My phone rang this morning with an automated message from the school district office notifying me that classes would be dismissed at midday. Outside my living room window, the sun skipped and danced happily enough across the glistening tops of the small mountains of snow that partially block my view of the street. It appeared a cold but ordinary February day that could sustain a full day of school.
But I knew that if I drove a half mile to the west, or to the east, or even to the north or the south, the wind was blowing on the wide open prairie where I live, and within the next hour or so, visibility would be reduced to the inside of an igloo and even four-wheel drive vehicles would start to flip off the highway and into the ditch. School buses had to move early or not at all.
When I was growing up, I lived in a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis, just a block or so from the traffic insanity that is the Interstates 35W and 494 cloverleaf. My neighborhood was flanked by the highway on one side and a strip mall on the other, with a small grove of trees clumped partway down my block as the only remaining sign of uncivilization in the heart of the city. The metro bus stopped at the corner of my front yard, and an eight-foot cyclone fence was the only thing standing between the sledding hill outside my back yard and freeway traffic rushing by at 70 miles an hour.
Midway through junior high, my dad bought a four-wheel drive and cowboy boots, and we moved to a farm house on a 22-acre piece of land with a sum total of three scraggly trees, not one of them any bigger than I could wrap my 14-year-old hand around. I’d first heard of the South Dakota prairie listening to my fourth grade teacher read the Little House books, children’s stories by Laura Ingalls Wilder, the account of a family’s move to homestead in the Midwest from a young girl’s vantage point. I must admit I spent more time watching the television version with Michael Landon and Melissa Gilbert than I did reading the books. But still, the images were impressive.
Traveling to an unknown world by covered wagon, digging a starter home out of a hillside, attending a one-room school house where younger students feared older boys with pea-shooters. Laura Ingalls Wilder told tales of brutal winters in the wide open South Dakota flatland, stories failed by my imagination even as I stood on my back porch and contemplated the distance to my own weathered red barn, wondering how merciless a blizzard had to be for a guy to tie a rope to himself so he didn’t get lost on the way to feed the livestock. I recall seeing pictures of the real Ingalls family and finding them all to be a bit weathered and ruddy themselves, nothing at all like Landon and Gilbert’s polished-for-television characters. And I figure, to have the will to survive out here, in a little house on the prairie, one was going to have to toughen up one way or the other.
I was in the Ingalls neighborhood the other day on a claims investigation. A house had burned a mile or so from the old homestead in De Smet, the setting for The Long Winter and Little Town on the Prairie, just a couple of hours from my home. At the request of a friend, I drove out to take a picture of the place. The thing is, you can only get up close by covered wagon, and I left mine home that day. So I stood on the highway, a foot in each of my juxtaposed worlds–wind whipping across the prairie to my right, hurried traffic whipping by on the asphalt to my left–and studied the old homestead (and adjacent tourist center) from a safe distance.
The Ingalls homestead managed to survive as a landmark despite industrial and agricultural development, likely thanks to the foresight of a local historical society. But all over this part of the country, a little bit east and much farther west, all kinds of not-famous folks made their way. They homesteaded and lived in sod houses, they fought disease and hardship, and they danced and sang and loved, and often buried their people too soon. The Ingalls family had a remarkable tale to tell. But at the time, their life was quite ordinary, just like all the others who traveled west in search of a dream. What made their experience different, their little shanty worth reconstructing and garnering the attention of tourists, why the Little House on the Prairie is still there at all, I suppose, is that Laura Ingalls Wilder had the presence of mind to write the stories down.
Post and photos by Will Willingham.
Brilliant ink-on-tile illustrations created with a secret process bring the alphabet to colorful life. Children will delight in the rich, poetic language of colors like emerald, jasmine, and quartz—while also meeting old favorites like yellow, orange and purple.
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