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In 1954, 63-year-old Minot resident Annie Wilkins was fed up with her life. She had two failed marriages, her father and brother had recently died, she just recovered from a bout with pneumonia that nearly killed her, and she was, quite frankly, bored. She needed a big change from the life she’d always known — several decades on the family pig farm in Androscoggin County was getting a little old.
Wilkins made a daring move. She saved up all her money from selling her homemade pickles, mortgaged her house, bought a horse and decided to ride across the country to California. Her mother always wanted to see California, Wilkins had said, but died before that could happen. In the parlance of a more recent era, it was Wilkins’ YOLO moment.
Her epic journey began on Nov. 8, 1954, when she set out from Minot with her horse, Tarzan, a former racehorse purchased from a nearby summer camp, and her beloved dog, a spaniel-dachshund mix named Depeche-Toi (“hurry up,” in French). Eschewing the gender roles of the day, she typically wore overalls and a corduroy cap, and, according to author Elizabeth Letts — whose book about Wilkins’ journey, “The Ride of her Life,” was just released last month — she didn’t even have a map. She just saddled up, and off she went.
In Pennsylvania, Wilkins was put up by a kindly innkeeper in the town of Chadds Ford in the Brandywine River area. A famous resident of both Chadds Ford and of Maine, Andrew Wyeth, came by to meet the eccentric older woman and her horse and they got drunk together, according to the Chadds Ford Historical Society.
Throughout her journey, Wilkins wrote letters to a friend in Minot detailing the ups and downs of life on the trail. While in Waverly, Tennessee, she wrote about sleeping in jails, homes or hotels, with a note of pride of her new life as a “tramp of fate” — and of the fact that she’d picked up another horse, a big bay named Rex, as a pack animal. Though Wilkins did her fair share of sleeping rough, she also experienced immense kindness and generosity from the people she encountered on the road, according to Letts.
As word spread about her epic ride, media came to interview her at many of her stops. In Missouri in May 1955, she wrote that she was interviewed by both radio and television stations, and visited a local school to talk about her journey. She sold photographs and postcards to make money for supplies. She was often given a police escort as she rode into various towns.
“I felt like Lindbergh from Paris, but I must have looked more like Buffalo Bill’s wife,” Wilkins quipped at one point.
In August 1955, according to her letters, she’d reached Cheyenne, Wyoming, where she witnessed the annual Frontier Days, the long-running festival that boasts one of the largest rodeos in the world. Through Idaho, she rode through blizzards and navigated treacherous mountains, dodging venomous snakes and surviving flash floods — but Wilkins, Tarzan, Rex and Depeche-Toi were undaunted.
By December 1955, she was nearing the end of her journey. In her letter back home, she became self-reflective, wondering what people in Minot must think of her.
“Wonder if I’ll ever see Minot again,” she wrote. “I would like to know if most folks there think I really am crazy.”
After more than a year on the trail, she finally reached Redding, California, in mid-December. She stayed in California throughout the winter, riding to various spots around the state and seeing the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Just before heading south to Hollywood, where she was due to appear on “Art Linkletter’s House Party,” however, her packhorse Rex stepped on a rusty nail and contracted tetanus and died on March 1, 1956.
Wilkins stayed in California for at least another year, before finally returning to Maine in 1957. Once home, she moved from Minot to the Lincoln County town of Whitefield, where she lived the rest of her days. In the mid-1960s, she worked with a journalist friend, Mina Titus Sawyer, to finally collect her diaries and postcards and write a book about her adventures. “The Last of the Saddle Tramps” was published in 1967, though it has long been out of print.
Wilkins died in 1980, at the age of 88 — 24 years longer than the two years doctors had given her to live when she had pneumonia in 1954. She’s buried at Maple Grove Cemetery in Mechanic Falls, where her gravestone reads “the last of the saddle tramps.”