The Ride of Her Life by Elizabeth Letts

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This book was recommended by Dorothy and it gave me hours of pleasure as I listened to it. Annie Wilkins found herself in dire straits financially in the mid-1950s, having just recovered from a serious illness, and was told by her doctor that she would no longer be physically fit to run her farm. She had no family and he suggested she give up the farm that had been in her family for three generations and move into a charitable home. She did lose the Maine farm to back taxes, but managed to scrape together money to buy a horse to ride across the country. Annie, her dog Dépêches Toi, and the horse Tarzan made it to California. It turns out that although she seemed out of options at age 63, she managed to make this happened.

She quickly became well-known along her route because civic organizations and newspapers saw the value in promoting their small towns by publicizing this unique and appealing woman. Given her rough appearance and clothing, she must have had a ready wit and have been a good storyteller; her performing experience in vaudeville stood her in good stead. She proudly called herself the last of the saddle tramps.

One of the messages of this book is that people were willing to open their homes to Annie in a way that is unimaginable these days. Many times she knocked on a door after dark looking for a place to sleep and shelter her horse.  She often was helped by police, partly because she and the horse were at times a hazard on the roadway, but they viewed helping her as their job. She was given food and shelter in many police stations overnight and occasionally for longer times if illness or weather required it.

Her trip is described in considerable detail, the many struggles she had keeping the horse shod, herself well, and finding food and shelter as needed. Though she only had a sixth grade education she wrote postcards and kept a diary throughout the trip. In 1967 she worked with Mina Titus Sawyer and produced a book, The Last of the Saddle Tramps (long out of print). The author used that memoir, census data, other official documents, and archives in small town libraries and historical societies along Annie’s route to write this book. She even found people who remembered their childhood encounters with Annie when she stayed in their family home.

Annie did make it all the way to Los Angeles where she appeared on Art Linkletter’s television program, People Are Funny.  I have such memories of his show when I was a child, in particular that my mother liked it.

About the dog’s name:  he was given to Annie when he was a pup by French brothers who were neighbors in Maine. We do not know how he earned the name “Hurry up.”

Elizabeth Letts, The Ride of Her Life, Ballantine Books, 2021, 319 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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