Minnesota’s north shore: My happy place

IMG_0951

This year’s fall color on the north shore of Lake Superior is the BEST. I drove up there on Sept. 29 and hiked for a couple of days on the Superior Hiking Trail and stayed at Cascade Lodge (Cabin 2), my all-time favorite place in the world. The weather was cool and damp. I ate a lot of wild rice and drank a lot of lattes. It was fantastic.

IMG_0628

Driving up on Saturday, I stopped and took a brief hike, turning at Hwy. 61 milepost 73 and driving up Sugarloaf Road. The color was pretty and the trail was nice and flat, with no bugs and very little mud. It was a nice little leg stretcher. Here are a couple of pics:

IMG_0643

IMG_0647

The next day I set off for a full-day hike. I drove down Hwy. 61 to the intersection of Hwy. 1, just north of Tettegouche State Park. My goal was to hike for four hours, turn around, and hike four hours back to my car. I layered on some warm clothes and brought enough food and water for about three days.

And then I started hiking. I was at the trailhead at 9:45 a.m. and I started with a steep scramble up some boulders on a spur trail to connect with the main SHT. I climbed and climbed and climbed until I reached a very pretty overlook (below)…which confirmed my suspicion that I was GOING THE WRONG DIRECTION.  I was supposed to be on the other side of Hwy. 1! So then I had to climb back down the precarious rock formation, swearing under my breath and already starting to sweat through my fleece.

IMG_0690

I came back to the intersection of the spur and main trails, with this confusing signpost. No wonder I screwed up!

IMG_0685

And then, to add another layer of annoyance, the trail to the north was on the other side of Hwy. 1, right across from the parking lot. I didn’t even need to take the spur trail to get to it. Ridiculous!

IMG_0714

I had spent about 20 minutes going the wrong way. Once I got on the right trail, it started off fairly flat and easy, but then it became steep and a little bit slick. I fell once on the spur trail up to Fantasia Overlook. Just BAM, I was on the ground. My foot went off the edge of the trail into some tall grass – I didn’t know I was so close to the edge. Luckily, I wasn’t hurt. (My biggest fear when I’m hiking, especially when I’m hiking alone, is falling and breaking a bone. I’m old now, and this is a real possibility.) I’m also glad nobody saw me fall; it was not at all graceful, I’m sure.

IMG_0759

IMG_0748

 

IMG_0736

I continued on and enjoyed the overlook (photos above), with views of Mt. Trudee, Palisade Head, Lake Superior, and the Silver Bay Harbor, and then carefully went back down. DOWN is the scariest part for me. Once I got back on the main trail, I fell again while crossing some rocks over a slippery stream. But, again, I didn’t hurt myself and nobody saw me, so I kept hiking.

I stayed on this trail until I arrived at the Wolf Lake overlook (below). It was spectacular!

IMG_0805

IMG_0813

I know I was here once before, but it felt like a completely new experience – truly breathtaking. The lake is down in a deep depression, and it was surrounded by trees in various stages of turning to their fall colors. I soaked in the beauty (see more photos below) and then decided to head back before my old legs became any more wobbly. I made it back to the trailhead without any more falls.

IMG_0824

IMG_0826

I was happy with my hike, and loving the weather. It was supposed to be cool and overcast, but it was sunny and warm, getting up into the 50s. I stripped off all my layers and would have taken off my long-sleeved T-shirt if I had a short-sleeved one underneath; it was that warm. Here are more photos from today’s hike:

IMG_0767

IMG_0847

IMG_0859

IMG_0783

IMG_0869

IMG_0792

IMG_0873

IMG_0798

IMG_0892

The next day was supposed to be rainy, but when I checked my weather app that morning, the rain had been taken out of the forecast. So I left my raincoat in the cabin. I also wore fewer layers based on my experience the day before.

After eating breakfast at the Cascade Restaurant, I drove Hwy. 61 to milepost 92, turning on Cook Co. Rd. 4 (Caribou Trail) and parking at the trailhead about four miles down the road. From here, you can choose to go south toward Lutsen or north toward Cascade. I headed south, because I wanted to see Lake Agnes, one of the prettiest areas of the entire Superior Hiking Trail in my opinion.

IMG_0922

My confidence was a bit shaken, based on my falls the previous day, and I knew this was a tough section to hike. So I took it slow. The first part of the hike is a very long spur trail to hook up to the main SHT at Lake Agnes. There’s even a spur off the spur to climb to White Sky Rock overlook. I decided to save that for last, if I was still up for it.

IMG_0942

IMG_0950

The fall color on this section was stunning, and the forest trail is just incredibly beautiful. This section has some scary areas for me – big boulders and a log ladder (above) – but I was careful and managed to get up and over all of the obstacles. The trail flattens out for a while and comes to a campsite with a latrine (below), which I used (perhaps the prettiest area I’ve ever stopped to pee).

IMG_1000

Lake Agnes was surrounded by glorious fall trees. I could not stop taking pictures (see a few of them, below). Every view seemed more spectacular than the one before.

IMG_0992

IMG_1005

IMG_1007

IMG_1019

IMG_1021

IMG_1022

IMG_1035

IMG_1036

Once I left the Lake Agnes area and the trail became steep, I decided to head back. I was glad I did, because it was about this time when it started raining, and it rained lightly the rest of the hike. Oh, and did I mention it was cold, too? I kept on my fleece and gloves the entire hike, and I could have used a stocking cap.

I was even more nervous about going down the log ladder and boulders in the rain, because they’d be extra slippery, but I managed to do it without falling down once. (I will admit that I scooted down a couple of the biggest boulders on my rear end, just to be safe.)

When I got to the White Sky Rock overlook spur, I almost didn’t take it, because it was raining harder, but then I thought, What the heck? I scrambled up the steep, slick trail without incident. The view from up there is incredible (photos below).

IMG_1110

IMG_1105

IMG_1113

IMG_1114

I managed to get back down without falling. Success! And at that point, I decided I didn’t want any more scary challenges, so I headed back to my car.

Here are a few more shots of today’s hike:

IMG_0954

IMG_0964

IMG_0967

IMG_0970

IMG_1080

IMG_1085

I spent the rest of the afternoon in Grand Marais, eating lunch at Gunflint Tavern, wandering through the shops without buying anything, and then sipping a warm maple latte at Java Moose.

Back at Cascade Lodge, I met some women in the bar from the Twin Cities who were impressed that I’d stayed at Cascade 20+ times. I thought at first that they were being friendly and interested in my experiences, because they asked me a lot of questions. Afterwards, I decided they were more like anthropologists, studying an alien species. Oh, well. Whatever.

That night, I tried to build a fire in my fireplace because it was cold and rainy outside, but I’m never very good at building fires. So it burned for a little while and then went out. But the cabin was still warm and cozy and wonderful.

The next morning I headed home. Here is my parting shot from the north shore: Split Rock Lighthouse:

IMG_1137

 

 

Advertisements

Pumpkins, please!

IMG_1154

I love pretty much everything about fall: Sweaters, boots, fall leaves, cool days. I especially love pumpkins and apples and the farm markets that sell them. Central Iowa has lots of options for families who want to choose pumpkins, pick apples, ride wagons, wander through corn mazes, and participate in other fall-related activities.

IMG_1161

I visited Geisler Farms last week for a work-related event. What a great place! All the grownups were loving the corn maze and games. I loved the pumpkins and wanted to buy all of them.

IMG_1157

IMG_1162

IMG_1195

You can find Geisler Farms just three miles east of Ankeny at 5251 NE 94th Ave., Bondurant. The corn maze and “fun zone” are open weekends through Nov. 1. Admission is $8. And it’s not too early to start thinking about Christmas, right? Geisler Farms also sells fir trees, beginning the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Philadelphia

IMG_0418

After visiting the city four times now, Philadelphia is becoming one of my favorite places to travel. It’s a fabulous walking city. It’s filled with history and art and incredible architecture. And the food is pretty great, too.

I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Philadelphia earlier this month to interview five Iowa State alumnae and attend a Cyclone football gamewatch party. Photographer Jim Heemstra traveled with me to shoot photos for VISIONS magazine.

So, yeah, mostly we worked. But it didn’t feel like work. We spent a full day with an alumna I met nearly 20 years ago when we traveled together on a tour of Alaska. We geeked out over the Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the coolest examples of “preserved ruin” you’ll ever see – and it’s headed by an Iowa Stater. We shared coffee and laughs and heard great stories from three other Cyclones. And we enjoyed ONE day of sunshine and walked more than 40 miles in the 3.5 days we were there.

IMG_0280

We stayed in a residential area of Philadelphia (above), and this was such a great decision. Hotels are super expensive in the city center, and our roomy Airbnb was in a terrific location. We drank our morning coffee on the front stoop overlooking a garden area, just like the locals. We also decided at the last minute to cancel our rental car reservation, and that was another very smart decision. We used Uber to get around when we had heavy photo equipment, and we walked the rest of the time. We saved a ton of money and never had to hassle with driving or finding a parking place.

IMG_0298

We decided to explore the neighborhood the night we got there, just to get our bearings, but we ended up walking several miles, to Rittenhouse Square (above) and Market Street. We stopped at a good, local Italian restaurant called D’Angelo’s for dinner. It was delightful.

