(originally published MariE Shopp blog)
On an overcast day in July, 2007, I packed up a Rent-a-Wreck, a Ford Taurus with 132,000 miles and an alarming tendency to rattle and groan during left turns, and headed off to follow the trail of Laura Ingalls Wilder. My nine-year-old daughter and I lived on the Pennsylvania/New York border, just a few miles south of Cuba, New York. That’s the area that, one hundred fifty years before, young Charles Ingalls’s family had also left to head west.
I pictured them setting out on a summer day from the pine-forested hills of Allegheny County, canvas stretched over the top of the wagon, a baby on the box behind the seat, children crouching in the swaying bed. The wagon probably held a couple of trunks of family possessions and supplies: porcelain bowl and pitcher, treasured family photos, a musket and fiddle, coffee beans and corn meal and molasses, salt pork and dried fruits.
Here’s what I imagined: the wagon hot and stuffy, even with the sides rolled up to let in a breeze, the children watching the two lines stretching endlessly behind them where the wagon wheels have flattened the grass. Wheels creak and hooves clip-clop through the vast silence of the roadless prairie, moving about two miles an hour, covering maybe fifteen miles in a day.
Birds rise into the overturned blue bowl of sky like pepper emptied suddenly from a shaker.
Clouds scud above and quick rabbits rustle through grass, and sometimes near creeks the children spot muskrat houses or beaver dams. And from the height of bird flight, the speed of clouds, the numbers of rabbits, the thickness of mud walls, Charles Ingalls learns to gather information about the length and harshness of the season ahead. This is one of the skills he will pass on to his daughter, Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose stories will teach generations about westward migration and white settlement of the American frontier.
I wasn’t sure why I felt compelled to follow the path of Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose series had profoundly affected my childhood. I wanted to write a book about the novels that had shaped me when I was young, and I was thinking about visiting places related to those books—Prince Edward Island and Anne of Green Gables territory, Mankato, MN and Maud Hart Lovelace sites, Concord, MA and Louisa May Alcott’s homes and museums. But Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work had been the most formative for me. My mother had started reading me the books when I was three and I’d gone on to read them over and over myself.
At any rate, there we were a couple of days after we’d left home, my daughter and me, heading through thunderstorms for Wabasha, MN, across the river from Pepin, WI, where Little House in the Big Woods takes place. Everything was the deep color of the world after rain—the green, green grass, the velvet blue of the overcast sky, the wet orange cones along the highway, the newly-painted yellow lines.
As we crossed the Mississippi, I thought how easy it was to speed over water that pioneers could only cross when it was frozen. Families left trunks and pianos and rocking chairs strewn along the banks of this river, finding it too great a risk, in the end, to carry such heavy possessions across potentially fragile ice.
In Pepin, we wandered through a recreated bedroom displaying a trundle bed, a sewing machine that belonged to Laura’s cousin, and a red wool petticoat mounted on the wall. In back there was a kitchen crammed with an antique stove, dishes, and a wizened but still fragrant clove apple once used to scent drawers.Later we drove out to the site of the Little House in the Big Woods. I stood in front of the replica cabin and my daughter took my picture. Wings beat loudly behind me: not bats, as I imagined at first, but swallows that darted back and forth through the cabin rafters.
Our eyes adjusted to the dark interior, a narrow common room and two tiny bedrooms, smaller than many of today’s typical closets. We craned our necks at the loft above the bedrooms, a platform meant to suggest the attic where Mary and Laura played, where pumpkins had served as chairs and tables, and hams and venison hung above in paper wrappings, along with bunches of dried herbs, braided ropes of onions, and wreaths of red peppers. This platform was empty, but our memories of the books filled in the details.
Over the next two weeks, we would tour many log houses, sod houses, dugouts, old churches, schoolhouses, post offices, banks, jails, and depots, replica violins and china shepherdesses and Charlotte dolls and hand dug wells. We would drive through Kansas and Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota and Missouri. My daughter would smile with a kind of despairing politeness when asked for the sixth time, at the sixth tourist site, if she wanted to try to play a pump organ. She started to complain about the long hours in the car. But finally, as we pulled up into our own driveway, my daughter, who’d been whining the last few hundred miles, would say, “That was fun. Let’s do that again.”
For a minute, I wanted to do just that. Turn around and start again, driving again down long stretches of highway, passing moving vans and RVs, lumbering vehicles labeled “Sunseeker” and “Pioneer Spirit.” I wanted the pioneer spirit to infect me again, an in-the-moment awareness of details that distances daily aggravations, forcing me to inhabit my life in a newer, calmer, more grateful way, appreciating small pleasures. I wanted to turn around and do it all again, head back again toward the Little house in the Big Woods, my anticipation swelling like the bluffs, back again to the place where the books began, which is also the place where my love of reading began.