Lordy! Three months since my last post. Who knows where the time goes (a question to be sung in the clarinet-pure voice of Sandy Denny as per her wonderful song of that name on Unhalfbricking)?
I am devoting this post to the story of Lillian Alling, by sharing a longish poem I have written about her journey. A new book by Susan Smith-Josephy, Lillian Alling – the Journey Home (Caitlin Press 2011), represents the definitive record of the sketchy facts that can be gathered about Lillian’s walk from New York to the north-west coast of Alaska in the late 1920s. The book is available from all the usual sources and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Lillian’s story is still not that well known. I first encountered the tale when camping for a few days around the ultra-beautiful village of Atlin in Northern British Columbia (BC). Many small communities in Canada have their own rootsy and funky little museums. In the Atlin museum I came across a pamphlet about Lillian Alling produced by a local historian. Having spent quite a few days and nights experiencing the BC wild lands I was immediately captivated by the story of a lone, ill-prepared, driven woman wandering the mountains and forests 80 years earlier, when the terrain would have been even less human-friendly.
I eventually made contact with Susan Smith-Josephy via her Lillian Alling research website. On my next trip through BC Susan interviewed me for her local paper. In her preface to the new book she notes that Lillian’s story has inspired more than one writer, and kindly mentions that “Ted Eames has written an epic poem about her”.
Some readers of Maintenantman have picked up copies of Susan’s book and have asked for the poem. Some readers may have seen the poem already, but hopefully will find time to read it again. It is conceived as a ballad rather than an epic. It is longer than my usual poems, but there’s plenty packed in there and I hope that it repays a quiet read.
It is very much my own imaginative ‘take’ on Lillian’s story, and I have merrily and unapologetically supplied detail and colour where there is none in the factual record. We all love a nicely unambiguous ending to a tale, but sometimes that is not possible and maybe not even desirable. Sustained effort has not yielded a clear ending to the narrative about Lillian. This makes her a fine teacher of the significance of each step on the way…the power and purpose and moment-by-moment focus of the human spirit in motion.
Lillian Alling Tells Her Story
It was the Spring of ’25 and the Reds had the Whites on the run,
though I wished a plague on both their slaughterhouses.
Burying my brother’s bolshevised body,
Grandfather announced my exile from the steppes –
“The steamer sails from ‘vostock within the week,
through Panama and on to the gateway of hope.
I have not kept up my connections with old Kazimir for nothing!
This ticket is the worth and sum of your inheritance,
take it now and make your life inNew York,
Kazimir will help you find your feet.
Have your babies inAmerica, my lily,
for our Siberia will soon be an ice-burn on the map,
a mere byword for a sentence of death”.
Alone in the last dawn before the ‘vostock train
I bathed in the dew of the rich grasses
and crammed the crust of a salt lake into my mouth.
But my attempts at a sick-bed reprieve came to nought,
and soon I was sea-sick swollen in a boilerplate cabin,
home-sick sunstroked on an August-dry New York street.
Old Kazimir helped me find my feet alright –
find my feet as my only true friends!
Professor of Russian Ethnography to the world,
owner of his very own slave drudge to me.
“Oh, my dear, the very structure of your face
reminds me of my beloved Chukchi folk back home!”
I soon found out that his lily liver-spot hands
were more drawn to the contours of my other cheekbones,
so I left him to his dreams and his meanness
and hid for three nights in the New York Public Library,
ghosting my thin frame amongst the steepling stacks
between Russian Languages and Maps of North America.
By side-street tramping and doorstep pleading
I was soon in service, my meagre pay and attic kennel
hard-won rungs above Old Chicken-Neck Chukchi’s coop.
I learned the Yankee language fast,
though it might just as well have been Double Dutch,
one babbling voice in New Talk’s alien BabelTower.
My speech, my work, my food and my drink
were all mere means to an end, a quickly gathering desire
to leave that friendless, hateful, teeming ant-mountain.
My soul still sang with the wind in the foxtail barley of the steppes –
I had found my feet, and my precious days away from toil
were spent back among the maps ofNorth America.
Two years to the day from my brother’s death
I was on the highway striding west, my long walk underway,
my solitude a proud banner, no more a shameful secret.
The days, the nights, the weeks, all went by
in the steadiness, the determination of my motion.
Kind folk gave me food and sometimes shelter,
but I refused every offer from every slowing vehicle,
my hands around the short, flattened iron bar,
looted from Old Kazimir’s mess of a wine cellar
and rough-sewn into the lining of my jacket.
I might be small and easily overcome,
but there is strength in these Siberian sinews!
Chicago’s mazy outskirts taught me to nose north,
and Minneapolis saw to the last leather on my boots.
I still kept up my thirty miles a day,
though my spirits shredded in step with my soles
as I struggled to leave behind my American Dream.
