Living Wilder in South Dakota

As a kid, I loved Laura Ingalls Wilder and her “Little House” books. Every time it snowed (rare in Seattle), I’d imagine opening the front door to find a wall of snow like in The Long Winter. Or tying a rope from the house to the barn to find my way in a blizzard (not that we had a barn in the suburbs). When the power went out (a much more common occurrence), my parents and I would huddle near the gas fireplace. Though we never had to close off the upstairs of our house for the winter, I was ready if it became necessary.

I read the books so often as a child that the characters felt like members of my own family. I imagined living in Laura’s time as well as showing Laura my life should she ever come to the present for a visit.

Although its been years since I’ve read the books, I couldn’t resist a stop in De Smet, South Dakota, otherwise known as the Little Town on the Prairie. De Smet is the setting for five of Wilder’s Little House books. Pa Ingalls brought his family there in 1879. This part of South Dakota is marked by small rolling hills and glacial lakes under an enormous sky. The whole town is given over to Wilder mania… even the public restrooms.

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The two existing Ingalls homes are owned by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Association. There’s the Surveyors’ House, which was originally located on Silver Lake (Wilder wrote about it in By the Shores of Silver Lake), where the family lived for five months before moving to their own homestead. Down the street is the original Ingalls’ house that Pa built in 1887. Its a small white two-story frame house just a few blocks from what is today De Smet’s main street.

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Some of the buildings featured in Wilder’s books still stand in the quiet town, including the Loftus Store and Banker Ruth’s house. On a warm and sunny September day, De Smet’s streets are quiet. The few people we pass smile and nod at us, surely knowing we are there for Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Just outside De Smet is the Ingalls homestead where reproductions of buildings described by Wilder dot the spacious prairie grass. The 1862 Homestead Act provided that any citizen could claim 160 acres of surveyed government land. Claimants had to “improve” the plot by building a dwelling and cultivating the land. After five years, the land was given to the original claimant for only a small registration fee. Pa Ingalls staked his claim and moved the family out to their new farm.

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The land has passed through many hands since the Ingalls family lived there. I was far less interested in the recreated buildings than in seeing the landscape with my own eyes. Even many years removed from reading the books, I could still see the mental picture of the Ingalls’ life that I had created so long ago. It really is a beautiful place and seeing it in person (something I still can’t quite believe I really just did!), I can imagine why Pa had so much hope for this promising piece of land after so many years of hardship.

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A [Museum] Walk Through Medicine’s Past

Let me tell you about a wonderful place.

I spent the month of May abroad, touring – much of it on foot – in Ireland, Wales, and England. One of my best mornings was spent in London at the free museum and library of the Wellcome Trust (my history dorky-ness reigns unimpeded through work AND vacation times). I first discovered it online while doing research for my next book on the history of 19th century alternative health. The center is an amazing resource for understanding the history of medicine and science, and the connections between medicine, life, and art. Intriguing, right?

Even better for my little Wisconsin history heart, the foundation for the library came from the collections of Wisconsin-born pharmaceutical salesman Henry Solomon Wellcome (1853-1936). Wellcome ran a successful pharmaceutical business in London but devoted much of his time and resources to collecting books and objects related to medicine, health, alchemy, and even witchcraft from around the world.

Here’s three cool things I saw:

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1. Prosthetic limbs through time.

Prosthetic body parts have been used since at least the time of the Greeks and probably earlier (the Greeks left what is likely the first recorded use). None of these are quite that old but can you imagine wearing one of these? Near these limbs was a box of glass eyes.

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2. Phrenological Skull

In the late 18th and 19th centuries, phrenologists argued that the shape and size of various parts of the brain – these parts were known as organs – determined your personality. Your skull was supposedly a “faithful” cast of the brain encased within so rather than perform some risky operation to take a look at your brain, phrenologists could simply feel and measure the bumps on your head. Phrenology was very controversial in the medical community – and even among phrenologists themselves as this skull demonstrates. One half shows the organs as described by phrenology’s founder, Franz Joseph Gall, while the other half shows those of Gall’s disciple Johann Spurzheim.

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3. Charles Darwin’s Walking Stick

These are two of Darwin’s walking sticks, both intricately carved, one from ivory and one from whalebone. Darwin was a walker – he claimed to get many of his best ideas while walking. As a fervent walker myself, I loved to know that the clicking sound of Darwin’s walking stick hitting the ground became something of his calling card and signature sound.




