Some details are hazy and some are crystal clear. I’m guessing I was eight or nine. The library was in the basement of Clinton Heights Elementary School with an easy-to-miss entrance on the north side. The door opened onto a vestibule filled, depending on the season, with wet coats, boots, misplaced jackets, umbrellas, forgotten mittens, etc. The second door opened onto a room that was a quiet rectangle, about ten feet wide and fifteen feet long, high ceilings, and shelves on all four walls, with books filling the shelves from the floor up to far beyond where I could reach at that age. The children’s section was on the right just as I walked in, with a round table and little chairs. In the middle of the room towards the back was a desk where I filled in the checkout forms and the librarian adjusted the numbers and stamped the due date in the books I took home.
It was open Wednesday evenings and Saturdays, mostly I remember going on Wednesdays, after dinner. I often went alone, it was about the only place my mother would let me go by myself at that age, she knew how much I loved books. I walked up our dead-end street, took a shortcut around the back of the old St. Mary’s School (not yet renovated into apartments), up a steep well-worn dirt path that brought me to the school’s playground with monkey bars, swings, and see-saws. From there I crossed the blacktop to enter the local branch of the East Greenbush town library, a warm, cozy, quiet, welcoming space, a 10-minute walk worlds away from my noisy home. It was in this room that I pulled her first book off the shelf, totally unaware at the time of the import of my choice, checked it out, took it home, and entered a world quite unlike my own, filled with open spaces, adventure, compelling images, and an empathetic storyteller. How I longed to be Laura, how I longed to follow her and join her adventures!
When Jim and I biked down our driveway on the sunny morning of May 23, 2008 for our first post-retirement trip there were only two things we absolutely had to do. First, we had to get to the Bar Harbor Motel by September 18th for a four-day lobster-fest celebration with family and friends who were either flying or driving, and second, was to visit De Smet, South Dakota.
And we did it, together, my amenable traveling companion and I, we achieved both those goals. Jim knew how important getting to De Smet was to me. It might sound silly today, but one of the first rituals I started when we moved in together, into a tiny 1906 post-earthquake, hastily built one-bedroom house in the Excelsior District, was to take turns reading to each other, in bed at night. No surprise, my first choice was Little House in the Big Woods. And Jim became so entranced by the first few chapters that we went through all eight of Laura’s books before we went on to read anything else. I knew then he was a keeper!
I’m not sure I’d be the person I am today had I not gained entry years ago into Laura’s world, and to the subsequent worlds that opened up for me in that small basement library. Many, many great and wonderful books followed, down from the shelves, stamped by the friendly librarians, carried home and read in my safe cocoon amidst the chaos of our Sears-Roebuck catalog house on Genesee Ave. Laura taught me that there was more to life than the insular Catholic world I lived in. If I was too young, yet, to be an adventurer I could do it through books. Hooray for libraries, hooray for Wednesdays!
After being on the road for 48 days, on July 10th at 6:20 in the morning Jim and I departed Redfield, South Dakota. It was still cool as we headed south on Highway 281, with a glorious sun trying to break through some awesome thunderclouds. We soon noticed lightning. It was moving away from us, but made for a nasty headwind when we turned east on Road 28. A skinny, young gas station attendant in Tulare said “You betcha” when I asked if we could fill up our backup water bottles. And when we stopped for lunch and a beer at the Rusty Nail in Willow Lake, we met a group of plein-air painters imbibing, happy to have gotten in some decent work without getting rained on, discussing what they achieved today, what they planned for their next meeting. The cold beer made the final 28 miles on Road 25 south a bit easier.
Finally, at 3:30 pm, after forty-five years and an eighty-three mile day of riding the vast, undulating prairie, feeling about as bedraggled and beat-up as the Ingalls’ dog Jack after swimming across the Mississippi, I finally made it to Laura’s town of De Smet, in person, for the first time. We stopped in front of Ward’s Store on the corner of Calumet and Second Street, the bank thermometer across the street read 99 degrees.
I had some anxiety that De Smet might be all tarted-up like Solvang, but was pleased to see that it was just like so many of the unpretentious Dakota towns we’d been cycling through for the past week. De Smet was tidy, wide open with broad streets and trees dwarfed by the enormous sky. There were a far greater number of preserved, older buildings going back to the 19th century in De Smet than the other Dakota towns, some related to Laura, others not, all still standing likely because of her. We feathered our pedals all around the flat town, oblivious to the heat now that we had arrived, the cool motel room and shower could wait just a little longer while I soaked it all in. De Smet was so different from where I grew up but had loomed large in my imagination, for decades. We found the Courthouse, the Loftus store, the old train Depot that had been turned into a museum, and the Ingalls house built by Pa in town in 1887, also a museum. The insides of all could wait until tomorrow, we made reservations for two nights at the Cottage Inn Motel on the south side of town, no campground for us here!
Next morning we again rose early and took the first town tour of the day. Me, eager? An understatement. We became part of a devoted, small parade that Friday, most in t-shirts and shorts, young and old, girls in prairie dresses and bonnets, prim Mennonite families, men and boys in cowboy hats and baseball caps in about equal measure. However different we looked to each other on the outside, we knew we were all here for the same reason. We got to know one another as we leapfrogged from one site to the next, touring the limited number of venues in the small town. We toured the surveyor’s home, the Ingalls’ post-homestead house, the school Laura attended, the town cemetery, and all the old-timey shops on Calumet Avenue. We were told the museums were filled with replicas because the subsequent buyers of the Ingalls’ prosperities threw away many of the original furnishings before realizing their import.
During the tour we learned we timed our visit just right. That night was the first night of the annual pageant. For three weekends every July the locals put on a performance of one of Laura’s books at the Ingall’s homestead claim about a mile south of town. After spending the day touring Jim and I had an early dinner and walked from our motel along the banks of the Big Slough to the pageant site, with a grand view of the undulating prairie and a wind blowing even stronger than the day before. We were some of the first to arrive when the gates opened at 6:00 pm, and found an outdoor stage set of five buildings: a school, a store, two homes, and a church. We sat down on the backless, cold aluminum bleachers, twenty rows deep, waiting for the audience to come and the show to start. And come they did, by the car, van, and busload. The audience was, I would guess, about fifty percent Mennonite, many arriving in large groups by bus. From where? I know not.
Two surprising things we learned at the show, Mennonites are less opposed to modernity than the Amish, they ride in and drive motor vehicles, and they let their kids have cell phones. This was 2008 and it was a bit incongruous to see young girls in prairie dresses and bonnets flipping cell phones. The other thing was how many pilgrims were there because of the TV show, not the books. That bugged me.
Slowly the place filled up and at 8:00 pm sharp the actors arrived via horse and buggy and enacted a mercifully short version of Little House on the Prairie. The audience lapped it up, but I enjoyed watching the audience more than the show. I was glad to have made the pilgrimage, but having experienced it up close and personal, I knew my first time to De Smet would likely be my last. By the time we pedaled out of town on Saturday morning I found I much preferred the Laura of my childhood imagination to the 21st-century version I found in De Smet that hot July day.