Crossing the border into Canada quickened my heart
and the kind ladies of Beausejour bathed my sore feet
in the cool waters ofLake Winnipeg,
bought me good boots, fed me real food,
gave me my first friend on that alien continent –
Alice, my wire-curled spring-haunched mongrel.
The nights were better forAlice’s need of me.
By day she trotted me through the scorching sun,
the seven hundred miles of plains and farms
to the deep, steepling ramparts of the Rockies,
a beloved barrier to me in their rippling reminders
of the Stanavoy backdrop to my childhood being.
We were coming steadily down the other side
when Alice chased a wolverine, was parted from her throat
with the cleanest of vicious incisions.
I gained Prince George still grieving hard –
I had seen Alice racing through purple flowers
after snow-melt on my cherished steppes.
On the Yellowhead west I began to taste the air,
to scent the early Autumn breeze for a salt trace
that might confide ocean to my spying senses,
though my New York Library memories
sent sober images of wilderness, wide rivers,
towering coastal mountains before Pacific glimpse.
From Hazelton I launched my cunning plan
to strike a necessary north, roadless, without even a trail
for the very first time in all my leg-muscled miles.
But in the books I had learned of a telegraph line
stretching all the way to Fools’ Gold land,
Dawson in the come-as-you-are Yukon wilds.
With deep-fresh snows snuggling my calves
I set off to follow the flimsy line on the landscape –
I feared no season, no check, no hurdle, no warnings.
The Gitx’an were kind but my mind was set.
By Second Cabin, just twenty miles out from Hazelton,
I presented a poor, gaunt, weary vision
to Bill Blackstock on his endless maintenance round.
I tried to drive my body on but Bill, my saviour from myself,
tapped back a message to the township
and two days later Hazelton jailhouse was my home.
I would not tell the judge a lie, my legs still moved within my mind,
so he sentenced me to two months in lieu of fine,
and shipped me down to Oakalla Prison,Vancouver’s best.
The governor helped me find hotel work to see me through
the wet grey nothing of their feeble Gulf-winter,
and April saw me on the road again,
light-legged, refreshed, impatient, thirsty for steppe-dew.
By July I was back in Hazelton, well welcomed and well warned.
Bill Blackstock organised the telegraph men to aid me
on my journey north, to look out for crazy Russian gals.
By Cabin Eight my body was wracked but my spirit drove on,
buoyed by generous Jimmy Christie’s gift,
his precious malamute, one Bruno. Bruno helped me
cross the Nass and many a tortuous mountain pass,
till poisoned bait, a wolf-trap lure, stopped my darling in his tracks
just short of Whitehorse. Here I stonewalled a journalist
and shamefacedly lied about how poor Bruno died.
An icy, snow–bellied Autumn comes early in the north
but I just made Dawson before the wild lands
resumed their ‘No Surrender to the Human’ pride.
Winter work in hotel and laundry set me up
to buy a wreck, a filthy, battered, hole-hewn hull.
Word soon spread of my soul-sieged plan,
my ultra-urge to reach the gates of my personal Eden
with an ice-melt ride down the serpent Yukon,
sixteen hundred miles to the Alaskan coast
and my first chosen human discourse –
a negotiation with some Inuit fisherman, a berth,
a plea to be borne across the Vitus Bering straits.
The toughest, fiercest men from the wild Westminster
all helped to caulk and patch and plug and tar –
though I slipped away on a fresh May dawn
when I heard of the farewells, photos and festive fare.
A Gwich’in hunter found me bewildernessed, lost,
myriad channel paralysed where the Hodzana meets theYukon.
He showed me Tozi’s distant top and set me on my way.
I have never seen such feeling in such impassive features
as when he watched me drift from human sight.
It is there that I shake you off too, curious listener.
My yearning and the empty longing in my gut
become too personal for you to understand my fate,
too much ‘For Lillian’s Eyes Only’ for the world to share in.
Rumour of a woman hauling a small cart towards Teller,
gossip of a Russian woman sleeping rough in Galena Mission,
fanciful lies of weathering storms ‘twixt Little and Big Diomede,
even a tale of a woman arriving on a Provideniya beach.
All are futile, sentimental, human happy ending need.
My ballad ends on the bathos of a question mark –
and so it should, for the fibre of my tale is in the telling,
in the minute agonies and the everyday elations of each step,
each single one of my million (billion?) paces to my end.
I walk my path still, my restless stride is my summary sufficient,
each step a sliver of now, a momentary action and time
that lasts for ever. I am always at my Eden gate.
* * * * * * *
Thank you to those who have asked for more of the Sami (of the No Novel Underground) story. I had the next chapter prepared but I have decided to develop it as a full manuscript before publishing any more on Maintenantman.
And yes, Heads of Ayr and Sleap are real places!
This is pretty much the third anniversary of this blog. Thank you for following its non-linear progress. Journeys 6 Destinations 0.