Historic Green Travel

At a time when everyone and everything is engaged in going green, it’s worth noting that Wisconsin’s first environmentally-sound tour occurred long before going green was hip.

In July 1858, an anonymous Milwaukee resident and his companion set out to cross the entire state, from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi, on foot, just for the heck of it. Signing his articles only as “Alpha C.,” he described their “walk of some little romance” in the Milwaukee Weekly Sentinel.

1856 View of MilwaukeeSource: Wisconsin Historical Images

1856 View of Milwaukee
Source: Wisconsin Historical Images

Walking only three miles outside Milwaukee on the first day, the pair walked 23 miles to Delafield the next day, stopping in Oconomowoc, “a very pleasant village, full of pleasant people, on a very pleasant lake, full of very pleasant sail boats,” he wrote.  Every trip seems pleasant at the start, doesn’t it?

At Watertown, floods had damaged the Watertown Plank Road, which made it “risky for the unsuspecting traveler to attempt to cross Rock River after dark.  There was enough of the bridge left to carry a man into deep water, and nothing laid across to stop him;… and my walk to the Mississippi came near ending at the Rock.”

From Watertown, the pair turned north into Dodge County, where they found a well-kept resort on Lake Emily and the “largest field of Fife wheat I have ever seen…I am incompetent to describe it with justice.”

Fort Winnebago, which they examined at Portage, “is not the interesting pile of ruins that some folks expect to find it. Heading for Baraboo the pair needed to cross the Wisconsin River as dusk came on. The owner of the only boat offered to take them across for the exorbitant fee of $3.00, thinking that with the coming dark, the travelers’ only option would be to pay.  “But we showed him there was one thing more we could do; we reduced ourselves to the state of nature, fastened our little effects up our backs over our shoulders… and swam the river.”

1858 map of WisconsinSource: Wisconsin Historical Images

1858 map of Wisconsin
Source: Wisconsin Historical Images

Exhausted and wet, they camped somewhere around Devils Lake and “then, for the only time during the whole journey, some doubt came into my mind as to there being so much romance about it after all; for that evening only, it assumed the aspect of a stern matter of fact; Fancy was overpowered by Experience.” They made a large fire “to keep the wolves and mosquitoes away, and ate voraciously of smoked beef and crackers.

They reached the Wisconsin Dells the following day, “where one might think the whole world was made of rock.” They visited Pilot Nob, admired the gorges, and speculated correctly on the potential of the area as a magnificent tourist destination.

Following the railroad northwest for the next few days they passed through Lemonwier Valley, and the new towns of Mauston, New Lisbon, and Greenfield.  They pushed through to Sparta and then on to La Crosse where they climbed Grandad Bluff and the writer realized “the earliest ambitious wish of my boyhood was at last gratified — I saw the Mississippi!”

Arriving in La Crosse thirty days after they began, the author concluded ” by the roads I travelled, the distance is 302 miles, all of which I walked,” a mighty distance to walk then as it is almost unimaginable today.  And clearly the walking bug and spirit of adventure were still in him, as he planned to continue on to Itasca Lake, Minnesota, the source of the Mississippi, excited by the prospects of all that he would see along the way.

Train Person

I’m a train person. The pace, the unexpected views, the reading, the lack of need for me to pay attention to where we’re going, the very old-fashionedness of it… it’s really just perfect.   Some of my best ideas and clearest thinking have happened while confined to my seat with little to do for hours but stare out the window. The constant rush in my head finally settles down and a perspective I can’t seem to see or grasp in my daily life comes into focus. Everything seems possible again. The path forward seems less a tangle of thorny blackberries than a meandering jaunt through a forest filled with singing cartoon rabbits and deer.

And I can say this after many not-so-perfect long-distance trips.

An overnight trip from Spain to Italy had us clutching our bags in the night as thieves boarded the train at small town stops to grab what they could before jumping off as the train pulled out of the station.


My first Amtrak trip from Wisconsin to Seattle started with a bus ride to the Twin Cities after flooding took out a portion of the tracks in Central Wisconsin. Once on the train, we discovered that the train had not received all of its usual supplies for the 40+ hour trip across the country. The snack bar had hot dogs but no blankets, pillows, or much of anything else. I shivered in my coach seat, sleeping little, and eating nothing but a 1 pound bag of carrots that I happened to bring along. By the time we reached Idaho, the bathrooms in our car had become indoor outhouses. The lock on one stuck on me and I had to be rescued by the porter who kicked the door open while I pressed my back against the sidewall to avoid a broken nose.

