It's morning in the Little Town on the Prairie, and we're thumbing through the guest book at the Prairie House Manor B&B.
"I can't believe we are in the 'Little Town' where Laura grew up,'' one woman writes. "This is truly a dream come true,'' writes another.
So many little girls, so many dreams. When Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her nine books about growing up on the American frontier of the 1870s and 1880s, she had no idea her idealized portrait of pioneer life would be such powerful medicine to so many.
There's something inspiring about a certain pocket of northeast Iowa.
It's nurtured a a beloved children's-book author, a famous composer and two brilliant woodcarvers. It's stirred battalions of people who create art, preserve heirloom seed and carry on Norwegian culture.
There are a lot of stories in these hills and valleys on the edge of the Driftless Area, which escaped the flattening effects of the glaciers.
Laura Ingalls Wilder, who once said, "At the time, I had no idea I was writing history,'' would be very surprised to find that the eight books she wrote about the Midwestern frontier of the 1870s and 1880s have become the basis of a well-beaten tourist path.
To a log cabin in Wisconsin they come, and to Laura's farmhouse in Missouri. They track down a depression above the banks of a Minnesota creek, and a shanty on the Kansas prairie.
These starry-eyed fans are the Deadheads of the preteen set, traveling with their equally avid mothers and sometimes grandmothers, who pass on a love for the "Little House'' books like a cherished heirloom.
Mansfield, Mo., has never been a particularly prosperous town. Lying in the heart of the Ozarks, its landscape is bucolic but barely fertile.
In 1894, however, a stream of people seeking better lives was flowing through this Gem City of the Ozarks, and among them was 27-year-old Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had traveled in a horse-drawn hack from De Smet, S.D., with her husband, Almanzo, and their daughter, Rose.
As a child, Laura had zigzagged across the Midwest with her family, dogged by failure. Her life with Almanzo seemed similarly destined: Two years after they married, their barn barned.
When I was a child, I had a wild imagination. Anything would fire it up, especially tales of exploration: in dank, twisting caves; along rushing creeks shadowed by stone bluffs; on sun-kissed hilltops, with the world stretching out all around.
And I loved the tales told by two real-life childrens-book heroines: the resourceful tomboy Caddie Woodlawn, who roamed the wilderness of western Wisconsin during the Civil War, and Laura Ingalls Wilder, who relished life in the Big Woods above Lake Pepin before they became farmland.
Western Wisconsin, it seems, has fired many young imaginations. One September, I took my own two children there, on a 185-mile tour with six spots that appeal particularly to kids.