The Pedestrians
Cricket Magazine for Kids|October 2019
EACH TIME HELGA Estby looked over her shoulder, the big cat was there. Crossing Wyoming’s Red Desert on foot, in the dust and heat of August 1896, was tough.
Timothy Tocher

Being stalked by a mountain lion made it frightening as well. Stopping before dark, Helga and her eighteen-year-old daughter, Clara, built a fire. They kept it burning all night, taking turns on guard duty, their Smith & Wesson revolver cocked and ready. When the sun rose, the lion was nowhere to be seen.

How did two women end up alone in the desert? In the early 1890s, Helga Estby lived with her husband and nine children on a small farm outside of Spokane, Washington. Ole Estby worked the land and earned money as a carpenter in the city. Helga raised the children, helped with farm chores, and took care of the house. With everyone pitching in, the family stayed one step ahead of the bank, which held a mortgage on their property.

Then the country was hit with a depression. People stopped building new houses and stores, so Ole’s carpentry skills were no longer needed. An injury left him unfit to do heavy work. Soon the Estbys were in debt and unable to pay their mortgage. Helga decided it was up to her to save their home.

Helga heard that an anonymous person connected to the fashion industry out East was sponsoring a prize of $10,000 for any woman who could walk from Washington State to New York City, a distance of 3,500 miles, in seven months. Traditionally, women wore bone corsets under long skirts that dragged on the ground. These garments restricted movement. The prize sponsor was promoting a modern outfit called the bicycle skirt that left women’s ankles exposed, freeing them to walk or pedal without being tripped by their clothing. Leggings were worn underneath to protect modesty.

To prove their fitness, women were walking long distances. Nicknamed “pedestrians” by the newspapers of the day, they argued that women were equal to men and should be granted the right to vote. Some pedestrians had walked hundreds of miles, but none had ever attempted a cross-country trek.

Helga accepted the challenge and invited her adventurous daughter Clara to come along. The rules stated that they could not carry more than five dollars each in cash. They were not allowed to beg, and would have to earn any money needed along the way.

Helga and Clara, still clad in traditional long dresses, left Spokane on May 5, each carrying an eight-pound satchel. Helga’s bag contained a notebook and pen, a revolver, and a letter from the mayor stating that the women were of good character. Clara packed a sketch pad, a curling iron for her hair, and a spray gun loaded with pepper to ward off animal or human pests. Both carried a stack of photos of themselves, which they hoped to sell as souvenirs.

There were no highways to follow, but railroad tracks ran from coast to coast. Due to the depression, unemployed men called hobos wandered the tracks, trying to sneak onto trains. Ole worried that some of these men might be desperate enough to rob the women.

It rained for all but three of the first thirty days of their journey. Weighted down by their waterlogged, long dresses, the women slogged an average of twenty-seven miles each day. Exhaustion allowed them to sleep in the most uncomfortable conditions.

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