Road trip sagas can be unforgettable, whether it’s Jack Kerouac crossing the country in On the Road or Cheryl Strayed hitting the trail in Wild. That’s definitely the case with Annie Wilkins, a 63-year-old widow from Maine who made a bold decision when life handed her way too many lemons. In 1954, she suddenly found herself with no money, home or family, and her doctor had just told her she had only two years to live.
Determined not to become a charity case, Wilkins remembered that her mother had always dreamed of saddling a horse and heading to California to see the Pacific Ocean. So, improbable as this sounds, that’s what Wilkins decided to do—never mind the fact that she had no horse and hadn’t even sat on one in at least 30 years. Elizabeth Letts tells Wilkins’ amazing story in The Ride of Her Life: The True Story of a Woman, Her Horse, and Their Last-Chance Journey Across America, drawing on Wilkins’ extensive diaries, postcards and more.
Wilkins is an extraordinary woman with an abundance of grit and wit—imagine Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, or Frances McDormand’s character in Nomadland. She managed to buy a horse named Tarzan and set out with her beloved mutt, Depeche Toi—French for “hurry up,” which is something this unusual trio certainly couldn’t do. Wilkins wore layers of men’s clothing, had no map or flashlight, and only kept about 32 bucks in her pocket. Undaunted, she wrote in her diary, “I go forth as a tramp of fate among strangers.”
Wilkins was repeatedly hospitalized and encountered all sorts of weather and hardships, but she never gave up. Sometimes she slept in stables with Tarzan, and she often spent nights in jail cells—a somewhat common occurrence for thrifty travelers at the time. However, she also became famous as reporters shared her story, and many communities and households began to excitedly await her arrival. They showed her endless hospitality, putting her up in their homes and sometimes in fancy hotels. As Letts writes, “That was when Annie realized she wasn’t just riding for herself—she could carry other people’s hopes and dreams along with her.”
This is a feel-good story in every way, and Letts keeps the momentum lively, sprinkling in interesting historical tidbits that enrich the drama. The Ride of Her Life is an altogether quirky, inspiring journey that’s not to be missed.