Bloomington, Minn., photographer Dave Vorland recently traveled to northeastern Minnesota to take in the Bayfront Blues Festival in Duluth. During the trip, he and his partner, Dorette Kerian also took in some local sights.
Like me, my sisters are fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder. Laura’s stories shaped our understanding of the prairie landscape on which we make our homes. This past weekend, my sister, Beckie, and I made the journey to De Smet, S.D., a place, to her friends’ amusement, on Beckie’s bucket list.
I’ve been there, but it has been more than 20 years, and I was more than willing to return for a more extended visit. Readers of this blog will recall that I’ve written about Mrs. A.J. Wilder on several other occasions.
I hereby testify that De Smet is one of the most beautiful and well-cared for cities on the prairie — indeed, in the United States. The folks in this community display great civic pride at every turn, and a plethora of helpful information for visitors is on the webpage. We were mightily impressed.
We arrived in the early afternoon after a pleasant drive on prairie blue highways and immediately went to the Visitors Center to sign up for the guided tour. The center is located in a beautiful Victorian-era house with three important buildings on the property — the original Surveyors’ House and the schoolhouse that Laura and Carrie attended, as well as a replica of the Webster School, the last school in which Laura taught before she was married. The grounds are filled with amusing items and were bustling with young families eager to make their own Laura memories, some in period dress.
We started in the Surveyors’ House, the house in which the Ingalls family lived in the first winter after they arrived in (then) Dakota Territory. The following spring, Charles Ingalls, the patriarch, became one of De Smet’s founders.
Somewhere I have a photo (probably in their scrapbooks) of me with my daughters, standing in front of this building all those years ago.
Next was the interior of the De Smet school, where we all sat in the old school desks, complete with slates and such. I had a little fun with my slate and my sister played along.
Our tour guide bore an uncanny and pleasant resemblance to Laura herself and did a most excellent job.
The final stop on the guided tour was the house Pa Ingalls built after Laura was married, where after his death, Ma and Mary took in boarders until Ma’s death, in order to make ends meet.
When we toured the exhibits in the Visitors Center, we acquired new nuggets of knowledge. We were particularly thrilled to view the “Big Green Book,” the animal storybook the Ingalls family owned. There is no photography allowed within the exhibit. Be sure to budget time to read every single word on the displays.
Next it was our chance to make the driving tour of the town and surrounding areas, completing our checklist of Ingalls sites, beginning with a drive north of town to the site of the farm on which the newlywed Laura and Almanzo made their home, where their daughter, Rose, was born.
Onward we went to the area just south of town, past the site on which the annual LIW pageant is held each summer (we just missed out on that), to the Charles and Caroline Ingalls homestead site, all along sharing with each other our personal recollections of the stories from the books. Five of the cottonwood trees that they planted still stand and it is, for many of us, a deeply spiritual and peaceful place. The first time I was there, I gathered some twigs and kept those for a very long time.
Finally, we headed to the cemetery, where many of the family members are buried along with other notable members of De Smet from Laura’s time. Many of the markers have been replaced and are thus more readable than Pa’s (below).
We checked into our lodgings, a bed and breakfast located in the former banker’s home, two houses down from the aforementioned Ingalls home. Although we had considered lodging at the Ingalls Homestead, The Prairie Manor was a very pleasant place to stay and a better choice for us this time. We were in the Japanese Garden Room on the main floor.
After dining at the Country Club, we strolled around the town, walking past the park in which the Father De Smet statue pays tribute to his influence on prairie life and on to the Ingalls’ original church.
Other places we stopped along the way included the site of the town of Manchester, where Laura’s sister, Grace, settled with her husband, notable because in recent memory the town was completely destroyed by a tornado, followed by a stop in a nearby prairie town in which our Norwegian ancestors settled in the early 20th century prior to their arrival in southwestern North Dakota and southeastern Montana, fellow pioneers who might have known the Ingalls family.
Our final hearty laugh of the trip was a drive-by of the International Vinegar Museum. We had just missed the community Vinegar Festival by one day. Who knew?
