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Volume 35, Number 6November/December 1984

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The Little House on the – Desert

Written by William Holtz
Illustrated by Norman MacDonald

Most U.S. television viewers are familiar with the series Little House on the Prairie, and many readers, brought up on the "Little House" books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, continue even now to read them to their children. And both viewers and readers probably recall that in the TV series, and the books, Laura's daughter Rose enters the story on a cold December night in 1886 in a shanty - the "little house" - on the Dakota prairie. But what few people realize, however, is that long before Laura Ingalls Wilder came to write her popular children's books, that same daughter Rose had herself become an internationally recognized travel writer - and had almost lost her life prematurely in 1923 as she wandered, lost, in the Syrian desert, seeking her way to Baghdad.

By 1923, Rose Wilder Lane had put the little house on the prairie behind her along with an unsuccessful marriage and a successful career as a San Francisco newspaper writer. In 1920, in fact, she had launched herself as a free-lance writer with a trip to Europe in which she had produced a fascinating series of travel articles as she worked her way through France, Germany, Poland, and Italy, along the Mediterranean by way of Albania, Greece, and Turkey and, finally, to Cairo - where she would begin the last episode in her quest for foreign adventure.

In a sense, the Middle East stage of her journeys were retracing her family heritage. Her father bore a name that had been in the family's English ancestry since the Crusades: Almancar, which became Almanzo in English and was then shortened to Manley for everyday use, and for the young hero of Laura's life in his wife's books.

For that reason, from the time that Rose arrived in Europe in 1920 the Islamic world began to loom steadily larger on her horizon. One of her first meetings in Paris was with the noted Armenian dancer Armen Ohanian, whose memoires of her early career in Tehran, Istanbul and Cairo - The Dancer of Shamakha - had been well received in France and translated by Rose from French into English.

At this time too, Rose made the first of several visits to Albania, whose culture, a complex overlay of Islam upon a pre-Hellenic base - continued to fascinate her, and was the subject of The Peaks of Shala, published in 1923.

Originally Rose had planned to travel extensively in the Middle East, then go on to San Francisco by way of the Orient. Her immediate goal would be Baghdad, the legendary city that had fascinated her since her first reading of The Arabian Nights. In Cairo, however, she began the gradual transition from the European to the Islamic world, and to a historical perspective more ancient than either. At one extreme, she found in her hotel an eastern luxury that Europe could not match: ice water (an American national drink, she called it) served up with promptness by a fez-clad attendant. He arrived, smiling, as promised by the card in her room, at three pulls on the bell-rope.

In Cairo, she met another traveling journalist, B.D. MacDonald, whose destination was also Baghdad. Together, they made their way to Damascus where they planned the next stage of their journey - and made a side-trip to Baalbek in today's Lebanon (See Aramco World, March-April 1967).

There, Rose marvelled at the remains of a city apparently raised by giants: building stones so huge as to boggle even her American sense of engineering, and so ancient as to defy her sense of history.

Meanwhile, their continuing inquiries about Baghdad made it clear that any travelers crossing the 1,000 kilometers of Syrian desert (600 miles) would be in danger from bandits, but that if they were determined to go, they could make the crossing by either camel caravan or by car. The caravan would leave at some vaguely specified time in the weeks ahead. By automobile they could leave at once.

Rose and MacDonald paused to consider. The route to Baghdad, of course, was an ancient one, navigated for centuries by trading caravans whose camel-drivers had marked their way by the stars and land-marks on far horizons. But the caravans had left no permanent trace on the rock and shifting sands of the desert.

More recently, the automobile had entered the desert; in fact, the first Damascus-to-Baghdad crossing by motor vehicle had been made just the year before Rose arrived. Now a weekly mail service route, established by Norman Nairn, a British ex-army officer, and his brother, linked the two great dries (See Aramco World, July-August 1981). The Nairn drivers were desert veterans who steered by the old landmarks, but whose vehicles left intermittent trails of tire-tracks. For safety from bandits, the Nairns developed an elaborate network of subsidies, amounting to one-third of the mail revenues; the subsidies were paid out to the Bedouin tribes through a well-connected Baghdad merchant.

