A Good Long Walk, Pioneer Style. Plus, an Announcement

Picking up where we left off last week, our caravan of Norwegians traveling from Decorah, Iowa, into the Dakota territories in 1861, had little in the way of drama on their trip. Nothing worthy of a movie. No Donner party mishap to report.

Shame, that.

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And yet this next part of the tale is without a doubt my favorite, for it gives us the picture of old Great-Grandpa ambling ahead of the ox-pulled wagon, reading a book under the shade of an umbrella.

I can’t remember how old I was when my dad told me about it, but I remember the warm feeling it gave me. It gave me an awareness – an explanation for who I was. These are your people, the story said. This man who walks in solitude and brings a book to bide his time? Yes. It explains everything.

Along with this we hear of more practical matters, such as how they parked their wagons for the night, and later crossed the Sioux River on a ferry. You read this tale long enough, and you’ll have all the instructions you need to make the trip yourself.

Here it is in his own words (as published in 1907):

The course to the west which we were now to cover consisted of long stretches of naked prairie, with great distances between places where water and fuel could be found. We had to carry these supplies with us in our wagons so that at night we would be sure to have these necessities. Every evening the wagons were placed in a square, the oxen were turned loose to graze, and a fireplace, with a wall encircling it, was spaded out. Here we made our fire.

Before we went to rest the oxen were tied to the wagons, and at the earliest break of day they were again let loose so that they might both feed and slake their thirst in the dew-laden grass. In rainy weather we found it advisable to remain in camp; otherwise the chafing of the yokes on the necks of the animals caused sores to develop.

As a protection against wind and rain, I had provided a small tent under which we could cook and braise to our heart’s content. The varieties of food might not have been many, but oh, how delicious they were to our keen appetites!

The day’s journey was short, averaging perhaps fifteen miles. With an umbrella in hand and a book in my pocket, I would go ahead of the caravan as a advance guard, and when I was a mile or so in front of it, I would sit down in the shade of my umbrella to read until it (the caravan) caught up with me again. The long evenings of early fall were utilized for reading within the wagon by light of a stearin candle.

At last we reached Sioux City, near the point of influx of the Big Sioux River into the Missouri. The Big Sioux forms the boundary line between Iowa and Dakota. Across it we were transported by means of a ferry, and although the boat was a primitive one, the passage was very ingeniously accomplished.

First a cable was stretched across the river. The flat-bottomed ferry had a wide keel and at each end of the ferry this was made fast to the cable with a hawser. When the crossing was being made, the hawser at the front was shortened, placing the ferry aslant with the stream, so that the force of the current against the keel moved the craft across. For the return trip it was necessary only to reverse the arrangement of the hawsers. The adjustment of the lengths of the hawsers was all that was needed in the operation, the rest being accomplished by the stream itself.

After a three weeks’ journey we arrived at Vermillion, which, by the route we traveled, was approximately three hundred miles from Decorah. I had walked, not ridden, every inch of the way.

I hope you’ve been enjoying these last few weeks of my Great-Grandpa’s tale. I may from time to time present a few more interesting nuggets, as the mood strikes me or the need arises.

For now though, I have an announcement to make: We’re moving. As in, Husband and I are packing our belongings, selling the homestead, trekking across country to a new locale. (Though unlike Great-Grandpa, we’ll be driving.)

This is why I’ve been so busy lately, and why I’ve been so dreadfully behind in responding to comments on this blog or keeping up with my fellow bloggers.

Again, terribly sorry.

It seems packing up 17 years of living and laughing and loving doesn’t happen overnight. We had to tell family and friends, break it to the kiddos (they’re staying in Phoenix), get the house ready to sell, and sort through our own complicated emotions. Emotions containing fear, sadness, excitement, longing… everything all at once.

Yet whatever fear or sadness we felt were never outmatched by the overwhelming sense that this move is right. However nuts it may sound to anyone else, we believe we’re on the right path.

Where are we moving, you ask? Believe it or not, Minnesota!

From extreme heat to extreme cold. No half measures for us.

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I’ll let you in on more details in the weeks to come, as we still have to sort out moving details, as well as a place to rent until we (hopefully) find a home of our own.

In the meantime, through all of this, I’ll think of a man walking in solitude, biding his time by reading a book. Did he experience fear or sadness on his trip? Possibly. Mostly, I think he felt his path was right.

Author: CJ Hartwell

Christi lives in Phoenix with Husband, Son, Daughter, and Dog. She enjoys moonlit walks on the beach, but as she doesn't live anywhere near a beach, she's usually in bed by 9:30.

8 thoughts on “A Good Long Walk, Pioneer Style. Plus, an Announcement”

  1. Minnesota?!? On purpose? Well that is an interesting announcement. Moving’s a pain. Next time I move I’m thinking of just leaving everything here and buying all new stuff where ever I end up.

    and good choice on using a car rather than oxen.

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  2. Congratulations CJ! I remember feeling the way you do about moving from Wisconsin to Colorado almost two years ago. Minnesota is beautiful and also where I originally hale from. Where in Minnesota will you be? Hopefully not too far from a Trader Joe’s!

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  3. Thanks for sharing the delightful tale.

    Good luck with the move,Christi. I think Minnesota is a beautiful place and would definitely take it over Phoenix (and I’m a desert lover in southwest Colorado). But that’s just me.

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  4. As ever this is a beautifully constructed elergy. The extracts from your Grandpa’s notebooks are a fabulous peep into a life I would never otherwise have contemplated. 300 miles in three weeks. On foot! As one that loves a hike above almost anything in life I can only gape and gasp at the enormity of that trudge. And with not just a book in hand (essential, surely to any good hike IS a good book) but an umbrella too. Of course that is highly sensible but it also feels mildly comic in the most kindly way.

    Having just completed a major move with all the emotions and curious ricocheting between excitement and dread that it entailed, I council you to go gently (as you doubtless are) and softly towards your goal and to be certain (because it is a certainty) that your audience will be patiently waiting for the delights of your writing to return when you are good and ready. And breathe …..

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  5. Hope all goes well with your move. Having no idea of US geography I cannot comment on it really. Sometimes, as you say, you just know it is right to do something. Stay safe and well, and we’ll see you on the other side.

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  6. I like your Great Grandfather, a walking man with a book in his hand. I can just think of the day to day adventure, the adventure of simple things.

    Moving, wow, talk about a change in weather. Well changing things around is good for the soul, it stretches it and becomes more accepting, the same thing for the soul of your family. As Bilbo Baggins said, if you set out on an adventure, you’ll never come home the same. Enjoy the adventure!

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