Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Days of Yore (from July 2008)

We’re getting ready for the mind-numbing drive across Kansas to explore the beautiful Rocky Mountains. We’ve got books, CD’s, Leapsters, portable DVD players, and Mad Libs for entertainment. We’ve got Rice Krispie treats, Twizzlers, and a canister of nuts for snacking. We have a gas-powered minivan to drive on a well-paved highway, courtesy of Bob Dole. We know we will rest our heads on pillows and beds in climate-controlled rooms with running water and can hit Target for anything we’ve forgotten to pack.

Every time we prepare to head west over the Flint Hills and across the nothingness that is western Kansas, I think about the Ingalls family and their fellow pioneers who traveled by wagon to settle in little houses on the prairie.

How in the heck did they do that?

What kind of stock were they made of to hop off their trans-Atlantic cruise ships and travel from the comforts of the East Coast though the Appalachian Mountains, the Ohio Valley, the Mississippi River, and the ride across Kansas in a horse-drawn wagon filled with kids, dried beans, and cornmeal? And what kind of whack jobs did all of that, only to hit Denver, and decide to see what might be on the other side of the monstrous terrain out yonder? I would have been done just west of Limon. Oh, who am I kidding…I’d still be in Ireland praying for an end to the famine.

I shared this awe and wonder with my dear friend’s girlfriend, Susan, an advertising professional and single mom of five fantastic teenagers. She and I agreed that the pioneer way of life is something few, if any, Americans could handle now. The closest I’ve come to pioneer living was listening to Frankie Lane sing “Rawhide” all the way out to our family’s only camping trip, where we sat in the minivan and watched my dad set up the tent in the rain, only to have one of my brothers pee in it that night. Susan, however, has embraced pioneer living to an extraordinary length.

Susan is one of my favorite mothers, and here is why: Every summer, she shut off the water and electricity and led her children in what she calls “Pioneer Week”. For an entire week, Susan and her five kids led the pioneer way of life without leaving their home in Phoenix, living by the pioneer motto, “Use it up. Wear it out. Make do. Do without.”

The kids were given one change of clothes. They bathed in a washtub by the fireplace in water they “fetched” out of the hose out back, and yes, they took turns bathing in the tub using the same water. Susan had a meager supply of dried goods. To simulate hunting for food, the children had to chase their mother around the yard while she dangled pieces of meat in front of them. Food, whether it was cornmeal cakes or vegetables from the garden, was cooked over a fire. They lived one week every summer (with no A/C in sweltering Phoenix!) confined to a 14 x 20 foot area Susan had taped off in the house, an area the exact size of Laura Ingalls’s family home on the prairie, or outside playing in the sun. They slept there, all six of them, together. They dug their own outdoor plumbing. They were assigned chores to do each day. They learned to live humbly, the pioneer way.

After hearing Susan talk about the success of Pioneer Week in all of its simplistic, romantic glory, I tried to envision how that would fly with our Guitar Hero junkies – and their mom. But I soon remembered the time last winter when our power went out for a few hours one afternoon while I was home with the kids. Coincidentally, Amelia and I had been reading the Little House series book, The Long Winter, that month. So I gathered all the kids around, seizing the opportunity for a quiet, peaceful afternoon and we read about the Ingalls family’s first winter in the Dakota Territory.

Winter lasted seven months that year. The Ingalls family had moved into Pa’s 2-room office building in the budding downtown after the first winter storm, as their claim shanty wasn’t strong enough to withstand the wind and snow. There were blizzards every one or two days. The train hadn’t been able to deliver any supplies since November. By the end of winter, they were surviving on a couple slices of toast and one small potato apiece each day. They spent their days sitting by the stove to keep warm or twisting hay into kindling in the lean-to out back to keep the fire going, as the town’s coal supply was gone. And did I mention Mary, the oldest daughter, was blind? Laura was about 12, Carrie was 7, Grace was around 2. The entire town was in grave danger of starving, there was little to no contact with neighbors, and there wasn’t anything new brought into the house for nearly six months, no new toys, books, newspapers, magazines…

As my children sat wide-eyed with wonder, I began to think maybe they were grasping how easy they have it with warm beds, plentiful food, and TiVo. And then they spoke.

“Why didn’t they just walk to the grocery store?”

“Why didn’t they just move somewhere warm…like North Carolina?”

“(sigh) This is a boring story. Can we watch TV yet?”

Obviously my crew was not ready for “Pioneer Week”. (Truth be told, I’m not either. I know my limits.) But I will think about the pioneers, as I always do, when we cruise along I-70 in the air conditioning, covering 620 miles in just 9 hours. And, as we head ‘em up and move ‘em out, I will give thanks that a hot shower, Heavenly Mattress, and full breakfast buffet are waitin’ at the end of my ride.


la_vie_en_shoes said...

I think I'd start slow, with a different show from the 80's. Maybe I could paint a rebel flag on my big-ass SUV and my kids and I can live "Dukes of Hazzard" for a week. Or I'll buy a monkey and a semi and we can be all "BJ and the Bear"...

Kristie said...

Julie, As I finish reading your last posting, as I have been out of town...I am amazed at what an incredible woman you are. Of course, I already knew this, but just needed a little reminder. You are hilarious and so witty. Thanks for sharing and I can't wait to send this to everyone I know!
PS-I can only pray that I look as good as you in a swimsuit...