A more recent trip from Chicago to New Orleans took a tragic turn when our train crashed into a man attempting to race the train in his truck in Mississippi. Needless to say, he lost.

But these bad times have been far outweighed by the good. I’ve seen all the people Nathaniel Rich describes in “How to spend 47 hours on a train and not go crazy.” The people who refuse to fly; people starting over; and people obsessed with trains. Once, we stayed in a hotel filled with train spotters in Montana. They sat by the windows and outside on the deck, counting the trains, taking photos of the trains, and talking about trains. All were white-haired men. A few wore the blue-and-white striped engineer hats that I thought only children and characters in children’s books wore. They were deadly serious about trains. Their wives, on the other hand, sat away from the windows chatting about everything but. They paid no attention to the passenger and freight cars clattering by every 10 minutes.



We met a man another trip who criss-crossed the country from his home in Santa Barbara on the train. He planned to take one long-distance train after another for two weeks, his destination the journey itself.

Trains often pass through areas you can’t experience any other way, both astonishingly beautiful as on the train from Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh in Scotland and across the mountains of Norway, and others less so like the trash-strewn industrial landscapes ringing many American cities. But there’s still something magical about all of these places and the rare glimpse afforded from a seat behind a broad pane of glass.

Onboard, I scribble notes and ideas to myself on receipts, hotel notepads, and ticket stubs in an attempt to capture all the good feelings and thoughts that the train has inspired. Stepping off and onto the platform, life consumes me once again. But I’m calmed by the thought that I can capture it all once again on my next train trip.


History of the Apple in 10 Objects: Bronze Horse

Bronze figure of a horse, Eastern Han dynasty, 2nd century C.E., Excavated from a tomb in Letai, Wuwei county, Gansu, H. 36.5 cm., Gansu Provincial Museum. Source: Asia Society

Born in the mountains of Kazakhstan, the apple hitched a ride to the rest of the world in the packs of humans and stomachs of animals traveling on the Silk Road. Humans picked up the delicious fruit to eat along the way, dropping the cores that house the seeds and all future apples.

But animals are an essential part of the story of the Silk Road. Horses, among other animals, played a key role, providing both milk for local use and transportation for the development of international relations and trade. The clever apple evolved to have smooth, tear-dropped shaped seeds perfectly proportioned to pass intact through the intestinal tract of a horse. In the belly of a horse, an apple could travel 40 or 50 miles a day, gaining tremendous ground in its takeover of the temperate world.

Hitch-boating in Sweden

I’m sure my mom told me never to hitchhike. Or if she didn’t, I’m sure she meant to or hoped that I would understand that hitchhiking fell squarely under the “don’t talk to strangers” category. Don’t talk to them and certainly don’t ever get in their car.

All of these thoughts passed through my head as I stuck my thumb out for the first time, caution overcome by the reality that we were really freakin’ far from where we needed to be. In an hour. To catch a boat. To an island where our luggage sat waiting in our room for the night.

In The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain wrote that “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” I sure hoped Twain was right about those “charitable” and “wholesome” men.

That morning, my husband and I had set out on a hike along a section of one of Sweden’s most popular and longest hiking trails, Sörmlandsleden. Marked by orange dots, arrows, and rings, the trail covers 1000 kilometers through woods, bogs, fields, and past lakes and streams. The plan was to do about 15km along the path, ending at the boat launch to Savo Island.

The day began rainy and gray but the lush green landscape and blueberry-lined path helped to make up for the extreme sogginess I felt from the waist down. We soon learned we weren’t alone on the path – swarms of mosquitoes trailed behind us, a mass of swirling insects whining in our ears and landing swiftly on any exposed skin if we paused for even a second. So we kept moving, enjoying as much as we could but also hoping to conserve our blood.

But somewhere along the line we got lost, though we didn’t know it for several hours. About halfway to the pier, we reached a beach and a signpost for the Sörmlandsleden pointing both straight toward what looked to be a shelter and to the left and a hill. We chose left.

We chose wrong.