IMG_0301

We spent much of the next (rainy, gloomy) day inside, doing a long-form interview, but eventually we ventured outside for photos. We ate lunch together at the wonderful Gran Caffé L’Aquila and ended up, once again, walking all over the city. Here are some of the highlights of our day, including the famous steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE statue:

IMG_0303

IMG_0326

IMG_0337

IMG_0340

IMG_0353

IMG_0343

The next morning, we met an alumna at Rival Brothers Coffee at 24th and Lombard. It was warm and dry enough to sit outside, sipping our coffee while we talked, before taking her into charming, tree-lined neighborhoods for the photo shoot.

IMG_0360

IMG_0380

Afterwards, we had some time to kill before our next appointment, so we walked around again, this time trying to find some of the murals Philadelphia is famous for (above), and ducking into the new Comcast Center to be entertained by the artwork and ongoing video show there. Take a look:

IMG_0406

IMG_0402

We ate lunch at Honey’s Sit n Eat homestyle restaurant on South Street, where they serve a delicious breakfast (and other good stuff) all day long.

IMG_0523

Our afternoon appointment was with the president and CEO of Eastern State Penitentiary (2027 Fairmount Ave), above and below. I’d been thinking about doing this story for years, ever since I’d visited the prison in 2013 when we were traveling for our VISIONS Across America project. I didn’t know at the time that an Iowa State alum was at the helm of this massive museum.

IMG_0551

IMG_0445

It’s just as cool and creepy and wonderful as I remembered. I took way too many pictures.

IMG_0434

IMG_0469

IMG_0498

IMG_0544

IMG_0458

IMG_0454

IMG_0525

IMG_0438

 

I also learned a lot, in talking with her, about the challenges of preserving the ruined state of the facility without it declining further, and also about the current social issues surrounding incarceration. It was a very insightful visit.

So, that was a long day. We shared some nachos at a bar/grill in our neighborhood before calling it a night.

The weather finally cooperated on our last full day in Philadelphia. We started the day at Fitzwater Street Philly Bagels, boasting five generations of bagel-making. (The bagels were great, but the service was iffy at best.)

IMG_1081

We had a morning appointment with an alumna in the Rittenhouse Square area, which was hopping. Diners were lined up for brunch on the sidewalk in front of Parc, an adorable French bistro on the square, and the historic park itself was filled with shoppers there for the art festival and weekly farmers’ market.

 

We talked, we walked, she told us some Philadelphia stories and showed us some behind-the scenes gems like this grand organ, inside Macy’s:

IMG_0604

Afterward, we went together to watch the Iowa State football game with some fellow Cyclones at The Field House, right across from the phenomenal Reading Terminal Market.

IMG_0613

And then, we met up with our last alumna of the trip and walked with her to the city’s Historic District, where visitors line up to view the Liberty Bell and tour Independence Hall. I bought an overpriced souvenir keychain to take back to the office, Jim almost got run over by a tour bus, and we avoided the temptation of this old-timey ice cream shop.

IMG_0622

It was another long day, and our flight was scheduled for early the next morning. So we walked the miles and miles back to our neighborhood, stopping for Thai food along the way.

Omaha, with sisters

IMG_1053

Here’s a quick recap of a trip I took recently to Omaha. It’s a city I’ve visited often, and yet I found so many new things to explore!

I stayed with my two sisters from Kansas City in a charming historic bed and breakfast (above), the Cornerstone Mansion (140 North 39th St), located across the street from the Joslyn Castle. What a lovely neighborhood – the historic Gold Coast District – and what a cool home filled with fascinating stories! We stayed in Anna’s Suite, but our host, Mona, let us peek into the other six rooms (all with private baths), and we loved them all. Each is decorated uniquely; the Porch Suite was our favorite, with its huge adjoining second-floor sleeping porch.

Mona made such a huge breakfast the first morning that we barely made a dent in it: a generous yogurt/banana/granola parfait, an enormous portion of mushroom/hash brown/egg/cheese casserole, croissants, coffee (and sausage for the meat eaters). Holy buckets, that was breakfast AND lunch for us. The next morning, after we groaned that big breakfasts are not our thing, she served us peaches topped with yogurt and thick slices of strawberry French toast – a slightly lighter breakfast, but still a very filling way to start our day.

We were entertained the second morning by Mona’s mom, who came over to help with breakfast but ended up answering all our questions about the history of the house. We learned about the families who built the home and lived there – and who still may be knocking around, if you believe in such things. The 10,200-square-foot home, built in 1894, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built by Charles and Bertha Offutt; you’ll recognize the name because Omaha’s Offutt Air Force Base was named for their son, Jarvis.

Cornerstone Mansion was a terrific base for our exploration of Omaha. We spent hours at the Henry Doorly Zoo, poked around the fabulous antiques shops in the Old Market (bordered by S. 10th St., 13th St., Farnam St., and Jackson St.), and tried to dine our way through the list I’d made of interesting local eateries. (However, our big breakfasts added an unexpected challenge.)

IMG_0142

The zoo (located at 3701 S 10th St.) was wonderful as usual. We were pleased and surprised that the weather was nice (we were expecting rain and cool temps) and that the crowd was small for a Saturday. We took our time and made our way around the entire zoo, exploring each of the exhibits. We loved the Scott Aquarium, Desert Dome / Kingdoms of the Night, and of course, the Lied Jungle. We saw a baby gorilla, fed giraffes, and hung out with the tigers. It’s hard to believe that this zoo continues to improve and expand and offers new things every time I visit. Here are a few more photos:

IMG_0050

 

IMG_0084

IMG_0105

IMG_0213.jpg

We started our Omaha foodie tour at lunch on Friday at The Kitchen Table, 1415 Farnam St. This farm-to-table eatery is small – many diners at this downtown location were coming in to grab food to take with them – with a fairly limited menu. I had a buttery, melty grilled cheese sandwich with a side of seasoned popcorn and a cup of coffee. My sisters both ordered the BLT. It’s a hip, urban location that seems to be a favorite with local business workers. The Kitchen Table also has a second location at 4952 Dodge.

That night we ate at La Casa Pizzaria (4432 Leavenworth St.), serving “legendary” pizza and pasta since 1953. We got there early and the place was basically empty, but soon it was buzzing with large, enthusiastic groups of families and friends enjoying their Friday night. The large, rectangular pizza we ordered, cut in small squares, was more than enough for the three of us. It was a fun, local place to dine.

The next day we discovered Coneflower Creamery (3921 Farnam St.) just down the block from our B&B in the hip Blackstone District. I’d read about this ice cream store online; people were gushing about the flavors, so we decided to give it a try. As it turns out, this was the highlight of the whole weekend. We could not stop talking about this ice cream! Coneflower is a “farm-to-cone” operation that uses the freshest, most local ingredients. The place is tiny, with maybe two tables inside and a couple of larger tables outside, and the line was out the door and down the block. My sisters and I got different flavors, so I was able to taste six different scoops. My Archetype Coffee and Blackstone Butter Brickle were both to die for. I tasted the birthday cake, toasted coconut, dark chocolate, and sweet corn (yes, sweet corn) flavors, and all were fantastic. Apparently the flavors rotate, so my goal is to stop here every time I’m in Omaha, or passing through Omaha on I-80, or, what the heck, even marginally CLOSE to Omaha. This is my new sweet obsession.

IMG_1052

With our tummies filled with late-afternoon ice cream, we decided to share one vegetarian platter (above) at Lalibela Ethiopian Cuisine (4422 Cass St.) for dinner on Saturday. I love Ethiopian food, and neither of my sisters had ever tried it. We liked this place, located in an old Pizza Hut, but I will say that our meal didn’t compare with some of the Ethiopian food I’ve had in Washington, D.C. and New York. Still, we got out of there for under $20 for three people and had a wonderful time trying something new. We especially loved the hot, spicy tea.

Here are a few other restaurants I would love to try next time I’m in Omaha:

  • Saddle Creek Breakfast Club, open 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., 1540 N. Saddle Creek – banana pancakes, anyone?
  • Dante Ristorante (full service in West Omaha, 16901 Wright Plaza #173) or Dante Blackstone (counter service, 3852 Farnam St)) – for pizza and pasta
  • Modern Love, 1319 S. 50th – a vegan restaurant
  • Block 16, 1611 Farnam St.
  • Amateur Coffee at 3913 Cuming St. – a vegan coffee shop!

 

My Laura Ingalls Wilder tour, Part 3

Well, I definitely saved the best for last. After visiting Laura Ingalls Wilder museums in De Smet, S.D.; Walnut Grove and Spring Valley, Minn.; Pepin, Wis.; and Burr Oak, Iowa, this summer – and greatly enjoying each one of them – my visit to southern Missouri (and Kansas) on the last weekend in August was by far my most fulfilling Laura Ingalls Wilder experience.

IMG_9854

MANSFIELD, MISSOURI

I arrived at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes & Museum in Mansfield, Mo., late last Friday morning after a long drive. I kept thinking, as I drove in my comfortable, air-conditioned car, holy moly, how long and difficult these drives must have been for the Ingalls family and later for newlyweds Laura and Almanzo in the 1800s.

