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Adventures with Helen

Hope's journey retracing a brave pioneer's travels.

By Eryn MillikenPublished 2 years ago 9 min read
Adventures with Helen
Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

Pulling into the parking spot that likely did not exist a few years earlier, Hope fought the tears threatening to spill over for a place she never visited. This gas station was not supposed to be here; it should be a cute little restaurant celebrating its 150th birthday.

Where did the restaurant go and why?

Two weeks ago. That was when she found the dusty, ancient-looking bundle tucked into a forgotten corner of the attic in her new house. Inside the large envelope were a well-loved black leather journal and a thick smaller sachel. To her shock, it held a large stack of money; a variety of bills that, shockingly, totaled $20,000 when she finally finished counting it.

After gently unwinding the diary’s closure straps, Hope found a note written on the first page.

To the reader of this journal,

I hope this will bring you just a small sense of the wanderlust I was fortunate enough to have in my life, as well as a bit of the funding needed to humor it.

Inside these pages are the stories of my adventures, which were quite a feat as a young single woman in my day. It took determination and guts to travel without formal escort and put off marriage until I was ready. I was fortunate enough to have a loving family who was willing to indulge my desires, though I’m sure having two older married sisters helped!

My days traveling were some of the best of my life, and I just know you will be a young woman starting out, feeling the pressures of life and responsibility. I set aside this money, and wrote down my adventures for you to read, in hopes that you’ll take the same opportunity I did and go live life before you settle down.

Enjoy, and explore.


Reading the note over and over, Hope could not fathom how a woman would have been able to not only do the things Helen claimed but to have saved up that much money back then to set aside for later. Pulling out her phone and searching for an online calculator, it was equivalent to over $260,000 now. The woman fascinated her and she dove into her journal entries.

Page after page held stories of the places she had visited and the things she experienced. Some were harrowing, like when her train was robbed by outlaws as she traveled the divide between the states and the Wild West. However, others were sweet, like the tale of the boy who fell in love with her at a dance and, as they sat in the town’s small restaurant afterward, he asked her to marry him. Helen noted she actually considered his proposal, saying he was a nice, down-to-earth boy, but that she did not love him and would not marry for anything less, and, of course, her father would not approve.

Her family let her travel on the condition she keep in constant contact and return home frequently. They had been wary of allowing her travels, but she referenced Ida Pfeiffer’s journeys, and how she traveled as freely as a man had, even finding a copy of her book Visit to the Holy Land, Egypt, and Italy and making them read it. Her father, an adventurous man himself, grew into the idea over time, and, as Helen would write home during her travels, would reply to her expressing how he would love to join her one day.

Eventually, her father, Thomas, a successful banker judging by her notes, did join her on a trip to Wyoming not long before Helen did actually get married. They visited some of the towns and checked out a few railroad companies who were trying to work with his bank. By this time it seemed he trusted his daughter’s instincts and insights, and if she told him she had concerns about a venture, he would either delay it or back out altogether. It was again something very rare for those days, and Hope found herself admiring the man.

By Kevin Noble on Unsplash

Once it got so dark outside she could no longer read the leather-bound journal, Hope had to stop and head downstairs, her reason for going to the attic completely forgotten. She was a freelance writer and one of her primary reasons had been the ability to work from anywhere. As soon as she reached the main floor, she ran for her laptop and started looking up some of the places Helen had mentioned visiting.

It would take a little over a week to finish her current assignments and get out the door and onto the road, but there was no doubt in her mind about going on the trip. Helen seemed a kindred spirit, taken by the wanderlust as well, and had given Hope the opportunity and inspiration to finally follow that voice calling from the back of her head since she was a teenager.

Now here she sat, in the brand new parking lot of another gas station, in a tiny little town in the middle of Illinois, what used to be the last state before the Wild West began, wishing it was still the quaint little restaurant where the boy had proposed to Helen more than a century ago. The little black notebook sat in her passenger seat, a companion as much as a guide, and underneath it sat a brand new one where she was recording her own journey following in her predecessor’s footsteps.

Getting out of the car, Hope wandered around the asphalt, wishing she could find a sign of what had stood here before. With a sigh, she entered the convenience store to buy a drink before getting back on the road. Since the original building was gone, there was no point in sticking around, and she would move on to her next stop. Her ultimate destination was Wyoming, visiting the towns Helen had seen with her father, and where she planned to finish reading the last entries before heading home again.

When she turned around, a picture on the wall and caught her attention. Walking closer, the black and white photograph showed what looked like an old hut turned into something else, judging by the sign sticking out from the front side of the building just under the roof. The single word EAT was visible before anything else, then Hope noticed a promotional sign for soda on the wall. At tables around the outside of the building sat young adults and families, talking and enjoying food. The date underneath said 1946, yet she knew it was the same place Helen had dined decades earlier. The sadness at the loss of the place still hurt her heart, but she took a picture of the photo, paid for her drink, and got back in her car to head further west.

By Nadia Jamnik on Unsplash

Many days later, sitting on the wooden walkway in front of a ruined building in one of the ghost towns of Wyoming, Hope opened the journal one more time, reading the entry about this place once again before turning to some of the last pages of the book. This entry was written a few years after Helen visited this place with her father, but as the wind rustled through the dirt and dry grass, it was like Hope could feel her walking around, taking notes of her own, and talking to the men who were surely shocked to see her walking through their town in her nice dress.

This entry discussed Helen’s wedding day where she married a man her father met soon after their return from this very town. He brought the young man home for supper after he had entered her father’s bank looking for a loan to go on a treasure-hunting expedition. Apparently, her father immediately thought they would make a good match, and the two hit it off from the moment their eyes met. Thomas had agreed to give the young man, William, a loan for more than he requested, on the condition Helen went along to ensure her father’s money was well utilized. The trip had cemented their relationship, and William proposed the following spring.

Riveted, Hope read the next entry, this one different, discussing multiple trips the young couple went on together over the next few years. However, they returned home upon the sudden passing of Thomas when Helen’s own daughter was only a child. Even though she was the youngest sibling, she and William took over the care of her mother, despite her protestations that she did not need the help, clearly as stubborn as her daughter.

The last entry was in handwriting reminiscent of the earlier ones but written by a much older woman than the young vibrant one who had started the journal. Hope eyed her own notebook, its Reef Blue cover bright against the browns of the ghost town, while she read.

At this point, my dear child, I hope you have had your own adventure, and, if the world is so lucky, you have started your own diary from which a future generation can take inspiration. I am an old woman now, my 86th birthday is next week, and my 60th wedding anniversary is a month away. My grandchildren are throwing a big party for William and me, though I would much rather take one last trip somewhere exciting. Maybe we can still talk them into it, they’ve all inherited our love of adventure.

I choose to believe someone with the same love of life and excitement as myself found this notebook and that you took it along with you on your travels. All I ask now is that if you did start your own that you keep them together, and never lose that sense of curiosity and wanderlust. Cling to it with everything you have, and it will take you to amazing places in this world. Look at me! When most women were staring at a kitchen counter, I traveled the wilds of the country, and though I’m sure there are fewer wilds for you to find, you will if you look. I forever encourage you to look, to find, and to explore.

Tucked behind the last entry was a photo of a young woman in a long skirt, a simple yet beautiful short coat, boots, gloves, and a wide-brimmed hat staring at the camera, a smirk on her face challenging the world to try and tell her no.

Smiling, her eyes stinging with tears to be at the end of the mysterious little black notebook hiding in her attic, Hope wandered around the ghost town planning her next adventure, her life forever changed.

solo travel

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