Thursday, August 26, 2010

Great American Road Trip, Part IV: DeSmet, SD

On the 3rd day of our trip, we continued on Highway 14 (The Laura Ingalls Wilder Historical Highway) to DeSmet, SD. I remembered this part of South Dakota from my trip there in 1991. Very flat, big sky, lots of farms.

DeSmet is the Little Town on the Prairie, and is the setting for By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years.

Here is the surveyor's house the Ingalls family lived in the first winter they lived in DeSmet. It is the actual house, but it is not in its original location. The tour starts in the surveyor's house. The surveyor's house is exactly as Laura described! No interior photos were allowed, but exterior photos were okay.

The Laura stuff is a bit different than my first visit 19 years ago. Back then, the school house Laura attended was a private residence. You could walk past it, but that was it. I remember the homeowner was out mowing his lawn, and I felt a bit awkward gawking at his house. Since then, the school house went up for sale. The Laura Ingalls Wilder society bought it and relocated it to their little "compound" in town, where the gift shop sits, along with the surveyor's house, a replica of the Brewster school, and now the school house Laura and Mary attended.

Following the tour of the "compound", everyone on the tour gets in their cars and follows the tour guide to Pa and Ma's house in town. This is the last little house Pa ever built. Laura never lived in it, but she did stay in it, and it is where Pa and Ma lived until they died.

Pa, Ma, Mary, Carrie, and Grace are all buried in the cemetery in DeSmet. I visited the graves in 1991, but my daughter had no interest, so we skipped that little side trip.

The homestead site of the Ingalls is outside of town, and is its own separate enterprise (ie: paying for the tour of the town sites does not get you into the homestead site!). This has changed remarkably since 1991. Back then, the homestead site had a simple historical marker mounted onto a large rock, and that was it. My husband and I went out to it and we were all alone with the prairie and Pa's cottonwoods. Since then, a huge guest center (with gift shop and parking lot) has appeared, along with a whole "living prairie" experience. You can visit a replica of the claim shanty/house, drive a Conestoga wagon, feed farm animals, twist slough hay into braids, and do other pioneer chores. I didn't want to visit a replica, drive a Conestoga wagon, feed farm animals, or twist slough hay into braids! I wanted to sit under the cottonwoods and listen to the wind!

The cost was $10 per person, and we quickly came to the conclusion that we didn't want to spend the money or the time on a theme-parky experience at the Ingalls homestead, so we climbed the lookout tower for a visual overview and called it a day.

Like me, my daughter most wanted to see Pa's cottonwoods and the historical marker. That area was in the fee area if you approached it from the visitor's center, but we noticed an opening in the fence near the roadway, with a path leading to the marker and the trees, so we parked on the side of the road and got to visit that area for free.

(little van on the prairie)

My daughter has seen a few episodes of the Little House TV show. She finds it a little too corny, but when I told her to run down the hill with her arms spread out, she knew just what to do:

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Great American Road Trip, Part III: Walnut Grove, MN

After a picnic lunch at Jeffers Petroglyphs, we headed back to Highway 14 and continued westward on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historical Highway.

The highway follows roughly the same route the Ingalls family followed in the 1870s when they were moving around the country.

When my husband and I lived in Minnesota in the early 1990s, we traveled to see the Laura sites from our home in the Twin Cities. We planned to see Walnut Grove, but something had happened at that time, maybe a storm or a flood, or maybe road construction, or possibly a combination of all of those things. Whatever the problem was, every highway going to Walnut Grove was impassable, so I didn't get to see the setting of On the Banks of Plum Creek, which was always one of my favorite books in the series. Missing Walnut Grove was a huge disappointment.

This year we had no trouble getting to Walnut Grove (and the roads were in such fine shape that I wondered what on earth could have made getting there so impossible in 1991!). We went to the museum in town first. It was a bit of a letdown. The focus of the museum is mostly on the 1970s TV show Little House on the Prairie. I watched the show faithfully when I was a child, and even though I enjoyed it, in my heart it never held a candle to the books. It was sort of sad to see the displays at the museum: photos from when Dynamite Magazine featured the TV show, photos of the actors, then and now, who portrayed the characters. They had a few of the props from the TV show on display, but nothing really extraordinary, and even the pioneer things on display were only "similar" to what Laura would have owned. We were given a map of town, marking the locations where Laura's school and church had stood, but those buildings are long gone, and it's just a nondescript residential neighborhood now.However, a mile or so outside of town, Laura followers can see the site of the dugout where she lived with her family, as well as Plum Creek . Those sites are all on private property, but the landowners, who live in a lovely farmhouse near the road, graciously allow visitors to spend some time.

We put $4 in the box and drove down the road. There were no other visitors at that moment. My heart was thumping.

This was where Laura actually lived and played! It still seemed undeveloped to my suburban eye (although I'm sure Pa would argue with me about that!).

The air was heavy with humidity and the song of the cicadas. My daughter and I stood on the banks of Plum Creek and said to each other "We're on the banks of Plum Creek!" Tears welled up in my eyes. My daughter is too young to feel nostalgic, but I felt like I had found a long-lost friend, like I had just uncovered some lost and precious object from my childhood. We took off our shoes and waded in the creek. The water felt nice and cool, and the creek had a nice sandy bottom. We didn't find leeches, or an old crab.

We still hadn't seen the dugout site, so when we had our fill of wading, we put on our shoes and went to find it.

We walked over a bridge (just like Laura did in the book!).

And there it was. It's all caved in, so it's just a little depression in the land, but it was situated just like Laura had described in the story I'd read over and over again when I was a child. A little downhill path led to where the front door would have been.