Mansfield is a small town (population 1,450) about 45 miles east of Springfield on Hwy. 60. It’s not hard to find, and it’s definitely worth the 7-hour drive from Ames. (Also, I cheated and spent the night in the Kansas City area with my sister.)

IMG_9857

The first stop is a new Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, located at 3060 Highway A. The exterior of the building looks like a white barn; inside is a spacious museum (by far the most thorough, modern, and professional of all the L.I.W. museums), a small theater, and a gift shop.

I paid my $14 entrance fee and learned that photography would not be allowed inside the museum or the homes. This was disappointing to me. I also learned that a guided tour of the Wilder farmhouse at Rocky Ridge Farm would begin in 20 minutes (tours are given on the half-hour from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with shorter hours on Sunday) and that an 8-minute film would give me a nice introduction to my visit. So I started by viewing the film, and although I feel like I’ve been immersed in all things Laura lately, I learned a few things from the film and also really loved hearing Laura’s voice. She was recorded as an older woman after becoming a famous author.

I learned that the farmhouse was started well after Laura and Almanzo and their daughter, Rose, arrived in Mansfield in 1894, living first in town and then in a cabin on their acreage. Laura’s descriptive skills – which she would later use to become a best-selling storyteller – were honed during all the years she spent describing what she saw to her sister, Mary, who was blind.

IMG_9839

After the film ended, I walked up the hill to the Rocky Ridge Farmhouse and waited with a small group of visitors for our tour to begin. Right at 11:30, our tour guide, Stanley, came out and introduced himself. We were reminded of the no-photography policy and also warned that  touching anything inside the home was not allowed.

IMG_9834

Let the tour begin!

Stanley reminded us that the Wilders’ first house was actually a log cabin. Almanzo added a kitchen to the cabin, then detached it and moved here to the top of the hill. He basically built the farmhouse around the kitchen, one room at a time, over the next 17 years.

In the kitchen, we saw a life-sized cutout of Laura as she looked as an older woman; her actual size was just 4’11” – she was so tiny! The kitchen was built for her, so all of the surfaces are unusually low. Stanley said Laura loved dishes. Her wedding china is on display – in a beautiful blue willow pattern. Everything in this kitchen was actually Laura’s – no reproductions here. This is really what makes this visit soar above all the rest: You’re walking through Laura’s house with Laura’s things, just as they were when she lived here. She died three days after her 90th birthday in 1957, and they left the home exactly as it was when she died, as she was very famous. Stanley pointed out that the wood in the stove has been here for 61 years.

Moving on: There’s an opening between the kitchen and dining room, with steep stairs leading up to the sleeping attic and Rose’s bedroom.

Laura’s favorite rocker is in the next room; this is where she answered her fan mail – averaging 50 letters per day. Stanley said she received 1000 cards on her 90th birthday.

Also in this area is the clock she received as a Christmas present – Almanzo traded a load of hay to buy it, and it’s still in perfect working order after all these years.

Next is the bedroom and a bathroom that was added in 1920; we can see the twin beds, Laura’s makeup table, and an old Montgomery Ward catalog on the nightstand. The floor was ordered through that catalog (beautiful!). There’s a 1950 Philco radio (Laura and Almanzo never had a television), Laura’s sewing box, and many things Almanzo made by hand: a table, lamps, and more. On the wall are framed Currier & Ives prints, taken from magazines and calendars.

The next room is the smallest room in the house: Laura’s office. She was 65 years old when she started writing her books; it took 11 years to finished them at age 76. There’s a small “fainting couch” in her office. It’s a very cozy room.

We continue our tour into the parlor, a 1913 addition to house. Almanzo built almost everything else himself, but he hired help to build this room, using local wood. Stanley explained that Almanzo had a stroke at age 29 and walked with a cane; there are many canes inside the house, all carved by Almanzo himself. He also hooked rugs and built much of the furniture in the home. The parlor has a large window with a window seat; Laura reportedly loved the window seat, saying the window was “like a living picture, always changing.”

A music room has a pump organ and electrola (not to be confused with a victrola) with wooden needles. The Wilders were avid readers; the library is filled with some 300 volumes. Stanley said Laura and Almanzo would read aloud to each other in this room, snacking on popcorn, walnuts, and apples.

Upstairs is a guest bedroom, storage (“junk room”) and Rose’s bedroom; the second floor is not open to the public. All told, the farmhouse has 10 total rooms – nine more rooms than most of the homes Laura lived in growing up.

At the end of the tour, Stanley took questions and expressed his delight in giving tours of Laura and Almanzo’s home. “I don’t go to work,” he said, “I go to play,”

IMG_9830

Exterior photos of the home are allowed, so I walked around the grounds a bit before heading to my car and driving to the Rock House.

IMG_9842

The Rock House is located about three-fourths of a mile away from the farmhouse, along a rugged walking path. The story goes that in 1928, daughter Rose Wilder Lane returned home from her travels abroad and wanted to build a retirement home for her parents.

IMG_9847

The home is open to visitors between 10 a.m. and 4:20 p.m., with a half-hour break at 12:30. I squeezed my visit in just before the lunch break. No guided tours are offered, but a docent, Marie, was in the home to tell visitors about its history and answer questions.

The Rock House is built in an English cottage style, with plans purchased from the Sears & Roebuck catalog. Laura and Almanzo lived here for seven years before moving back to the farmhouse. They kept the Rock House as a rental property until 1943 when it was sold. Laura reportedly said she moved back to the farmhouse because she was “homesick for the old place.”

I liked both houses a lot. The farmhouse feels like home, but the Rock House is really adorable; it made me think of a gingerbread house. And it was filled with all the modern conveniences of the time: Running water, electricity, forced-air heating, and a garage for the car.

There’s a beautiful view from the front room of the wooded, shady lot; the room has French doors and casement windows that let in lots of light. Marie says, “The view is unbeatable” and added that it probably hasn’t changed very much since Laura and Almanzo lived here.

IMG_9848

Photos throughout the house show how the rooms looked in 1929. Displays include Laura’s Haviland china and pink depression glass. There’s a modern kitchen with electric appliances; Laura’s bedroom, with a sewing machine, bed, and dresser; Almanzo’s bedroom; and a bathroom with authentic tile (only the toilet has been replaced).

Laura did some writing here before moving back to the farmhouse. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Foundation bought the house in 1990, and Marie said they were fortunate that the house was cared for so well by its owners.

IMG_9856

After touring the Rock House, I headed to the museum. I already felt like I’d had a nice tour, but the museum really blew me away. As with the house interiors, I wish I had photos to show you, but you’ll just have to make do with my notes.

I started at the front of the museum and then went left, which makes sense to me because you read left to right, but actually if you go to the right and wind your way around you’ll view the books and their attendant displays in the order they were written.

There are so many initial highlights in the front of the museum. Here are just a few:

  • “Little House” stamp issued in 1993
  • Versions of the “Little House” books in many languages
  • Original photos I’ve never seen before
  • Ingalls and Wilder family history
  • Information about the Wilders’ daughter, Rose
  • A timeline of Laura’s life with a backdrop of U.S. history
  • Laura’s life after Almanzo (he died 1949)
  • Replica of a “hack” (wagon) used by the Wilders (this is one of the few replicas in this museum; nearly everything is original)

As I mentioned, many of the displays go along with the times the books were written:

  • “Little House in the Big Woods” – Pepin, Wis.: Laura’s first sampler, a handkerchief she made (how did it last all this time??? It is so sweet!), Mary’s nine-patch quilt
  • “Farmer Boy” – New York to Spring Valley, Minn.: Wilder memorabilia and photos, Almanzo’s watch, license plates (Almanzo saved them), his handmade canes and shoes
  • “Little House on the Prairie” – Independence, Kan.: Quilts Laura appliqued, a TV show display
  • “Banks of Plum Creek” – Walnut Grove, Minn.: Photographs, Laura’s jewel box, Laura and Mary’s school slates, Nellie Owens’ name cards (Laura changed Nellie’s name to Oleson in the book series, one of only two names she ever changed)
  • “Long Winter,” “Little Town on the Prairie” and “Happy Golden Years” – all set in De Smet, with artifacts from the time
  • “The First Four Years,” published 1971, 14 years after her death, found as an unfinished manuscript; it details Wilders’ early married life 1885-1889
  • “West From Home” – Letters Laura wrote from San Francisco in 1915; the letters were discovered after her death
  • “On the Way Home” – Diary of her trip from South Dakota to Mansfield 1894

There’s a display about Laura and her fans; original manuscripts; her sewing machine. Another display shows her travels with Rose, with photos of the train and souvenirs she purchased. Separate display cases highlight the lives of sisters Grace (1877-1941), Carrie (1870-1946), and Mary (1865-1928), with Mary’s gloves and crocheted bed jacket. Other displays show Charles and Caroline’s books, original photos, and wedding certificate; Laura’s Bible, and the Ingalls family Bible. There’s just so much wonderful, original stuff here! I was starting to geek out at this point.

