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A Little Drive on the Prairie

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If you had offered me a ride in a time machine when I was nine years old, I would have known exactly where I wanted to go: Pioneer country, circa 1880, here I come. I was under the spell of Laura Ingalls Wilder's autobiographical Little House books, which my mother had loved as a girl and had passed on to me as soon as I could read. I had a bonnet, like Laura, and a calico dress, like Laura, and I would sit on winter evenings in my little rocking chair making pot holders by the woodstove in our upstate New York house—not exactly like Laura, since the pot holders were nylon and the TV was on. But it was as close to being a pioneer girl as I was going to get. All to say, my mother and I were big fans, which is how we found ourselves 20 years later on Route 60 outside Springfield, Missouri.

We were on a Laura Ingalls Wilder road trip—a five-day, 800-mile, Missouri—to—South Dakota pilgrimage to the places Wilder wrote about in her nine books. Mom and I weren't the only ones making the journey: Wilder's tales have been best-sellers here and abroad since the first one, Little House in the Big Woods, was published in 1932, and every summer a fresh crop of Laura followers visit the museums and attend the pageants that have sprung up around the stories.

Our first stop, Rocky Ridge Farm in Mansfield, Missouri, is the Lourdes of the trip. In this rambling clapboard farmhouse, built by Wilder and her husband, Almanzo, the author lived from the age of 27 until her death at 90, in 1957. It was thrilling to see the small, spare office where Wilder wrote her Little House books, in pencil on yellow notepads. The museum holds some of the manuscripts as well as family treasures familiar to every reader: Ma's pearl-handled pen, Laura's glass bread plate, Mary's braille slate, and Pa's fiddle, which he played while Laura and her sister sang the evenings away.

After a tour of Mansfield, population 1,346—the sandstone savings bank, the couple's headstone near a spreading oak tree—we sped north toward Kansas City, Missouri, where we fattened up on barbecue for the next day's 400-mile drive through western Iowa. That trip took nine hours, in part because of the seductions of the Great Plains: chicken fried steak at the Country Kettle, emergency CD shopping at Wal-Mart, and a fine view of the Missouri River from the bluffs above Sioux City.

Many towns from Wisconsin to Kansas have a Little House connection—like most pioneers, the Ingalls family kept moving on—but Walnut Grove, Minnesota, where the family lived on and off for four years, draws crowds. The blink-and-you-miss-it town is also where the popular Little House on the Prairie TV show, on the air from 1974 to 1984, was set.

By 11 the next morning, Walnut Grove's Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum was filled with girls in flat braids and bonnets. After seeing the trove of artifacts in Mansfield, we were disappointed by the museum's dusty displays devoted to the TV show, but the kids didn't seem to mind. "I like the books better than the TV show because they have all the true facts," said 10-year-old Denise Richter, who'd traveled with her family from Burr Oak, Iowa, and had obviously caught the show in reruns.

The real treat of the day, though, was visiting Plum Creek, where the Ingalls family lived for a year in a sod house cut into the bank. The house has long since returned to the earth, but everything save the three-dollar entrance fee is just as Wilder described it in On the Banks of Plum Creek. Re-reading the book, I'd come across this passage from the author's first step in the creek: "The mud squeezed up between Laura's toes. . . . There were tiny fishes in the water . . . so small you could hardly see them. Only when they went swiftly sometimes a silvery belly flashed. When Laura and Mary stood still these little fishes swarmed around their feet and nibbled."

It took me only a minute to get my shoes and socks off. My toes sank into the clayey bottom, and tiny fish did dart about my feet. Black-eyed Susans reached high, wild plum trees stood all around. Slightly less authentic was Walnut Grove's pageant, "Fragments of a Dream." Written 25 years ago, it's a decidedly churchy take on Laura's life, and struck me as somewhat out of keeping with her strong but unpreachy faith. Still, the people-watching couldn't be beat: A young woman leaning against her husband's knees turned the pages of On the Banks of Plum Creek while he entertained their baby. Nearby a mother read the same book aloud to two daughters.

The next morning, after a 110-mile drive west on the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway, we reached De Smet, South Dakota, where the Ingalls family finally settled, and which is bursting with historical sites. Here is the large white-shingled house where Ma and Pa lived out their days, and the hillside graveyard where most of the family is buried. A few miles north of town, we followed a faint track to the top of a small rise where Laura and Almanzo's homestead once stood. Yellow butterflies danced over pale pink morning glories, and the strong and steady south wind flattened the shimmering grass. It's said that the constant blowing literally drove some pioneers crazy. But the author, for one, found it exhilarating.

That afternoon we visited the site of the Ingalls homestead during the early 1880's, years recounted in By the Shores of Silver Lake and other books. Silver Lake has disappeared, filled in and plowed over, but the Big Slough, a marshy area of reeds and sedge grass, remains. Near it stand the cottonwood trees that Pa planted, one each for Ma, Mary, Laura, Carrie, and Grace. Now 120 years old, the trees are enormous, with thick trunks and intertwined branches. In a field near the cottonwoods we waited for the Prairie Patchwork pageant to start. Kids ran around the outdoor stage, mad with joy over the horses and buggies, costumes, and the plentiful candy. Oddly, the amateur cast lip-synched during the performance, but the story line, beginning with the Ingalls family's arrival in De Smet and ending with Laura and Almanzo's courtship, was much truer to the books than the pageant in Walnut Grove. And what's not to love when you're under a vast, starry sky with a few hundred other fans like yourself?

