An Ocean of Green and Yellow Surrounds Me

“Almost at once we drove through the breaks along the river; crossed the Sioux river and were out on the broad prairie that looked like a big meadow as far as we could see in every direction” (Wilder, Pioneer Girl, p. 153).

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Photographs by Jacob Jurss

I do not have a covered wagon. My horse is made of aluminum, carbon fiber, and rubber. It is fueled by coffee, not hay, and rolls instead of gallops. When I’m not researching and writing, I cycle on the backroads west of our offices in Pierre, South Dakota. I clear my head and quietly enjoy the beauty that surrounds me. Peddling my bicycle, I climb up out of the Missouri River valley and turn out onto the wind-swept flats that seem to stretch out forever. Blue skies with the occasional white cloud float lazily overhead. The sun burns the paved road, but there is nearly always a stiff headwind to help cool me down.

Perhaps the most common comparison of the wind in the prairie grasses is the comparison to waves rolling on the ocean. Watching the wind play with the grasses, I consider it an apt description. The road I travel down is far smoother than earlier roads, and livestock fences are more prevalent, but there are still long stretches of uninterrupted grasslands that stretch for miles. I think about the region’s people—the Arikaras and Lakotas, French traders, Norwegian and other immigrants and settlers—watching the same grasslands racing the sky to the horizon. I am reminded that for many readers of Wilder’s collected works it is the descriptions of place, the idea of home, that causes them to read and read again. Wilder’s vivid depictions never fail to create detailed images in my mind, but sometimes it’s important to place oneself physically in a place. I smell the air; I listen to the breeze. I race along backroads and quietly enjoy the vastness of the South Dakota sky.

Jacob Jurss

Following the Trail of Wilder

No so long ago, I found myself making another trip along U.S. Highway 14, this time from Pierre—pronounced “peer”—to Brookings in eastern South Dakota. As I drove, my thoughts meandered between summer road-trip plans and contemplation of the railroad tracks running alongside me. For those of you who don’t know, Highway 14 follows the very railroad line, the old Dakota Central Railway of the Chicago & North Western, that brought Charles Ingalls and his family to Dakota Territory. As I raced trains past Huron, the few remaining buildings of Manchester, and on through De Smet, my thoughts focused on how different distances are now in comparison to the 1800s.

Pierre to Brookings

The famous frontier family traveled thousands of miles by wagon, as well, and as readers of the Little House novels and Pioneer Girl know, it could take days, even weeks, to get from one place to another, depending on the weather and the condition of the “road,” or what we would call a trail today. And, with wagon travel not being especially popular in 2015, it can be hard for a modern audience to fathom the time and effort it took to travel among the homesteads, geographical landmarks, and towns that Wilder mentions in her original manuscript. With the advent of first the railroad and then the car, places have become much closer than they were, figuratively speaking.

That is why one of my favorite things about Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography is the eight maps created for various sections in the book. Taken together, they give contemporary readers a better perspective on the scope of the Ingallses’ journey. Along with several historical maps reproduced in the book, they help me begin to visualize just how big the “Big Woods” were, where New Ulm is situated in relation to Walnut Grove, MN Mapand how close the Loftus store was to “Residence C. P. Ingalls, Justice of the Peace” in De Smet.

As detailed in our blog post from 2012, these maps did not simply appear on our desks one day. Since we did not have Laura Ingalls Wilder there to help with the finer points, Pioneer Girl Project editor Jeanne Ode dived into Wilder’s manuscript and waded through historical maps from archives throughout the region to give readers a clearer picture of the Ingallses’ now-famous voyage. The map-making journey, like the family’s sojourn, was “filled with twists, turns, and the occasional dead end,” Ode says. Determining locations from sources that sometimes conflicted and creating preliminary sketches to guide the illustrator who created the final, well-designed versions was not always a walk in the park. As readers will discover, though, the trip was worth the trouble. As for me, the drive down Highway 14 now has a bit of extra meaning.

Jennifer McIntyre