When to fly home

I went out on the last day of winter to see if I believed it.

I had been driving for much of the day, having woken up in a hotel room in the middle of North Dakota to find that during my sleep snow had fallen.

It was the last day of winter and, well, you know how winter likes to hold on to the spotlight around here.

I waited a bit then before scraping the windshield of my car and heading back west on a quiet and slick highway, lingering over morning talk shows and hotel room coffee.

The weatherman said it would warm up nicely, the sun would shine and the roads would clear on this, the last day of winter.

150 miles west those roads were shut down and traffic backed up. Too slippery to be safe.

Not spring yet.

Oh no. Not yet.

But we gave it some time then, under the sun, and the fog lifted off of the thawing out lakes. The snow plow came.

White to to slush. The earth warmed up.

And me and my guitar buried under a mountain of groceries made it back home to the buttes on the last day of winter.

And when I arrived I changed out of my good boots and into the ones made for mud and I went out in it, knowing full well that just because it says “Spring” today on the calendar hanging by the cabinets on the wall, doesn’t mean the snow won’t fall tomorrow.

I heard the snow is going to fall again tomorrow.

But today I’m sitting in a patch of sunshine making its way through the windows, bouncing off the treetops, on to the deck and into this house and I’m telling you about yesterday, the last day of winter, when the brown dog and I headed east to my favorite spot to see how the land weathered the bitter cold of the season.

I followed the cow trail behind the house and through the gate, where the petrified bovine hoof prints from last fall magically turned into fresh tracks in the mud of the elk who make their home back here.

Sniff sniff sniff went the nose of my lab as he wove back and forth, back and forth in the hills and trees in front of me, always looking for something.

Squish squish squish went the rubber soles of my boots on the soft ground.

And then there was the wind, everything is second to the sound of it in my ears.

But as we followed our feet up and over the hills and down the trails to the stock dam there was another sound I couldn’t place.

It sounded like crickets or whatever those bugs are that make noise in the water at night. But it was too early for bugs. Too cold for crickets just yet.

I stepped up on the bank of the dam and watched my lab take a chilly spring swim in the water where an iceberg still floated white and frozen in the middle.

I put my hands on my hips and tried to place that unfamiliar music over my dog’s panting and shaking and splashing about.

It could be frogs, if frogs chirped like that, but there are not frogs just yet…or snakes or minnows or other slimy things that disappear when the cold comes…

No…none of those things…

but there are birds…

and well…look at all of them up there in that tree,

perched and fluttering, covering almost every branch.

Are they singing? I think it’s them.

Listen to that!

Relentless in their chirping conversation against the blue sky of the last day of winter and unafraid of the big, clumsy, slobbering canine sniffing them out.

Not phased by his two legged companion squish squish squishing up to the tree, shielding her eyes so she could get a better look at them.

A flock of proud little birds with puffed out chests, wearing tufts on their heads like tiny showgirls in Vegas.

Putting on a show for us on the last day of winter…

And if you would have asked me earlier that morning if winter was over, the fresh snow stuck to the bottom of my boots, my white knuckle grip on the wheel and my breath making puffs into the morning air as I pulled off the highway and stepped out of my car to admire the view, I would have said oh no, it is not over yet.

But under that tree full of songbirds I would have believed in anything…spring and summer and music and joy and tiny little feathered miracles who know, without a doubt, when to fly home.

Love and snow fall…

We woke up this Valentines Day to find a nice fresh coat of fluffy snow, a little sun and some sparkle in the air.

I was happy to see it, because for about three months it’s literally been too cold to snow.

Yes.

Too. Cold. To. Snow.

That’s a thing here.

Which means I’ve been cooped up a bit, and so has my camera. Things like cameras and fingers don’t work too well when it’s too cold to snow.

But those clouds and that sun seemed to be working this morning (I mean it was like 10 degrees above zero) so I went out in it.

A gift to myself for a day covered in love.

Love and sparkly snow on the tips of berry covered branches…

On the noses of dogs…

Ok, all over the faces of dogs…

On the tips of the grass…

On the backs of horses…

In barnyards…

and all of the things made more beautiful with a little light…

and a little frosting.

Happy Valentines Day Friends. Spread a little love today.

Winter’s a s**thead and then I had a flashback…

Somewhere in Montana…

Well we made it back from our road trip, dropped our bags at the bottom of the stairs in our cozy and messy house and proceeded to be welcomed by a slap across the face we have come to know as reality.

Work piled up in our inboxes.

Bills in the mail.

Closet unfurled from last week’s haphazard packing debacle.

Garbage strewn across yard from an unwelcome raccoon (or pug or lab) shaped scavenger.