In a nice Midwestern getting-to-know-you gesture, the organizers invited the crowd to clap when their state or country was called, and Mom and I waved vigorously for New York. When they asked who was from Japan, I heard polite applause behind me and turned to see a young couple with a toddler, who smiled shyly in her bonnet and gingham dress. "Well, we're originally from Tokyo," said the father proudly, holding his little Laura, "but she is from Minnesota."

The prairie wind blew across the field, bending the tops of Pa's cottonwood trees and sending long skirts flapping onstage. During a classroom scene, the schoolmarm turned to the audience and asked us to stand and sing "My Country Tis of Thee." We all did, from the descendants of Laura's friends and neighbors to the newest pioneers from foreign shores, and our voices rolled through the night the way Laura's must have as she sang, long ago, in her little house on the prairie.

WHERE THE WILDER THINGS ARE
There are eight Laura Ingalls Wilder sites, seven of them in the Midwest (for links to all locations, go to www.lauraingallswilder.com). The three main sites below schedule pageants on weekends throughout the summer and fall.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum 3068 Hwy. A, Mansfield, Mo.; 877/924-7126 or 417/924-3626. Check www.lauraingallswilder.com for pageant dates. Rocky Ridge Day, October 12, is one of the few days when Pa's fiddle is taken out of its case and played.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum 330 Eighth St., Walnut Grove, Minn.; 507/859-2358; www.walnutgrove.org. Don't miss nearby Plum Creek. Pageants: July 12—14, 19—21, 26—28. Call 888/859-3102.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society 105 Olivet Ave., De Smet, S. Dak.; 800/880-3383; www.liwms.com. Two Ingalls houses and, opening this spring, the one-room schoolhouse Laura and Carrie attended. Pageants: June 28—30; July 5—7, 12—14. Call 605/692-2108.

A DRIVE ON THE WILDER SIDE:

The route, plus where to eat and sleep

This itinerary covers a lot of ground, but you’ll hit plenty of sites if you just do the Walnut Grove-to-De Smet leg of the trip.

Worried your back seat can’t handle the drive?Stick to Mansfield, Missouri. (For links to all eight Little House locations in the country, go to www.lauraingallswilder.com.)

Day 1: Take Route 60 east from Springfield to Mansfield, Missouri, and tour the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum. Afterward, perk up in the pool at the Friendship House B&B (210 W. Commercial St.; 417/924-8511; doubles from $100, $15 per child, including breakfast).

Day 2: Head north on Route 13 to I-71 toward Kansas City, Missouri. Stretch those legs on a pre-dinner stroll to the Firefighters Fountain (31st St. and Broadway) before tackling steak and barbecued ribs at Hereford House (2 E. 20th St.; 816/842-1080; dinner for four $100). Spend the night at the Raphael Hotel (325 Ward Pkwy.; 816/756-3800; www.raphaelkc.com; doubles from $130).

Day 3: Follow I-29 north along the Missouri River past Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Omaha, Nebraska, to Sioux City, Iowa. Turn northeast on Route 75 and stop in Le Mars for a taste of Iowa’s best ice cream, Blue Bunny—there’s a parlor with a mock factory at the Visitor Center (16 Fifth Ave.; 712/546-4090). Then take Route 60 to Worthington, Minnesota. The menu at Michael’s Restaurant (1305 Spring Ave.; 507/376-3187; dinner for four $100) offers phonetic translations to ensure that no customer fumbles when ordering: try the sha-toe-breean. The AmericInn (1475 Darling Dr.; 800/634-3444 or 507/376-4500; doubles from $68, $6 per child 13 and over) has an indoor pool.

Day 4: Set aside a couple of hours for Pioneer Village, also in Worthington (507/376-3125; $5 for adults, $1 for kids 5 - 15; open Memorial Day - Labor Day), a re-created town with 44 buildings brought in from the surrounding countryside. Roam through a parsonage, a sod house, a saloon, a general store, a doctor’s office, even a train depot with a caboose on the track. Then take Route 59 north about 50 miles to the intersection of Route 14, also known as Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway. Head east on Route 14 to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. The Valentine Inn (385 Emory St., Tracy, Minn.; 507/629-3827; doubles from $85, children 13 and up $20, younger children not welcome), in a Victorian house with a wraparound porch, is only a few miles from Plum Creek and the Walnut Grove pageant grounds. Day 5: Head west on Route 14 to De Smet, South Dakota. Check in at the Heritage House (126 Calumet Ave.; 605/854-9370; doubles from $69), a former bank where meals are served in the high-ceilinged lobby. The sites and pageant grounds are all in town or nearby.

LISTEN TO THIS

The first three Little House books have just been released on tape. Read by actress Cherry Jones, they’ll keep Laura lovers blissfully entertained on the trail. Available in bookstores this June ($22 per audiobook; 800/331-3761 to order).

Sunshine Flint writes frequently for Travel + Leisure.

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