And then, there’s the travel lap-desk she used, her billfold, and a “luncheon set” she made by hand (napkins and tablecloth). Here are clothes she made and wore! My notes say I am becoming emotional. There’s a black velvet dress, a burgundy velvet dress (her favorite), and a white “lawn dress” from 1900. Here’s Laura’s cow creamer, her roosting hen dish, a blouse, her fancy dress-top, her beloved glassware, swan plate, and dishes…all the pretty things she loved.

All this stuff, preserved so beautifully, was starting to make me an emotional wreck. And then I saw it: Pa’s dear old fiddle. I pretty much lost it at that point. Pa’s fiddle played such a huge part in Laura’s childhood and in her stories! It was made in Germany in 1850, and Charles played until he died in 1902. It was sent to Laura in 1944. I’m told the fiddle is still played during special occasions.

I stumbled out of the museum in a daze. What a wonderful experience. But now I have to snap out of it and move along.

In the museum gift shop, I bought two books: “On the Way Home,” and “The First Four Years.” I asked the clerk for directions to the cemetery in which Laura and Almanzo are buried, and I also asked for recommendations for a place in Mansfield where I could find some lunch. She helped me with both requests.

IMG_9887

First, lunch. I ate at Sweet Nellie’s, which looks like an ice cream shop, but they serve breakfast, sandwiches, burgers, daily specials (meatloaf, catfish, etc.), caramel rolls, and huge apple fritters. I had a grilled PB&J from the kids menu (recommended by the cashier after I told her I was a vegetarian). It was gooey and delicious.

IMG_9884

After lunch, I walked around the horseshoe-shaped Mansfield “square” with its historic bank, shops, and other businesses on three sides surrounding a park with a gazebo and a bust of Laura as older woman (above). I got a little bit choked up again. The citizens of Mansfield really loved Laura, and it shows.

IMG_9895

 

Finally, a few blocks away is the cemetery, where you’ll find the well-marked graves of Laura (1867-1957) and Almanzo (1857-1949) sharing a headstone. Daughter Rose Wilder Lane (1886-1968) is buried beside them. The headstones are well maintained, framed by bushes and covered with small rocks and toys.

My overall rating for Mansfield: 9 out of 10. It would be a 10 if they’d allow photography inside the museum and the homes. But this place is the BEST if you’re a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan; it’s definitely the site to visit if you can only see one place.

IMG_9991

INDEPENDENCE, KANSAS

The next day I drove to the Little House on the Prairie Museum near Independence, Kan. It was pretty much the exact opposite of my experience in Mansfield: The museum stands on the land where Laura lived with her family in a log cabin in 1870, but there’s absolutely nothing original here.

IMG_9915

I arrived early (the museum opens, theoretically, at 10 a.m.) even though Google Maps took me first to the wrong location. I went into the small town of Independence to get gas and then followed the brochure directions to the museum south of town off of U.S. Hwy. 75. Rain was falling steadily. I waited in my car until after 10, and nobody had arrived to open the buildings, so I decided to get out of my car and walk around. A few other people had also arrived by this point.

IMG_9949

I took some exterior photos, watched burros and a donkey play in the nearby field, and then parked myself impatiently on the porch of the gift shop. Finally, at 10:20, someone arrived to unlock the building, but immediately she put a CLOSED sign on the porch and scurried back inside. Several minutes later she came out and let us know it would be a few more minutes as she went to unlock the other buildings. It wasn’t until 10:35 that the museum site was open to guests.

IMG_9923

At that point, I paid my $3 admission fee and then walked from building to building and took pictures inside. Since nothing is original to the Ingalls family, and since I’d seen the acreage in De Smet and all the other sites, I wasn’t terribly impressed by the turn-of-the-century post office …

IMG_9950

IMG_9968

… or the one-room school house (built in 1872)…

IMG_9953

IMG_9972

… or the reconstructed log cabin.

IMG_9985

There’s some nice signage, with stories and quotes from the Ingalls family’s time here (1869-1871), the original setting of the “Little House on the Prairie” book. One sign says: “The Ingalls family arrived here in 1869, believing the land would soon be available for legal purchase…after over a year in Kansas, they returned to their home in Pepin, Wis…. Charles Ingalls never filed on this land, making identification of the exact location of their log cabin challenging.”

Baby Carrie was born in the cabin in 1870. Charles built a barn and dug a well, had a garden, and hunted for game. Laura wrote that Independence was 40 miles from the cabin when in reality it’s about 12 miles, but, as one sign said, it seemed like 40 miles when riding in a wagon and fording creeks.

IMG_9927

Another sign notes: “It was a perfect location here except that it was on the edge of the Osage Diminished Reserve, and who owned the land was in question. In “Little House on the Prairie,” Laura writes about the tension and fear associated with the land dispute between Congress and the Osage tribe.

The gift shop offers some nice hand-made pottery and Christmas ornaments with the “Little House” logo, but I didn’t buy anything here. I was back on the road by 11 a.m.

Honestly, this is not a bad place to visit. But for the amount of time it takes to drive here from Iowa, I’d say it’s #7 on a list of the seven sites I visited. I’m super happy I was able to check it off the list, but I’m not sure it was REALLY worth the effort, if I had it to do over again.

IMG_1042

So, now what? I’ve gone to each of the places Laura lived and wrote about. I’ve bought a ton of books and a cool map. Now I need to read all of these books, some of which I read years ago and some that are new to me:

IMG_1036

I also think I will re-read “Prairie Fires,” minus the long, drawn-out chapters that deal with Rose, because it will be more meaningful to me now that I’ve seen each of these locations and visited the museums.

Laura Ingalls Wilder lived an amazing life, and she was an inspiration to me as a strong female, a great writer, and a late-in-life modern career woman. I’m happy so much of her story has been preserved for us to experience.

My Laura Ingalls Wilder tour, Part 2

IMG_9620

I continued my Laura Ingalls Wilder tour last weekend with three stops: Pepin, Wis., Spring Valley, Minn., and Burr Oak, Iowa. All three were very much worth the drive.

IMG_9539

PEPIN, WISCONSIN

I started in Pepin, Wis., the birthplace of Laura Ingalls Wilder. This is where her story begins: “Once upon a time…a little girl lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin, in a little gray house made of logs.”

IMG_9490

There are actually two L.I.W. sites in Pepin. The first is the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum, located right on the main street through town (306 3rd St). For a $5 entrance fee, you can tour the museum, which includes original quilts belonging to Laura and her sisters. When the Ingalls family left Pepin, they took all of their possessions with them. So the only items that actually belonged to the family that are displayed at this museum are two quilts and a doily. These items were sent from Mansfield, Mo., after Laura’s death.

IMG_9475

Displays in the museum include Ingalls photos and documents, dolls, clothing and artifacts of the time period when the Ingalls family lived here, and a “world-wide Laura” exhibit. (The Little House books have been translated into more than 40 languages and have created a number of pop-culture spin-offs including lunch boxes, board games, dolls, and other items, below.)

IMG_9495

There are also some interactive exhibits here for kids: a log-cabin dollhouse, covered wagon display, riverboat replica, and costumes to try on.

IMG_9520

The gift shop has some interesting prints and posters for sale. I bought a map of Laura’s travels for $3 and got directions to the log cabin, which is the second L.I.W. site in Pepin.

IMG_9526

I ate lunch at the Pickle Factory, a bar and grill located on the shore of Lake Pepin, took a walk along the lakeshore, and then drove around town (highlights are a pretty winery, a small depot, and a farm stand) before heading out to the cabin.

IMG_9529

IMG_9536

The Little House Wayside, 7 miles north of Pepin on Country Road CC, marks the spot where Laura was born on Feb. 7, 1867, in a small cabin built by her father.

IMG_9541

The original cabin is gone, as are the big woods, replaced by fields of corn and soybeans. But still, this feels like a pilgrimage to the shrine of Laura – truly hallowed ground.

On the site is a replica of the cabin that became the famous “Little House in the Big Woods.”

IMG_9567

Late in 1868 or spring of 1869, the Ingalls family left Wisconsin and traveled by covered wagon to Kansas. But they returned to Pepin in late 1870 before again leaving the area in 1873 to move to Minnesota.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Days are held in Pepin during the second full weekend in September. The event includes a Laura contest, cabin activities, fiddle contest, spelling bee, square dance, craft demonstrations, a parade, and a “famous” chicken dinner.

SPRING VALLEY, MINNESOTA

Spring Valley is just south of Rochester, Minn. This Laura Ingalls Wilder experience is a bit different because it focuses mostly on the Wilder side – Laura’s husband, Almanzo, and his family.

IMG_9619

I arrived in Spring Valley before the museum opened at 10 a.m., so I walked around the small historic business district (below).

IMG_9601

IMG_9603

The Wilder museum is housed in the Methodist Church at 221 W. Courtland, just two blocks from the main highway through town.

IMG_9611

The Wilder family, made famous in the book Farmer Boy, moved to Spring Valley in the 1870s. Construction of the Methodist Church began in 1876, and the Wilders helped support the building costs. After Laura and Almanzo were married, they lived in Spring Valley with their daughter, Rose, in 1890. So there’s plenty of history here.

Museum entrance is $7, and for that, you get a guided tour of the displays, most of which consist of photos and historical documents. My tour guide was Alexys, age 14.

