home of Laura Ingalls Wilder

Syncopated Family Travel: Channeling Laura Ingalls Wilder

Ingalls homestead in De Smet South DakotaA weekly travel column by Anthony Mathenia

Syncopated: Displace the beats or accents in so that strong beats become weak and vice versa

On the first day, we travel northwest through Missouri, then skirt the Nebraska/Iowa border up to South Dakota. It is a long marathon of a drive, made possible by our freshness and lack of road weariness. We end up crashing for the night in Arlington, South Dakota. It’s one of those between here and barely there blips on the map kind of towns. The whole of it seems to be a hotel, a restaurant, and a gas station sitting in wide open fields of green nothing.

The desk clerk is friendly as we walk into the Arlington Inn, a small hotel with decorative call-backs to its former existence as a Super 8, circa 1989.

“Are you with the class reunion?” she asks with a wide smile.

Is there a discount? I wonder, though it would be a hard fraud to pull off in what is most probably a graduating class of the six people sitting in the lobby reminiscing over tar black coffee.

“No, we are just passing through to De Smet,” I reply.

“Oh Dee Smet,” she politely corrects my foreign tongue. “Laura Ingalls-Wilder fans, hmm?”

She has the clairvoyance to guess the purpose of our visit, though in a place like this, it isn’t exactly hard. Why else would people stop by, other than to visit the places where Laura lived and about which she wrote in her Little House books? I have no embarrassment in acknowledging that her books are among my absolute favorites. I’m also unashamed to admit that I rip off The Long Winter, in my novel Paradise Earth, with gleeful abandon.

Even without a discount, the Arlington Inn is inexpensive. During our trip, we will repeatedly challenge ourselves to stay as cheaply as possible while still retaining the luxury of a room that doesn’t look like a CSI set painted with body fluid.

After unpacking, I walk next door to the 1481 Grille to wind down with a much needed beer. I’m joined by my wife, but my daughter hangs back at the hotel. It’s probably for the best, I think, as I glance over the mile long menu. My daughter entered this world as a picky eater and spiraled into a mad vegan—the kind that doesn’t eat salad.

I order a Boulevard, a crisp wheat ale garnished with an ample lemon wedge. Drinking the cold beer, I survey the seeming regulars at the bar. Sitting next to me is a slender old woman who looks a bit like the Cryptkeeper from Tales from the Crypt. She’s enjoying a Hamm’s lager in a tall pilsner glass with a garnish of olives, a touch of tres sophistique. To her right is a dusty fellow in a camouflage hat and a sleeveless jean jacket with motor oil and Harley-Davison patches on the back. He is draining bottles of Bush Light as quickly as the bartender can twist off the caps. Somewhere between bottle four and six, he dials a buddy to negotiate the purchase of a horse saddle.

“I won’t pay less than a hundred and fourteen dollars,” he demands into his antique flip-phone, sharply pointing his finger toward the nonpresent individual on the other end of the line. I’m impressed; even inebriated, he is a master of negotiation. Satisfied at closing the deal, he snaps shut his phone and orders another Bush Light. He has less success convincing the Cryptkeeper to stick around and suck down beers with him. “Stay and have another,” he pleads.

“I can’t have another DUI,” she protests as she chomps down her beer-battered olives and slithers off of her bar stool.

“I got one of those before. It was a setup,” he says and then takes a long drink from the amber bottle.
I shouldn’t have to worry about a DUI with the convenience of a hotel just next door, but who knows what kind of small-town Barney Fife justice passes in places like this. Besides, we have another long day ahead of us. I decide to cut it off after my second beer. As we get up to leave, the man wants to know if I want to buy a horse saddle.

“It’s a steal at two-hundred forty,” he says with a sly grin, tipping bottle eight toward me.

The next morning, we head out to nearby De Smet. In the town, you can take a walking tour of a variety of locations significant in the life and books of Laura Ingalls-Wilder. Our first stop is the original Ingalls family homestead, just outside of town. It is here that the real Laura walked, not the freckle-faced, bucktoothed television version.

home of Laura Ingalls WilderNothing remains of the original 1880 homestead but the twisted, aging cottonwood trees that Pa Ingalls planted to prove up his 157.25 acre claim. Even today you can glimpse what he saw in this spot. It is quite picturesque, as the low wind rustles the prairie grass and the planted grain. Here, along the walking trails, are newly built period buildings: a school house, a dugout shelter, and a reconstruction of the Ingalls’ original claim shanty.

There is a professional “Ma” on staff, who tends a vegetable garden and the small menagerie of barnyard animals in the hay-roof barn. She gives us a tour and is a wealth of olde-tymey knowledge, like how to make lye soap and braided rugs. “If you lived in Laura’s day, you might already be married and pregnant,” she says to my unimpressed daughter. I muse at the lack of privacy in the tiny, thin-walled shanty and wonder how anyone got pregnant at all.

At a nearby workshop, we learn to make rope, corncob dolls, and twisted hay sticks, the kind that the Ingalls family burned to stay alive during the long winter of harsh blizzards when coal was depleted. The activities are overseen by a plump-faced teenager working her first summer job after graduation from high school. It’s her first week on the homestead, and already she likes it more than her previous job at Subway. I tell her I’m from the St. Louis area, and she gushes like it is an exotic, exciting place.

“I want to leave and become a film director,” she says with a careless optimism that only the young can manifest. When I ask her who her favorite director is, I’m ready to fill in the blanks from a short list. “Tim Burton,” she answers. It is embarrassingly predictable. When she laments that her family is not encouraging her to pursue her dreams, I offer that I think she would be a fool not to. It’s a reckless thing for me to advise, because I don’t think that she can actually make it, but I figure failure is a lesser evil than being stuck in the middle of nowhere.

I complete my tour by scaling the lookout tower and surveying the expansive sea of prairie grass extending miles out across the flat land toward the distant horizon. It is here that I attempt to summon the spirit of Laura Ingalls. I recently watched a documentary about comic artist/professional crazy Grant Morrison, and he claims you can conjure up the spirit of anyone.

What the hell. I attempt to clear my mind as I reach back through the ages to connect with the pioneer girl. She appears on the prairie grass below me, running with her older sister. She stops as if noticing me. I raise my hand and wave hello. She smiles and offers a tentative wave, before returning to her play. I blink and the connection is broken. The young pioneer girl fades back into time.

Little House on the Prarie - the recreation of the houseAs we leave the homestead, I latch on to a vagrant Internet signal and my phone blips as fresh e-mail funnels in. I read the first one, where the editor of my novel Happiness: How to Find It is taking me to task for my use of the word “boughten.” According to her, using archaic, nonstandard English begs bad reviews.

What she doesn’t realize is that the 19th century colloquialism is another one of my nods to Laura’s books. Will I consent to a change? I look out at the prairie, diminishing in my rear view mirror, before sending a reply. Absolutely not.