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

Sunday, June 24, 2001
Final destination: Springfield, MO

Our goal was to reach St. Louis in time for lunch, but, upon starting out bright and early that morning, we spied Our First Detour for Adventure: the Lincoln Tomb. See, we'd promised that we'd be sure to look for Potentially Spectacular Adventures, and THTM decided that the Lincoln Tomb was just the thing. So, after stopping at a gas station and loading up on Hostess Crumb Cakes and cartons of orange juice for breakfast and filling up the car, we followed signs toward downtown Springfield, Ill., and the State Capitol building.

It was deserted at 9ish on a Sunday morning… and surprisingly beautiful. The area itself was pretty nondescript, but, as we drove down Second Street, suddenly there were a couple blocks of charming older houses before we reached Capitol Plaza. Gorgeous! As we circled around the empty parking lot, admiring the fountains and the marble bathed in summer-morning sunlight, I realized that this was the first time I'd been to a state capital. We wandered around, took dorky pictures, parked rebelliously, and were just generally Dumb Tourists for a while before setting off for Oak Ridge Cemetery and the Tomb.

The necropolis was still fairly empty, quite and peaceful, and we drove around slender, curving roads that were more like walking paths, until we saw the monument's obelisk poking up above the trees. The memorial was much bigger, and much more handsome, than I'd imagined. We went in, solemn and unexpectedly touched by the inscriptions and excerpts of Lincoln's speeches. After that, we drove around the cemetery some more, marveling at the decades- and centuries-old graves and memorable epitaphs ("A life dedicated to the accordion" was particularly special).


And then, back to Southbound 55!

We kept occupied by playing the State Capitals Game… taking turns naming a state for the other person to guess the capital, and we were surprisingly good at it. At THTM's request, I delved into my stash of Little House books, and started reading Little House on the Prairie to him; when I'd reach the end of a chapter and stop, assuming that was all, he'd ask for another chapter. Aw! I read to him about leaving the Big Woods, crossing rivers in a covered wagon, losing and finding Jack, and setting up camps on the prairie. Good stuff. We shared more beef jerky (the ultimate road trip food) and boxes of raisins while THTM drove (too slow, IMO) toward St. Louis and the Mississippi River. As we neared our destination, I kept scouring the horizon for my first glimpse of the Arch… and finally, not long after 11:00, there it was - much tinier than anticipated, but still distinctly marking the skyline. We crossed the Mississippi (my first time!) and foraged into downtown St. Louis.

It looked like a Midwestern beef-and-beer city somehow… meaty, sturdy, solid, and reassuringly 1800s… but was also more sophisticated and beautiful than I thought it would be. We explored by car first, checking out the downtown buildings on Market Street and driving around the slender arm of park along the river before finding a garage next to Laclede's Landing. It was an adorable area, on the touristy side to be sure, but still charming, somehow contemporarily a hundred years old. We wandered around the exposed and rutted cobblestone streets, admiring the stolid yet elegant architecture, reading restaurant menus. We ended up at an brewery place with outdoor seating, where I chowed a scrummy veggie sandwich and we shared a plate of fries, eating slowly and basking in the sun like cats. After lunch, we wandered back and crossed over to, if you please, The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Park to check out the Gateway Arch. Humming "Meet Me in St. Louis" (how predictable of me), I marveled at the walkways with all the old trees arching overhead; it was easy to envisage Sunday afternoons a century ago, with women wearing frilly white dresses holding parasols and taking walks or buggy rides around the same paths with men in derby hats.

The Arch was rad up close. Sugarbear, who'd been to St. Louis several years back, had told us to take the tram up to the observation room inside, but when we went into the underground plaza, we discovered the line was over a 2-hour wait. Well. Nix on the tram. Instead we poked around the bookstore, trying to select the Most Important Souvenir of our St. Louis adventure. After discarding the collectable spoon and the less-than-spectacular sno-globe, we hit on the Panoramic Cube. Yes!