Our only regret was that we had not thought to bring along our sunbonnets. (I have one made by my Ma Crook, my great-grandmother, to shield my Aunt Frances’ head oh so many years ago.) Maybe we will take these on our next journey down Laura’s memory lanes. How lucky am I to have a sister who enjoys doing these activities with me? Danged lucky.
Accompanied by Dorette’s son-in-law, Paul Kuhns, I’m heading to Paris next week to attend the International Hemingway Conference. I also expect to visit again the most famous graveyard in the world, the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, established by Napoleon in 1804.
The cemetery is huge ― 110 acres ― with more than 1 million individuals buried there. Most were ordinary folks. But people from around the world come to see the final resting places of an unusual number of famous artists, writers, musicians and other public figures.
No, Hemingway is not there (look for his grave in Ketchum, Idaho). But Marcel Proust, the author of “In Search of Lost Time,” is. Dorette took this picture in 2005 of me paying respects at his grave.
I’ve long been fascinated with both of them. Hemingway goes back further in my reading history.
As for Proust, I took John Updike’s advice that it’s best to read him in your 40s because it takes that long to accumulate experiences that will make the novel most relevant to your own inner life.
And it was, in fact, at about that age I became obsessed with all 1,267,069 words of the “Search,” all of which I still compulsively read once a year in English translation.
There are many interesting graves in the cemetery. American authors Gertrude Stein and Richard Wright are there, as well as U.S. rock star Jim Morrison, who receives more public attention.
Nearby is Irish writer Oscar Wilde.
Among others are Sarah Bernhart, Frederic Chopin, Georges Bizet, Isadora Duncan, Eugene Delacroix, Dominique Ingres, Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (better known by his stage name Moliere), Sidonie Colette, Amedeo Modigliani, Yves Montand, Nadar, Edith Piaf, Camille Pissarro, Georges Seurat and Simone Signoret.
Tourists receive a free map. I like its closing comment, presented in seven languages:
“And now, let the pages of history turn to the rhythm of your footsteps, and the baroque monuments still you with their gentle poetry, leading you into a quietness propitious to meditation.”
Travel really does open your eyes. After 2,500 miles on a bus last week, Russ and I arrived home with a far deeper understanding of what really, truly matters in life.
We weren’t sure what to expect of our first guided travel adventure aboard a motorcoach. One thing we knew for sure: It couldn’t be worse than air travel. After our last journey aboard the flying cattle car that calls itself United Airlines, preceded by a self-propelled adventure with a GPS gone rogue, it couldn’t be all that bad.
We dipped our toes in the water with a weeklong expedition to Ontario and the Upper Peninsula. Our group included three dozen adventurers, many of them newbies like ourselves. After our first day on the road, we began to recognize the qualities that make the best traveling companions: A taste for coffee, a gift for laughter … and full-throated endorsement of frequent “comfort breaks.”
I can only imagine what’s on the minds of witnesses at travel plazas and fast-food emporia as they watch a bus like ours pull into the lot. As it barely pulls to a stop, dozens of intent women and men spill out with just two matters on their minds: Thirst … and urgency.
Our vacation was fueled by coffee. I’d say we averaged about 180 miles per cup.
Our expedition quickly fell into a familiar routine. We’d sip aboard the bus for an hour or two, then pull off the highway for refills. But before we could test the local brew, our buzzing swarm of moderately anxious passengers would attack the doors and make a hasty beeline for the facilities. Only after we’d waited restlessly in the queue, then flushed, were we ready to reload our traveling tankards of java and browse the menu for a tempting bite of something you’d never catch us eating back at home.
Travelers really need a “Yelp”-style review site for roadside bathrooms. I’d propose a five-star system, ranging from “life-changing” — for spacious multi-stalled facilities, regular paper refills and those hand dryers that put out a hot-air blast like a rocket booster — to the bottom rank, reserved for one-holers where you have to ask the cashier for a key.
