Monday, March 21, 2016

Finding the Minnesota Prairie in the Simi Hills

Back in 2007, when I had the opportunity to spend a few days exploring Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa before a business trip in Minneapolis, I jumped at the chance and started making my way down the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Highway.

On that trip, I didn't have quite enough time to make it all the way to South Dakota, so I figured I'd just do it on the next trip.

The only thing is, there hasn't been that next trip.

I got close to going almost two years ago now, when I'd booked a trip to Walnut Grove for the 40th anniversary celebration of the Little House on the Prairie TV show. I'd started planning it while I was working; but by the time the trip came around, I'd been laid off and was dead broke. I even borrowed money from a friend so I could still try and go—because I knew it would break my heart if I didn't—but the day before I was supposed to fly out, my flight kept getting delayed, which I took as a sign.

Taking advantage of the loophole that allows for airfare refunds in case of severe weather and other uncontrollable delays, I cancelled my entire trip.

Despite feeling relieved, I bawled my eyes out.



The thing is, I live pretty close to the next best thing to Walnut Grove, Plum Creek, Silver Lake, and all the other "real" locations from the Little House book series: Big Sky Movie Ranch in Simi Valley. That's where they filmed all of the outdoor prairie scenes for the TV series starring Michael Landon as "Pa" and Melissa Gilbert as "Half Pint."



I'd been trying to figure out a way to get to Big Sky Ranch to complete my tour de movie ranches, since it's got lots of other history and is still actively used today for productions like Django Unchained and The Revenant. But it was only when I heard about a cast reunion at an expensive banquet dinner (one that I could not afford) that I realized I might be able to weasel my way onto an actual tour.



So on Sunday morning, I found myself in a dirt lot, climbing onto a coach bus—that same dirt lot that the cast of Little House would convene at and climb a bus of their own that would take them up the hills of Simi Valley and transport them to Walnut Grove, Minnesota.



I knew it the minute I saw it. They didn't even have to tell me. The pond was missing, as was the house, but that was the tree at the former homestead of Ma and Pa Ingalls, where Laura grew up before our very eyes. It was like visiting my own childhood home. It rendered me speechless.



To add to the experience, we were joined by the actress who portrayed "Baby Grace" (well, one of the twins who did, Wendi Turnbaugh) who posed for photos in front of the hill the sisters tumbled and ran down during the opening credits.



According to Alison Arngrim, the former and forever "Nellie Oleson," those hills look pretty much the same—right down to the yellow mustard seed flowers. Only difference? The trees are a bit taller, and they're missing the plastic daisies that they'd been dressed with to look more like the prairie and less like Southern California.



Here I was, riding a bus up the same exact dirt road that carried all those covered wagons, horses and buggies, and frontiersmen mounted on horseback...



...passing the road and adjacent drop-off that orphaned Jason Bateman and his on-screen sister in a stagecoach crash.



And because of the recent winter rains, the hills looked incredibly green, and the grasses unbelievably tall—just like the southern prairies of Minnesota in springtime.



Now, I'm a really big fan, but there are superfans out there who have got me beat. Their capacity to remember minutia related to the show is unsurpassed—so much so that I can't imagine they have any bandwidth in their brains to learn anything new about any other topic.



My fellow tourists requested we get out of the bus at the site of the old Garvey Ranch, and elsewhere they pointed out places that even the cast members had a hard time recalling.



But some of those scenes from that show are indelibly marked on my memory, and came rushing back when we passed the site of the infamous fight between Nellie and Laura that sent mud (and probably bits of cow pies and duck poop) down Alison's gullet and between her teeth.



It's somewhat of a rude awakening when you realize that, even in 1974, Simi Valley was never wet—so all those streams and ponds and things were a bit of movie magic, a fabrication thanks to a bunch of pipes and water pumps, some of which now still lie abandoned and rusted off the side of the road.



On our last stop in Walnut grove, we got to walk into town...



...where the schoolhouse and recess yard would've been on the left of the fork in the road...



...and the hotel (from later seasons) would've been on the right.



Alison is a total pro and has done this before, so without much prodding, she donned a blonde wig of yellow ringlets and made her best Nellie Oleson face, right in front of where the mercantile would've been.



And then, of course, the priceless photo opp of Baby Carrie (Lindsay Greenbush, another half of a set of twins), Nellie, and Baby Grace, replete with prairie bonnets (which actually do a very good job of keeping the sun out of your eyes).



To some, it might look like one big overgrown field with fallen trees. To us, it was the main road in and out of town, and the spur road that led to the mill where Pa worked.



What may look like just a regular ol' hill is the site of Nellie's fateful descent on a wheelchair—straight into the town center pond.



And what may look like just another oak is actually known as "the sweetheart tree," which still has initials carved into it despite wildfires and the implosion of the set during the filming of the series' finale.

Little House star, producer, writer, and director Michael Landon intentionally destroyed Walnut Grove—burned every last bit of it to the ground—when the series came to completion so that the sets would never be used again by some other TV show or movie, as was commonplace to save money back in the old days of Hollywood. (And, in many ways, still is.)

Of course, all those buildings might've gotten torn down or otherwise destroyed for some other reason, so some might say that at least it went out with a bang.

It's hard not to think of this site as the ghost town of Walnut Grove. I know that other productions have used those same trees and hills, but no matter what happened before or after the Ingalls family lived there, it's the prairie.

It's actually hard for me to hear the "behind the scenes" stories and bits of cast gossip, because I want it all to be real. I don't want to think about how the radiation from the nuclear meltdown at the Rocketdyne site just six miles to the south was probably the cause of inoperable, terminal cancer in Michael Landon—who everybody thought would outlive them all.

Little House on the Prairie started just a year before I was born, so I grew up right alongside Laura and Mary and Nellie and Willie and all those schoolchildren in that tiny little schoolhouse.

But for me, it wasn't just about the TV show, but also about the real-life stories of pioneer survival.

And the townspeople weren't just characters—they were real people that I got to know by reading books, before I'd really figured out the difference between reality and fiction.

Ultimately, those were real places I could visit—and reading about them gave me something tangible, achievable, and relatable.

If you were to think of any other TV show that's created the same kind of widespread cult following—with costumes, parades, festivals, and the like—the only one that comes close to Little House on the Prairie is Star Trek.

And although you can pretend to visit a planet from one of their episodes, you can't actually boldly go where no man has gone before.

At least, no yet, anyway.

Related Posts:
Beyond the Frontier
Crossed Off the LA Bucket List: M*A*S*H at Malibu Creek State Park
Photo Essay: Corriganville Movie Ranch, Burned to the Ground