“From your parents you learn love and laughter and how to put foot in front of the other. But when books are opened you discover you have wings.”
I found my wings when I discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books which told the story of the adventures she and her family had as American pioneers. As I read about their snug cabin in a forest, or how the stars shone bright on the vast prairie, or how a creek with silver fish bubbled beside emerald banks, I yearned to go exploring the world that existed beyond by childhood Chicago suburban home.
I’m all grown up now, and done my fair share of travel, but on my bucket list is something that was inspired by those beloved childhood books that helped me sprout my wings. I want to visit all the places where the Wilder family lived. The descriptions of the family’s travels drew pictures in my imagination that I want, no yearn, to see in person now. I might be grown up, but the child in me remains alive.
If I could literally sprout wings right now, put aside work and responsibilities, I would start my quest where Little House in the Big Woods was set in Pepin, Wisconsin. As the nearest town to the cabin and the town where Laura’s pa would go to get supplies, I’d linger by the gorgeous blue of Lake Pepin and imagine how it was in the 1800s when Laura was little. I’d take a long walk in the forest and pretend that just around the next corner I’d see Pa chopping wood or smell Ma’s home cooking.
From the forest, I would travel south, toward the vast grasslands of the Great Plains where the Wilders lived thirteen miles south of Independence, Kansas. Here Pa built The Little House on the Prairie, the land where Laura and her big sister, Mary, would chase prairie chickens, spend starry nights listening to Pa play his fiddle, and Laura saw her first papoose. The Wilders worked hard to make a new life in this wild land, only to be told by the government they must abandon their home and move on.
From there I would travel to Walnut Grove, Minnesota, which is near where the family lived in a sod house as described in On the Banks of Plum Creek. Pa’s wheat couldn’t withstand the grasshoppers and a drought, but the family persevered with hard work and faith. Laura loved to play with the minnows and frogs in the creek, and living so close to town allowed her to go to school for the first time which greatly pleased Ma. Sadly, Mary went blind after contracting scarlet fever, and this is where Pa told Laura she would need to be the eyes for her big sister.
Next, I would head north again, toward De Smet, South Dakota where the Wilder family found their homestead in By The Shores of Silver Lake and barely survived The Long Winter. It is also where Laura became a teacher and met her husband, Almanzo, whose perfectly matched horses she admired. On a buggy ride with those pretty horses, Almanzo proposed in Little Town on the Prairie.
De Smet remains a small railroad town, and all the better for me to stroll down the quiet streets and imagine Laura with her younger sisters, Carrie and Grace, hurrying to school or walking with Ma and Pa to church. Outside of town, I would remember the stories Laura told about living off the land, and how delighted she would be over what the garden produced. It might be only tiny leaves of lettuce, but the family was grateful for whatever their land provided.
Finally, I would drive south again to where Laura and her husband ultimately settled in Mansfield, Missouri at Rocky Ridge Farm. Here they resided until their deaths, raising their daughter Rose; herself an accomplished writer who possibly collaborated with Laura in writing the books that touched the hearts of both children and adults.
If I had even more time, I would head east, to upstate New York to Almanzo’s childhood home where the book Farmer Boy takes place. This is where Alamanzo’s love of horses began as well as a life devoted to living off the land, two things that Laura herself loved, as well.
Then I would have to end my travels, but I would feel content to know that I saw the places that evoked such happiness in me when I was a little suburban girl who knew nothing of riding in a wagon or sewing dresses by hand, but was enthralled by Laura’s stories of long ago. Any time I want to return to that time and place, all I have to do is open up one of Laura’s books.
Pa and Laura always wanted to see what was over the next mountain, to keep moving west, and I did eventually leave my childhood home and move west, too. Laura’s retelling of her family history, of the hardships and the joys, always containing that spirit of adventure, gave me the courage to use my own wings and soar.