Midwest From Home
July 2001
Otherwise known as, "What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Part I"….

Yeah, it's been dragging here at Dwanollah.com during the dog days of summer… and not just because I've been re-organizing the place, either. I've been BUSY, guys! Let's start at the beginning, shall we? In June, for my birthday, The Husband-Type Man whisked me away to fulfill one of the top items on my List… or at least, part of it:  The Laura Ingalls Wilder Grande Tour.

I'm a Little House fan, and I don't mean that vile, sappy, evil TV version, neither (although it's good for a laugh now and then). I mean the books. Downstairs in the Playroom, I have two bookshelves crammed with not only the original series, but also a few of the newer serieses (Rose, mostly… I can't get into Caroline or Martha….), tons of critical work, and, especially, as many out-of-print books by Rose Wilder Lane as I can dig up. Rose Wilder Lane… you know, Rose… Laura's daughter. The woman who ghost-wrote the Little House series. Yes she did! Don't argue with me! Rose and Laura were co-authors, collaborators. Rose was not merely a "light editor" or "helper"… she was an integral part to their creation!

I love these books, and these two women, so much that I've actually devoted graduate study to them. For a class on "Literature in the Public Sphere," I researched the political theories and rhetoric in the LH books and analyzed their context in children's lit and their presentation through an autobiographical character. Hardcore stuff, y'all, yeah? That doesn't mean I don't still just simply delight in Pa playing "mad dog" or snicker at "long-legged snipes!" or shiver when I read about blizzards from October to May… but these books - and these two women, Laura and Rose - are more than just near-forgotten places and shadowy figures from the land of kiddie lit. It's been a dream of mine for decades go visit all the possible sites…ever since, when at age 11, I picked up an "extra" Little House book called The First Four Years . Although written by Laura, it was much shorter and sounded somehow quite different than the previous books. The chapters and layout and tones and voices were different. And depressing things kept happening: crop failures, the death of a baby son, and, at the end, a house fire that destroyed everything the Wilders had worked for. I was vaguely disappointed and dissatisfied… until I got to the last page. There was yet another Garth Williams pencil-drawing, not the usual people and prairies, but just a close-up of a glass bread plate embossed "GIVE US THIS DAY OUR DAILY BREAD." Underneath the picture was the following caption:

The oval glass bread plate Laura and Manly bought for their first Christmas together. The plate survived the fire and was found among Rose Wilder Lane's things after her death. It is now at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Home Association in Mansfield, Missouri, for all visitors to see.

There was a Laura MUSEUM out there?!

I vaguely comprehended "Mansfield, Missouri" only as "someplace far away"… but I vowed someday, despite the fact that I'd never been more than 200 miles away from San Diego, I'd go see this Laura museum myself.

In the intervening decade or so, I just tried to get my hands on as much raw info about both Laura and Rose as I could.

I made my first small-scale pilgrimage on my Solo Adventure to San Francisco, my groundbreaking "awakening" trip all by myself in January of 1994. After re-devouring West From Home, Laura's letters to Almanzo from San Francisco while she was visiting Rose and the 1917 Panama-Pacific Exposition, I decided to find Rose's old pad at 1018 Vallejo Street. It took some doing; on my first trip to SF, DumbAss was too impatient and thought my Quest was dumb, so I never found it (and instead got to spend unremitting hours standing around record stores. Gee). But on my own, yes, the Quest was fulfilled! High on a hill, on a blocked-off part of Vallejo Street, the apartment was instantly recognizable from the black-and-white pictures in the book (well, except for the basketball hoop). That was my first Literary Pilgrimage, and I gooned appropriately!

My love of Laura and Rose was given free reign when I worked at The Bookstore. With the release of the "Rose Books" (a LH knock-off series written by Roger Lea McBride, the heir to the Wilder-Lane estate), I got to plan kiddie events and decorate windows and order books and even buy all sorts of kewl-rad junk from the various museum gift shops! Woo hoo! I began stockpiling postcards, pictures, paraphernalia… and, of course, books. I started tracking down Rose's stuff through special orders, and discovered just how popular and widely-respected she was as an author and as a woman during her lifetime… more so than her mother, in fact! But in the shadow of Michael Landon's demonic creation, no one remembers Rose at all. She was a remarkable woman, in general… genius-level-intelligent, talented, headstrong, radical, nontraditional, just plain fascinating! Even if I don't usually agree with her politics (and believe me, the woman was political), she intrigues me to no end. Girl crush? Perhaps! I sent off more letters and ordered more books from various LIW museums….