Hours later, hungry and wet, we stumbled out of the woods and on to a driveway that led to a road.  That’s when we realized that we had made a mistake. Instead of a straight line toward the pier, we’d made a huge oval, ending up on the busy road a few kilometers north of where we started and about 20 kilometers from the pier. I called our hostel to explain the situation. The owner told me to call her when we got to the pier and she would send over their boat to get us.

Unsure what to do or how else to get there, our thumbs went out. My husband had thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail a few years back, where hitchhiking is as much a part of the experience as hiking. I was the novice. The guidebook had warned that Swedes won’t stop but I hoped they were wrong: that the warning came on the advice of the publishers’ lawyers rather than any statement of fact.

The first car to stop was a Prius driven by a man who spoke no English. After a confusing series of gestures and jabs at our topographical map (completely unhelpful for roads), he drove us a few kilometers to his driveway before pulling over and staring at us. We took that as our cue to get out.

Feeling confident by our initial success, I stuck out my thumb with a bit more conviction.  We walked along a bit further until a red station wagon driven by a man from Stockholm en route to his summer cabin pulled over. He spoke perfect English and lived only 3 kilometers from the pier. We chatted the whole way to his place, grateful for the kindness of strangers and the Swedish penchant for summer cabins.

Only a few kilometers from the pier now, we walked along the road, hoping for another ride but knowing it wasn’t too far now, that we would make it. We debated the finer points of hitchhiking as we walked. Nice cars won’t stop, my husband said, only crappy cars overloaded with clothes and bags and other junk. He also said that my presence made it more likely for someone to stop. Strangers will pick up women (a thought for another day) but rarely lone men.

A shiny red BMW rounded the corner and I barely put my thumb out, sure it would pass us by and probably so close that I’d have to jump onto the grass. But instead it stopped. Inside was an older man wearing hip waders and holding a basket of foraged mushrooms. We told him where we going and he nodded and waved us in with a “I’ll take you.”

Arriving at the pier, we got out and thanked him for the ride. He shook his head and said, “no, I’ll take you.”

He pointed us to a motor boat tied up on the pier. We climbed in and he took to the controls. We soon learned that he lived on the island with his wife. When I asked him how many people lived there, he said that year ’round it was only two, he and his wife. Then he said, “I own the island.”

I caught my husband’s eye. “Oh my god, can this even be happening?” my face said. He only smiled and we sat and watched the island come closer in to view.

“I take you to my house. To meet my wife,” he said. Unsure what to say, we nodded and waited until he pulled up to the dock. We climbed out and followed him up the grass toward the house. “She will be surprised,” he said. A second later, “but maybe not so surprised.” He laughed and I laughed too, wondering if he does this often, picking up lost Americans by the side of the road.

He knocked on the window of the kitchen and his wife came to the door. He said something to her in Swedish and then “I found them by the road.” She smiled, looked slightly confused, and said “hello.” We thanked her and thanked him again. He turned and directed us down the path and through the woods to the hostel.

“Have a good time,” he said and turned to head back down the path to his house.

Undiscovered Iceland

Looking down on the statue of Leif and Rekjavik

It seems that everyone wants to go to Iceland. Or maybe it only seems that way because I just returned from there. When I tell people we’ve just been to Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, the most common response has been, “I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland! What’s it like?” Forget those other two. The Iceland Tourism Board should be thrilled by this news.

What’s so intriguing about Iceland? The somewhat forbidding name (Norwegian Viking Floki Vigerdason named the island – some say it was to discourage enemies from settling there but more likely, he named it after traveling to the northern part of the island where he saw… ice)? It’s location? Having now spent a few days there, I feel hard-pressed to tell you what isn’t intriguing about Iceland. The light is spectacular. The landscape is both dramatic and stark with its volcanoes, glaciers, mountains, waterfalls, and thermal pools. The ground literally smokes. The capital city is modern, literary, friendly, and brightly colored.

And the history, oh the history. Nothing warms my little historical heart like seeing a statue of Leifur “the Lucky” Eiriksson outside the Rekjavik cathedral, the true European discoverer of North America, don’t you know. Not to mention a trip to the Þingvellir, where the Icelandic parliament formed in 930 (no, I didn’t forget a 1) and continued to meet until 1798. A pretty incredible history for a pretty incredible place.

Þingvellir, home to the Icelandic parliament. It’s also where the North American and Eur-Asian plates are splitting apart – visible plate tectonics.

