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  • 1909.

    As she hops the train, nineteen-year-old Lydia Putzier sloughs off the trappings of her small-town Midwestern upbringing. At least that’s how I imagine her. I see them pooled about her feet—the soft vague colors and textures of who-tos and don’t-dos—as she steps away. She doesn’t look back. She’s on that train alone.

    I imagine her lifting that sturdy wooden trunk that now sits in my sister-in-law’s bedroom onto the luggage rack, light with dreams. She smoothes her skirt and exhales deeply, slowly, as the train pulls out. She smiles.

    This is what I know: She has heard of free land. Free spirits. The prairie has opened its arms and she has run to it. As far as the train will take her. North Dakota. Where she encounters prejudice, friendship and hardship. Where the wind beats so unmercifully it could drive someone mad.

    And yet she is undaunted by that wind, by the roughness of life. By men at the claims office who turn her away because single women can’t homestead. They’d steal her dreams, shake out that sturdy wooden trunk and send her packing back to Iowa. Only she doesn’t head home, but further on, to Montana where she finds a job with the telegraph company. And eventually a homesteading husband.

    She has a photograph taken of herself with a friend, sitting on a doorstep of a lonely house. She sends it home, an image that captures the wide empty space, the unrelenting sun, and the full force of freedom blooming in her smile as big as the prairie.

    (Photo of Lydia Putzier, my husband's grandmother, 1909, North Dakota)
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