Small Wonders

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US Bureau of Land Management

You have to hunt to find it, but here and there along the way you’ll find stone markers, set down a century ago to memorialize a highway that for a couple of rowdy decades swept through the land not so far away, on its way to nothing less than the promise of the good life. It’s the Oregon Trail.

The first white folks to "do" the trail were the Whitmans, a couple of newlywed missionaries bound for eastern Washington. It was 1836. Mrs. Whitman's letters home were a marvel when they were published out east, sparking a romance for the west in hearts and minds all over this nation.

Caroline Fraser says that what Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote down about Kansas, long ago, says a great deal about her, even though the Kansas prairie was home to her very first memories. She wrote those memories down on "Big Chief" tablets and never intended them for publication, unlike so much else she put to writing. Just for the record, Caroline Fraser's Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder, just won the Pulitzer. It's a great read.

James C Schaap

We were standing atop a miniature mountain, looking out over the Big Sioux River from a statuesque bluff not all that far from the confluence of the Missouri and the Big Sioux, over the prairie land of Broken Kettle Grasslands Preserve, 3000 acres of sheer beauty.  No one else was there.

James C Schaap

Oddly enough, the empire began by way of a very sore bum. An Englishman named William Brooks Close, who, with his brothers, was in Philadelphia for a rowing match in 1876, so banged up his posterior in practice, that he could not sit without pillows. While the rest of the crew continued to work out, but he had to sit out. 

Eleanor Grandstaff Collection

She and her husband went to the revival because the church was their church too, sort of. They hadn't been shy about telling their neighbors they liked the United Brethren fellowship but weren't that hot on all that stuff about hell.

Maybe the revival’s title should have kept them away: "Hell, What it is. Where it is. Who Goes There." They went anyway.

Wikimedia Commons

She told me she remembered Black Sunday, that she’d never forget it in fact, because she was just a little girl, and her family was in church. It was a Sabbath afternoon. It was Palm Sunday too, the first day of Holy Week, and her family was at worship when “the roller” came in, a curtain of darkness, a huge wall of dust swept up from ground shorn of its ancient grasses.  When that roller arrived, she said, the church filled with dust, blinding them all. What she had never forgotten was that the only thing she could see up front behind the pulpit was the pastor’s white collar.

Wikimedia Commons

President Woodrow Wilson, like each and every President--and all of us--was a bundle of contradictions, his very soul a nest of hooks. From the time he was a kid, he wanted to be in government. A portrait of Gladstone hung in his boyhood bedroom, and he made no bones about it--he wanted to be a statesman.

Duncan, Patricia D. / Wikimedia Commons

It took me 31 years of Iowa living to take my first steps on real native prairie, the kind my great-grandparents must have set upon when they arrived in northwest Iowa in the 1880s. Thirty-one years. Seems like a lifetime.

But then, real native prairie goes at a premium in this corner of the state. You can stumble on a few sloped patches of original grasses along the bluffs of the Big Sioux River, but for decades already the land has been drawn-and-quartered by the endless row crops of a gigantic garden. 

Wikimedia Commons

Given the scale of what once was, it wouldn’t be difficult to call the place “Siouxland's biggest fossil,” a sprawling, endless petrifaction. Walk out the door of the lobby, keep the walls on your left and circle the entire place--it'll take you the better part of a half hour because the place is gargantuan.

A century ago, it had to have been perfectly colossal because 116 years later it still is. If you've never seen it, drive up sometime. It’ll stop you in your tracks.

National Park Service

Very little of the great Missouri River looks as it did when Standing Bear and his Ponca band lived beside it, right there at the confluence of the “the Big Muddy” and the Niobrara. Four huge dams brought discipline to a madcap river far too unruly. But some say the segment of the river most like the Missouri Lewis and Clark navigated is right there—from the mouth of the Niobrara south to Yankton.

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