Fidgeting in line, my female friends and I had deep discussions on what kind of builder could think it was a good idea to install women’s rooms with such a paucity of plumbing. We’re sure it was a male.
I don’t want to leave the impression that all we thought about was bathrooms. Far from it. As our comfortable bus rolled down the highway, some chatted. Some napped. Most, though, took advantage of the on-board Wi-Fi. In lieu of the landscape, we were glued to our digital devices. That meant other things occasionally crossed our minds … like plug-ins.
Our lively corps of vacationers leaned toward — how can I say this nicely? — the furthest margin of middle age. Never let it be said, though, that we disdain digital doodads. The first question volunteered as we boarded the bus for the first time was whether it had Wi-Fi. The second: Can we top off our batteries while we’re rolling?
We tired travelers were not the only ones who needed to recharge by nightfall. Each night, after Russ and I had finally managed to convince a new key card to unlock another door, we swept through our temporary quarters inventorying electrical outlets. Believe it or not, our noncyborg selves needed a total of seven to sate our electronics’ appetites, what with smartphones, Kindles, tablets, a FitBit, a laptop and a pair of hearing aids. Had Russ not forgotten his camera’s battery charger, we could have used eight.
That was fine in modern establishments, including the newest of the lot, where a pair of outlets was built right into the headboard. It was a bit more problematic at the quaint old inn on Mackinac Island; there, even the wiring had a vintage feel. To fully recharge the lot by dawn, we were forced to unplug the TV — a solution bound to solve more than one problem.
The best part of travel, they say, is learning to see the world through new eyes. The best souvenir of all is disembarking from the bus with that fresh perspective: Home is where you never stand in line to use the toilet.
I spent the last week camping alone in the Rocky Mountains. My home was three miles into the wilderness on a jarring moonscape of a Forest Service road. I pitched my tent above a stream, beneath a canopy of spruce and aspen, just me and trees and water and mountains folded into one another for as far as I could see. Such places are a bane to writers because there are really no words that do them justice.
It was 31 degrees when I crawled from my sleeping bag the first morning, but it warmed quickly when the sun inched over the eastern ridge. I hiked to the end of the forest road, then on a trail through the forest that opened into a vast valley surrounded by jagged peaks. Again, I had this world to myself.
The next day I climbed four hours to a ridge below the summit of a 14,000-foot mountain called La Plata. The first half of the hike was through the forest. Above the tree line on the climb to the ridge, nature revealed itself ever more beautifully and fiercely with each step.
But this was a different experience, a communal one. Scores of others joined me on that trail, most of them not stopping at the ridge but aiming for the top of the mountain. I met them every few minutes, passing me on the way up or as they made their way down. They ranged in age from 10 to 70, men and women, boys and girls.
But there was something they shared, a certain inner luminosity, a quiet joy. It was acknowledged with a nod or a smile or a few kind words of encouragement for a plodding old guy like me. There was a wonderful, unspoken truth up there, something about the grandeur of nature and the expansiveness of the human soul.
After my magnificent hike, I drove into a nearby town where there was cell service and checked in with my wife, letting her know that I was OK. I also couldn’t resist checking the news, the latest developments of our public life. It was somewhat surreal that the incivility and cruelty I read about was taking place on the same beautiful planet.
It is my belief, my prayer, that someday soon the spirit of the mountains and my fellow hikers will more generally imbue the places where we are governed.
A staggering 55 percent of Mumbai’s population (12.4 million people in 2011) lives in its dozens of slums, nearly 7 million people. The largest of these is Dharavi. More than a million people live in an area half the size of New York’s Central Park, about 0.8 square miles. Let that sink in for a moment. A million people, less than a square mile.
The slums of Mumbai — the second most populous metropolitan area in India — are desperately poor, but they are not a place of hopelessness. In fact there are thriving industries within Dharavi and an informal economy estimated to be worth about a billion dollars.