IMG_9627

Alexys really knew her Wilder history. I may have thrown her off script a time or two with questions and interjections, but she did a great job. Displays told the story of the extended Wilder family in the town of Spring Valley. Photos show their original home, where Laura lived as a young mother. A letter from Laura to a fan of her books in 1952 is on display.

IMG_9629

IMG_9636

If you’re interested in more than Wilder history, the museum also includes an 1874 fire wagon, the Richard Sears exhibit, camera collection, old-fashioned kitchen display, and other historic items. I walked through these areas quickly without a guide.

I’ve been trying to complete my Little House book collection, and I didn’t own Farmer Boy, so I bought it at the gift shop before leaving the museum. It seemed only right to buy it here.

IMG_9642

Spring Valley has two more sites worth visiting: An acreage just a few blocks northwest of the church houses the Wilder family’s original barn and farmland (below). This is private property, so I parked down the block and photographed the barn with a long lens so as not to be annoying.

IMG_9648

Before leaving Spring Valley, I visited the cemetery where some of the Wilder family is buried.

IMG_9669

 

IMG_9686

BURR OAK, IOWA

I then headed to Burr Oak, Iowa, about a 45-minute drive from Spring Valley. I honestly wasn’t expecting much from that visit, but it really exceeded my expectations. The Masters Hotel in Burr Oak is actually the only place Laura lived as a child that exists today on its original site.

IMG_9685

In 1876, when Laura was 9 years old, the Ingalls family left Walnut Grove, Minn., and moved to Burr Oak to help manage the Masters Hotel, owned by William Steadman. Laura never wrote about her Burr Oak experience in the Little House series. Apparently she was eager to forget about her time there, as she didn’t enjoy living in town and working at the hotel.

The old Burr Oak Savings Bank is the first stop on the L.I.W. tour, where you pay $8 for a guided tour. I joined a group of four with a tour already in progress, led by a tour guide named Annastacia. She gave us some background information about Burr Oak: When the Ingalls family lived here, it was a bustling town of 200 with frequent stagecoach stops, two hotels, a saloon, grocery store, and schoolhouse.

IMG_9698

As a group, we walked across the street to the Masters Hotel, built in 1851. Much of the building has been renovated, but you can still see some original floorboards and many other original parts of the structure. We watched a short DVD telling the history of Laura’s time in Burr Oak as well as a brief history of her other homes. I was reminded that after living in the hotel, the family moved in Kimball’s grocery (two doors down) and then to a home they rented just north of the main road, where Laura’s sister Grace was born in 1877.

IMG_9708

IMG_9715

We toured the hotel, which is furnished with period items and also contains some Ingalls history displays. There’s a place setting from Laura and Almanzo’s wedding china, first editions of some of Laura’s Little House books, a brick from the house where Grace was born, and documents from when Laura’s sister Mary attended a school for the blind.

IMG_9717

The first floor consists of one bedroom, a lobby, and parlor. Annastacia played “Sweet By and By” on the pump organ in the parlor, one of the songs Charles is said to have played.

IMG_9730

Borders stayed in small bedrooms upstairs, often sleeping three to a twin-sized bed (men only, side by side, feet on the floor) for 25 cents a night.

IMG_9744

IMG_9738

The lower level is where the Ingalls family slept (below) and where Caroline cooked and served three meals a day, six days a week.

IMG_9750

IMG_9700

Outside, you can see the creek Laura played in and the hill on which she sledded in the wintertime. In this back area, during Laura’s time, you would have milked cows and parked your wagon. A church bell has been relocated here – the exact bell that rang at Laura’s church.

IMG_9777

IMG_9779

I loved this tour! After it was over, I grabbed a walking-tour map of Burr Oak and walked to the cemetery and the Methodist church (built in 1893 by Almanzo’s uncle) and the mercantile (below)…

IMG_9674

… and to the Advent Christian Church (built when the Ingalls family lived in Burr Oak, below), to a park with a pretty bridge, and to the site where Grace was born.

IMG_9789

Today, Burr Oak’s population (166) is smaller than when Laura and her family lived here.

I’ve now visited all of the northern Laura Ingalls Wilder museums (in North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa). Next up: A trip to Mansfield, Mo., where Laura lived as an adult and wrote the Little House stories.

My Laura Ingalls Wilder tour, Part 1

IMG_6407

I’m probably no more or less interested in the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder than the average person. I’m sure I read some of them as a kid – although I don’t really remember – and I definitely read some of them to my own daughters. I liked the stories, and I appreciated the quality of the illustrations.

I enjoyed watching the television series, although I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan. At best, I was ambivalent.

So why am I now, at age 59, embarking on a tour of all things Laura?

My interest was piqued last year when Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder was published by Caroline Fraser. It drew a lot of mixed comments from people who loved the Little House books, which portray pioneer life as seen through happy, rose-colored glasses. The book was fairly controversial.

I decided I should read it. But when I got it from the library, I got confused and instead checked out Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography. This is definitely not the same thing. Pioneer Girl is written by Ingalls Wilder herself and is actually the first draft of what would become the Little House series. It’s a little bit rougher and grittier than the final children’s series, but it’s mostly the same stories of her early pioneering life, only less embellished. The book is heavily annotated by Pamela Smith Hill, which is sometimes annoying but other times helps to put Ingalls Wilder’s words into the context of the times.

I enjoyed reading that book, and it occurred to me that I live awfully darn close to most of the places Laura and her family lived: Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, the Dakota Territory (now South Dakota), Missouri, and Kansas.

Laura’s life intrigued me – especially her early years – and I was also interested in the history of the frontier, from the Indian Wars to the Dust Bowl.

So I decided to go ahead and read Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Whoa, this is a different story altogether. For one thing, this book is big and dense, and Laura’s early life only takes up about the first quarter of the pages. It took me a very long time to read – it’s 640 pages but seems even longer. But it’s very well researched, and I appreciated that. I felt like I learned a lot about Laura’s growing-up years, what she really went through (extreme poverty, near-starvation, nearly freezing to death during horrible blizzards), and what her parents were like. More than that, though, I learned more about the history of homesteading, farming practices, federal programs, relationships with Native Americans, and other events of the nation during those times.

The book continues into the time of Laura’s marriage; much of it describes the life of her writer daughter, Rose Wilder Lane – probably more than I wanted to know. But it gets into the writing (and editing, and re-writing) of the Little House books and Laura’s ascent into fame as an author in her sixties, all of which is pretty interesting.

Bottom line, it made me want to visit the places I’d been reading about. So, when my husband Dave announced that he was going to North Dakota and asked if I wanted to tag along, I said yes, on one condition: That we stop in Walnut Grove, Minn., and De Smet, S.D. on the way.

WALNUT GROVE, MINNESOTA

Walnut Grove, you may remember, was the setting for the long-running “Little House on the Prairie” television series (which Caroline Fraser describes as “not so much an adaptation as a hyperbolic fantasy spin off”) and was the basis of the book On the Banks of Plum Creek.

IMG_6399

On the day we visited, we arrived in Walnut Grove early, before the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum opened, so we drove around. We went to the Ingalls’ 1874 dugout site but found that it was closed due to flooding. (Indeed, it was raining steadily when we got there.)

IMG_6401

So we stopped for a cup of coffee at Nellie’s Little Café on the Prairie (promising “homestyle cooking”), which was actually fun. (Dave had milk and cookies). The café is thoroughly decorated with photos of the much-abhorred character Nellie Oleson from the TV series, played by Alison Arngrim, as well as other photos from the series, many of them autographed. You will definitely not forget where you are.

IMG_6410

Just across the street from the museum, which was still not open yet, we found the Masters Store & Hall (below).

IMG_6415

According to the sign on the building: “William J. Masters moved to Walnut Grove when he sold his hotel in Burr Oak, Iowa. Around 1847 he built this hotel. Laura wrote about her time here in Pioneer Girl. The Ingalls [family] sold the Plum Creek property and left Walnut Grove in 1876. They returned in 1877 when Pa bought a lot in the pasture behind this hotel and built a small house for his family. After returning from Burr Oak, Laura found work here setting tables, washing dishes, and folding laundry for 50 cents a week.”

The Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum recently purchased the Masters Store & Hall; Charles Ingalls is said to have actually helped build it.

Once we finally got into the museum, it was pretty much as I expected.

IMG_6510

I bought some of the Little House books at the gift shop and we started our self-guided tour. We saw some pretty basic stuff in the first museum building (the Depot Building): Reproduction photos of Charles and Caroline, a timeline of the family’s travels (including Laura’s birth on Feb. 7, 1867), more photos and memorabilia, Laura’s quilt, and some documentation about the books.

IMG_6426

IMG_6430

There’s an entire room dedicated to the TV show, with a painted mural from the show’s main street (below), and lots of photos and memorabilia.

IMG_6433

Besides this main museum, there’s a chapel (not authentic)…

IMG_6439

… and a building they call Grandma’s House (below), which was built in 1890 but has no actual connection to Ingalls Wilder.

IMG_6440

Inside the house is an exhibit featuring illustrations by Garth Williams, who illustrated the Little House books as well as Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, and other children’s books. I love the style of his illustrations, so this display was fun; included many of his original sketches.

