Women on a mission: Life-changing adventures by horse and bicycle

Courtesy of Elizabeth Letts
Annie Wilkins rambles along a highway near Memphis, Tennessee, in 1955 with her two horses and a dog on her 16-month trip from her home in Maine to California.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 3 Min. )

In the not-so-distant past, an American woman traveling alone was viewed as suspect. She was judged for having loose morals or castigated for attracting undue attention from men.

Yet in the 1950s, a woman in her 60s named Annie Wilkins defied this narrow view and launched a purposefully meandering, 16-month journey by horseback across the United States, making friends wherever she went. 

Why We Wrote This

What kind of courage does it take to strike out on a journey alone? For two women, whose solo trips were more than 50 years apart, having a mission gave them the strength and patience to push through obstacles.

In 2017, another intrepid woman, Sara Dykman, followed migrating monarch butterflies on her bicycle, lodging with and befriending people along the way.

During her trek, Dykman highlighted the monarchs’ plight, giving presentations at schools and explaining her mission to curious bystanders. 

The spark of an idea morphs into a mission. The open road calls and a cross-country road trip is born. Two new books tell true stories of long-distance travelers – women who were determined and moving with purpose – who wouldn’t let obstacles stand in their way.

In November 1954, Annie Wilkins, who was in her 60s, embarked on a solo journey – on horseback – from her hometown of Minot, Maine, to California. Her cross-country trip is the subject of “The Ride of Her Life: The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse, and Their Last-Chance Journey Across America,” by Elizabeth Letts, author of “The Eighty-Dollar Champion” and “The Perfect Horse.”

With barely any money and her family’s farm all but lost, Wilkins also faced a diagnosis of a terminal illness. Proud woman that she was, she couldn’t bear to be a burden. Her plan was to gather her remaining cash and spend two years on the road, heading toward the shores of California where she dreamed of living out her final days.

Why We Wrote This

What kind of courage does it take to strike out on a journey alone? For two women, whose solo trips were more than 50 years apart, having a mission gave them the strength and patience to push through obstacles.

Her travel companions included a strapping horse named Tarzan and her dog, a mutt named Depeche Toi (French for “hurry up”). Total strangers along her route – which Wilkins figured out as she went along – were eager to offer food and shelter to the woman the press dubbed the “Widow Wilkins.” In rural areas, she sometimes slept in a barn with the animals. In other locations, authorities helped her find a stable. 

Her health problems lingered throughout the trip, but she soldiered on. She faced poor weather conditions in the two winters she was on horseback, and she also had close encounters with newly ascendant automobiles. There were other setbacks, including accidents and tragedies of the equine variety that almost ended her trip.

While chronicling each leg of Wilkins’ journey, Letts provides ample, if occasionally distracting historical context, bringing the people she met and the places she visited to life on the page. A longtime equestrian herself, Letts touchingly communicates the connection between Wilkins and her horses over the nearly 16-month-long odyssey. “The Ride of Her Life” also serves up a hearty helping of Americana: Readers will enjoy a glimpse of the country at midcentury.

Timber Press and Ballantine Books
"Bicycling With Butterflies" by Sara Dykman, Timber Press, 280 pp.; and "The Ride of Her Life" by Elizabeth Letts, Ballantine Books, 336 pp.

Following the monarch migration

A different, more modern trek shows that the public still rallies behind a person with a mission. Through most of 2017, wildlife biologist Sara Dykman followed migrating monarch butterflies on her bicycle, lodging with and befriending people along the way. She pedaled from Mexico north to the United States and up into Canada, and then back south again. Dykman tells the story of her journey in her new memoir, “Bicycling With Butterflies: My 10,201-Mile Journey Following the Monarch Migration.”

Monarch butterflies wait out dangerously cold and wet winter conditions in Mexico until the spring, when they begin to move north in search of their sole food source, milkweed. 

The famously orange-and-black insects also lay their eggs on milkweed plants so that their offspring have a ready food source. The annual migration ensures that monarch numbers are replenished after the winter, predators, and other dangers have taken their toll.

Climate change and habitat loss have left their mark. While monarchs have found homes across the globe and are at a low risk of extinction, their numbers are falling. 

During her trek, the author highlighted the monarchs’ plight, giving presentations at schools and explaining her mission to curious bystanders. Her book is a passionate celebration of the glory of the monarchs, with tips on what people can do to ensure their survival. She also writes about the challenges she faced – problems all too common for an experienced long-distance cyclist: bad weather, flat tires, questioning by authorities, and, in the case of this trip, one uncomfortable human encounter.

In “Bicycling With Butterflies,” Dykman honestly and with great self-awareness tells her story. Hers was a deeply emotional journey, providing her with new families in the human and natural worlds. Such an outcome might seem improbable for a mere bike trip, but, as Dykman wisely observes, just like with the monarchs, “we often overlook the grandness of small things.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.