Should they survive the trip their reminiscences will undoubtedly attract great attention.
SPOKANE, WASHINGTON, MAY 4, 1896
Helga Estby, a thirty-six-year-old Norwegian immigrant, woke early on a mid-June morning in 1896 and slipped on her full-length gray Victorian skirt, simple wool jacket, and new leather shoes. She was eager to leave Boise, Idaho, before 6 A.M. to avoid walking during the scorching midday sun in southern Idaho, a hazard she had failed to consider earlier. Her daughter Clara, an artistic, intelligent, and pretty eighteen year old, helped fill their small satchels with emergency necessities: a Smith-and-Wesson revolver and a red-pepper spray gun to thwart dangerous highwaymen or wild animals, a compass and map, a few medical supplies, a lantern for night walking, photographs of themselves to sell, and a curling iron for Clara’s soft hair.1
Even when carrying a little food, their bundles weighed less than eight pounds. Wanting to travel light, neither brought a change of clothes, but Helga packed a notebook and pen to record their experiences, and Clara brought materials for sketching.2 Perhaps more important, they carried a document from Mayor Belt of their hometown of Spokane, Washington, that introduced Helga as “a lady of good character and reputation” and commending her and her daughter to “the kindly consideration of all persons with whom they may have contact.”3 As vital as a calling card to open doors, this introduction was especially useful with people in politics and the media.
They left Boise grateful for the kind considerations shown to them in Idaho’s new capital city. The Idaho Daily Statesman had alerted readers of the mother and daughter’s arrival and of their brave quest across America. Unlike a small Washington town whose residents refused to let them buy food or find shelter because people suspected the women were “undeserving vagrants,” Boise residents showed respect for their “positive spirits and physical energy.” They offered the women opportunities to clean and cook and bought their photographs to restore their depleted funds.4
For thirty days, the unaccompanied women had successfully traversed by foot more than 450 miles during the wettest spring in thirty-three years. Having left Spokane on May 5, they followed the rail route south through Washington and Oregon, then trudged east through the spring snows and thaws over the Blue Mountain range, and on through the swollen river waters threatening the Boise valley. There had been only three days without rain since they started, and they arrived in Boise on June 5 with the city in alarm as the raging Boise River reached flood stage. Their journey astonished people, especially that “the women did not seem discouraged.”5
In truth, it was deep discouragement and near despair that set Helga on this dangerous path to solve her family’s desperate financial plight. Since the devastating economic depression of 1893, and her husband’s accidents, they simply could not pay the mortgage or taxes on their home and farmland near Spokane. Foreclosure loomed during the spring of 1896, sending Helga into a state of fear compounded by sorrow as she also grieved the loss of her beloved twelve-year-old son, Henry, who had died in January.6
When she learned of a $10,000 wager offered by “eastern parties” connected to the fashion industry to a woman who would walk across America, Helga decided to try.7 She could not bear seeing her eight remaining children become homeless and thrown into destitution. She explained to her family and friends, who considered her decision outrageous, that she simply had “to make a stake some way,” for she did not want to lose the farm. This was the only way she could see to save it. Most of her neighbors in the Norwegian enclave of farms in Mica Creek considered her choice both impossible and immoral, “not something women do.”8
The sponsors wanted to prove the physical endurance of women, at a time when many still considered it fashionable to be dependent and weak. Helga accepted certain stipulations within the contract, even agreeing to wear the “reform costume,” a bicycle skirt that sponsors wanted her to advertise once she got to Salt Lake City. She and Clara were allowed to leave with only $5 a piece and then had to earn their way across; were to visit the state capitals in the west; and were to get the signatures of important political persons along the way.9 When she visited Idaho’s Governor William J. McConnell at the State House, a friend of Mayor Belt’s, his expression of interest in their walk and his personal note on their introductory document increased her awareness of the importance of their attempt.10
As she left Boise with her resolve fortified, and their supplies replenished, Helga began to worry about meeting another stipulation of the contract: The deadline for their walk required they be in New York City within seven months. The rains slowed their earlier days, and it took several days of working in Boise to earn enough money to continue. They needed to arrive in early December, but the sponsors did allow additional days if they became ill.11 Because getting lost in America’s vast continent in the west was one of the dangers, Helga and Clara had planned to follow the railway routes, including the Union Pacific to Denver.
Helga and Clara planned to follow the railroad routes to avoid getting lost and to find places with food and shelter.
Courtesy Library of Congress. LC Railroad Maps, 64; digital Id g3701p rr000640. Detail of this photograph on this page.
Although enduring drenching rains and wading through hip-deep flood waters in Idaho failed to sap Helga’s spirits, it did make her receptive to advice on short cuts. Outside of Shoshone they apparently decided to leave the rails, probably hoping to find a shortcut route that had been used by pioneers seeking a faster way from Pocatello to Boise during the Oregon Trail and gold rush days. For three days Helga and Clara wandered “without a mouthful to eat,” eventually becoming lost in the Snake River lava beds of southern Idaho, a treacherous maze of cracked lava, crevices, and sagebrush.12 Jagged rocks tore up their thin leather shoes and temperatures in the mid-eighties smothered them in their long Victorian dresses. Even more troubling, the fear of rattlesnakes hovered around every step in this barren moonscape land.
During these days of gnawing hunger, intense heat, and disorientation, when all the vocal criticism of the folly of their venture looked frighteningly true, Helga may have faced her own fears over the real and present dangers of this odyssey. Her Scandinavian neighbors saw her as a “determined” woman who achieves what “she makes up her mind” to do, and Helga’s actions often reflected her inner confidence and quiet faith.13 She had struggled earlier with anxieties, especially during pivotal challenges, such as the time of a debilitating accident or during prairie fires and tornadoes on the Minnesota prairie. Her belief since childhood in the power of God undoubtedly led her to pray for Divine help as she and Clara grew weaker, seemingly helpless in their own ability to decipher how to get out of this strange land.
But the stark danger of their present situation could have caused her to wonder if she naively underestimated the risks she placed Clara and herself in, and too blithely dismissed the fears of those who counseled her to stay home with her husband, Ole, and their children. This life-threatening detour was a mistake so costly that Clara and she risked leaving their bleached bones on the lava beds as the sole surviving remnant of their courageous venture. Helga knew, because they no longer were near the rails, that if they died her husband and children might never know what happened to them, a fear she had not considered with all the other warnings. As the moon rose over the eerie land on their third night lost among the lava rocks, Helga pondered and prayed. Her hope and faith intermingled with alarm at a seemingly impossible situation that her resourcefulness might not be able to solve.