When I compiled The List, I also opened up a copy of the Rand McNally US Road Atlas, and plotted out a basically rectangular route covering the greater part of the Midwest, hitting sites from De Smet, South Dakota to Mansfield, Missouri, and all points in between, adjacent, and even not-so-adjacent. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Grande Tour. Yeah!

Right before my birthday this summer, THTM found out he'd have to go to Milwaukee for a round of business meetings. Since I was in between classes, he sprang the idea of taking the Grande Tour as my birthday gift! Kick ASS! Well, with only 4 days, we weren't able to do the whole Grande Tour, but we were able to hit the southern half of it. We left from Milwaukee on a summer Saturday afternoon and drove the hell out of all sorts of Route 66 fragments, major highways, and little 2-lane roads, Questing together. With the help of my daily journal entries (hey, if it was good enough for Laura in the peddler's wagon traveling south from DeSmet to Mansfield, it was good enough for me and my well-worn notebook in the rental car!), here's the tale of our journey:

Saturday, June 23, 2001
Final destination:  Springfield, IL

Left LA this morning at 5ish for our flight. The trip got off to an immediate phenomenal start thanks to our cab driver. Never in all my New York cab rides have I experienced anything quite like this…. Thankfully, The Husband-Type Man documented it all in a mass e-mail. Here's his tale:

It's a well know fact that Vegas cab drivers are some of the craziest mofos on the planet (as all you Vegas alums will attest), so I thought I'd share this amusing story. Los Angeles is giving Vegas a run for it's money:

5:00 a.m. Stumble out of bed. Shower, shave, dress, pack. Call a cab to the airport. Lock up the house. Yawn. 6:00. Cab arrives. Dawn and I pile in. English speaking driver! Sit in silence, listen to news. Yawn again. Cab driver asks, innocently, "So, what do you think about the energy crisis?"

"Dunno," says I, "with all the political spin I don't know enough facts to have an opinion yet."
"I have a theory."
"Y2K. This is a delayed effect of Y2K."
Long pause.
"Oh yes."
"How so?"

Thus began the most absurd conversation Dawn and I have ever had with another human being. The energy crisis question was just his lead-in to his true passion: France. The man firmly believes that France is responsible for most of the ills of Western society (or as he put it, the "Western hemisphere.") He talked passionately, and at length on the subject. We encouraged him, naturally. Among the interesting things we learned about France:

The Eiffel Tower is really a gigantic communication device. The French were centuries ahead of the rest of the world, apparently, in communication technology. Remember all the press at the time of the Tower opening about how ugly it was? Propaganda, of course, to deflect attention from its true purpose.

The Statue of Liberty is really a 2000 year-old communication device. Did you know the Statue of Liberty is pointing toward France? I can only infer that it's communicating with the Eiffel Tower, because this is what he began explaining when I asked what the Tower was communicating with.

France was the seat of the original Catholic Church, not Rome. Specifically, the Isle of Corsica (which he also claims houses the cathedral of Notre Dame, actually located in Paris.)

The French Royal family faked their own deaths during the Reign of Terror. Even today, the royal family conducts a propaganda campaign in the popular press. Notice how every once in a while a story pops up in the press, completely unprompted, about how they've now established conclusively that the royal family actually died? This is the work of the royal family (living secretly in France) to combat the persistent rumors that they used body-doubles to escape execution (which is true, naturally.)

Ever wonder what the Nazis real intentions were in attacking the
"French underground", as he called it, during WWII? Why, they were looking for the "real" (French) Red Baron, of course!

Clinton, apparently, was in the know. His first official act after being sworn in 1992 was to march into the White House kitchen and fire the French chef. He did this immediately and publicly, as a slap in the face of the French royal family. While most Americans were unaware of the significance, any French person would understood the meaning.

[The driver] explained that all of this is absolutely true, and that anyone who seriously examines French history will uncover this stuff, and "much more."

When I asked if he had ever been to France, he turned around and smiled,
"Only in my head."

I tipped him generously, of course, because you just don't get entertainment
like this in the real world.

I swear, we aren't exaggerating this in the least!

