Vacation by Pushpin

By Patricia Weil Coates
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 6, 2003

I clutched the pushpin in my hand as my children spun me around, blindfolded, in front of the map. Decision time had come: We were really doing it, following through on my middle-of-the-night idea to take our family vacation wherever the pin pierced the large map of the United States that hangs on our basement wall.

As my family anxiously watched, I felt the map's slick laminate under my fingertips and stuck the pin in. The date was Jan. 1, 2002.

Seven months later, the four of us flew from Dulles International Airport to Minneapolis, the first leg of our journey to Tracy, Minn. A town of some 2,200 souls in the southwest corner of the state, Tracy had the distinction of being the community nearest to where my pin had landed.

Within hours of "landing" on Tracy, I had gone online in search of answers to our questions about the town and its environs. Was it hilly and covered with lakes, like we imagined most of Minnesota to be? Definitely not, we discovered right away. This was prairie country -- flat farmland dotted with small towns and only a few bodies of water. How would we get there? Luckily, Tracy was only about three hours from the Twin Cities, so we could fly to Minneapolis and rent a car.

Finally, what would we do there? Judging from the lack of distinguishing topography on the map, and the absence of national and state parks, not to mention urban centers, the prospects initially looked a bit bleak. That, however, was precisely the challenge we'd hoped for when deciding to vacation by pushpin: how to craft a memorable vacation for all of us, no matter where we were going.

"This is America," my husband, Vince, had declared. "There'll be something to do, and something redeeming, wherever we end up."

We all hoped he was right.

Images of Tracy

The months that led up to our departure passed with the kind of thrill that comes with turning the pages of a good mystery novel. As each new bit of information was revealed, we began to piece together, like a puzzle, an image of a part of the country that was totally unfamiliar to us.

My very first image of Tracy boded well: A picture of a vintage locomotive popped up on my computer screen. "Score one for Liam," I thought, knowing that any kind of railroad attraction would provide hours of entertainment for my train-crazy 5-year-old son.

Then serendipity struck. After a day or two of Web surfing, I came across a nugget of information that ended up providing the focus of our vacation. Tracy, it turns out, lies seven miles to the west of a tiny town called Walnut Grove.

Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the popular "Little House" book series about frontier life in the late 1800s, will recall that Laura and her family lived for a time in a dugout built into the banks of Plum Creek, just north of the newly settled town of Walnut Grove. Wilder's moving account of her several years there as a young girl during the pioneer days of the 1870s is the subject of her book "On the Banks of Plum Creek."

Ten-year-old Eliane, who has read all the "Little House" books, could not believe her good fortune that Mommy had "landed" near Walnut Grove. Her excitement grew when we discovered that the town was home to an outdoor pageant about Laura and her family (held only in July, hence our decision to visit that month) and that the site of the original Ingalls family dugout, now just an indentation on the riverbank, was open to the public.

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