For Rose, however, this was of no value; ordinary travelers could not count on such protection, and without guides the danger of losing their way was very real. So Rose and MacDonald continued to consider. Then Major A.L. "Desert" Holt appeared on the scene.

Here was a desert traveler with credentials they could trust. For several years, Major Holt had been attached to various British missions in the Middle East, and had served with valor during the 1920 Mesopotamian insurrections against the British. He had driven tens of thousands of miles in Transjordan and Mesopotamia, surviving bandit attacks, and had been held for 17 days by one raiding party.

"Desert" Holt, was the typical British colonial officer: hardy, brave, overwhelmingly self-confident, and, by standards of ordinarily prudent people, a little mad. He was just returning from England with his bride for a new posting in Baghdad and though he had never traveled the Damascus-to-Baghdad route, the fact did not particularly concern him. Major Holt had his own route to Baghdad: the air-furrow - a remarkable trail marked out on the ground to guide the Cairo-to-Baghdad mail-planes.

At the Cairo Conference in 1921, it had been decided that the Royal Air Force (RAF) should open a regular service between Cairo and Baghdad, and Holt was commissioned to make the first ground survey for an air route across the Syrian desert. Since fliers had discovered that automobile tracks on the desert were visible from high in the air the next step, obviously, was to mark such a trail deliberately, and to mark this trail along the line he had surveyed. To do so, Holt and a Major Welch, had, in May 1921, driven between Amman and Ramadani, on the Euphrates, each from the opposite ends of the route, with RAF planes reconnoitering ahead. Though a compass route had been planned, impassable lava beds forced them to make looping detours before the two parties met at Jed.

As they drove along their new trail, Holt and Welch marked out landing fields every 30 to 50 miles. They marked the fields by tying a rope to an automobile, and driving around and around the center, inscribing a huge circle in the desert. Within this circle, trenches were dug in the shape of Roman numerals to designate each field. It was an immense undertaking - and in six months the wind erased all marks and they had to be renewed. On their second try, the RAF team used a tractor and a plow - chugging the whole distance from Amman to Baghdad in 14 days. Behind them they left two wide trenches, easily visible from the air. They also established refueling points - gasoline pumps atop buried storage tanks. The pumps were locked but keys were provided to every pilot who followed the air-furrow to Baghdad.

Although Holt had not crossed by the second route, his first experience made him confident, so on September 27 the party set out in two Model T Fords for Baghdad, Major Holt driving a machine equipped for desert travel - with special springs and hard rubber tires, Rose and MacDonald riding a rented car with a hired driver and his mechanic. Both cars were crammed with extra gasoline and built-in water tanks - from which the travelers drank with individual rubber tubes.

What Major Holt overlooked - and what Rose couldn't know - was that the "trackless desert" sometimes had too many tracks. Periodically, the trail would dip down into a meandering wadi, and either lose itself for miles among stones and gravel, or present a branch wadi with the possibility of a dead end. Sometimes it would enter a wide, hard-bottomed depression where no tracks could be made, and leave the other side at some point that could be found only by circling the whole perimeter.

To make it worse, previous travelers had apparently wandered off the main trail, leaving those who followed a choice of several trails. This was a serious problem. At one point, Rose, MacDonald, Holt and his bride chose what seemed to be the most obvious track: a double set of wheel tracks leading them confidently on for miles - and then ending. A wide loop in the desert showed that the previous traveler, as lost as themselves, had lost heart and doubled back on his trail, scoring a double highway to nowhere. They had followed his trail 160 kilometers (100 miles).

By this time, the situation was dangerous. The Fords required not only gasoline but water regularly, and - still some 320 kilometers from Baghdad (200 miles) - they were down to four quarts for cars and people. Then, incongruously, Mrs Holt lost her wedding ring, and they swept and sifted an acre of sand before pressing on.

One night as they made camp in a ravine, MacDonald thought he heard human voices, so all night, the women alternating with the men, stood watch, rifles at the ready. Rose watched the silent desert shine white in the moonlight. "As the clouds slipped across the moon's face," she wrote, "the rocks seemed to move in the shadows and the horizon to rise and fall" as though she were at sea. Into her consciousness again rose an awareness of something older than her own world, older even than the civilization of Baalbek. No bandits came.

The next day, as Holt surveyed the horizon again, MacDonald posed a blunt question: "Holt, have you any idea where we are?" "My man," he answered, "I haven't the slightest idea."

