refused to honor the agreement, and refused to provide train fare back home. She and Clara finally made it back home without the $10,000 prize. While she had failed in her essential purpose, Helga still planned to write a book about the trip. However she returned to a family overwhelmed by grief at the loss of two children to diphtheria in her absence. Would the two children have lived if she remained at home? Who knows? But her act of motherly courage was interpreted as a unforgivable transgression and her story was silenced by the family. They even burned her extensive writing, which she hoped would result in a book telling their story.

Nonetheless, Helga’s eyes were opened to a wide range of social and political issues and developed a life-long interest politics, social justice and women’s rights.   She was impressed by the respect towards women she encountered in Wyoming, the first suffrage state, where women served in a variety of civic capacities. Clara opined that their trek was certainly equivalent to a year of college in what she learned. Beyond that, we don’t really know what they learned on this great walk. One can only imagine the tale they might have told. As Linda Lawrence Hunt says, “Helga’s book promised the possibility of a sweeping eyewitness record of American life in the great cities and unknown frontiers during the turbulent turn of the century……could offer a glimpse into the fabric of the American character….During a an era where the “woman question” loomed large, Clara’s differing ideas would add a fascinating generational viewpoint.”

This synopsis does not do this sad and inspiring tale justice. I won’t reveal the wonderful tale of how Helga and Clara’s story finally came to light. Read the book to learn this and much more about the bold spirit of two American walking women.

Review by Sam Demas, Editor, h2h