It’s hard to find the right voice to write about slums. A group of us in Mumbai for an education seminar took a tour of the Dharavi slum, which of course sounds voyeuristic. Reality Tours has been conducting tours of Dharivi for about 11 years now, giving 80 percent of its profits after taxes back to the densely packed slum in the form of education programs and job training for school-age kids up to adults. The photos you see here were taken by Reality — we were asked not to take any photos out of respect for the people who live there.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Dharavi is the industry. People work in this slum. It shatters the image most of us have about slums — that people are lazy, uncaring drug addicts who cannot help themselves. In fact, there’s a chance the your computer’s plastic housing came from there. There’s business in this slum.
The slum is divided by a busy four-lane street. On one side are the “toxic” industries. Most of these involve recycling. Dozens — maybe hundreds — of business run out of shacks ranging in size from cargo container to boxcar. Plastic of all sorts are brought in massive Tata refuse-hauling trucks. Types of plastic include bags, which have recently been banned in India, toys, bottles and casings for all sorts of equipment. Workers then carry the plastic in huge bags that are toted on the backs of workers through narrow, one-person wide passages to deep within the slum.
The plastic is sorted by color, shredded, washed, dried, melted, extruded into long, thin wires and chopped into pellets. These pellets themselves are bagged, carried out of the slum and sold to companies to become, again, housing for your electronics. OSHA does not exist.
The workers are inT-shirts, shorts, bare feet and flip-flops. There is no head covering, no eye protection. They may earn two or three rupees a day — 3 or 4 cents (yes, cents) depending on the job or how dangerous it is. Some of the shops are two-story. Steep metal ladders are the only way up or down, sometimes with 100-pound bails on one’s back.
Aluminum cans are melted in white hot kilns that burn charcoal and magnesium to achieve the high temperature needed to melt the scrap. The aluminum is poured into molds to form ingots about a foot long and 4 inches wide. The only way to get the ingots to the buyers is by carrying them out through the labyrinth of passageways. The men tending the open kilns and pouring the molten aluminum wear absolutely no protective clothing. There are no fans, no air conditioning, no windows. In the feels-like temperature of 101 degrees, it’s unbearable.
Large 10-gallon industrial paint cans cause special concerns. The paint first has to be heated and burned out before the cans can be crushed and processed somewhat like aluminum. Not so much as a cloth mask was visible among the workers, who breath the toxic fumes for hours each day.
One of our guides told us most people in the toxic side of the slum don’t work past their mid-40s, and are frequently too ill to work past 50.
A lot of the workers here come from outside the slum, and outside of Mumbai. They are themselves from desperately poor families in rural India. They come to work for nine or 10 months at a stretch, earning money to take back home. The owners of these micro-factories may let the workers live in a corner of the tiny building rent-free. Some of the owners themselves live in the slum, but some have managed to afford housing outside and leave the day-to-day operation to their workers.
A heart-stopping dash across the busy road leads to the “clean” industries and the more residential part of the slum, although “residential” makes it sound bucolic. It’s not. The clean industries include textile work, leather fabrication and pottery.
There used to be tanneries in Dhavari many years ago, but it was outlawed because it’s so toxic. Skins are still collected and stored in a particularly smelly quarter of the slum and shipped south to Chennai. The leather is then shipped back to Dhavari for finishing into coats, briefcases, purses, wallets and bags. It’s here many of the knock-off Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags, shipped all over the world and sold on the streets of just about every major city on Earth, are made. But a few years ago, slum resident Wahaj Khan opened a shop (the only air conditioned spot in the slum) and began selling those goods with the Dharavi brand on them.
The slum is dense, and on hot, humid Mumbai monsoon days, nearly airless. We walked along passages only a few inches wider than our shoulders. Electric wires scalloped above our heads but often dipped low enough to have to duck. We had to watch that while also paying attention to our footsteps — holes in the walkway were common. People coming the other way had to step into doorways to pass — there wasn’t enough room for two people on the walkway. In other places, the walkways opened up onto a courtyard-like enclosure of two-story hovels, and even a rough, dusty lot with kids playing the national game of India, cricket, using a plastic bat and balls.