IMG_6444

I also enjoyed the exhibit that shows some of the less-well-known writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder and also those of her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Some of Laura’s hand-written letters are even on display.

IMG_6451

Also on the property is a dugout-style home similar to the one Laura describes in Plum Creek.

IMG_6469

Dugouts were usually temporary structures used for a few months until a permanent home could be built.

A little red school house represents the kind of one-room country school Laura might have attended.

IMG_6464

A settler’s home is also on the property, moved there from property owned by a neighbor of the Ingalls family on Plum Creek. The two-room home is furnished to represent a pioneer home of the late 1800s (below).

IMG_6474

Finally, we visited the Heritage Lane building, which displays a covered wagon, a railroad history exhibit, the original Walnut Grove telephone switchboards, the original Walnut Grove Tribune newspaper office equipment, and more.

IMG_6495

IMG_6492

If you go to Walnut Grove, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum is located at 330 8th Street. Admission to the museum, including the replica dugout, schoolhouse, etc. is $5 per person. Museum hours vary; when I was there this summer it was open 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., but hours are limited during other times of the year and the museum buildings are closed during the winter.

The original dugout site is located at 13501 County Road 5, 1.5 miles north of Walnut Grove ($5 per car).

If you’re really into it, there’s a big ol’ Wilder Pageant held during weekends in July. The pageant is “an outdoor drama based on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder in Walnut Grove,” and admission ranges from $18 (bring your own blanket) to $20 (chairs provided). Apparently there’s going to be another “Little House” cast reunion July 11-14, 2019, celebrating the 45th anniversary of the TV show, which makes me feel really old.

DE SMET, NORTH DAKOTA

From Walnut Grove, we drove on Hwy. 14 to De Smet, S.D., about two hours straight west.

Known as the “little town on the prairie,” De Smet offers two ways to explore Ingalls Wilder’s childhood: the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes and the Ingalls Homestead. We started at the homestead.

IMG_6662

This is the original 160 acres of land the Ingalls family homesteaded in 1880, and although little remains from the Ingalls family on that acreage, it was still very cool to stand on the site and imagine what it must have been like back in those days.

IMG_6517

We started at the visitor center and gift shop (I bought more books), then headed outside – with homestead map in hand – to visit a dugout, a claim shanty, hayroof barn, school house, church, and other places of interest.

Here’s one view of the homestead from the top of a look-out tower:

IMG_6522

Back on land, we saw an exhibit chronicling Laura’s travels as told through her Little House series, with photos and illustrations.

IMG_6547

We visited an original claim shanty built in 1878 by early Kingsbury County residents…

IMG_6550

…and the dugout, which was slightly better than the dugout we’d visited earlier in the day, though both were mighty smelly.

IMG_6555

We stepped inside the hayroof barn, built as Charles Ingalls would have done.

IMG_6574

I was especially interested in this little barn, because there were chickens, a baby calf, and a litter of kittens inside. I mean, who doesn’t love baby farm animals?

IMG_6564

IMG_6567

IMG_6566

There’s also an heirloom garden (below), wildflower display, and native grass prairie.

IMG_6580

Just outside the livestock barn, we boarded a covered wagon and rode to the little prairie school.

IMG_6586

IMG_6595

I believe we were the only tourists without children in tow. Now that I think of it, we might have had the most fun of anyone.

IMG_6602

IMG_6607

I will say that this part of the tour took longer than I would have liked; once we got into the school we were pretty much stuck there and had to listen to an overly long lecture by the resident schoolmarm, including a lengthy history lesson and a reading lesson, from which we could not escape.

IMG_6624

Poor Dave was made an example of when he didn’t keep both hands on his desk (or something equally absurd) and had to stand with his nose on the blackboard. (He was a good sport and played along.) Mercifully, the lessons ended and we re-boarded our mule-led covered wagon back to the barn.

IMG_6630

IMG_6644

We walked around for a bit, visited the West Bethany Church (shown above, built in 1905 and originally located 10 miles north of the Ingalls homestead) and “Ma’s Little House,” a wood-framed home reconstructed on the location and to the dimensions of the Ingalls claim shanty built by Charles Ingalls in the spring of 1880 (below).

IMG_6648

IMG_6651

Five cottonwood trees still remain from the thousands that Charles Ingalls planted on his homestead claim (below). These last living cottonwoods, dedicated to his five girls, are located in the Laura Ingalls Wilder memorial site and donated to the L.I.W. Memorial Society after Laura’s death in 1957.

IMG_6659

Admission to the homestead is $15 per person, including all activities and the covered wagon ride. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.; hours are shorter during fall and spring, and the grounds are closed during the winter.

IMG_6678

Okay, by this time in the day I will admit I was pretty tired. We’d driven a lot and toured fairly extensively. So when we got to the historic homes area in town and found out that the only way to see the inside of the buildings was through a $12 two-hour guided tour, we decided to pass. Instead, we just walked around the outside of the buildings…on our own…for free.

IMG_6681

It’s actually an impressive group of buildings: the original Ingalls home built by Charles in 1887 (after Laura moved to Missouri); the original first school of De Smet, attended by Laura and her sister, Carrie; and the original surveyors’ home from By the Shores of Silver Lake. Kids can enjoy the Discover Center for hands-on activities.

IMG_6669

The L.I.W. Historic Homes and Discovery Center are located at 105 Olivet Ave. Admission, as I mentioned, is $12, and hours vary depending on the season. Remember, admission is by guided tour only. (It’s probably very interesting.)

Like Walnut Grove, De Smet also has an annual outdoor Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, “These Happy Golden Years,” held in July.

IMG_6686

We made one last stop before leaving De Smet: We visited the Ingalls’ grave sites. Buried there are Charles and Caroline Ingalls; Laura’s sisters Mary, Carrie, and Grace; and Laura’s son who died as an infant. (Laura is buried in Mansfield, Mo., where she spent most of her adult life.)

You’ll notice I called this post “Part 1” because I have a second trip coming up! Get excited! I’m planning to visit the Ingalls’ homesteads in Pepin, Wis., Spring Valley, Minn., and Burr Oak, Iowa. I’m sure you’re all on the edge of your seat.

Exploring west-central Colorado

IMG_8921

I traveled to Colorado last month with my National Parks-obsessed husband, Dave. He’s trying to visit all of the 417 NPS sites, and occasionally I am interested enough to tag along.

We drove to Denver the first night, then got up early the next morning and headed south on Interstate 25, then west on Hwy. 50. I had to stop and take Dramamine because of the curves and also sinus medicine because we were gaining altitude so quickly I thought my head would explode. I’m sure I was a lot of fun in the car.

As we were driving, we could see fires burning in the distance, and we drove past a staging area for firefighters – there was a camp there and a lot of helicopter activity. Luckily, none of the areas we planned to visit were directly affected by the fires.

IMG_8429

After about 4 hours we arrived at Curecanti National Recreation Area. Our first views were of Blue Mesa, Colorado’s largest lake (above). We stopped at the Elk Creek visitor center for advice on what to see and where to hike, then we drove along the scenic reservoir until we arrived at the trailhead for Pine Creek Trail.

I must admit that I wasn’t all that keen on hiking this trail based on the description in the park service brochure: “This hike descends 232 stairs along Pine Creek to the old railroad bed and Morrow Point Reservoir. This is the access trail for the boat tour.”

Okay, how about, “This is a pretty hike, with scenic vistas and happy wildlife”? I wasn’t sure I wanted to hike down (and then, of course, back up) 232 stairs to see an old railroad bed. I may have grumbled a bit.

IMG_8438

But down the stairs we went in the 95-degree heat and bright sun, down, down, down to the bottom of the canyon to the river, where boat tours begin and hikers go to die.

As it turns out, it wasn’t all that bad. There was a tiny bit of shade here and there, and the steep canyon walls were pretty cool. Reading the signs, I learned that the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, built in 1881-82, went through the canyon for 67 years, hauling coal, ore, livestock, and passengers.

IMG_8444

We came upon the boat-launch area and saw one of the Park Service pontoon boats leaving for its tour of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, where we’d go later by car.

IMG_8460

After finishing that hike with no casualties, we drove further to Mesa Creek Trail. This one was easy, and it included crossing a pretty foot bridge over the Gunnison and a view of a dam.

IMG_8492

IMG_8506

From there, we headed to our next destination: Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park near Montrose, Colo.

IMG_8520

This park got its name because the canyon walls are made of dark volcanic rock and because, while the gorge is an average of 2,000 feet deep, it’s only about 1,500 feet across, thus not allowing sunlight to illuminate the canyon walls.

IMG_8526

I’ll say this: It’s a pretty dramatic place. We stayed mostly on the south rim road, stopping often to hike to overlooks offering incredible views of the canyon and the Gunnison River far below.

IMG_8542

One sign at the Chasm View overlook said the walls of Black Canyon range in depth from 2,700 feet to 1,750 feet, and the Gunnison River has a very steep gradient – an average fall of 95 feet per mile. Every overlook offered a different, dramatic view.

IMG_8565

IMG_8574

IMG_8587

The afternoon light was nice, but we could see storm clouds gathering in the distance.

