The Ride of Her Life tells the story of Annie Wilkins’ epic horseback road trip from Maine to the West Coast in 1954. As author Elizabeth Letts finished writing her book in 2020, she learned from Annie how to find contentment and freedom even during quarantine.
Annie Wilkins inspired me. In 1954, 62 years old, penniless and unwell, she set off from Maine on the cusp of winter believing she could ride her horse all the way to California. When I decided to write about her, I thought I’d found a path to escape just like she had. I imagined myself gliding down endless highways as I did research for my book, freed from the concerns of daily life. I’d be Annie, unfettered, alone, no cell phone in my pocket relentlessly calling me to the things of this world. Or at least, that’s how I pictured it would go.
And no wonder escape was my fantasy. I’m a member of the “sandwich generation,” juggling the demands of a frail, aging parent and a growing teenage son. My life is punctuated by ordinary things—grocery shopping and doctors’ appointments, kids’ sports practices and calling the plumber. Most of the time, I find it hard to leave town even for a few days.
Despite all this, I geared up to investigate Annie’s epic adventure, a journey that I had already planned to retrace inch by inch—if I could just find the time. In 2017, I started to follow Annie’s route in chunks. Using vintage maps for guidance, I sought out a landscape that no longer existed but whose traces nonetheless remained in plain sight if you knew where to look—filling stations with a couple of pumps out front, roadside diners and motor courts, Main Streets of small towns. America as it was, just on the cusp of being transformed by the massive interstate highway system. Each time I ventured out, I was caught up in the romance of the vast American landscape. Each time, I hurried home before I was quite finished, wishing I had more time to stay on the road.
I confess I envied Annie’s freedoms—a woman on her own, with her horse and dog for company, doing precisely and only what she pleased. I often wished I, too, could leave everything behind—the instant messages, the emails, the work and home responsibilities that modern technology allows us to bring along so that we never truly get away.
“As I spun the results of my research into a story, my own vista grew smaller. But Annie’s world got bigger and bigger as she traveled to the wide-open spaces of the West.”
The Ride of Her Life was mostly complete when, in late February 2020, I decided to squeeze in another trip. I didn’t know it would be the last one—but as every reader now knows, the world was about to change. Within a month, my son was sent home for online schooling; my older daughters both moved home. The quiet sanctuary where I did my writing was filled with people jostling for desk space, fridge space and bandwidth. I moved my laptop from my home office into my bedroom and immersed myself in what solitude I could find.
Throughout the next months, as I spun the results of my research into a story, my own vista grew smaller. But Annie’s world got bigger and bigger as she traveled from the wooded confines of New England to the wide-open spaces of the West. And it seemed that the longer I stayed in my own home, the better I understood Annie. She was a single woman, short and square, working class and proud of it, divorced and with no children at a time when women were judged mostly by their relation to others—mother, wife, widow. Annie Wilkins never went anywhere or did much of anything except work in the kinds of jobs available to a woman with a sixth grade education. She was trapped in a life that was pretty much inevitable for her. She had no means of escape.
“The binds I had chafed at were less like boundaries and more like the yellow lines on the highway—not walls to keep me confined but guidelines to keep me straight on the road.”
And how did she respond to that? Unfailingly, for the first 62 years of her life, she just kept going. Not a word of complaint. She adopted her father’s motto—“Keep going and you’ll get there”—which is helpful for a journey, even if it’s the ordinary journey of life.
As I wrote about Annie’s life and travels, I began to perceive that I hadn’t really been stuck before. The binds I had chafed at were less like boundaries and more like the yellow lines on the highway—not walls to keep me confined but guidelines to keep me straight on the road.
Yes, Annie’s journey was epic, but the things she carried—her pluck and determination, her faith in the essential goodness of the world and her love for her animal companions—were all things she possessed before she started. And so, as I sat at home with my laptop, slowly growing used to the restricted world we’ve been living in, I learned that the truest journeys of our lives take place in our hearts. That’s the lesson Annie taught me. And it was a lesson I needed to learn.
Author photo credit © Ted Saunders