Pilgrimage on the Prairie: What seeking the past teaches us about our present

Where are we going? Where have we been? On the trail in Glacier National Park“Although we were living a very comfortable version of the American Dream, we felt sickened by this kind of devastation and the waste that fueled it. In traveling to the Little Houses, we were also seeking an antidote to what ailed us, the way medieval pilgrims might have sought healing at a sacred shrine.” In ‘Little Log Houses for You and Me,’ an essay for Brain, Child magazine, Kimberly Meyer tells the story of taking her husband and three daughters on a journey ranging all over the Midwestern United States, through Kansas, Minnesota, and South Dakota, ending at a knobbly farm in the Missouri Ozarks.

Like many travel essays, hers is focused on a pilgrimage: to visit all the houses that writer Laura Ingalls Wilder fictionalized in her Little House on the Prairie books. What she ends up looking for, as evidenced in this quote, is something else, not just an escape back to a simpler time or a search for a simpler life in the here and now, but an explanation. Why is humankind so restless? What is it in us that craves to roam, and to settle, and to roam again? Are all wild, unsettled places destined eventually for Wal-Marts and concrete and TGI Friday restaurants?

Having read my own Ingalls Wilder books to shreds when I was a girl, I sympathize with Meyer’s obsession. The books are elegantly written, portraying the dramas of pioneer life in the best way possible: with love and simplicity and a rare grasp of language and storytelling. The Ingalls family (Wilder was Laura’s married name) were part of the mass white settlement of the frontier, a surge in the late 1800s that shoved the Native Americans further away from ancestral homelands and plowed the prairie under in the name of agriculture and civilization.

The concept of pilgrimage has always fascinated me, especially when it relates to a beloved author. It’s hard to believe that stunning writers such as Jane Austen, Willa Cather, and Fyodr Dostoevksy weren’t shaped deeply by their environments, both physical and social. In those who’ve grown up in the wilderness, or who came of age on a still-young frontier, such as Cather and Wilder, the sense of place in their books is as deep-set as the characters themselves. I see it in the writing of my own mother, who grew up on a several-hundred-acre wheat ranch in Eastern Montana. Her work, like that of Cather and Wilder and Ivan Doig, shows a sensibility for land that is ingrained and almost unconscious, and which shapes a book or essay more forcefully than any plot. It’s what makes many such novelists better observers and writers of ‘place’ than your average travel writer.

A pilgrimage such as Meyer’s is one that many of us repeat over and over in our lives. It’s an extension of the need to travel, the wanderlust. Who are we and what are we looking for are always the questions we face. In societies full of materialism, environmental devastation in the name of progress (‘progress’ by whose definition, I always wonder), ‘why is the world the way it is’ has become another. Traveling to the homes and settings of writers we love asks even more: what inspired them? Why do I fall in love with their stories over and over again? If I spend enough time standing on this spot, where they penned their best works, will I sense something of what created the person?

Pilgrimage, like more general travel itself, is often a quest for deeply personal answers. In her essay Meyer talks about the attraction that pioneer life has always held for her, but that this journey has also shown her how much she needs to teach her children. Life can be romantic in fiction, but the reality is often more difficult, whether you’re talking right now in China or 100 years ago in Kansas.

Meyer’s essay reminded me, once again, that travel is necessary for understanding, and for humankind to mature — an eventuality I still hold out for. Whether we step sideways to a culture completely foreign to us, or forward to see something of what we may become, or back to see how we got to where we are — what made us, for better or worse — it is the traveling itself that feeds our perspective and makes us, we hope, better people, more committed, somehow, to the place beneath our feet. Wherever, and whenever, that is.

In the author note at the end of her essay Meyer adds another thought to her pilgrimage, about the importance of taking road trips with your children, and of taking them camping. “Our trips,” she says, “have ended up shaping the vision we have of ourselves as a family and also deepening our understanding of this flawed but beautiful land.” As a traveler, especially a traveler with children, you couldn’t ask for more than that.

(Brain, Child is a literary magazine “for thinking mothers.” While all its content is related, somehow, to motherhood, its subjects are wide-ranging, diverse, sometimes brutally honest, and of exceptional literary quality. I recommend you find a copy and read Meyer’s travel essay for yourself.)

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