I confess that I still read many of the “Little House” books today. So it was really a dream come true to visit Laura Ingalls Wilder’s final home in Mansfield, Missouri. Surprisingly, there were two homes: Rocky Ridge Farm and the Rock House. The latter is where she began the first four books, sitting at her dining room table. At Rocky Ridge, she completed the rest, at a small desk in a room off the living room. The desk was tiny and must have been a perfect fit for the 4’11” Laura. The desk remained exactly as she had left it … pens, pencils, stamps, stationery supplies. She wrote in longhand on ruled paper. From reading the books and about her life, I thought I knew many details of her life, but I was surprised most of all by the story of her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. She was a pioneering journalist and writer at a time when women still had fewer options for a career. Rose married, divorced and then traveled around the world as a journalist and became very wealthy as a writer. She came back to live near her parents but after Laura’s death in the 1950s, never returned there again.
One of the other women in the small group touring the Rocky Ridge home asked my friend and I what we were doing in Missouri. When I told her that I was driving across the country. She was silent for a second with a thoughtful look on her face and then replied that she had made the same trip, in the early 1960s! Marilyn Ann lived in Oklahoma City and recalled driving from upstate New York to her friend in California, a journey which took 6 weeks. She lied to her mother when she set out and said she was driving to the South. At the time, Marilyn said it was mostly safe to sleep in your car, which she did by stretching out on the front beach seat with a crowbar in her hand. She had help along the way. In one town, she couldn’t find a safe space so she went to a service station and garage and the owner told her to drive her car into the maintenance area and he locked it up for her safety. In the morning, he came back and unlocked it and she was on her way again. But there were also the shady characters. When she was driving on one highway, a man passed her and she could see him drinking from a large bottle. When he was in front of her, he held up the bottle and shook it back and forth, inviting her for a drink. Thankfully, he got off the next exit and she kept going.
Making this trip has been an adventure so far but as a woman traveling alone, there is always the safety factor to consider. It was inspiring to me to meet Marilyn and know that she made the same journey at a time when it must have been harder and more unusual for a woman to make such a long drive. She said not being fully aware of the risks is why she started out, but I didn’t sense any regret while she was telling her story.
This is my second “literary pilgrimage” (Prince Edward Island for the “Anne” books was the first) and as with that visit, being at the writer’s home and surroundings inspired me as a writer. That I could have predicted. But it was meeting Marilyn and hearing her story that was an unexpected happiness. Thank you, Marilyn!