When we stood near where the roof would have been, we had a nice view of the table land.

It was peaceful.

Walnut Grove is definitely worth the trip to see Plum Creek. Thank you very much to the current owners who permit Laura Lovers to come see it for themselves.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Great American Road Trip: Part II

After we left New Ulm, MN, we headed for the Jeffers Petroglyphs in Comfrey, MN. What a fascinating place!
We drove through flat country, past field after field of corn and soybeans, to get to the site. The prairie lands at the site are being restored to their former grandeur. Grasshoppers hopped everywhere, while butterflies and birds flitted all around. The wind blew steadily, but not uncomfortably. I was definitely beginning to feel far from home, far from the suburbs, closer to the past.

In this part of Minnesota, large outcroppings of red quartzite interrupt the prairie, and ancient peoples carved figures into this stone: bison, thunderbirds, turtles, hands, the atlatl. It's a sacred place, and those who maintain it today are committed to respecting its meaning and history.

The carvings weren't always easy to see. Fortunately for us, an interpreter was out in the field, and she pointed out many of the carvings we would have otherwise missed. I photographed the ones that were most obvious.
An atlatl:

A thunderbird:

The interpreter spoke with us for quite some time. The oldest carvings are calculated to be about 7000 years old. When I asked her how long it may have taken one carving to be made, she said they are trying to gauge that now by making some carvings of their own, in the offices, not out in the field. However, to be absolutely respectful of the images and their meaning to those who carved them, they are not recreating any of the existing images, but instead are carving simple geographical features, such as squares.

Amazing. I was expecting to see some pictures carved into a rock, but instead I was encouraged to consider the lives of ancient peoples, to respect what was sacred to them, to respect those for whom it is sacred today, to appreciate the restoration of the prairie. History, ecology, and spirituality, all in one beautiful place.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Great American Road Trip: Part I

On August 1, my family and I embarked on a 4950-mile, 16-day road trip Out West. Yellowstone was our main destination, but we had plenty of fun getting there, and coming home, too. Sixteen days of 24-hour-a-day togetherness worked out just fine for all of us, which isn't to say we didn't have our moments (each and every one of us), but I think we all agree we'd do it again in a heartbeat!

The first 12 hours of our trip was territory too familiar to all of us, as we've been that way too many times before, so we didn't do much site-seeing the first day, but we did fuel up at a gas station next to this building in Wisconsin. I really wanted to go in and browse the kitsch, but we were only 6 hours into a 16 day journey, and I knew I needed to pace myself, so I satisfied myself with a quick photo from the car. Wisconsin has its kitsch for sure, but it truly is a gorgeous state, and a pleasure to drive through.

We traveled on to Minnesota. My husband and I used to live in Minnesota, but we'd never been to Rochester before, so we stopped there for dinner. We walked around the Mayo Clinic Complex, which is a beautiful mixture of old and new architecture.

We had dinner downtown at Mac's Cafe, which turned out to be an excellent choice. I had baked hummus, and oh my word, I am now hoping to find either a recipe or a local restaurant with baked hummus on the menu. If you are ever in Rochester, MN (and if you are, I hope it's for good things), do eat at Mac's Cafe.

We spent the night in Mankato, MN, and on our way out of town the next morning we began our official touring with a stop at the Betsy and Tacy houses.

I didn't read the Betsy and Tacy books when I was little, but I did read them to my children. They are such sweet stories of best friends growing up across the street from each other. The books are based on the real childhood experiences of the author, Maud Hart Lovelace. Maud is Betsy, who did indeed grow up in "Betsy's house", and her best friend, Bick, is Tacy, who lived in "Tacy's house". The houses are open for touring only on the weekends, but we were there on a Monday, so we just admired the charming neighborhood and took photos. I love old neighborhoods like that, ones built in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It's funny to think that when Maud and Bick were children, the houses and neighborhood were new.

Next stop was New Ulm, MN, with a quick drive past Wanda Ga'g's house. It is also open for touring only on the weekends, so I just stood outside and looked.

I couldn't stop saying

Cats here,
Cats there,
Cats and kittens everywhere.
Hundreds of Cats,
Thousands of Cats,
Millions and Billions and Trillions of Cats

which really got on my children's nerves!

My husband than surprised us with a stop at the Hermann Heights Monument, which I had never heard of before. It is quite impressive to see it rising above the trees as you drive up the hill.

For a small fee, you can climb the stairs up to the inside of the dome, then climb up some more stairs to a ladder that leads you through a tiny little hatch in the ceiling, out to the circular balcony at the foot of the statue.

Those tiny little figures at the foot of Hermann are my children:

I climbed up through the hatch myself, saw how narrow and high the balcony was, felt the whole thing list to the side (which may have been my imagination...), and beat a hasty retreat back to the inside of the dome

where I waited patiently for my family to finish gazing at the scenery. They periodically poked their heads through the hatch to tease me.

Inside the dome:

View from the balcony:

I include this last photo because it is a reminder of the Banana game the kids were playing in the car.

They started off thinking they would play slug bug, where they would punch each on the arm other upon seeing a VW bug, but when no VW bugs were forthcoming (imagine!), they changed to Banana. Anytime one of them spotted a yellow vehicle, he or she would shout "Banana!" and slug his/her sibling on the arm. I expected this to be almost as quiet as slug bug, but it turns our there are a great number of yellow vehicles on the road, and not just service vehicles, either. Try playing Banana sometime, and you'll see what I mean.

That's all for now. Future posts will include tours of Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, frightening storms, more yummy food, breathtaking scenery, and my irrational fear of bison, so please stay tuned!