They conversed with enthusiasm upon their undertakings and told of the hardships, privations and snubbings which they had already submitted to with an air of perfect nonchalance. They carry revolvers which they would not hesitate to use in case of necessity.
BAKER CITY, OREGON, MAY 25, 1896
Now a quiet courage replaced Helga’s earlier months of fear and anxiety. She looked forward with focused confidence, imagining one step at a time, one mile at a time, one city at a time. All they needed to do was place one foot in front of another; find food, water, and nightly shelter; stay clean; avoid violent men and wild beasts; earn funds along the way; and keep their spirits up.
The railroad routes gave them a constant guide more visible than the elusive North Star or the poorly marked maps of the sparsely populated West. Even more, the far-reaching whistles of the trains gave living proof that one could achieve the impossible. Fabled stories abounded in America of how the men building the cross-continental railroad overcame all obstacles and naysayers. No mountain, or snowstorm, or waterway deterred the resolve of the railroad magnates and their workers from reaching their goals. Well, women could be determined, too.
Buoyant with hope, on the first day they walked twenty-eight miles along the O.R.&N. tracks from Spokane back through the spring countryside to their farm in Mica Creek for a final farewell to their family. They heard the refreshing rush and roar of the magnificent Spokane Falls and absorbed the panoramic feast of freshly plowed farmlands to hold in their memory. Early the next morning, Helga and Clara hugged and kissed the children and Ole farewell, assuring them they planned to be home for Christmas. But how does a mother explain that leaving is an act of family devotion, not desertion, especially to her toddler Lillian, or four-year-old William? Local farmers from their Little Norway community watched as the women walked away, including Martin Siverson, Ole’s best friend. Helga ignored the incomprehension and stark disapproval in their eyes.1
For ten days they trudged south through eastern Washington, pelted by constant rains and sleet—a continuation of the worst winter in the Northwest since 1882. Chilled in their dripping wet clothes, they looked forward to arriving in the Scandinavian town of LaCrosse Junction because their map indicated this small village had a place to accommodate travelers. But, instead, they found only a depot and section house. Even more unsettling, the local Norwegians believed the women’s actions scandalous, making them “undeserving vagrants.” They refused to give any hospitality of shelter or food to the weary mother and daughter even though they possessed enough money to pay. So Helga and Clara took quarters in the waiting room of the depot and “fared as best we could” in their wet dresses, passing an uncomfortable night as “it was very cold.”2
Gusty winds and rain continued to hamper their journey. After walking since 7 o’clock in the morning along the railroad, they arrived the afternoon of May 16th in Walla Walla where they wanted to rest for two days. They began their pattern of stopping by newspaper offices for free publicity when they needed to stay in a town to earn money. Helga presented their calling card that read “Mrs. H. Estby and daughter, pedestrians, Spokane to New York” at the Walla Walla Union. A reporter obligingly wrote a full-column article called “Are Walking for Wages” about the “plucky woman who has conceived a novel plan to raise a mortgage.”3
Describing Helga as “a pleasant faced little woman,” the article told of her attempt to save the family farm and the contract stipulation to model the “reform dress” designed by an eastern lady. Helga also described their first direct encounters with men. Rather than experiencing the predicted harassment, she stated, “We yesterday had company most of the day in the persons of two wandering gentlemen.”4 The women’s spirit of tourism and adventure emerged, or at least their desire to gather interesting stories along the way. They mentioned their intention to visit the Cripple Creek mining district in Colorado, all the large cities along the way, and “everything of interest.” Helga even wanted to visit the Washington State penitentiary and garrison before leaving for Pendleton. Walla Walla was also the site of the Whitman mission, where Cayuse Indians, realizing the missionaries and settlers brought the measles epidemic that decimated their tribe, killed Marcus and Narcissa Whitman thirty-eight years earlier in 1848. Narcissa also broke new ground as the first Anglo-American woman to cross the continent on a Conestoga wagon with her husband in 1837.
Before Helga and Clara reached Pendleton, they received a “good fortune” ride from a Mr. Mason who was traveling in his own wagon from Sprague, Washington, to Pendleton. Saying this wagon ride was “the first ride they have had since leaving home,” they clarified the contract stipulations on transportation to a reporter, saying they must walk on foot, or go by vehicle other than a railroad vehicle “in which they may be invited, without remuneration, to take a ride.”5
From Pendleton they followed the Union Pacific track through the Umatilla Indian Reservation, land of around one thousand members of the Walla Walla, Cayuse, and Umatilla Tribes.6 The railway ran through the reservation along the silver thread of the Umatilla River, banked by cottonwood and hawthorn trees and steep bluffs. Walking the rails took the women directly through the land where Indians set up their encampments along the riverbanks.
Helga and Clara crossed through the Umatilla Reservation of the Confederated Tribes of the Cayuse, Umatilla, Nez Perce, and Walla Walla along the Umatilla River near Pendleton, Oregon.
Courtesy Umatilla County Historical Society.
Then they started the climb up the Blue Mountains, an eastern Oregon mountain range of great scenic beauty. But these were the same mountains that earlier proved so challenging for travelers, oxen, and wagons on the Oregon Trail. At over 4100 feet, this rugged mountain pass tested the women’s physical endurance. Beautiful in summer, the snows were only partially melted by May. Often the previous day’s thaw froze into ice during the overnight frost, adding to challenging drifts, snow banks, and sheets of ice on the steep climb and descent of this 45-mile trek over the mountains. Even in a milder spring, locals encouraged crossing in late summer. They believed that “no sane man who values his life and health should attempt the journey before April or May,” but Helga and Clara needed to try now.7 Where the snow had recently melted, the mud, mire, and high water created additional dangers as they forged across streams several times a day in their long skirts. They did not carry blankets, boots, or a change of clothes, so they risked hypothermia from the steep drop in temperatures at night, when temperatures rarely rose above zero. They finished the long dreary descent down Devil’s Pinch, hungry, wet, and exhausted, undoubtedly delighted to see the beautiful Grande Ronde Valley. Yet, after their first treacherous mountain crossing, they had proved to themselves they possessed exceptional fortitude and strength.
