The Day I Drove an Ambulance

Well, my most popular post so far, The Day I Drove a Patrol Car, is almost up to 100 views. And I’m ashamed to say how long it took me to remember another driving opportunity I had with emergency services. Yep. The day I drove an ambulance.

Almost 140 years ago.

It was at Fort Abraham Lincoln, Dakota Territory, and the year was 1875. Or so a number of people running around in blue wool uniforms and calico dresses seemed to think, and since several of these people were carrying firearms and others were in possession of a cannon, I recommend you agree with whatever they tell ya.

As I’ve mentioned, I do living history at Fort Lincoln State Park, and every summer, several frontier military re-enactment groups get together and bring the place to life with an encampment and demonstrations of all kinds. Cavalry …

7th Cavalry

7th Cavalry

Infantry …

17th Infantry

17th Infantry

Artillery. (I did mention the cannon, right?)

The Cannon

The Cannon

And lots of open-fire cooking and washboard laundry-doing. (And banjo playing. That would be me. Banjoist.)

Then there’s the ambulance. Did you ever stop to wonder what a nineteenth-century ambulance looks like? It looks like a wagon. (Sorry I don’t have a picture. Trust me, it looks just like a wagon. And no, it doesn’t have a light bar or a siren.)

But it does have the best suspension you’ll find anywhere. Which, on rough prairie sod, means you’ll get your backside bruised as bad as if that ambulance had no suspension at all. I’m always baffled when I remember that this was one of the most comfortable forms of transportation in the West.

The ambulance we use at Ft. Lincoln is mighty special. She saw service in the Civil War. That’s right. A real piece of history, bumping and swaying over our Parade Ground and giving rides to tourists. Heck, it’s an honor just to ride in it.

But I drove it.

Never mind I didn’t have a clue how to drive a team of horses. A pair of black and white Belgian/Percheron crosses named Muffin and Darby.

But Private Redding, the driver, had an annoying habit, and maybe he owed me. He always gave free rides to everyone–except me. As soon as I got in the wagon, he’d turn around in the driver’s seat and ask, “You gonna play that banjo?”

“If you want,” I’d say.

“The horses don’t start ’til the music starts,” he’d retort.

In effect, I was the sole individual who had to pay for the privilege of riding the ambulance wagon. Maybe I had a bug under my bonnet (literally).

We were sitting in the wagon, just Private Redding and me and another private, waiting for something to do. Private Redding had gotten off on another one of his long-winded tirades about something he couldn’t change (so he resorted to cussing it out, whatever it was).

I was bored.

And when my mind is bored, it comes up with stupid ideas.

And what the heck. Surely he owed me for all that banjo music.

“Hey,” I said, cutting in as soon as he took a breath. “Could you teach me how to drive the wagon?”

Silence. He stared skyward, chewing his thick black mustache. I envisioned his mouth on the verge of forming the word, “No.”

Finally he patted the wagon bench beside him. “Git up here.”


He showed me how and where to hold the reins and told me to plant my feet good and hard on the iron bar running in front of me. Despite the warning to hang on tight, the horses nearly dragged me right off the bench the moment they started. I thought the pulling action was supposed to go through the trace lines, not me!?

I did all right, so long as I drove in a straight line. For some reason, turning gave me grief. I’d go all wrong, and when I tried to correct it, I’d go even worse. Fortunately, we were in the middle of the wide-open Parade Grounds and not on a road. But I never knew it was possible to almost run over one of your own horses if you took a corner too tight.

Muffin looked over her shoulder, her expression as good as words: “WHO’S DRIVING THIS THING!!!”

Sorry, Muffin.

Private Redding finally took the reins back from me.

Sheepishly, I folded my hands in my lap. “What was I doing wrong?”

The private chewed his mustache again. Finally, he looked at me and replied with Old-West honesty. “I don’t know.”

First Sergeant Johnson caught up with us later. “Hey,” he said, beaming at me,” I saw you driving the wagon! How’d she do?” he asked Private Redding.

“A snake woulda broke its back tryin’ to follow her trail.”

More Old-West honesty.

To my surprise, the next day Private Redding asked if I was going to drive again.

“After how bad I did yesterday?”