The electricity is expensive, and not every home has it. Water is available three hours a day at leaky faucets sprinkled through the slum. A handful of toilets is scattered around Dharavi. Most people use these. Kids use the great outdoors, usually down by the river in more wooded areas. Virtually no one has a bathroom in his or her residence.
But here’s the thing: It is not shameful to live in the slums. People are not sitting around feeling sorry for themselves — the men work. The culture allows Buddhist and Christian women to work, often in hot, cramped bakeries, earning 1 rupee (about a penny and a half) a day. Muslim women are confined to the home by their religious culture. Children are allowed to work starting at age 14, but many start sooner. And the kids go to school. In early afternoon, the passageways were speckled with boys in their gold-brown uniform shirts and ties coming home from their studies.
Many who live in the slum work outside, in government and industry. They live in the slum because they just don’t make enough to afford housing in this densely populated city on the Indian Ocean. There is no embarrassment — nearly 7 million of their fellow residents do, too.
We stopped for lunch at the house of a woman who does this for the tour company. The “living room” of the place was bare except for, of all things, a refrigerator, quite rare a in Dharavi. The lunch of chapati bread, sprouts, curry chickpeas, rice and dal (lentils) was simple and spectacular. And we learned that she has been to the United States, to visit a daughter in Phoenix. Both of our guides were born and raised in the slums and still live there, but the brother of one is earning his Ph.D. in sleep study and is studying the Cayman Islands. Growing up in the slum is not a life sentence, but escape is neither guaranteed nor easy.
I’m sure there are drugs and alcohol. I didn’t see it. I honestly wonder if there is much theft. There is more a feeling of community, if one can get a sense of that spending less than three hours there. But listening to the guides, one gets the feeling that people watch out for each other, their property and their kids.
If it sounds like the Dharavi slum is a complex web of contradictions, I’ve conveyed the experience accurately. It is a slum. Mumbai would like to clean it up along with all the others. But a million people live and work there. It’s their way of life, and for some it has been for a generation or more. It’ll take more than a bulldozer and a concrete high rise to deal with the problem — the issue.
I’m glad I took the tour. I was happy to leave. I have a lot to sort out. A lot to think about.
Grand Forks photographer Dave Bruner and his wife, Sheila, spent quite a bit of time recently in Arches National Park just north of Moab, Utah. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks in a landscape of contrasting colors, land forms and textures unlike any other in the world.
Grand Forks photographer Dave Bruner and his wife, Sheila, were out until 4 a.m. in the morning recently shooting the Milky Way and moonlight on the rock formations in the Goblin Valley State Park in Utah. “Moonlight does diffuse the Milky Way, but the moonlight gave a very eerie feeling to the landscape and the surroundings. We were the only people out there at that time of night. Go figure … It was a fun experience though.”
On their recent Utah trip, Grand Forks photographer Dave Bruner and his wife, Sheila, visited Goblin Valley State Park. Here is his description:
“Journey to this strange and colorful valley, which is unlike any other in Utah. The landscape, covered with sandstone goblins and formations, is often compared to Mars. Explore the geology, among the nooks and gnomes. Goblin Valley includes an area where soft sandstone has eroded into interesting shapes, somewhat resembling goblins. In some spots, the rock formations are close together and produce a maze-like playground ideal for family explorations. Many people think the park landscape has a surreal appearance. A Hollywood movie, “Galaxy Quest,” was filmed at Goblin Valley State Park because of its unearthly scenery.
Our first Uber driver was a former journalist, so the midnight conversation from Pittsburgh International Airport turned to the unprecedented attacks on the press by the president.
Wearied by weather delays, airport sprints and the uncertainty of our travels, India and I were content to let him deliver a treatise I knew by rote — the preposterous notion journalists intentionally get things wrong … the differences between the opinion page and the front page … the top secret cabal that keeps conservatives out of journalism school … the incurious nature of sheep and men …
We counted 11 Uber drivers, a microcosm of America, as part of our four-day trek around Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where India will attend West Virgina University in the fall.
