“I don’t wonder,” said she, “that you cry. Gosh! It scares me to death!”
ADVENTURE ON THE OLD RIDGE ROAD
Vandemark Township and Monterey County, as any one may see by looking at the map of Iowa, had to be reached from Wisconsin by crossing the Mississippi at Dubuque and then fetching across the prairie to the journey’s end; and in 1855 a traveler making that trip naturally fell in with a good many of his future neighbors and fellow-citizens pressing westward with him to the new lands.
Some were merely hunting country, and were ready to be whiffled off toward any neck of the woods which might be puffed up by a wayside acquaintance as ignorant about it as he. Some were headed toward what was called “the Fort Dodge country,” which was anywhere west of the Des Moines River. Some had been out and made locations the year before and were coming on with their stuff; some were joining friends already on the ground; some had a list of Gardens of Eden in mind, and meant to look them over one after the other until a land was found flowing with milk and honey, and inhabited by roast pigs with forks sticking in their backs and carving knives between their teeth.
Very few of the tillers of the soil had farms already marked down, bought and paid for as I had; and I sometimes talked in such a way as to show that I was a little on my high heels; but they were freer to tack, go about, and run before the wind than I; for some one was sure to stick to each of them like a bur and steer him to some definite place, where he could squat and afterward take advantage of the right of preemption, while I was forced to ferret out a particular square mile of this boundless prairie, and there settle down, no matter how far it might be from water, neighbors, timber or market; and fight out my battle just as things might happen. If the woman in the wagon was “scared to death” at the sight of the prairie, I surely had cause to be afraid; but I was not. I was uplifted. I felt the same sense of freedom, and the greatness of things, that came over me when I first found myself able to take in a real eyeful in driving my canal-boat through the Montezuma Marsh, or when I first saw big waters at Buffalo. I was made for the open, I guess.
There were wagon trails in every westerly direction from all the Mississippi ferries and landings; and the roads branched from Dubuque southwestward to Marion, and on to the Mormon trail, and northwestward toward Elkader and West Union; but I had to follow the Old Ridge Road west through Dubuque, Delaware, Buchanan and Blackhawk Counties, and westward. It was called the Ridge Road because it followed the knolls and hog-backs, and thus, as far as might be, kept out of the slews.