I’ve done a piece on this before, but as winter is moving in, my thoughts turn to summer Laura Ingalls Wilder trips and this particular piece of advice is worth revisiting.
Do Your Research
Lots of people making a Laura trip — what we tend to call a trip to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s homesite towns — for the first time might not know what to expect, especially those who haven’t researched much about the towns and museums ahead of time. But the more you put into prepping a trip and asking questions ahead of time, the more you get out of it. Although many tourists expect it, most homesite towns don’t tell you everything you can see and do in a one-stop-shopping format; all of them have extra little jewels if you’re willing to dig.
Research can also help stave off near disaster. Like the time my mom planned a trip to Mansfield for me and just assumed they’d be open on Sunday (they weren’t then, they are now), an 8 hour car ride later we learned differently. Planning can also be important as well. Most homesite towns are near anything else and not looking at a map can make deciding to wait until the next town to fill up on gas, get something to eat, or use the restroom can end up not being a great idea. But I can honestly say, no matter what happens, I always enjoy a Laura trip no matter what happens, including the time I fell down and bled all over two Laura t-shirts before I got it to stop (in case anyone is still wondering from this summer, the blood did come out of the second one).
Do You Stay Trapped In Your Car On A Laura Trip?
No matter which Laura town you visit, the best piece of advice I can give you is this: Park your car, get out, and walk. Laura didn’t experience these towns zooming by looking through her car window, and to get the best experience, neither should you.
Walking is a more practical way to get a feel for any town. It really helps you get a feel for the town as Laura knew it, when you look with your two feet on the ground carrying you from place to place. You get a much better feel for distance and the relationship between different places around town to each other. How far was it from one place to another? Riding in a car normally suppresses our understanding of these differences. We often hear from people who for one reason or another end up walking the road by my house “but it seemed so short a distance in my car.”
It can give you a feel for how the modern town interacts and what it’s like to live there if you walk. And instead of just playing tourist try to find some errand to do in town. Pay your subscription to the paper, stop at the grocery store to pick up something you’ve run out of or forgotten at home, buy what you need for a picnic, empty out the flotsam and jetsam that end up in your car on any trip to your local recycling center, anything like that can give you a feeling of being part of the town, if just for a little while.
Walking De Smet
For a specific example, take a look at De Smet, South Dakota. I’ve walked all over De Smet. They even boast an official walking tour now. Walking there is very doable and I even met a family once who had taken an airport shuttle to town (from the “big city”) and were walking literally everywhere for the week all over De Smet. I gave them a ride back to the hotel after the pageant in the dark, but they’d walked from that home base as far as the Ingalls Homestead, the De Smet cemetery where the Ingalls graves (all but Laura’s) are, and the site of Rose’s birthplace north of town.
This lesson of walking was borne into me again on a trip to De Smet, South Dakota, where I had my favorite Laura experience of all time. It was during a Laura conference. After the conference broke up for the day, my mother and I headed out to the Ingalls Homestead, the land southeast of town that the Ingalls family homesteaded in the 1880s. I was wearing a long dress and walked up the road from the schoolhouse back to the front gate. The sun beat down, the wind tossed the prairie grasses, kids were singing, insects were buzzing, little clouds of dust swirled up with each step and my skirts swirled around my ankles. This was the very road that Laura and her whole family must have walked a thousand times. I felt like Laura could be coming over the hill at any minute. It was really a magical experience.
When I took a bus trip to Malone, the bus to take us from our lodging in the center of town out to the Wilder Homestead wasn’t leaving until 9 am. Well, I wasn’t about to waste daylight for a couple hours in Malone. So my partner in crime, Mary Kopsieker, and I started walking. Starting at the Super 8, where we were staying, we walked as far the Congregational Church locating related sights around town. By the time we returned to the bus and we drove back by, people were amazed at how many places I could point out around town.
Pepin is another town that provides a great example of getting a feel for it by walking. I go to Pepin for Laura Ingalls Wilder Days which happens every September — it’s a great time, especially for kids; check it out if you’re ever in Wisconsin in the fall. If possible be sure to check out the Pepin Public Library (which has a lovely little Laura display left over from when the museum was built). I tend to park my car either by the Pepin Motel if I’m staying there, which is right next to the Laura Ingalls Wilder Park where the events are held. Then I leave it there until I head over to the Wayside (the replica cabin site at Laura’s birthplace, seven miles outside of town). In the right part of town — along the marina and uphill from there — you’ll see all kinds of unique shops that exemplify Pepin’s diverse, artistic population. I always make it a point to walk from the park to the Pepin Museum every trip and sometimes I go as far as the marina or even the Pickle Factory Restaurant by the lake.
Someday, just as Pa did, I’m going to walk all the way from the Wayside to Pepin. As soon as I can talk somebody into doing it with me. But that might be too much on what feels like the longest 7 miles on earth. Susan Sprague recently suggested that I start out by walking as far as the Barry School site at Barry Corner and back. I think this is a great idea and as long as it isn’t pouring rain next September I’m going to give it a try.
Get Out And Walk
Walking gives you a real feel for the town and makes you feel a part of it instead of just a tourist. It also is good for you, after all those hours driving from anywhere to a Laura homesite, you need the stretch and the exercise. You don’t have to walk that far, but I encourage everyone wherever you go on your next Laura trip: Get out and walk!
Sarah S. Uthoff is the main force behind Trundlebed Tales fighting to bring the History, Mystery, Magic and Imagination of Laura Ingalls Wilder and other greats of children’s literature and history to life for a new generation.Attend one of her programs, schedule one yourself, watch her videos, listen to her podcast, and find her on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Academia.edu. She is currently acting President of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association. Professionally she is a reference librarian at Kirkwood Community College and director of the Oxford (Iowa) Public Library.