IMG_8607

We stayed overnight in Montrose, a pretty cool town, and planned to visit the park all day the next day. So, we drove there the next morning and started at the far end of the park at Warner Point Trail, a 1.5-mile nature hike. It started with sweeping views of the valley…

IMG_8615

…and then views of the canyon, which unfortunately were looking directly into the sun.

IMG_8621

IMG_8656

Note to self: Viewing the south canyon is definitely better in the afternoon than the morning.

We met a young hiker who was visiting a number of national parks for the first time. But, mostly, we had the trail to ourselves.

I really liked the craggy juniper trees, which create twisted sculptures whether they’re alive or dead.

IMG_8694

IMG_8660

We stopped and hiked at each of the overlooks we hadn’t done the afternoon before – and revisited a few we’d already seen. We thought it would take all day to see this park, but by noon we’d done everything we wanted to do on the south rim.

We headed back toward the park entrance and took the East Portal Road down to the bottom of the canyon. This road is extremely steep, with 16-percent grades and hairpin curves. By the time we got to the bottom, our brakes were smoking. But what a cool drive, and what a beautiful sight at the bottom! It was suddenly so green!

IMG_8747

We had a picnic lunch along the river, and had the whole area to ourselves.

IMG_8751

Afterwards, we attempted to take a little hike, but the trail was pathetic so we turned back. We did see some fishermen in the water. If fishing is your thing, this would be a very scenic place to do it.

IMG_8775

IMG_8785

We had lots of time to kill in the afternoon and evening, but in a way that was nice because it forced us to relax and enjoy being on vacation. We’d been on the go for several days, and it was SO HOT that we were really exhausted.

We decided to go to the downtown area of Montrose, which is really quirky and fun. We found the Horsefly Brewing Company (motto: “No crap on tap”) and tried several of their beers. I liked the Jazzy Razzy, which was pink and fruity and not at all what I generally drink. I also tried the Bug-Eyed Blonde, an easy beer to drink on a hot day. We also stopped for ice cream at the Daily Bread bakery and soda fountain.

That evening we ate dinner at Trattoria Di Sofia, a small Italian restaurant with red-checkered tablecloths and fresh pasta dishes. We definitely enjoyed our time in Montrose.

The next morning, we got up at 5 a.m. and left town an hour later, stopping only for coffee at a local coffee shop. Our destination today: Colorado National Monument.

IMG_8807

We arrived at the National Park site, located near Grand Junction, at 7:30 a.m. As it turns out, morning was a terrible time to visit. All along Rim Rock Drive, we were facing into the direct early-morning sun, making it difficult to see and almost impossible to take decent photos. But we didn’t have much choice as we needed to be back in Denver by late afternoon (a 4-hour drive).

This area is described as having “big, bold, and brilliantly colored mesas, with towering and fascinating rock sculptures.” Like the Black Canyon, the main way to see the Monument is to drive along the rim road and stop at overlooks. Most of these overlooks don’t require much of a hike, although there are hiking trails in the park ranging from one to 14 miles long.

IMG_8826

All along the 23-mile drive, visitors are treated to views of the Colorado River Valley, high cliffs, and the Grand Mesa. It’s pretty spectacular.

I especially liked these Coke Ovens…

IMG_8839

… and Monument Canyon…

IMG_8849

…and the Grand View. Just think how spectacular it would have looked if the sun would have been in a better spot?

IMG_8857

We did take one short hike along the Canyon Rim Trail, and I got to see more of those awesome, twisty juniper trees.

IMG_8862

IMG_8869

The Park Service says this drive is one of the grandest scenic drives in the American West. And it’s right off of Interstate 70, so it’s really easy to access. Here are a few parting shots:

IMG_8886

IMG_8905

IMG_8923

Our drive back to Denver was through towering Rocky Mountains, along white-water streams, and near a number of swanky ski resorts. Overall, this section of I-70 may be the one of the most scenic drives anywhere on a U.S. interstate highway.

 

RAGBRAI Ames

IMG_9417

Ames and Iowa State rolled out the red carpet for RAGBRAI riders yesterday. It was a sight to behold: Cyclists in Jack Trice Stadium, cyclists downtown, cyclists all over the city of Ames. And this morning, they all left.

Ames was one of seven overnight towns for RAGBRAI 2018. The city’s theme was “Cycling Power” – a takeoff of Iowa State’s “Cyclone Power” signature athletics chant.

IMG_9233

I spent some time in the stadium area yesterday. The Alumni Association had a tent (that’s some of our group, above, posing for a group photo at the Alumni Center), and we interacted with a lot of folks – mainly Iowa State grads, but not all.

IMG_9371

We asked trivia questions, gave out prizes, and encouraged riders to mark where they lived on our “Cyclones Everywhere” map of the U.S. I met people from California and Idaho and Texas and even as far away as Ukraine.

IMG_9337

Coming in to Ames from the south, most cyclists rode the Cyclone Loop through Jack Trice Stadium, something that’s apparently never been done before. The people I talked to said it was really cool.

IMG_9321

Once they came out of the stadium they were greeted by Iowa State groups who’d set up tents filled with information and giveaways. Food vendors were also on hand, and spirit rallies were held hourly during the afternoon. It was great to see so much Cardinal & Gold but to also see teams decked out in balloons and flamingoes and other costumes.

IMG_9290

IMG_9365

IMG_9317

After work, I drove through some Ames neighborhoods and was amazed at the sheer number of support vehicles and tent campers in residents’ yards. It was like a city-wide camping spree.

IMG_9413

IMG_9422

The main activity was downtown. Three stages were set up, with musical acts on each stage from 4 p.m. until around midnight. I was there for an hour or so, long enough to drink a beer, eat a crepe, and listen to some music. There were a ton of people there.

IMG_9407

I also went north to the NPR RAGBRAI Team event at Alluvial Brewing Company (above). I always listen to NPR when I’m in the car, and the voices on the radio seem like good friends by now. So it was pretty awesome to get to meet White House reporter Scott Horsley (below) and see other members of the NPR team – including national political correspondent Don Gonyea – and folks like Clay Masters from Iowa Public Radio. I may have geeked out a little bit.

IMG_9402

My own little neighborhood was full of bikes and support vehicles and tents last night. I think there were at least four houses where RAGBRAI-ers were camping, including mine. We had three guys in our backyard, and it was fun to talk to them about their experiences. They seemed to appreciate the hot shower and our clothes dryer, and they even played with our cats.

Even though I don’t ride a bike, I feel like I’ve spent the last month obsessing over RAGBRAI, so it’s sort of sad that it’s over. Well, at least it’s over in Ames – riders still have four more days to go!

 

 

RAGBRAI 2018, part 3: Amish farmland, Star Trek, and famous ice cream

I was so looking forward to this day. Yesterday (Saturday, July 21), I drove the final leg of the 2018 RAGBRAI route (Sigourney to Davenport). There were so many highlights to look forward to! I got up really early and was on the road by 6:30 a.m. for the two-hour drive to Sigourney to pick up the route.

IMG_8959

The day started bright, sunny, and very cool (65 degrees and breezy) compared to the past few very hot weeks in Iowa. But by the time I got to Oskaloosa, heavy, gray clouds rolled in. And then I spent much of the morning struggling to stay on the route. I don’t know if it was me or the RAGBRAI map, but things just weren’t matching up between the route on paper and the reality of the road.

I missed the Hwy. 92 connection not once but twice (okay, the first time was my fault); I lost the route again in Harper (population 109, above). And then again in Keota (population 996, below). What the hell? I swear, road signs must not be a thing in this part of Iowa. I kept going south when I needed to go north; eventually, I cut my losses and found an alternate route out of Keota (missing G26 altogether), but eventually got on the right county road (W38). So far, this has been the worst section I’ve ever driven in terms of following the route, and I was irritated. I may have said some bad words.

IMG_8975

IMG_8963

IMG_8971

Things improved in Wellman (population 1,424), a small town with a cute business district.

IMG_8981

I loved the old-fashioned clock (above) and the Bidwell-Slockett mini park mural. Take a look at these details, below:

IMG_8984

IMG_8985

IMG_8987

IMG_9002

And, finally, I hit my stride in Kalona (population 2,534). I am a big fan of this Amish community. My blog post from 2011 has consistently been one of the most popular things I’ve ever written on Iowa Girl on the Go – it literally attracts readers every day.

IMG_8999

Since I’d been here before, I didn’t take the time to visit the Kalona Historical Village (715 D Ave, just off Hwy. 22) or Stringtown Grocery (2208 540th St SW), although I recommend visiting both.

IMG_8993

Instead, I spent most of my time along Kalona’s main street, helping the local economy by buying things I don’t need in the antiques stores. Check them out: Vintage Chic, Raven’s Nest, and English River Antiques and Collectibles, all along B Avenue downtown.

IMG_9005

IMG_9009

The Kalona Bakery was closed, but I visited the Amish general store, where you can buy old-fashioned Amish noodles, cheese, smoked meats, a variety of bulk foods, fudge, local honey, nuts, and Amish mustards and other sauces. They even have a small restaurant inside the store, where you can order Amish cinnamon and pecan rolls, pies, biscuits and gravy, sandwiches, etc.  I enjoyed the bricked quilt squares along the downtown sidewalks (below) and savored the yummy smells wafting from the coffee shop. This town has some great-looking restaurants and more antiques stores outside the main downtown area, too.