And winter. Winter being a shithead. 

Pug in snow

“Septic tank’s frozen again.”

These are the messages I get when I’m in town trying to be civilized.

Great.

“Heading to the big town to pick up a snake and a pressure washer and (something else that I didn’t catch because I was thinking about where I might shower that night) because if you want something done you’ve got to do it yourself around here…”

You know I know this better than anyone.

Great, now I’m having a flashback…

Phew, that was exhausting…

Anyway…last month when the arctic air whipped the trees around this place it shot the temperature down to -60 and apparently that’s too cold for a successful potty drain, so we called someone to come out and save us, and, well, I guess Husband learned something. Because last night I arrived home in the dark and he was out there in sub-zero temperatures unplugging whatever was plugged.

And he was successful. Thank God he was successful. I had to pee.

Husband is my hero.

6497241037_0a052fdbf8

My wall-building, chandelier-hanging, power-tool-toting, tile-placing, ladder-climing,  potty pumping hero.

464195_441612279222356_1084903165_o

God I miss summer.

Feeding Hay

It doesn’t say so on the calendar, but the temperatures and blowing snow make it perfectly clear.

Winter is here.

And because we still have some cows around, this means feeding hay and breaking ice for the animals.

When I was growing up we had cattle every winter. And every evening after my dad came home from his work in town, often after the sun had gone down, I would bundle up in my coveralls and beanie, and sit beside him in the feed pickup as he rolled out bales for the cows.

It was always one of my favorite chores for a lot of reasons. The pickup had heat, so that was one of them. I got to sit bundled up and watch the cows come in from the hills in a nice straight, black line.

When we would feed cake or grain, I got to drive the pickup while Pops shoveled it out the back. He would put it in low and release the clutch and tell me to keep it out of the trees. My nose would barely reach over the steering wheel, but I felt helpful and I liked it.

And I liked the way the hay smelled when it unrolled from the back of the pickup, like it had kept some summer underneath its layers.

There’s something about an everyday chore like this that is sort of comforting. Maybe it’s the knowing that you’re a necessary part of the order of things. Knowing that you’re responsible.

It’s the taking care I think.

These cows are heading to different pastures next week, leaving these prairie pastures to the horses.

So I was glad to get one last feed in with the ladies.

Bon appetit fine gals. I’ll miss taking care of you!

In 100 years.

Today I’m roaming around the house, cleaning and packing and paying bills, getting ready to head out on a family trip to Disney World.

A destination dubbed “The Happiest Place on Earth.”

Outside my window, on the other side of the hill, bulldozers and blades are scraping off snow, native and non-native grasses and cutting into the nearly frozen earth, pushing and flattening and re-imagining the corner of pasture across from the grain bins to make way for what the oil industry is now calling a “Super Pad.”

I knew this was coming.

We’ve talked about it and negotiated it a little, giving it the nod of approval because having three or four pumping units together on the same pad pulling oil from several directions under our ranch and our neighbors’ will mean less roads and less surface damage to the rest of our place and the homesteads that surround us.

The less impact the better has been our motto.

If it’s possible, we fight for it.

I know now for the next several months I will be listening to the sound of progress. I will hear my dogs bark at the sound of machinery they think might be coming down our road, but is really just passing by or pushing dirt. I will watch the landscape transform a bit and then the horizon will follow…oil derrick up, reaching to the sky, then another, and another.

Oil derrick down, then a pumping unit, then another, then another.

And there they will be for thirty or some years, pumping, pulling, coaxing oil from the ground, each passing year becoming a more familiar fixture on this old place.

This weekend my uncle was at the ranch for deer hunting season. As he was getting ready to head back to Texas, Pops brought out a couple folders that contained stories about the history of this ranch in anticipation of our upcoming 100 year celebration.

In 1915 my great grampa Eddie staked his claim on this place. He got married and headed off to war. When he arrived back in Bear Den Township he proved up his claim, planting some trees, flax and wheat, building a barn and putting up fences.

Over the course of his lifetime he would watch his crops grow, his wife die and his children  make their own mark on the land he laid claim to. He would meet a couple grandchildren and serve them his famous buns, tell them jokes and scruff their hair before leaving them all behind in death to do what they will with the place.

With the red barn and his old house.

I sat on that couch and looked at the old photographs.

100 years might as well have been forever.

We are not made the same these days are we? Do we have the same grit and guts that it took to survive in tar paper shacks through blizzards and prairie fires and forty below?

I listen to the sound of the bulldozers up the hill and know that in the next thirty years I’ll be a witness to more changes to this landscape than my parents and my parents’ parents ever saw in their lifetime.

I have mixed feelings about being that sort of witness.

