Friday, June 11, 2010

A Long and Winding Road

An excerpt from Vancouver Foundation's latest "Success Stories" series

In the early 1920s …
A young woman named Lillian Alling arrives on the east coast of North America. Part of the post-war crush of immigrants from Europe, she joins the hordes of people seeking prosperity, a new world, or just a fresh start in America. Like millions of others, she is processed through Ellis Island, and then dumped, dazed and slack-jawed, on the burgeoning streets of New York.

And like countless others before her, penniless after the trip, Alling works menial jobs just to survive. But she grows increasingly dissatisfied with the unfulfilled promise of America. Unlike most of her fellow immigrants, Alling decides to do something about it -- she will go home. With no money for the boat fare back, she decides to walk home … to Russia.

Over the next three years, Alling is spotted, walking, in Chicago, Fargo (North Dakota), Winnipeg, and Ashcroft (BC). By 1927, she has crossed the continental US, alone and apparently on foot. Almost 4,000 km, with only the clothes on her back (men’s clothes at that; they didn’t make hiking clothes and boots for women) and a piece of lead pipe for protection.

In the fall of 1927 she stops briefly in Vancouver, preparing to head north another 2,300 km to Alaska and the Bering Strait. She ends up spending the winter on the coast, part of it in Oakalla Prison Farm. Some say she was imprisoned for swearing. Others claim the local constable put her in jail because he was concerned she would try to head north during the bitter winter months.

When spring arrives, Alling is off again, and is seen numerous times on the difficult Telegraph Trail – the only land route between Quesnel and Hazelton. There are rumours of love with a linesman, and occasional glimpses of her travelling with a dog in northern BC and Alaska. There is even an alleged report by two Inuit hunters of the time who claim to have transported a white woman across the Bering Strait.

What happened to Alling? Did she reach Russia and find her way home at last? Or perish en route?

Now, more than 80 years later …
Vancouver Opera is about to premiere a new work that tells the story of Lillian Alling and her mysterious, monumental journey.


Vancouver Foundation is a supporter of our world premiere production Lillian Alling