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.
The simple idea of a woman setting out on horseback alone to traverse the country – from Maine to California – in 1954 was enough to get me to pick up this book. Once I started turning pages I couldn’t stop. Annie’s early life was interesting, as she was raised on a remote farm with no modern conveniences, and I enjoyed those well-written early chapters that sucked me into the story. She was never a woman used to comfort, thus she faced her journey with practicality and little expectations for aid. But as the story wound on it became even more fascinating. It describes a way of life long gone as Annie made her way along country roads, avoiding highways becoming more and more congested with cars and danger, and finding kind, generous, trusting strangers along the way who provided food, shelter and support. I wondered how or if someone could make a similar journey today.
Throughout the story I felt like I was riding right behind Annie on Tarzan, little Depeche Toi on my lap. The descriptions of the struggles she faced due to winter weather, cold, heavy rains, overnight stays in jail cells because those were the only available rooms in town, illness, and injuries to her horses were gripping. The beauty she encountered in nature and the landscape, and the goodness she found within the hearts of townsfolk was heartwarming and inspiring. She traveled without GPS, or even a decent map of the country, relying on regional maps and instructions from those she passed on how to get to her destination. It took her a lot longer than she expected but she finally made her way to California, although with some disappointment.
Highly recommended for those interested in Americana, women’s history, and a good road trip.
About the Author
If you want to know why I’m a writer, you’d have to thank Mrs. Barclay, the children’s librarian in the Malaga Cove Library in Palos Verdes, California, and my mother. who has read more books than anyone else I know, and who carted me to the library from the time I could barely walk. From the day I sounded out my first board book (Ann Likes Red), read my first poem (Block City, by Robert Louis Stevenson) and was swept up in my first long chapter book, (Little House in the Big Woods) I’ve been a passionate reader and fascinated by the lives and personalities of my favorite authors. But I was a late bloomer. I spent my twenties and thirties working as a nurse-midwife and raising four children. When I turned forty, I decided that I didn’t want to be one of those people who thought she had a book in her but never gave it a try, and I sat down to write my first novel. Now, writing is my full-time pursuit. My passions are horses and all animals, my children, singing in a choir, and long road trips through the backroads of America. I care deeply about issues that affect women and children, and especially those who are fleeing danger. But my favorite hobby is still the one that Mrs. Barclay and my mom got me started on– reading.
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