Our flight to Milwaukee, by comparison, was uneventful. After retreving our bags and waiting in an endless car rental line with the slllloooowwwwwesssssst "customer service rep" in the history of car rentals, we trudged on out to the rental car outpost, loaded up our shitty American car with our heap of luggage (I, of course, have one entire carry-on full of LIW books. It had to be done!), turned on local news (a tradition… we like to know what the local haps are), and forged on down I-94. Dan took the first leg of driving, having done the Milwaukee-Chicago road trip before… and we promptly hit traffic heading into Chicago. Ah, well, it gave me a chance to admire the Mars Cheese Castle!

We got through the city, and headed in a primarily-south-but-vaguely-westerly direction, with the goal of making it to Springfield, Illinois by evening. Once outside of Chicago, the scenery looked drastically (to me) different than what I'm used to, both east coast AND west coast. It's flat. Totally, utterly flat, as far as the eye can see. But there was a sleepy, pastoral-Americana charm in the differences. Fluffy white things, like clumps of dandelion fuzz, floated thick in the air, and I was delighted to see all the bunnies doinging around in various roadside fields. Of course, that also meant road kill… but we'll get to that.

As we burrowed further and further away from any major city and dug into the deep Midwest via the 55, I, in all my SoCal/NYC-ness, was both fascinated and repelled by the differences in scenery, in people, in culture in this part of the world. In my journal, after a quick stop at a McDonald's (the only food option available), I scrawled a list of observations:

  • white folk who look like they eat oatmeal for every breakfast
  • plaid shirts
  • florid people
  • family-style restaurants
  • gunssavelife.com [sic]
  • "It is not a choice" signs on van for moving company
  • "Choose life: your mother did" billboard
  • $1.40/gas
  • road kill

Yes, the road kill. Never have I seen a wider variety of wildlife in its natural habitat… and it was all squished on the sides of the road. Armadillos, turtles, jackrabbits, deer, assorted birds- Good grief.

And speaking of the road, by mid-afternoon, we'd hit a chunk of old Route 66. THTM was driving (slow, as always). After stopping quickly for some Road Trip Food (beef jerky and cheese-flavored pretzels), I took over driving duties. Just me, a snoozy husband, and the open highway! Without him watching nervously and gripping the oh-shit handle above the door, I let loose! Get yer kicks indeed!

As I was bookin' it along the 55/Old Route 66, I saw a guy in a ratty blue pickup barreling down on me. While traffic wasn't heavy, there were quite a few big trucks on the road, and it was only 3 lanes. Blue Truck Asshole aggressively weaved in and out of traffic, hot on my tail. He zoomed up behind me and… started flashing his lights on and off. Which pisses me off. Especially considering 1) I'm going 85 and 2) there's no place for me to move! Dickwad. I hold tight at 85-90. Blue Truck Asshole finally sees a break to the right and zips over… only to get stuck between two semis.

Asshole kept up his Agro-Driver/Headlight Flasher behavior for miles and miles, sandwiched between semis and slow-moving hatchbacks. I ignored him for the most part, once he was offa my ass. Finally, Asshole exited the freeway… but as he did, he started honking again. At me. And as I glanced over, he'd stopped on the freeway offramp, despite being in such a hurry, to flip me off and yell at me. I giggled uncontrollably… I mean, gee, I didn't know that I got to be the Source of All Freeway Evil! If I'd known, I woulda patted myself on the back sooner! What a weenie. I hope he has ingrown toenails.

Ironically, even though I wasn't going fast enough for Asshole Truck Driver, I still managed to get us to Springfield, Ill., - over 60 miles away - in 40 minutes. Just call me Speed Demon.

We exited at a place that held promising signs of civilization - well, a McDonald's and a Burger King - in hopes of finding a place to stay the night, but discovered that two fast food joints on the corner does not = civilization. At least not in central Illinois. We drove aimlessly around a winding, BFE-type of road before stumbling upon the only sign of life: Todd's Auto Body Wrecking. Um. So I turned us back to the freeway. Two more exits and paydirt! Motels and hotels, a shopping mall, a bunch of chain restaurants…. We made tracks for A New Experience: namely, Bob Evans. A hot turkey sandwich later, and we checked into the hotel next door, watched blurry TV on one of the three channels available, and plotted the next day's route.


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