The Ride of Her Life

The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse, and Their Last-Chance Journey Across America

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The triumphant true story of a woman who rode her horse across America in the 1950s, fulfilling her dying wish to see the Pacific Ocean, from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Perfect Horse and The Eighty-Dollar Champion

“The gift Elizabeth Letts has is that she makes you feel you are the one taking this trip. This is a book we can enjoy always but especially need now.”—Elizabeth Berg, author of The Story of Arthur Truluv

In 1954, sixty-three-year-old Maine farmer Annie Wilkins embarked on an impossible journey. She had no money and no family, she had just lost her farm, and her doctor had given her only two years to live. But Annie wanted to see the Pacific Ocean before she died. She ignored her doctor’s advice to move into the county charity home. Instead, she bought a cast-off brown gelding named Tarzan, donned men’s dungarees, and headed south in mid-November, hoping to beat the snow. Annie had little idea what to expect beyond her rural crossroads; she didn’t even have a map. But she did have her ex-racehorse, her faithful mutt, and her own unfailing belief that Americans would treat a stranger with kindness.

Annie, Tarzan, and her dog, Depeche Toi, rode straight into a world transformed by the rapid construction of modern highways. Between 1954 and 1956, the three travelers pushed through blizzards, forded rivers, climbed mountains, and clung to the narrow shoulder as cars whipped by them at terrifying speeds. Annie rode more than four thousand miles, through America’s big cities and small towns. Along the way, she met ordinary people and celebrities—from Andrew Wyeth (who sketched Tarzan) to Art Linkletter and Groucho Marx. She received many offers—a permanent home at a riding stable in New Jersey, a job at a gas station in rural Kentucky, even a marriage proposal from a Wyoming rancher. In a decade when car ownership nearly tripled, when television’s influence was expanding fast, when homeowners began locking their doors, Annie and her four-footed companions inspired an outpouring of neighborliness in a rapidly changing world.

Under the Cover

An excerpt from The Ride of Her Life

Winter is not a season . . . it’s an industry. —­Sinclair Lewis

1954

Chapter 1

Living Color

The sun rose bright over Pasadena, California, on January 1, 1954. All along Colorado Boulevard, people had lined up early, five or six deep, in preparation for the sixty-­fifth annual Tournament of Roses Parade. Pasadena’s Rose Parade had originally sprung from the flowery imaginations of a committee of boosters who wanted to show off the beauty of California in midwinter, when most of the rest of the country was covered in snow. Now parade floats festooned with thousands of fragrant, bright-­hued roses rolled past mop-­top palm trees in the sparkly morning sun. But this Rose Parade was like no other. As the debut event of 1954, it was a fitting launch to a year that would mark many important transitions. This year, in addition to the palomino horses ridden by the Long Beach Mounted Police, the display of the crisp crimson-­and-­white uniforms of the Bellflower High School Marching Band, and the brilliant floats—­Gulliver’s Travels, Cinderella sponsored by Minute Maid Orange Juice, flamenco dancers in sequined costumes whirling on the Mexican entry—each festooned with thousands of individual fresh flowers, there was an important new addition. Two state-­of-­the-­art NBC television cameras scanned the procession, broadcasting the first live TV colorcast to twenty-­one NBC affiliates.

To show this first ever coast-­to-­coast color broadcast, the Radio Corporation of America had sent out a preproduction run of two hundred of their brand-­new color receivers to RCA Victor distributors across the continental United States. A few of the receivers were put into strategic central locations, such as hotel lobbies in major cities, situated so as to attract the most attention for this newfangled invention. On New Year’s Day, a few thousand people in selected cities scattered across the country—­Omaha, Nebraska, and Wilkes-­Barre, Pennsylvania, St. Louis and Toledo, Baltimore and New Haven—­were able to see the golden shine of the palominos, the vivid reds and yellows of the roses, the crimson and white of the drum majorettes. Southern California, America’s land of perpetual sunshine, a mild and sunny sixty-­two degrees that New Year’s morning, would never again seem quite so far away. It was a fitting start to 1954—­the year the world suddenly accelerated.

Some three thousand miles away, in Minot (pronounced MY-­nut), Maine, it was four degrees Fahrenheit and windy. Sixty-­two-­year-­old Annie Wilkins and her elderly uncle Waldo did not have a color television—­or any television, for that matter. They didn’t have electricity. Their water came from a pump, their heat from a wood-­burning cast-­iron stove. It might have been New Year’s Day, but there was no holiday from the endless chores that marked their days on the top of Woodman Hill.

The winter of 1953–­54 had started out promising enough. Annie believed that she and Waldo were just about to get ahead. A good harvest in ’52 had allowed them to invest in livestock—­a few heifers, some gilts, and some old hens. Come spring, she calculated, they’d have enough to cover the feed and a bit to spare. All they had to do was make it through the winter. That, however, was easier said than done. Waldo’s eyesight was going. He had cataracts, but the hospital said he was too old and weak to risk the surgery.

Waldo had always been a hard worker. When he’d been forced to retire from his job on a road crew for the WPA at age seventy-­five, he’d set out to show them that he was not too old to work. He kept up doing day labor, whatever he could find.