Great Grandpa Eddie went half-way around the world to fight, to be free to break up this earth to feed his own family.

I doubt he ever took a trip to Florida.

And so I can’t help but feel a bit undone and displaced today, that instead of watching over that dirt I’m preparing for a trip to a fantasy land, leaving this little plot of earth to change forever as I fly away for a bit…

The making of a dog.

Remember this little girl?

OMMMGEEEE she was so fluffaaaayyy I could diiieee!!!

Yes, that was Juno, The Littlest Cow Dog last winter when we brought her home to the ranch in Pops’ pickup. I held her the whole thirty-some miles while she drooled all over my arm and shook with fear or anticipation or nervousness or whatever it is that goes through a little puppy’s head when she’s taken away from her momma.

We had high hopes for that puppy that day. Our old cow dog, Pudge, limpy, gimpy, faithful, storm fearing, fur tangled, sweet as sugar, gramma Pudge is getting a little too arthritic to make it on long rides or up into the pickup box by herself. She has retired to sleeping on her soft pillow under the heat lamp and occasionally accompanying us to the barn or down the road to get the mail. It’s tough to admit that any day now Pudge will take her last 4-wheeler ride, but it’s clear looking into those sweet ancient eyes that it’s the truth. And without Pudge the Veeder Ranch would be left cow-dog-less.

Because, contrary to the pug’s delusions he doesn’t quite fit the bill.

And so we found Juno. Part border collie. Part blue heeler. Part angel and part acrobatic, magical boot sniffer-outer and chewer-upper. (Seriously. It doesn’t matter how you put those boots on the shelf, she’s gonna get them and she’s gonna eat them).

When Juno found herself on her new ranch she was a bundle of energy, fur and timid playfulness. Everyone fell in love.

My mom wanted her to sleep in the house.

I wanted her to sleep at my house.

And Chug the Pug wanted to move to mom and dad’s house.

pug and puppy copy

Even Pudge, who had been getting up slower and slower every day found a new swig of youthfulness that she occasionally employs to chase her new garage-mate around the yard.

Funny what a wave of youth and fluff and plain cuteness can bring to an old place.

But Juno was meant to be more than a cute companion. That’s the thing here. Cow dogs have many important responsibilities, and when you’ve got a pup on your hands who’s only interest seems to be digging holes, spilling the food dish and chewing the fingers out of your best leather gloves, a large part of you wonders what you’ve got on your hands here (besides fingerless gloves).

Yes, cow dogs have a punch list and Juno, cute as she was, wasn’t an exception. She needed to grow up to be:

Gentle with children but rough on varmints who might wander into the yard.

Sweet and obedient but brave enough to convince a 2,000 pound bull to get his ass out of the brush.

Vocal and adventurous,  but only with the cattle.

Athletic and smart and sensitive to commands.

Quick

Fierce and loyal and friendly with a work ethic and an eager to please attitude.

Instinctual. As in: know what to do even without being told…and while we’re at it..

Bur and tick repellent

Not too much to ask right? Not too much pressure from an eager to please baby who hasn’t even seen her second winter…

But here’s the thing, a good dog is an invaluable asset around here. I joke about the expectations, but if they emerge, if they are even remotely met out here on the days when it’s just  a cowboy against 100 head of cattle heading in the wrong direction, that cowboy won’t trade that dog for a mansion in the mountains.

And so we’ve been watching that pup closely, wondering how she might emerge from puppyhood. Will she be too timid? She’s a sweet little thing. Will she ever want to jump in the back of the pickup on her own? Will she come back when called? Will she be intimidated by the ornery cows? Will she come along on a ride? Will she become more than a pet?

Will she be what we hoped she would be?

Well, take a look here friends. It’s Juno.

And there she is way out there alongside of Pops and his horse, bopping and jumping and trotting through the long grass on our way to move some cows.

Take a look at how she’s grown up, that little sweetie.

Then take your coat off, take a seat and let Pops pour you a fresh cup of coffee because if you’ve stopped over you’re gonna hear it.

And it’s gonna be a while.

Because he’s proud.

Like Trail-90 proud.

Like grandkid proud.

“Can I tell you about my dog?” he’ll ask.

And before you can answer he’ll tell you how last night she would have taken that bull all the way home on her own if he would have let her.

He’ll tell you she’ll little but she got instinct.

He’ll tell you she’s sweet but she’s tough enough.

He’ll tell you how she’s so smart she comes back with one ask of one command and this morning he thinks he might have actually heard her say a word, like “hello” or “hi there” or something that sounded like a greeting, and, well, he’s not quite sure but she just might be bur repellent too…

And then he’ll tell you he’s pleased and that she just might be…could possibly be…if he doesn’t screw it all up…

 

The Best Cow Dog He’s Ever Had in His Whole Entire Life!!!!