IMG_9018

The other really awesome thing about Kalona is the surrounding countryside, with Amish farms, traditional barns decorated with quilt blocks, and many horses and buggies. I saw an Amish woman and two young children in traditional clothing tending a garden very near the highway, and it was a truly delightful scene. I am guessing that cyclists will encounter Amish farm stands and baked goods all along the route.

IMG_9024

The next pass-through town is Riverside (population 1,039), said to be the future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk from Star Trek. This designation may be the only thing keeping Riverside afloat, because it is a pretty sad, dilapidated little town.

IMG_9021

IMG_9033

But check out the banners! There’s a whole series of them, with photos of Star Trek characters and slogans like “Live long and prosper” and “Where the TREK began.” I am not a Star Trek fan, but I still think this is fun. (Look closely at the Murphy’s Bar & Grill sign and you’ll see a tiny Spaceship Enterprise.)

IMG_9031

IMG_9027

The tiny town of Hills (population 808) has a small city park and a bit of industry connected to the railroad.

IMG_9045

IMG_9041

By noon I was pulling in to the next overnight town: Iowa City. I was looking forward to eating lunch here.

IMG_9046

With an estimated population of 75,798, Iowa City is the fifth-largest city in Iowa, and of course it’s home to our rival, the University of Iowa. I will admit, I have very mixed feelings about this city. On the one hand, it’s got an incredibly vibrant downtown area, with many more bars, shops, and restaurants than Ames, so I am sort of envious in that regard. I like the pedestrian mall with its outdoor dining, food carts, and street art.

IMG_9054

There’s a ton of history here, too. Iowa City was the second capital of Iowa Territory before statehood, and the first capital city for the state of Iowa. The Old Capitol is a national historic landmark. And Iowa City has tremendous historic neighborhoods filled with cool old houses and mature trees.

The downside, besides the fact that as an Iowa State employee I am contractually required to hate the Hawkeyes, is that Iowa City is a terrible place to drive and an even worse place to park. Since I was there on a Saturday in the summer, you wouldn’t think the traffic would be bad, but you’d be wrong: There’s construction, closed streets, and all sorts of nonsense. Ames may not have as many restaurants, but by god we have better streets.

IMG_9067

Anyway, after parking on South Linn (putting six quarters in the parking meter for one hour) and hoping to walk a couple of blocks to North Linn to eat at my favorite Iowa City restaurant, Devotay (117 N. Linn), I learned that you can’t get there from where I parked. So I walked around a bit, trying to keep a low profile as a Cyclone in Hawkeye country, and then moved my car to North Linn, where I put seven more quarters in a different parking meter and snagged an outdoor table at Devotay. I love this little restaurant. It usually features Spanish tapas and paellas and other interesting dishes. Today the menu featured brunch, with both breakfast and a few lunch items available. I ordered a café Americano, patatas bravas with sofrito and aioli, and semolina breakfast muffins with quince jam. I am drooling again, just looking at these pictures! It was wonderful and very relaxing.

IMG_9070

IMG_9073

IMG_9076

I did something next that I really try never to do on the RAGBRAI route: I google-mapped. I wanted to visit Plum Grove, a state historic site at 1030 Carroll Street. I had no idea where that was. This is the home of the first governor of Iowa, Robert Lucas, built in 1844. It turns out it was not far from Devotay and also not at all far from the RAGBRAI route.

The seven-room home is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and also features stunning gardens tended by Iowa State Extension master gardeners (take that, Hawkeyes!)

IMG_9079

IMG_9083

IMG_9096

I spent waaayyy too much time in Iowa City. (And I should apologize for all the Hawkeye jokes. I have absolutely nothing against the University of Iowa. I’m just kidding around.)

As I started this official last day of the RAGBRAI route, two things occurred to me. One, this day is bookended by the largest cities on the route (Iowa City and Davenport). And two, I was driving the LAST day of the route as bikers were gathering on the other side of the state in Onawa for the FIRST day of the route. That made me smile.

It also occurred to me that I’ve driven and written about much of this route before: RAGBRAI XLIII (2015) went through West Liberty, Atalissa, Moscow, and Wilton – all towns I’d visit today. The 2015 route also ended in Davenport, as does this year’s.

IMG_9118

The first pass-through town on this final day is West Liberty (population 3,736). West Liberty is known for its racetrack and as the home to the Muscatine County Fair, which was actually in progress when I arrived. Had I more time, I would have stopped and spent some time there. West Liberty is probably better known, however, as the producer of turkey products at an enormous meat-processing facility that dwarfs the entire town.

IMG_9113

IMG_9123

IMG_9115

Likewise, nearby Atalissa (population 306 according to Wikipedia) is mostly known as the home of several intellectually challenged men who worked in the nearby turkey processing plant. After a scandalous New York Times article reported that the men were living in horrific conditions, they were removed in 2009, paid damages by the courts, and relocated.

IMG_9129

On a happier note, I learned that Atalissa was founded in 1856. It was named by its founder, William Lundy, for a mining town in California, which in turn was named for an Indian queen Atalissa. Hence the picture on the welcome sign.

IMG_9133

I get a kick out of the next town, Moscow. It’s unincorporated, so I have no idea how many people live there, but I enjoyed it in 2015 and I enjoyed it again today. I stopped at the Birkhofer Produce stand and bought Amish-grown tomatoes, green beans, onions, garlic, green pepper, and zucchini. I was tempted to buy a watermelon.

IMG_9139

I had my fingers crossed heading into Wilton (population 2,802). I’ve twice visited this town hoping to get a taste of its famous ice cream at the Wilton Candy Kitchen and soda fountain, and twice it’s been closed. So I was super excited to find it open today.

IMG_9157

The Candy Kitchen was founded in 1860 (or 1856 or 1867, depending on which sign you choose to believe); it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is said to be the oldest ongoing confectionary ice cream parlor in the world (a fact too good to check), and has been run by the Nopoulos family since 1910.

IMG_9144

It was recently visited by none other than Mark Zuckerberg, and I am here to tell you, the young woman who served me a chocolate malt is the same person who served the Facebook CEO. I have a photo to prove it! I was pretty stoked. And the malt was delicious.

IMG_9150

The Candy Kitchen serves the usual cones (made with “George’s famous homemade ice cream”), sundaes, sodas, and malts in flavors like marshmallow, black raspberry, and hot fudge.

IMG_9145

With a happy tummy full of ice cream, I headed to the next stop: Wildcat Den State Park. This is a not a state park I’ve visited before – or, if I’m being honest, even heard of. The state park website says the park is one of the most unique in Iowa, combining natural beauty and solitude, preservation of historical structures, trails, camping, and picnic areas for recreational use.

IMG_9165

It also says one of the major features of Wildcat Den State Park is its trail system, which also interests me. When I got there, I immediately saw a trail head, got out, and took a short nature hike. The trail was lined with incredibly tall trees, and it was very peaceful. I wish I could have spent more time on the path, but I needed to keep moving.

IMG_9166

IMG_9175

IMG_9176

I had read about the Pine Creek Grist Mill, also located in the park, and I was hoping to find it. I’m so glad I did! Not only is this a restored operating pioneer mill originally built in 1848 (and in impeccable, working shape), but it’s set along a scenic spillway, with a swimming area and historic bridge setting the scene. The Grist Mill is on the National Register of Historic Places.

IMG_9184

IMG_9191

IMG_9208

A sign on the building says this area was also the site of the first post office in Muscatine County. Mail was addressed “Iowa Post Office, Blackhawk Purchase, Wisconsin Territory.”

As I headed to unincorporated Montpelier (named by the first settlers who were natives of Vermont and chose the name after the capital of that state) I had no idea how close to the end of the route I was. Also, I had no idea Montpelier was a Mississippi River town; I guess I hadn’t looked that closely at my map. But, indeed, it is right on the river.

IMG_9227

And when I got to Blue Grass, all I found was a detour that threw me off the route and confused the heck out of me. I didn’t even stop in Blue Grass (population 1,699) to take a photo. Instead, I just headed to Davenport on F65.

I was thinking all the way, Man, I really don’t want to go to Davenport. It’s such a big city (population 102,612); it doesn’t really seem like a RAGBRAI town. I was tired. And it was getting late. And I’ve been here before, including on the 2015 RAGBRAI route. So many excuses!

So, although I had a big list of things to do in Davenport (photograph the Mississippi River bridge, walk across the Davenport Skybridge, go to the Figge Art Museum, try to find the Putnam Museum and the VanderVeer Botanical Park and the Nahant Marsh and the German American Heritage Center, and discover historic neighborhoods that date back to the 1840s), the minute I saw the sign for Interstate 80, I jumped on it and drove straight home. I promise I’ll come back again one of these days and spend more time here.

And now it’s Sunday and I must get ready to host the cyclists who are camping in my backyard Tuesday night and prepare for all the RAGBRAI events in Ames. So much fun! Thanks for reading! Go, RAGBRAI!!!