But now he was eighty-­five and mostly blind. When the snows hit in November, he couldn’t see well enough to get to the barn. Too much glare. So Annie had to feed all the animals. He could gather firewood, but he couldn’t see well enough to split it. So Annie split the wood. With each passing day, she had to shoulder a larger share of the workload, carrying feed and buckets of water for the animals, cooking from scratch over an old iron cookstove. That New Year’s Day saw her standing at the open barn door, looking at the lowering, wintry sky, ticking off the months until spring. But then she chided herself. It was too early to get started on that kind of thinking. A lot of winter remained in front of her. A wriggling at her feet reminded her that she wasn’t alone. Her silky black-­and-­brown mutt sat beside her. He tilted his head, left ear cocked up, as if to say, What now? Annie leaned down to scratch him, and he thanked her by edging even closer, his weight a warm pressure on the side of her muddy boot.

Her dog’s name was Depeche Toi (de-­PESH twah), which is French for “hurry up,” a good name for the small bundle of energy with a small pointed black nose, always aquiver with the scents of the myriad critters lurking in the Maine woods and fields that surrounded Annie’s farm—­chipmunks, mice, voles, and lemmings, the occasional snowshoe hare, an abundance of gray squirrels, and sometimes a porcupine. He had floppy ears and, across his chest, a V-­shaped bib of white, giving him the air of being all dressed up. Depeche Toi owed his highfalutin French name to the French American boys who lived down the lane. Originally, Minot had been settled by Anglo-­Saxons, old English stock, but the nearby twin cities of Lewiston and Auburn, an industrial center powered by the mighty Androscoggin River, had a large French American population, and French was spoken in many homes. Annie thought the name suited him, so it had stuck. She doted on that dog, and he returned the favor. He was never far from her heels, except when he was in her arms or off playing with the stray cats in the barn—­he loved cats.

As Annie went about her grueling round of daily chores that January, she had a growing sense of exhaustion. But the sight of Depeche Toi trotting a few steps ahead of her, tail pluming in the air, nose eagerly sweeping in the wintry scent of pine, helped keep her cheer up and her mind off her troubles. Midway through the month, however, she began to feel dizzy and feverish. The doctor said it was flu and she needed to rest. But telling a farmer to rest is like telling her to give up her farm. Someone needed to break the ice on the water buckets. Someone needed to gather the firewood. Someone needed to split the logs. Annie rested when she could, though in a full day of farmwork, that wasn’t often. As she trudged from house to barn and back again, she thought about the promise of spring, when the heifers would go to sale and the hens would lay their eggs and the gilts would grow into fat sows. That was how she got along that year, and every year. You had to have hope.

And maybe she would have been able to both keep up with the work and recover from her flu, but a Maine winter is a capricious mistress. Right then, a blizzard hit. It drifted over all the roads and covered the farm more than three feet deep with an undulating blanket of blue-­white. At the top of Woodman Hill, they were completely socked in. Annie was too weak to shovel the path to the barn, so she tried to wade through the snow, only she kept slipping and falling. Although she managed to get the animals fed and watered, by the time she got back to the house, she was on the verge of collapse. Each time she inhaled, she felt stabbing pains in her lungs. Her teeth chattered. Her breathing was labored. She needed a doctor.

But there was no way to get help. They were stranded a mile from the main road, and even that road wasn’t plowed yet. Of all the 144 miles of roads in Minot township, hers, a dead end, what Mainers called an end road, would be plowed last. She knew the law: main roads and mail routes first, end roads last, except in case of emergency. And this was an emergency, the two of them stranded there inside the silent, white, frozen world, only who would know? By now, she was too weak to get out of bed, and Waldo had neither the eyesight nor the strength to walk the mile to the main road through thigh-­high drifts.

She was lying in bed, half-­delirious, when she heard shouting voices cut through the quiet. Depeche Toi sprang up and started wriggling in joyful anticipation. The French boys had snowshoed over to see how Annie and Waldo were holding up. After coming in long enough to recognize the dire conditions at Annie’s farm, one headed down to the main road to call an ambulance, while the other busied about doing farm chores. A few hours later, Annie heard the scrape of the plow. By the time the ambulance finally arrived, she was so weak they had to carry her out.

When she was in the hospital, the decision was made to send Waldo, who was too frail to stay alone, to a nursing home. The French boys took Depeche Toi back to their own farm for safekeeping. The rest of her animals were sold off to help pay some of her hospital bills. Annie was still bedridden when she got the news that Waldo had passed.

She was the only one left. The last of her line.

You don’t know your neighbors until you’ve summered ’em and wintered ’em.

—­Annie Wilkins

- About the author -

Elizabeth Letts is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Eighty-Dollar Champion and The Perfect Horse, which won the PEN Center USA Literary Award for research nonfiction, as well as two previous novels, Quality of Care and Family Planning. She lives in Southern California.

More from Elizabeth Letts

The Ride of Her Life

The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse, and Their Last-Chance Journey Across America

Buy

The Ride of Her Life

— Published by Ballantine Books —