I took the wheel for the afternoon leg of the drive, and I carefully plotted out our itinerary, hoping that maybe we could reach Mansfield by dark. I took the 44, then turned off on the 63, a two-lane highway through the Mark Twain National Forest, blasting a-ha's Minor Earth/Major Sky. It was a sultry afternoon, and I even rolled down the windows as we shared more beef jerky and I floored it past semis.

Despite my desire to get to Mansfield ASAP, I couldn't resist when I saw a sign that said "Route 66 Antique Toy and Truck Museum"! Heck it was next to the Jesse James Museum; how could we pass that up? We turned off the freeway and crunched into the gravel parking lot to check it all out. Detour for Adventure!

The Antique Toy and Truck Museum started out, according to the friendly woman in the little entry/gift-shop, as some guy's collection in his garage. Now, various antique toys filled smudged and shaky glass cabinets that were set up in maze-like contortions throughout the building. Gleefully, as soon as we entered the "museum," the front desk lady turned on the antique German music box quartet in the middle of the space, which played raucous calliope music to accompany our perusal. And it WAS pretty cool; I liked all of the old cars and trucks, and coveted a number of WWII-era vehicles that would be perfectly Barbie-sized. But… there was only one little crummy case of Barbies. Bummer, man.

We were back on the road in about a half-hour. We passed signs advertising Jellystone Park and the "Birthplace of the Kewpie Doll!" - oh boy - and signs making proclamations like "Start Every Day with Pork." Um, noun or verb, guys?

By the time we turned off at Rolla and headed south on the 63, we got our first real look at Ozark country. Laura once wrote of the Ozark Mountains: "[they] are not really mountains, they are valleys. So the skyline is always level and blue like the sea, and nearly always there is a lovely blue haze all over the hillsides cut so deeply in this old, old land…" and it's true. It was lovely countryside, quite pretty in a sleepy, calm way. As we got closer to Mansfield (which is literally in the middle of nowhere, mind), I started to wonder what effects the Little House Tourists had had on the place. I mean, were we going to see, like with Jellystone Park, huge tacky Laura billboards along the highway? Maybe a badly-painted copy of the picture of her at 17, with something like "Laura says 'Come on over to my little house!'" or something equally gawd-awful…? Would there be fake log-cabin hotels with parking lots full of campers and trailers and screaming children? Would there be roadside gift stores selling sno-globes and banners and cheap t-shirts and sunbonnets and $3000 patchwork quilts? Would there be Little House Restaurant and Little House Country Dinner and Laura's Home Cookin' and Rose's Ice Cream Shoppe and Manly's Steak and Chop House, serving Ma's fried chicken and Pa-burgers and Wilder-berry pie…? Would there be a hokey fake-country inn featuring a $30 price fixe menu of "blackbird" pie, fried apples 'n onions, cornbread and green-pumpkin pie… and a kiddie menu with "pig's tail" (hotdogs) and "pancake men" (frozen Aunt Jemima crap) and "hasty pudding" (Jell-O pudding with marshmallows)? Would there be ghastly gift stores with maple-sugar and horehound candy and button strings and rag dolls and copies of every TV show Michael Landon was ever in EVER?

I braced myself and anticipated the worst.

Happily, reality didn't reach my Ingallsland Nightmare Visions. One sign on Highway 60 said, simply, "Mansfield, Missouri: where the Little House books were written" with the exit information.

