The Covered (Dog) Wagon

Posted by jdg | Thursday, July 14, 2011 | , , ,

Come my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? Have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

So impatient, full of action, full of pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the past we leave behind,
We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you daughters of the West!
O you young and elder daughters! O you mothers and you wives!
Never must you be divided, in our ranks you move united,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

See my children, resolute children,
By those swarms upon our rear we must never yield or falter,
Ages back in ghostly millions frowning there behind us urging,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

I too with my soul and body,
We, a curious trio, picking, wandering on our way,
Through these shores amid the shadows, with the apparitions pressing,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

click here to read the whole post and see all the pictures.
* * * * *

So yeah, I finally built the kids a covered wagon. After finding a busted old babyjogger in someone's curbside garbage, I took the extra wheel from the one I used to build last year's dog sulky and found myself with four big wheels begging for a wagon. The base is an old-fashioned maple-wood sled that a reader gave me last winter (I couldn't get the dog to pull it effectively in the snow). At first I simply attached one axle to the front and two wheels to metal plates in the rear, leaving me with two fixed axles and a wagon that could only travel straight. I had to figure out a way to make the front axle turn, and after experimenting with an old caster I went the simple route and took the pivot joint from a radio flyer wagon and attached the stroller axle to it. This involved many hours of trial and error that might have been very frustrating, but I actually enjoyed the opportunity to learn a few simple engineering concepts I'd never had the occasion to figure out for myself.

Making a functional wagon was way harder than I expected, and I spent a lot of time working with that front axle, finally cutting into the sled itself to create wheel wells so that the wagon could make tighter turns. In doing so I extended its overall length by nearly two feet. Sure it looks a little janky in the middle, but it's strengthened by several 6-inch steel plates. I have been hauling hundreds of pounds in this thing on a daily basis for a month now (explanation forthcoming), and even a few loads of bricks and 4-foot concrete blocks. For the covering, the guy at Goss Awning practically gave me the canvas and I just stretched it over some frames I made from stuff lying around the basement and hand-sewed it tight. As some of these photos show, at first the covering was much smaller but I eventually extended it to cover the full length of the wagon.

I wanted the covered wagon to be pretty versatile, so not only can I pull it with a handle, but I rigged up a temporary system for dear Wendell to pull it. I need to improve the shafts, and I'm actually working on a leather harness for our neighbor's Labrador, so eventually it will be pulled by a team of dogs. Wendell loves pulling it and with those big wheels this wagon rolls easy.

Eventually I'm going to be able to pull it on my bike once I work out a few kinks with the hardware. We've done a few test rides around the neighborhood with the wagon behind the bike and it is really cool. Sometimes even Wendell gets to ride. Whenever he pulls the neighborhood kids around for awhile, they are always eager to repay him the kindness.

I did most of the work at the playground while the kids played. When people see us on the street they're so shocked that I made it myself, and say, "I could never do that," and I always want to respond, Trust me, if I can, you can. After all the ridiculous stuff I've made for my kids, I see the wisdom in Henry Ford's old maxim that, "Whether you think you can or you think you can't, you're right."

That's all I have to say about making it.

* * * * *

After we'd lived in Detroit for a year, a local magazine did a story on our house after an editor saw it on design*sponge. In the article, the writer called us "urban pioneers" and I had to spend the next few weeks apologizing to neighbors who saw the article, especially those who'd lived here since our townhouses were built in 1960. People who move to rundown neighborhoods in cities everywhere get slapped with the "urban pioneer" label all the time, but ours has been a stable, racially-diverse middle class neighborhood for more than half a century. It seems ridiculous when people call us pioneers (and it happened again as recently as yesterday). 

Yours truly may have slept through most of his lectures on post-colonial theory, but I can still appreciate what a loaded term that is. As Eula Bliss notes, "The word pioneer betrays a disturbing willingness to repeat the worst mistake of the pioneers of the American West—the mistake of considering an inhabited place uninhabited." Many of Detroit's "native" inhabitants were "pioneers" themselves generation or two ago when they moved into predominantly white neighborhoods. Whatever anyone has to say about any recent so-called trend, nobody here still speaks French or Algonquian.

Despite rejecting the "urban pioneer" label, there is still a dilemma that many Detroiters-by-choice face: whether consciously or not, many of us do embrace a pioneer spirit. We see opportunity and open spaces everywhere. We prefer to think of the future rather than dwell on the past. Detroit is where we want to build a better, more sustainable future. We like to do and make and grow things ourselves. We also want the suburbanites who've shunned the city to respect the very real hardships of living here (even though we also want them to understand it's not nearly as bad as their neighbors say it is). To add to the confusion, Detroit can sometimes feel like an actual Wild Middle West. We call our ill-begotten green spaces "prairies." We take delight in pheasants and foxes. Some of us have even had occasion to defend our children from wandering packs of wild dogs. I am personally drawn to the wildness that exists here. The idea of "wilderness" today has been sentimentalized to little more than a National Park vista. An Ansel Adams photograph. Wilderness is something that needs protection instead of fear. It is easy to forget that entering the wild was once something you did only when you had to, not something anyone with a credit card and a nearby REI could do just for kicks. Where is the sense of discovery in a landscape of strip malls? In the New Old West, are you ever all that far from a Wal-Mart? Wal-Mart will open up shop just about anywhere in Oklahoma, but they won't come near Detroit. Too risky, they say. Too dangerous. Without some danger, how can there be adventure?

Without a sense of adventure, how can the spirit that made this country great even survive?

* * * * *

If people are going to keep calling us urban pioneers, then we're rolling through town in a dog-powered prairie schooner, bitches.

These kids love pioneer stories. We've read all the Little House books that don't suck. We read Indian legends and horse stories and the tales of mountain men. We sing cowboy songs and watch old Westerns. Some people say there is no true frontier left, but such people know little of the imaginations of children.

My daughter may eventually want to trade in her cowgirl hat for a bonnet, and I'm afraid we'll just look like a family of Mormons who got lost on our way to the American Fork Pioneer Day parade. But for now, the outlaw Slim Sal, her sidekick the Detroit Kid, and their grizzled old pop will add wagon ruts to the desire paths of their beloved city.

* * * * *

The wagon has proved to be most useful on our Saturday walks up to Eastern Market. It's a nice, cool place for the kids to rest while their parents fill up bags with fruits and vegetables. The best thing though is the reaction we get from the other shoppers at the market. I'm sure it annoys a few with its girth, but as we meander through the crowds, almost everyone meets us with a smile or a kind word. It seems to make people happy, and that makes me happy.

The only bad thing about it is that every summer my kids expect me to come up with some fun new way to get around town. Next year I'm going to have to build them that hovercraft.