He shook his head. “I never said you had to quit.”

I got in the driver’s seat.

This time, Private Redding studied me closely. “You ain’t turnin’ soon enough, that’s what it is. Turn when I say. … Now turn!”

I finally got it right.

That’s not to say I remembered any of his lessons the next summer. Or any summer after that. Don’t get me talking about the fancy black barouche.

The Black Barouche

The Black Barouche

Or the side saddle.

The Side Saddle

The Side Saddle

Different stories for different times. But I can say that I drove a genuine Civil War ambulance wagon.

What experience am I still missing? Hmm. Anybody know where I can find a fire engine?

Dirt in My Shoe

So, this week, I’m really excited to feature a post by fellow North Dakota blogger Amber Lien, which originally appeared on her blog, My Daily Beat. (Thanks for permission to re-post, Amber!)

Her topic? Dirt.

Seriously, I was thrilled to run across another person who appreciates dirt the way I do. But beyond that, I was impressed by how beautifully she wrote about a subject most people find ordinary and, well, dirty. I hope you’ll be inspired, too.


Dirt in My Shoe

by Amber Lien


Some prefer the term “soil.” The former offends certain individual’s intellectual sensibilities. Using the term “soil” is nice when you’re talking about nutrient levels and planting flowers. It’s quite a clean and tidy term. Dirt on the other hand is messy. It’s a gritty word for a gritty substance. It’s unpleasant and we are usually inclined to avoid getting dirty at all costs.

I’m not one of those people. I sorely miss getting dirty. I don’t just mean some dust on your jacket, either. I mean so dirty that you have to blow your nose and clean your ears at least twice to remove all the brown gunk. The kind of dirty that when you go indoors from a long day outside you think you’ve tanned, when in actuality your “tan” washes off in the shower.

City life is not conducive to such conditions. The only place that contains a sufficient amount of dirt with which to soil yourself with is your local greenhouse. Unless you work there, this won’t do either. Where can we find the dirt we’re searching for?

Get in your car. Drive until you are at least twenty to thirty miles from the nearest city or town. Get off the interstate highway. Get off the highway completely. Find the nearest gravel or scoria road. They always lead to dirt, vast amounts of it. Here you’ll find dirt in all its glory. Black, brown, red or whatever color it might be. Fields full of it. The Costco of dirt without those annoying lines.

What do you do when you get there? You’re not a farmer. Hell, its not even your dirt. Come to think of it, you’re trespassing….

Before you run off, take a walk. Doesn’t matter what footwear you have on because before long dirt has the same affect on any shoe. It gets in. No matter how tight you tie your shoelaces or how gingerly you walk, it gets in. Yes, the sensation of dirt in your shoe is at first frustrating but give it some time. Let it percolate in your socks and crawl between your toes. Feel the grit.


Section 6 Dirt, Hettinger County, North Dakota.

Heck, while you’re at it grab a handful of dirt. Smell it. Let it slip through your fingertips. Throw some up in the air…but check the wind direction first unless your eyes want to feel the dirt as well.

What do you think? Just eh, right?

Dirt should have a disclaimer. It would read “I only feel good after you’ve put in a hard days work.”

So when I say that I miss dirt, what I really mean is that I miss doing a hard days work out in the sun and the elements. Granted, we do tireless amounts of work everyday from our office chairs. This work is important. However, there is nothing like building something with your hands or crawling around on the ground all day planting seeds.

After a day working in the elements, dirt feels good in a way that it never will when we unintentionally stumble upon it. Physical labor is good for us and not just physically. Work that is dirty and hard is empowering. Spend a day at the office and another working outside building something for yourself and see which gives you more satisfaction. You may hurt so much that its difficult to get off the couch, but I’ll bet it’s a good hurt.

It’s almost summer. The season of dirt.

Don’t be afraid to get some dirt in your shoes.

Down the Winding Road

Well, we did it again. Got in the car and ended up God knows where. Certainly not where we planned on going. But you know. We saw a sign on the side of the highway. We hit the brakes and the blinker and took a turn we hadn’t expected. Ended up shooting this video on the banks of beautiful Lake Sakakawea, North Dakota.

P.S. Happy Birthday, Molly! (April 15th)