Off The Beaten Path: Oh Pioneers!
Confession – I was that girl growing up – you know whom I’m talking about – the short, skinny girl who was always sick. I had asthma and allergies and a tray covered with medicine. I would wheeze and sometimes I would stop breathing and my Dad would breathe life back into me. Books became my best friend, opening up a world of excitement and adventure for me. I had two favorite authors growing up: Lucy Maude Montgomery (who wrote the popular Anne of Green Cables series) and Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of The Little House On The Prairie series of books. As I turned the pages of their books I was spellbound and transported to a different era. I own all of their books and continue to read them over and over again.
This past month I had the privilege to travel to DeSmet, South Dakota and visit the Homestead site of the Ingalls family. I toured the Surveyor’s House where Laura, Ma, Pa, Mary, Carrie and Grace lived while Pa Ingalls worked for the railroad. We trekked down streets to discover the home that Pa built for him family in 1887.
Although my spouse has never read any of these books and doesn’t quite understand my fascination, he graciously spent several hours driving me for miles and miles and accompanied me as I walked through the knee high grass of the rolling prairie land. I stood on the site of the Wilder Homestead where Laura and Almanzo built their small claim shanty atop a sloping hill.
Although the Silver Lake was gone, it is a pothole lake and only fills up when there is a lot of rain, I paused at the site and could almost picture Laura and her sisters frolicking and having fun. We drove a few miles north and discovered the beautiful Spirit Lake from Laura’s book, These Happy Golden Years. The sweeping prairie vistas soothed my soul. I have always dreamed of running through the prairie grass. Even though I am 50 years old, I contemplated performing this slightly juvenile fantasy. I had one foot poised in front of me, ready to dance and run with abandon when my husband tore down the grass, frantically contorting his body and failing his arms. It seems as though the Prairie is home to ticks and he was covered with the red varmints. Thankfully all of the ticks were removed and I wisely decided to just pretend that I had dashed through the tall grass.
The highlight of my Laura journey was the visit to the Ingalls Homestead Site. The claim shanty is long gone, but Pa’s cottonwood trees that he planted welcomed me. They stood tall and proud, much like the brave pioneer Ingalls family who heard the call of adventure and moved west from Wisconsin to several points, ultimately settling permanently at DeSmet. (Laura Ingalls Wilder and her husband and daughter Rose Wilder Lane would continue to hear the call of adventure, moving to Missouri. Rose moved to San Francisco, California and became a respected journalist and author.) I climbed up the path to the monument marking the site of the Homestead. It was a beautiful morning; the sun was vividly shining through Pa’s cottonwoods. I extended my arms and swayed with the trees. I closed my eyes and suddenly I wasn’t that sickly girl of years past, I was Laura – the mischievous heroine of my childhood. I was alone on that mound of ground as my husband had remained in the car, but yet I wasn’t alone. A rush of emotion flooded me and yes, my eyes began to water. I looked across the land and spied the Big Slough that Laura described in her book. Oh Pioneers! What trials and tribulations you endured but yet you never gave up hope and persevered on – a life’s lesson for all of us today.
Most people won’t understand the connection. It is hard to explain but through her words describing the land and the people, Laura Ingalls Wilder allowed the reader to follow along on her life’s adventures. I hope that for some small part, I have done the same thing for the past 23 years I have written my column.