It was past five as I turned off the 60 and onto the two-lane road into Mansfield. No sooner had we spotted a few small, cute houses than suddenly we'd arrived at the town square. Ohmigawd! It looked just like I pictured it! EXACTLY! It was the archetypal sleepy little country town; there were no other cars, and no people out and about. A fairly worn-looking square with patchy grass, a few trees, and a gazebo lay directly in front of us, and beyond that was the train station, surely unchanged in a century. The square was bordered on three sides by rows of stores, and despite a few nearly-contemporary shops and a Laura-related store name or two, it was easy to see general stores and saloons and dressmaker shops and other anachronisms in their place… to see men and women on their way to a church meeting or ice-cream social in the square, see horse-and-buggies on the streets instead of cars, hear ice tinkling in lemonade glasses and small-town gossip. Trust me, Little Dwanollah, who used to try to imagine herself in The World of Little House whilst at Knott's Berry Farm for pity's sake, was gooning left and right now that she'd finally made it to Mansfield!

Timidly, as if going to visit an old aunt whom I'd heard talked about for decades but had never met, I turned left on Highway A and headed east out of town (all of three blocks), up the road a piece, and out yonder to the Wilder Place. About a mile away, and there we were! Rocky Ridge Farm!

Oh, the gooning and doinging that took place upon our arrival!

Of course, the museum and everything was closed and the place was deserted, but I pulled off the road anyway. THERE IT WAS! The house! LAURA'S HOUSE! The house that I'd read about in countless books… built from an original one-room cabin… fossils in the fireplace… Rose's upstairs bedroom… "A Farm Woman's Kitchen"…. I babbled and babbled my fool head off at THTM before bounding out of the car to explore. I could barely restrain myself from hopping over the barbed-wire fence and barreling up the hill to check it all out up close. Instead, I gazed at it, leaning on a fence post, all long-lost and lovelorn-like, relishing in the purity of the stillnesses and sounds and fragrances and total absence of man-made noise: the rustling leaves of trees arching overhead, the hum of insects and sounds of birds, the humidity, the smells, all as Laura and Rose must have experienced it themselves. Oh, Laura, Rose, here I am! I made it! I finally, really made it! Hi, gals!

THTM came to check it all out, too, and I leaned over the fence, pointing out this and that like the Know-it-All that I am, wondering in which direction the little Rock House was, where the apple trees all used to be, and the barns and the sheep pasture and Almanzo's workshop- Ah, tomorrow… tomorrow.

We headed back to town, and parked at the square to take some pictures. In the middle of the square was a bust of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and I paid solemn homage (and giggled at the fact that there was a Chinese restaurant across the street… doesn't go with the whole Little House thing, does it?). THTM wanted to know if I wanted to go to the cemetery that afternoon, but we decided to wait until after visiting the house in the morning. Reluctantly, but hungry, we headed back to the highway in search of a place to eat and stay the night.


About 30 minutes later, we arrived in Springfield, MO. Heck, why not? If only we could hit a Springfield, KS, tomorrow, huh? At any rate, I knew there was something familiar about Springfield, MO, and, sure enough, after a quick skim through On the Way Home, I found it:

…Arrived in Springfield at 9:25. It is a thriving city with fine houses and four business blocks stand around a town square. The stores are well-stocked and busy. Manly hitched the horses and we bought shoes for Rose and myself, a calico dress for me, and a new hat for Manly. It did not take much time and we drove right along through the city. We were out of it before noon. It has 21, 859 inhabitants, and is the nicest city we have seen yet. It is simply grand.
We could see two straight miles down Walnut street, a very little down grade, with large shade trees on each side, large handsome residences, and the pavement as smooth and clean as can be….

(August 28, 1894)

We ate at a nondescript family-type restaurant that was garish with ruffly curtains and country floral wallpaper, then found us another EZ-8. Tomorrow would be devoted entirely to the museum.

I was heavy into reading LIW stuff and making notes when THTM, fresh from a trip to the car to bring in more stuff, exclaimed "Come here! Come here!" He grabbed me by the hand and dragged me, barefooted in my nightshirt, down the stairs, through the lobby, and out to the side of the parking lot. "Look!" he exclaimed, pointing off into the bushes, and… Oh! Fireflies! We hadn't seen them since we lived on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania! We cuddled and watched the insects light up and float around in the sultry summer night.


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