Almira Stillwell Cole, NY: Knickerbocker Press 1893.
For about 25 years, I’ve played bridge with a woman who was born in Honduras in 1922, but who came to the USA when only 10 to attend school. She passed away a few years ago, shortly after the death of her husband. Sara sometimes recounted at the bridge table the journey that took her from her home in Honduras to the USA. She rode for several days on horseback to travel from her home in the interior to the coast, where she could continue by ship. When I came across this title, Six Days on the Hurricane Deck of a Mule, in my search for books appropriate to my own journey to Honduras, it seemed a fitting tribute to Sara that I include this late 19thcentury title in my RoadWorks list. I am so glad that I did.
Almira Stillwell Cole, the author of this short memoir, made the trip in reverse, by steamer from New York to Colon, then by rail to Panama, a second steamer to Amapala, and then by muleback over the mountains to Yuscaran. She undertakes the journey “with all the assurance and independence of a typical American young woman” (circa 1890), and she is not dissuaded by friends who warn her of the dangers of such a venture. She even tries to learn to ride a bicycle as she’s been told that it is somewhat akin to writing a mule. She departs from a young ladies’ boarding school, prepared to live for the next five years in Honduras, having made the acquaintance of a couple of young men—younger than she—when they were schoolboys. One of them, Vincent, is her guide—along with servants—through the interior.
Her sea voyage is “delightful,” and she wonders why anyone would find her journey horrific. The captain wisely notes that once she has been on the “hurricane deck” of a mule she might have a different opinion. And thus, the rather inscrutable title of her memoir is created. By the way, the hurricane deck of a steamer is the very high one, a great look-out perch. Cole tells the story with panache and is able to laugh at her own naiveté about this incredible excursion. Even though she is one tough cookie, she still is attuned to the conventions of the time, appalled at the idea of sleeping arrangements at one way station in which a male shares the large open room.
Cole has a keen eye for details, noting the rider they meet who wears spurs on his bare feet, the familiar American barbed wire in unexpected places, and lizards like the “bashful little squirrels at home.” She loses 25 pounds in six weeks’ time, learning that riding muleback is actually worse than even her friends predicted. But she loves her new address in Honduras. As she puts it, “I choose to stay here and grow up with the country.”
Her memoir of her trip, which seems to have been written as a very long letter to a friend, was published posthumously “for distribution among her relatives and friends” in1893, only a couple of years after the journey. Discovering more about Almira Stillwell Cole has been difficult, but she seems a fascinating personality with a lot of intelligence and spunk. Much like my friend Sara. I can imagine that Cole’s passing created a void, and her well-written and sprightly tale of her journey continues a legacy. In retrospect, she and the mule had much in common. This is a story that would provide an enjoyable hour for any reader–and it’s available for free.