Wait Five Minutes

Every place has its local sayings and phrases, the regionalisms known to those on the “inside” and potentially bewildering to those on the “outside.” Where I grew up near Seattle, it’s common to hear people comment that “the mountain is out,” or perhaps more often, that the mountain “is not out” since overcast is the sky’s perpetual shade. The mountain is Mt. Rainier and on a clear day, its looming visage is hard to miss all over the Seattle area. So when the mountain is “out,” you can see it and when you can’t see it, it’s “in.”  It never seemed strange until I moved away to say that a 14,000 foot mountain could be “in” or “out,” but there you have it. And once I’m back in town, the words fall easily from my lips once again even ten years on (gulp! I moved away a decade ago!?!).

Here in Madison, we have our own words – though nothing is “in” or “out” as far as I know. There’s “hippie Christmas” and “coastie,” as well as the general prefix “Mad,” which attached to any word means it is somehow tied to Madison: Madcity, Madrollin’, Madcat, Madtown, Mad, Mad, Mad.

Orkney mainland, Scotland

But then there’s this: “If you don’t like the weather, then wait five minutes and it will change.” Have you heard this? Have you heard it applied to your town or city? Does it seem like 90% of the world seems to believe this about where they live? Mark Twain supposedly wrote, “If you don’t like the weather in New England, wait a minute.” I’ve heard it said in Seattle, Portland, Madison (all over Wisconsin, really), Minneapolis, San Francisco, Cape Cod, Chicago, and Boston. On a recent trip to Scotland, I heard it again from a man in Glasgow bar. He said it was an old Scottish saying – maybe but it appears to be just as “old” all over the place so perhaps it’s only old in the sense that people have been saying it for a long time.

What is it about that phrase? And what does it tell us about our meteorological feelings? Maybe we say it as a way to excuse bad weather, as though we’re embarrassed about the current conditions but something better will be along shortly – really! Or maybe it’s a reflection on the impermanence of everything, even the weather – that this too will pass, that nothing stays the same, that change is unavoidable. Or maybe we all just live in really tempestuous places.

Solace of Tortillas

Growing up, I never ate Mexican food. Never did a tortilla, refried bean, or dab of guacamole cross my lips – at least until I was in college. But now, it’s all I want in uncertain, tired, stressful, and even many joyous occasions. It’s a comfort food I found only as an adult.

On a recent trip, my husband and I drove for hours – days really – looking for something we just couldn’t find. We hit every small town, walked the main streets, searching for a bit of local culture and charm – the kind we run into a lot in Wisconsin. But it was not to be. After another day of side roads and diversions, pulling into a town that promised a historic waterfront with a charming downtown that actually yielded a few mostly closed businesses (and the open ones all empty, rather charmless bars), boarded up buildings, and a large cement wall between the town and the water, we dejectedly realized our search was likely in vain. Tired and disappointed, we headed to the nearest Mexican place, for there’s solace in tortillas.

It wasn’t the first time. Many trips, even ones a little more rewarding, often find us in a Mexican restaurant at some point. A long day of driving or the excitement and stress of being in a big crowded city for several days straight often leave me craving fajitas. Tired and a little dehydrated, we ate Mexican after my first triathlon. A visit to the emergency room after a bee sting was followed by tacos. Our engagement dinner a few years back found us in a Mexican restaurant after a long afternoon and early evening driving around the Olympic Peninsula. My now-husband was a little embarrassed – it wasn’t what he’d hoped our first meal as an engaged couple would be – but to me it was perfect. Perfectly us to end up eating Mexican.

Engagement Mexican - tired and dirty from hiking and driving

Comfort can come in nearly any food, found at any time. It isn’t always something you grew up with or remember having at certain times as a child or teenager. Sometimes your comfort food is something that appears at just the right time and place.



Winter Thickens the Blood (or so they say)

There’s an old saying that “winter thickens the blood.” It’s an old wives’ tale, though, as temperature doesn’t have much to do with the thickness of blood – at least in humans. Some hibernating animals do get thicker blood in the winter to help them prepare for the cold. It’s one winter survival strategy.

Me? I like to get my blood pumping in the winter for physical and mental health. No hibernating here. Course, it helps to be 2,000 miles from home in the much milder climes of the Pacific Northwest.

The misty forests flanking Mt. Constitution