Whenever I wake up on a frigid winter morning, I do two things right away: start the coffee and thank God that I’m not a pioneer. And whenever I travel along the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway (which runs across southern Minnesota where my family lives) during the winter months, snug as a bug in a rug in a car equipped with a CD player, comfortable seats and, most importantly, HEAT, I think about the Ingalls family and all the other pioneers who made their way across the country in those uncomfortable, drafty wagons, their belongings piled in the back along with their children, headed toward an uncertain future. Then, as I turn the heat up a little higher to combat the negative zero temperatures and icy winds outside the car, I wonder how on earth they ever stood it.
I get exhausted just thinking about what the average Mrs. Pioneer did on a daily basis. Her life had to be hard enough during the non-frozen Midwestern months with the endless cooking, baking, cleaning, and washing she had to do—all without the help of a vacuum cleaner or microwave or even a Swiffer. Let’s not forget what childbirth must have been like for pioneer women. They typically went through that experience all alone with no doula in attendance other than Pa and definitely not a pain pill in sight. Thanks but no thanks. All of that was bad enough during the warm months. Winter had to make everything harder and those poor people had to endure it without electric blankets for comfort or Facebook for distraction. And I’m not a history expert but I’m going to hazard a guess that there weren’t any little liquor stores on the prairie either.
Even something as basic as water had to be a huge hassle. What a pain it must have been to dig a well, haul the water back to the house, heat the water over a fire, cook, drink and bathe and then finally toss whatever was left back outside when they were finally through with it. The Little House on the Prairie books never mentioned plumbing but common sense says that it had to be rudimentary at best. Make that a double thanks but no thanks.
I have no doubt in my mind that had I been a new pioneer wife during the months of November through April and my pioneer husband and I were wending our way westward in our own covered wagon, the honeymoon would have ended rather quickly. I am quite sure that I would have been dropped off somewhere along the yet-to-be-named Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway with a handful of dried corn, a pat on the back and curt instructions to find my own way back to civilization.
Frankly, I don’t know why any pioneers stayed in this region. One winter of blizzards and ice storms would have been enough for me to encourage Pa to keep going west preferably all the way to southern California where we could have staked a claim in Malibu while there was still a glut of affordable real estate available.
I suppose it’s necessary to remember that Minnesota was settled by largely Scandinavian and German people, both known for their tendency toward, to put it kindly, bull-headed stubbornness. Perhaps Minnesota reminded them of the land they’d just left behind. Perhaps winters here were mild when compared to the ones in Oslo or Berlin. Or maybe they were simply too tired to go any farther.
I know the feeling. Winter in Minnesota does tend to wear one out, running water and Swiffers aside. So why do we stay? Why don’t we ditch the long underwear and get onto the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Highway and head for a milder climate? I suppose because we do have furnaces, microwaves, and Swiffers. We also have indoor plumbing and gas fireplaces. And most of all because, when all is said and done, this frozen land is home. I suppose there must be some residual pioneer stock left in all of us.