Barbara Newhall Follett in the White Mountains in 1926.
Barbara Newhall Follett in the White Mountains in 1926. (Photo: Barbara Newhall Follett papers.)

A Woman Explorer Disappeared in 1939. I Followed Her.

In an excerpt from her new memoir, 'The Art of Vanishing,' Laura Smith—feeling anxious about her forthcoming wedding—becomes curious about a woman who, unsatisfied with her own marriage, set off on her own and was never seen again

Barbara Newhall Follett in the White Mountains in 1926.
Laura Smith

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A year before our wedding, my fiancé and I decided we needed to get out of D.C. Leaving would mean saying goodbye to nearly everyone we knew, which was, at least to me, exactly the point. Wanting to flee, if only for a time, is a fairly common fantasy. Anyone who has felt it will recognize that this feeling manages to coexist with the fact that you may love your friends and family very much. I love you. Please go away.

Many of our friends from our respective high schools, our college friends, our parents, and my fiancé P.J.’s siblings and their combined five children lived within a five-mile radius of our home. There was an endless string of birthdays, happy hours, going-away or coming-home parties, soccer games, holiday and engagement parties.

I was beginning to see that when your days are all the same, your weeks, months, and years blend together. The alumni association of my high school asked for an update for the school magazine, and I didn’t have one. “Nothing has changed,” I imagined writing. “Laura Smith, Class of 2004, is exactly the same.” I imagined that my classmates were climbing Annapurna, kayaking the length of the Nile, and rescuing earthquake victims in China. I longed to see other places. Even looking at a map was painful because it reminded me of how mired I was in my life. A National Geographic special about the pyramids came on, and I thought, I really might never get to Egypt. My world was small.

When I was in my mid-twenties, I heard a story about a young woman who had also dreamed of leading a life of adventure, and I could not get it out of my head. Her name was Barbara Newhall Follett. She was a child prodigy and had published an acclaimed novel at the age of 12. People called her a genius. When she was 13, she left her parents and traveled the high seas with a hardened crew. Later that year, she published a memoir about the experience. She was deeply knowledgeable about botany, butterflies, and much of the natural world.

I had led an ordinary childhood, and no one had ever accused me of being a genius, but Barbara and I shared a love of literature and the outdoors. There was something else too: a certain temperamental similarity—a restlessness.

Barbara camping with Nick Rogers in Maine during the summer of 1932. Barbara left her job in New York at the height of the Depression to spend four months hiking in the newly formed Appalachian Trail.
Barbara camping with Nick Rogers in Maine during the summer of 1932. Barbara left her job in New York at the height of the Depression to spend four months hiking in the newly formed Appalachian Trail. (Courtesy Stefan Cooke/

In December 1939, Barbara’s marriage was coming to an end. She was 25, fine-featured and tomboyish, with a long auburn bob. She hadn’t planned on this kind of life. She hadn’t planned on bickering about who would hang the curtains or what music to play at a dinner party. She had never intended to sit in an office all day, a large round clock ticking the minutes away. She hadn’t planned on having a husband or a house.

The Boston and Albany Railroad had a depot around the corner, and Black Falcon station, with its enormous ships fastened in the harbors, was just five miles away. There were ways to escape from Brookline, to get out of a marriage, to alter the patterns of a life. Barbara gathered her notebook and $30. She walked out of the apartment, down the engraved wooden staircase, through the front door, and disappeared into the night. She was never seen or heard from again.

I began writing about a woman who disappears. Not Barbara, but a fictional woman. She was a botanist who had vanished, perhaps deliberately, in the Burmese jungle in search of a rare psychedelic mushroom. I wrote about her because I wanted to disappear. Often those who write about women who have vanished are men with an impulse to eviscerate women, or women with an impulse to eviscerate themselves. I was interested in a different kind of vanishing: the kind where you disentangle yourself from your life and start fresh. People would miss you. You could miss them. You could live at a peaceful distance, loving them in a way that is simpler than the way you love someone you have to deal with every day. You hadn’t abandoned them. You were just gone. Mysterious rather than rejecting. Vanishing was a way to reclaim your life.

“Let’s leave the country,” P.J. said one night after work over burritos at a Mexican chain restaurant. We had been talking casually about moving abroad for a while, but the idea was tantalizing and somehow more urgent now that we were deep in the weeds of wedding planning. Moving away was another way to say no without having to say it. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” I imagined myself saying. “We can’t go to dinner because we’ll be in Asia.”

“Can we please?” I said.

“We can do whatever we want,” P.J. said.

Two days after the wedding, P.J. and I were in his sister’s basement, frantically packing. We were moving to Southeast Asia for a year, mostly because it was the farthest away we could get on the planet before coming back around again. The weather, the people, the sounds and smells would all be new to us. Days would be remarkable again.

We had saved some money and had a few freelance writing and research contracts that could be done remotely. Our backpacks contained everything we would need for the next year, which it turned out wasn’t much.

(Viking Books)

We were running away not just from home but from a certain idea of what married life should be. Marriage is, in many ways, freedom’s opposite, the binding of one life to another—in theory at least—forever. So as I tied myself to P.J. with one hand, I untethered myself from the rest of my life—family, friends, my job, my apartment—with the other.

As the plane lifted off the tarmac, I felt I had escaped. Of course, on one level leaving the country for a year isn’t that unusual. People quit their jobs and move all the time. They travel. It’s an indulgence, but nothing truly revolutionary. Yet suspended in the night sky, surrounded by strangers reading, talking, and sleeping, I knew leaving meant much more than that. If you had asked me then what I would have been willing to risk to find freedom, I would have said everything—except P.J.

We flew to Phuket, in southern Thailand, and then took an overnight train to Bangkok, where the American in the seat behind us got a blowjob from a prostitute while we tried to sleep.

Bangkok is a city of more than 8 million souls swarming with motorbikes and cars. Old ladies cook with boiling vats in little carts on sweltering street corners. Sixty-story skyscrapers spike the downtown skyline. The city has 180 shopping malls, between which flashing screens herald the latest fashion. Everywhere we turned there were stands serving ice cream or Chinese bean cakes, street stalls that smelled of tamarind and curry. The next block reeked of sewage. A smiling woman sliced juicy, plump mangoes and placed them on a pearly bed of sticky rice. The sidewalks sizzled and the bank clocks displayed the temperature and the CO2 levels, which were always extremely high.

One day, as I walked alone from the market to the Skytrain, I looked around at the neatly dressed women in pencil skirts and men in slim business suits. The train’s sleek body approached on the monorail. The doors opened and I felt a blast of air-conditioning. As the train slithered above the sweltering streets, I realized I had not been alone for a single minute in the past month.

P.J. and I went to the grocery store together, worked at a table across from each other, ran together, and at night, when we curled up to sleep, I heard him breathing next to me. Without a physical home, P.J. had become my home. Alone on the train, I felt entirely dislocated in ways that were both thrilling and frightening.

Adapted from The Art of Vanishing by Laura Smith, published by Viking Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Laura Smith.

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Lead Photo: Barbara Newhall Follett papers.

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