On the way down the mountain before reaching La Grande, Oregon, a tramp followed and threatened them for several days. “At a lonely point [he] attempted to intercept” them. They protested and tried to avoid him. But he persisted. Frightened by his actions, when he “refused to desist” and instead attacked, Helga shot a bullet through this “dudishly looking fellow’s leg.” Shaken by this face-off with a dangerous man and her need for lethal action, she was “pleased to announce that they were not arrested for this.”8 This first incident defending themselves gave Helga growing confidence that she possessed the mettle to protect them, if necessary. The town of La Grande, situated at the foot of the Blue Mountains, was a welcome relief. A farming community in a long fertile valley, surrounded by mountains abundant with fir, pine, and tamarack trees, it promised a place for food and rest.
Then, by the afternoon of May 24, they arrived at the Bedrock Democrat newspaper office in Baker City, Oregon. The reporter described the revolver-toting women as weather beaten and sun brown, and Clara as “tall, well built, rather pleasant appearing, and of mature years.” Helga expressed hope that they might earn part of their travel funds by “furnishing reports to New York and San Francisco newspapers.” She recognized that working in towns absorbed valuable time from their seven-month deadline, more time than she originally imagined. They planned to continue selling portraits of themselves, which was a quicker way to gain funds. She said, however, “if driven to extremes,” they will accept any employment that may be offered them at cities through which they may pass.9
The enthusiasm of the women caught the reporter’s attention, even as they casually told of the hardships they had encountered already. Getting healthier each day, Helga noted that she doubted she would need the medicine she carried in her knapsack as “the exposure has improved her indifferent health and given both herself and daughter appetites like bears.”10
Helga and Clara stopped at Boise’s Idaho Daily Statesman newspaper to get publicity about their trip. They stayed a week working to replenish funds needed for food, lodging, and clothes.
Courtesy Idaho State Historical Society, 74-126.5. Detail of this photograph on this page.
For the first time, she admitted how much her husband’s inability to provide for the family motivated her decision, something she never said quite so publicly in Spokane. When questioned as to their motives in undertaking the trek, Helga said that it had been first conceived through “the inability of her husband to maintain the family.” This fueled her determination “to do something herself” to help retrieve some of their lost belongings. If they succeeded, it would help her to recover the farm which is “all but hypothecated.”11
So many people expressed concerns over the danger of unsavory men that when Helga and Clara began, they admitted to harboring some of these fears too, especially potential assaults by isolated ranchers and cowboys, hobos, and highwaymen. But by the time they arrived in Baker City, their fears began dissolving. Their many kind encounters with others gave Helga and Clara a growing confidence in people they met and in their own capacity to cope. Farmers and townspeople must have offered them shelter because they stayed only one more shivering night in a cold outbuilding before reaching Baker City. The reporter noted, “The courtesy shown up to the present time, with very few exceptions, has caused the dread to almost entirely disappear. They say they are now afraid of nothing and will either conquer or perish in the attempt to succeed.”12
They continued south and east, eventually crossing the Snake River. They could not have foreseen that this May would have the heaviest rainfall in thirty-three years in the Boise region, which caused the rivers to rise precipitously. Coming from Emmet, the deep waters forced them to cross the river and walk the railroad tracks before they entered the city on June 4. They arrived to a city in alarm over the raging Boise river, which had risen six inches in forty-eight hours. A “force of men” had worked feverishly to retrieve giant logs that had escaped from a boom and shattered bridge pilings in the furious waters. Citizens also built levees to contain the flood waters threatening to cut off South Boise and the city.13
During these first thirty days they had successfully traversed through their first mountain range, waded through swollen river waters, and trudged through spring snows until arriving safely to Boise, Idaho. Only three days of nice weather occurred in that month; nevertheless, they established a rhythm averaging twenty-seven miles a day and proved they possessed the will to protect themselves when necessary. In need of rest and money to continue, they stopped at the newspaper office and presented their card.
In the June 5 Idaho Daily Statesman, Helga told the reporter that the parties putting up the wager did not care to have their names divulged until the women reached their destination. Impressed with their physical energy and positive spirits in spite of the obstacles they encountered, the reporter observed, “The women did not seem to be discouraged and stated they hoped to return to Spokane by Christmas.”14
Helga and Clara raised funds in Boise by cooking, cleaning, selling pictures, “anything but chopping wood.” They also entered Boise during a week when the press avidly covered discussions over women’s suffrage. Three days before Helga arrived, a large gathering came to city hall to hear an equal suffrage talk by Mrs. Laura Jones, which the Idaho Statesman reporter believed was “a convincing presentation of the reasons why women should be given the ballot. It was intensely logical throughout, relieved by anecdotes and humor sufficiently to keep the audience in a constant good humor.”15 Boise’s active equal suffrage club was also praised that week in the press.
Before they left Boise, Helga and Clara began their own engagement with America’s political leadership by calling on Governor W. J. McConnell of Idaho. He added his signature to the document of introduction from Mayor Belt and included a kind personal note, “He is acquainted with Mayor Belt and vouches for the integrity of the bearers.”16 They left the streets of Boise with their finances shored up, their supplies fortified, and with eagerness to continue their journey.