I noticed it on the map first: tiny letters near De Smet, SD. Little Town on the Prairie. Then I saw the sign on the highway: Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway.
That’s when I realized it was real. The first place I went to was the Loftus General Store, which sells all things Laura. I was slightly tempted by a pink Members Only style jacket with Laura Ingalls Wilder spelled out on the front in sparkly letters. I asked the store owner about local camping spots. He said they had camping at the Ingalls’ Homestead. I wandered around town a little more, checked out the Laura houses. For convenience, they’ve all been moved close together. There’s the Surveyor’s House and two schoolhouses. The schoolhouse where Laura taught was about the size of an outhouse. That’s the one where she had to live with the Brewsters, and Mrs. Brewster was especially angry about life on the prairie and once threatened her husband in the middle of the night with a kitchen knife.
The Ingalls Homestead is a magical place. There are covered wagons. I set my tent between two covered wagons and then ran around in circles like a happy lunatic. There was one RV in the parking lot. Larry and Pat were from Oregon. They hadn’t known about LauraTown either. They’d seen the sign on the interstate. “My wife would’ve probably divorced me if we hadn’t made the detour,” Larry told me. See, I’m not the only one with Laura Fever.
The next morning I looked out my tent door and saw two covered wagons hitched to big horses rolling across the prairie. There were two yellow school buses in the parking lot, so I assumed the wagons were full of kids. I went up to the gift shop and was instantly fascinated by all the Laura books. I wanted the box set of hard cover Little House books. (Obviously my parents never loved me since they never got me that.)
I picked up a copy of By the Shores of Silver Lake and instantly fell back into Laura Land. I’ve read the books so many times that I kept finding sentences that I remembered word for word. It’s so sad when Jack dies at the beginning and I cried again thinking about Good Ol’ Jack the brindle bulldog trotting underneath the wagon. By this time the wagon rides were over and the gift shop was mobbed with shouting fourth graders. I wedged myself into a corner and read until they all left. There are plenty of books written about Little House and that’s where I found The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure. One of the reviews on the front was written by Gretchen Rubin, who I love, and that was enough reason alone for me to buy the book. And omg, I don’t know who this Wendy McClure person is but I want her to be my BFF. This book is the funniest thing I’ve read in ages. I wanted to call people and read them passages. Wendy McClure is so obsessed with Laura that she churns her own butter and drags her husband along on tours of all the Laura places. Of which there are many.
When I went to pay for the book and my campsite, I asked about the covered wagons.
“They’re fifty dollars a night,” said the nice lady at the register. I felt like that was a do-able price for fulfilling a lifelong fantasy that I hadn’t known I’d had until that moment.
“Oh, but there not ready yet. We haven’t cleaned them.” I offered to help clean, since that’s what Laura would do.
“It’s really windy out today and it might rain tonight. You could sleep in the barn, in the hay loft.” Because I must always be inappropriate, I asked if that came with a cute farmhand.
“No, but there might be a cat in there.” Close enough.
I rode the windy mile back into town to get groceries and wifi. I sat in Dairy Queen for awhile, watching farm boys, all sporting the timeless farm fashion shirts with the sleeves cut off to highlight their boy nipples. That’s totally not what I meant by cute farmhand.
The hay loft of the barn was full of museum exhibits but downstairs I found a horse stall full of invitingly squooshy hay. I threw down my sleeping bag and bounced around, so thrilled with this arrangement that I was sure I’d never sleep. There was a little dark calico farm cat prowling around. I fed her bits of cheese but couldn’t talk her into letting me pet her. I texted everyone I knew: You will never guess where I’m sleeping. In Laura Ingalls’ barn!!!!!
The next morning I wandered around the homestead. It’s very hands-on. You can climb around on the covered wagon display. It the tiny barn with the earthen roof, I found a bulgingly pregnant farm cat. She climbed into my lap and purred and shed all over me. When I was sufficiently covered with cat hair, she stood under a shelf that held her food and water and meowed at me to lift her up. At that moment, I wanted to live here, in De Smet. I wanted to wear calico and gingham and geek out on Laura trivia and lead Laura tours and raise a couple of farm cats and maybe some goats. Until the long winter came. Then I’d leave because snow.
The next stop on the Laura Tour is Walnut Grove, Minnesota. In the book, the Ingalls take the train between towns. In real life, they didn’t move directly from Walnut Grove to De Smet. They actually went to Iowa for two years in between. One of the things I was learning was the truthiness of Laura’s life as portrayed in the books. Like Nellie Olsen. That character was actually a composite of three girls that Laura didn’t like. Sort of like a bitchy Frankenstein monster. Also, remember how in Little House on the Prairie they settle in Indian Territory? The reason it was called Indian Territory was because it was territory that belonged to the Indians. Pa settled them illegally on Indian land. There is plenty of stuff about Native Americans in the Little House books that is completely offensive. Another little white lie is the theme that the Ingalls were always moving west, always looking for raw land. In real life, their voyage west was no more a straight line than my bicycle trip is. There was plenty of doubling back and swirling around.
Walnut Grove is the setting for On the Banks of Plum Creek but it’s more well known for the TV series. I remember watching it on our tiny black and white TV. Melissa Gilbert was my first celebrity crush. (I believe I once wrote her a letter telling her as much.) My pretend boyfriend Jason Bateman got his start on Little House as Laura’s adopted brother. In the museum I learned that Sean Penn also debuted on Little House. There’s a picture of him as a boy in prairie gear, looking very Sean Pennish.
I camped that night at an RV park next to Plum Creek and Laura Lake. The park was full of RVs but eerily deserted. At night the lights in the RVs came on but no one came out. It was creepy. I started to wonder if they were full of some kind of RVing vampires. I stuck my feet in Plum Creek. I didn’t get a leech but I did find a tick in my hair that night.
I also stopped in a town called Tracy, in between De Smet and Walnut Grove. I went to the Wheels Across the Prairie Museum. If you’re on the Laura Tour, it’s a worthwhile stop. It is full of old timey junk. People bring in their grandparents’ old stuff to be put on display. I was a little disturbed when they wouldn’t let me fill my water bottles from the sink. “You can’t drink the tap water here. It comes from the fertilizer plant!” Is this a Flint, Michigan type situation or have people just really gotten that brainwashed by the bottled water industry?
Rose Wilder, the only child of Laura and Almonzo, is sort of an enigma. She was a writer as well, and she helped her mother write and edit the Little House books. She was a war correspondent and kind of a bad ass in lots of ways. Okay, and here’s something else: she was one of the founders of the Libertarian Party. Is that crazy town or what? I bought one postcard of Rose, posing with her donkey. The donkey’s name was Spookendyke. Which sounds like a Halloween costume one might see in the Castro District. Rose used to ride her donkey named Spookendyke to and from school. In her own memoirs, Rose writes about her sad childhood, how they were poor and other children made fun of her. She wasn’t at all sunny and upbeat like her famous mom. In all the museums I went to, the Rose stuff is off to one sad little corner. Rose never had children and neither did any of Laura’s sisters.
One of my favorite Laura facts is that she didn’t start writing her books until she was 65. See? There’s always time to write a Great American Series.