There was beautiful Chinita with the splendid braids, who was recovering from a car accident and was driving because she could no longer handle physical labor … there were college students picking up money for tuition … and Russell, a West Virginia lifer whose Uber profile said he was a great conversationalist but wasn’t.
A former FBI agent from D.C. shared his insights into the bureau as he ferried us across Morgantown. Comey had botched things by skewing the trajectory of the election with the Hillary email announcement, he said. And the two fired agents who displayed unprofessional disdain for Trump? “They had it coming.”
I had one question. “Is Bob Mueller a straight shooter?” He looked over at me intensely as the light changed. “Absolutely. Incorruptible.”
My favorite was the retired ballerina, who had danced professionally for 21 years in the company of luminaries like Baryshnikov and Nureyev and now taught other dancers. She was tiny and lithe, blonde-gray hair in a ballerina’s bun, lively eyes, with a boisterous laugh I was delighted to coax out of her several times with prairie wisecracks.
Later, I wondered why she was driving. Boredom? Financial necessity? If so the latter, it wouldn’t surprise me. Art is so seldom justly rewarded — this wondrous thing that illuminates the very best in humanity, showing our species in full bloom, like tulips in the spring, providing hope, beauty, inspiration, perspective, truth and mystery. I wished I had seen her dance.
Jahm from Uzbekistan and I engaged in discourse about Russian history, from the Mongols to the Romanovs. A gold tooth flashed when he spoke from a bearded jaw. I mined the words from his rich accent like gemstones. That ride wasn’t long enough.
The longest ride, but not in miles, was with Thomas, a patriot driving a Nissan. Well dressed in a button down shirt and slacks, he was a former coal miner, failed restauranteur and air conditioning specialist who, at 58, couldn’t land another job.
Early in the ride, because we were from North Dakota, I assume, he floated a comment about the unfair treatment Trump was receiving in the press and said something disparaging about Hillary. “Well, I really wasn’t a fan of either candidate,” I said noncommittally, and that shut him down for a while.
But later, another entreaty about the media’s attacks on the president, and this time I took the bait. The president, I said, was acting on some conservative principles I could live with. “But I despair over what he’s doing to the office — the ugliness and divisiveness he encourages. His dishonesty. His intellectual laziness. The way he alienates our allies.”
And so it came, like a flood, the rebuttal. Thomas told me he listened to a lot of conservative talk radio and so seemed well-schooled on the Deep State. Along with his defense of the president, he opined that 9/11 was an inside job, Obama, the Manchurian Candidate, was a Muslim born in Kenya, and that climate change was a hoax.
I attempted to gently amend some of the more egregious misstatements. I cited facts about the death of coral reefs, rising sea levels, melting ice caps, the increased intensity of storms and the acceleration of CO2 in the atmosphere that coincided with the Industrial Revolution — the reality that the growing season in North Dakota had gotten longer in my lifetime.
“Most scientists agree climate change is happening,” I said.
“They’ve been bought off,” he countered.
“All of them? And to what end? Not everything is a conspiracy, Thomas. Read.”
He didn’t read newspapers. It’s all fake news, anyway, he said, repeating the president’s mantra, and then he went off on CNN.
“You’re killing me, Thomas,” I said, and that’s when I revealed my occupation.
“Why would you support attacks on the First Amendment, which is more critical to your freedom than any other part of the Constitution?” I asked.
“Journalists defend your freedom every day, just as soldiers do. You think six-shooters and the Second Amendment will save you from a corrupt government? You know what will? Truth. Facts. They’re out there. You just have to be willing to open your eyes.”
By then, we were at the motel. We pulled the bags out of the trunk and wished each other well. I slapped him on the back and said, “Keep an open mind, Thomas.”
He smiled and chuckled. I liked him. I really did. And I think he liked me.
“I’ll keep an open mind, too,” I added, as I turned away.
I tipped him well. But not as much as the ballerina.
© Tony Bender, 2018