Frequently, I am asked if there are any instances that stand out to me as traces of my species. Often, I look to folklore or religion for such things, but there are others…if you know where to look.
Much is made of the suffragettes Helga and Clara Estby’s unescorted trek across the country in 1896. They had laid a wager to save their farm from foreclosure and at the time, for two women to walk alone across the country was considered a scandal and a triumph all at once.
However, they weren’t the first.
In 1874, the first of the Overland staff spotted a small person walking beside the tracks outside of Omaha, in the middle of nowhere. She was strangely attired, and gave no sign that she even cared about the train, though she kept out of its way. The conductors marked her presence. At refueling stops, stations, through trains crossing one another at passage points, her existence was spread up and down the rails. A timetable was even made of her journey, her progress tracked by the engineers who went back and forth across the transcontinental.
Rumors began to spread and people turned up as she passed through their towns, never stopping, never speaking, and looking quite the sight. Hair a mess, face and arms weathered and coarse, coated in dirt and exposed to sunlight. Wearing baggy canvas trousers, a burlap sack for a shirt, and draped with a striped shawl, she carried very little and said even less, looking every bit like someone on a mission. Her pace was incredible, she averaged more than 30 miles per day over the peaks that stymied the wagon trains of only forty years previous, such that not a man could predict her movements by any reasonable reckoning.
Conductors began to offer free tickets, each time they came by her in a way station or round house. She politely and succinctly refused. When pressed, she reticently replied that she could not subject herself to the dangers of railroad travel. This confused them utterly and grew her legend. Dangers? What possible dangers could a woman face on board a train that are greater than being alone in the wilderness?
Finally, just as she came over the Sierras between Nevada and California in the spring, arriving a full 12 hours early through Truckee, she was chased down the track by an overeager reporter, who managed to pry from her that she had no occasion or cause than that she was seeking her husband. What became of that quest is unknown, as she vanished from the tracks very shortly thereafter and her story was largely forgotten.
But not by me.
My memory jogged by a newscaster’s comment made of suffragettes walking the country, I could not put it from mind. In 1874, I was much of the opinion that i was a solitary animal, and perhaps the only one of my species capable of certain things, but I know now that this was a narrow point of view. Now I look back and wonder if she adhered to my slippery mind because some part of me recognized her story all too easily.
What woman of the age does what she did, without care, dressed as she was? What woman refuses the speed and safety of the confining quarters of a train, in preference to the wide open wilderness? What did she have in her bag? How could she keep such a pace, even over the mountains, day in and day out? Where did she sleep? What did she eat?
No one knows, for she never was seen in any town purchasing supplies. She was never seen sitting. Never seen standing still. The Ghost of the Overland Route was a wanderer and kept her face to her boots, her tongue in her head.
I built that railroad and on my path westward. I built my face into the minds of men. I made a few myths and contended with others. Perhaps I cut into the land and gave her a path, cut into the minds and made things easier for her. Perhaps she exists still, somewhere near the Summit. I have reason to believe that she does…
But that is another story.
What will be the fate of that truant husband when she sets her hands fairly tucked into his hair is not difficult to conjecture. Better would it have been for him had he never been born. There will not be rocks nor mountains enough in California to cover him from her enraged sight. – Truckee Republican, June 4, 1874