Holt, however, did spot a distant mountain that reminded him of Tel-el-Eshauer, a peak he had seen when laying the air-furrow, and though he was seeing it from a different angle, it was 16 kilometers from the wells of Rutba (10 miles). As usual, he set off at top speed, leaving Rose and her companion behind. For two hours they jolted on toward the unknown mountain, the driver and mechanic muttering. Far ahead, Holt climbed to the top of a small rise - and paused. As Rose and MacDonald came up to him, they found him gazing down a small wadi at foraging camels and two men.

They were no longer lost, but they were not yet saved. Rose and MacDonald covered Holt with rifles while he slowly approached the two men and spoke to them in Arabic. There was a reply, a closer approach, and then the handshake that meant they had found other human beings who were not enemies. Their strained nerves relaxed with relief as the herdsmen led them to the encampment nearby, and to the wells that would sustain them.

Soon, they found that they had stumbled into the Wadi Hauran, and that the people encamped there were the Saluba, a tribe wretchedly poor even by the severe standards of desert life. These Saluba, as it happens, traced their ancestry not to Semitic origins, but to the European Crusaders, and Rose, as she picked her way through yards of muck and camel dung around the wells and drank eagerly of water the color of tea, must have pondered the ancient connection between her family and her hosts.

As is expected in the deserts, the Saluba killed a sheep in their honor and under a tattered tent the lost travelers ate mutton with their fingers and asked their hosts the road to Baghdad. The Shaikh pointed the way and - in an unusual departure from the desert code - suggested that they leave immediately; not even the obligations of hospitality could blunt the fact that these visitors, dangerously wealthy, were tempting targets for desert bandits who might incidentally plunder the Saluba as well.

Safely withdrawn several miles from the Wadi Hauran, the party spent another cold night alternately sleeping and standing guard, and the next afternoon, finally, they came across the air-furrow, the guiding line they had set out to find five days before, and the next evening drove into Baghdad.

For Rose, arriving in Baghdad was anti-climactic. Since leaving the United States she had encountered successively deeper challenges to her house-on-the-prairie perspective. Though her European experience had been easy to assimilate, her arrival in the Middle East had brought her face to face with the exotic origin of Christian and Islamic traditions, the civilizations that had preceded them - and a desert landscape almost lunar in its barren indifference to the human presence. By the time she reached the Euphrates, therefore, Rose had added a new component to her vision of life: a disquieting sense of human impermanence.

Baghdad, itself, was a disappointment. Here, sadly, was nothing from the Arabian Nights, a city not even to be compared with Damascus, Rose thought.

She did sense, she wrote, an ancient presence beneath the banality of the European foreign-service life, particularly as she rode out on the Tigris and looked back on the city rising out of foundations dating from the time of Nebuchadnezzar. But suddenly, it was time to go home. After four years abroad, a wave of homesickness broke over her. With the determination of a professional journalist she fought against it, but eventually she abandoned the round-the-world trip, and set off northward in the car, heading for Damascus via Palmyra, the home of the fabled Middle Eastern Queen Zenobia (See Aramco World, September-October 1981), who had defied her Roman masters and had ruled, briefly, the lands from the Nile to the Tigris. And this, by a time scale Rose was beginning to feel in her bones, so recently, a mere seventeen hundred years ago. Zenobia's tomb was her last visit before she booked her passage home and by Christmas, 1924, she was in her parents' home in the Ozarks of Missouri, where they finally settled when their prairie homestead failed.

Later, Rose would travel again. Soon after she spent almost two years in her beloved Albania, and for another 30 years in the United States she would use those travels as a kind of mental ballast as she turned her writing towards an attempt to understand her own inheritance as an American.

Rose never did complete her round-the-world trip, but in 1965, when she was 78 years old, she went to Vietnam as a magazine correspondent, and the urge for foreign travel seemed to rise in her again. She began to lay plans for the trip she had turned back from in Baghdad and was closing her Connecticut home for that journey when death claimed her in her sleep in the autumn of 1968.

William Holtz, who teaches literature at the University of Missouri, has written several books on American authors and is now writing a biography of Rose Wilder Lane.


This article appeared on pages 28-33 of the November/December 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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