Ever.

Don’t worry. I won’t tell Pudge.

Or the Pug.

Oh Juno, you’re doin’ good girl!

 

A prayer for the South Dakota Cowboy

As the sun shines down through the golden trees and rests on the back of the black cows grazing outside my windows and along our cattle trails, we send out a prayer to ranchers in western South Dakota who’s early autumn turned into a devastating winter storm last week.

Winter Storm Atlas Kills Thousands of Cattle in South Dakota
The Weather Channel
http://www.weather.com

Tens of thousands of cattle killed in Friday’s blizzard, ranchers say
Rapid City Journal
http://www.rapidcityjournal.com

Up to four feet of snow in some parts of our neighboring state buried cattle, horses and sheep in a cold grave, leaving ranchers and citizens without power to dig out and count their losses with the help of airplanes, neighbors and the National Guard.

I have just written and filed my Sunday column on how ranchers across the heartland are looking across the prairie, the badlands and the foot of their mountains and holding our breath, heart broken and worried for our neighbors, knowing that out here, raising these animals and crops, we’re all at the mercy of the sky.

So I’ve decided it’s worth spreading the news, not because it can reverse the damage, but because it sheds light on the industry and the farmers and ranchers who don’t call what they do a job, but a life.

Blogger Dawn Wink with Dawn Wink: Dewdrops explains the effects a storm of this magnitude has on a ranching family and not only their bottom line, but their morale.

Read it here:

The Blizzard the Never Was–and its Aftermath on Cattle and Ranchers
by Dawn Wink
Dawn Wink: Dewdrops
www.dawnwink.wordpress.com 

and send up a prayer to the cowboys in South Dakota.

Want to help? Here are some ideas: 

 The South Dakota Cowgirl
How can you help? 
http://www.thesouthdakotacowgirl.com

Heifers for South Dakota
Pledge a heifer (a bred yearling or a replacement quality weanling) for a rancher in South Dakota

Give to the cause today!
Ag Chat Rancher Relief Fund

The roundup.

Sometimes we have to bring the cows home.

This is what that looks like…

when it takes a little longer than planned to get them there.

And this is what it looks like in the morning waiting for the rest of the crew to come and help finish the job.






Rounding up. Gathering. Sorting. Working.  Punchin’ ‘

These are all words for moving cows home, although I can’t say we wear out the last very often.

I should start though.  Cow Punchin’ sounds cool and retro and as you know, that’s the image I strive for.

Well, something like that, but anyway…cow punchin’ is my favorite task on the ranch. I like the idea of gathering everything up in a big black mass of bellering and creaking and munching from all across the Veeder Ranch acreage. I like to make a big swoop of the place,  riding alongside the cowboys, loping up to hilltops, opening gates and following behind a nice steady stream of marching cattle on a well worn path.

I like the crisp air and the way my bay horse moves under me, watching and knowing and doing a better job of anticipating a cow’s move than I ever could.

I like the dogs and how they work as our partners in pushing the bovines forward, seeking approval and a little nip at the heels of the slow ones.

I like the way voices carry off into the hills and the conversations and curse words that come up when we’re all out in the world on the backs of horses.

I like how anything can happen and that anything always means a good portion of the herd will head for the thick brush and I will eventually have to go in there, no matter how many hats, mittens and chunks of hair have come to their final resting places among the thorns.

Or how many thorns have come to their final resting place in my legs.

This week was no exception: wool cap in the trees, tree in my hair, thorn in my leg.

Sounds about right.

Sounds just fine.

Because this is what it looks like when the cows come home in the light of day.





And no matter how many years pass, how many trucks hit their breaks on the way by or how many power lines or pipelines or oil wells cut through the once raw land. No matter the fact that some cowboys carry cell phones now and that I might hear one ringing in the trees below me, roundup always throws me back to the long held tradition of cattle ranching and care taking.

Because no matter what, horses and saddles and riders and neighbors and good dogs still work best to get the job done.

And technology can never save a rancher from the occasional necessity of standing in shit all afternoon.

No. In this line of work, some things just will not change.

Cannot change.

And so I tell you my friends,  if there is anything in the world that brings me peace…

it’s the roundup.

A really scary story.

It was a low and agonizing moan, a sort of desperate sound that no one wants to hear, especially at six in the morning when it should be dark and quiet in the loft where I had twenty-more-minutes before I had to get up.

Twenty more minutes and there it was again. It was coming from the kitchen.

“Ohhhh, noooooaaa. Noooooaaa. Lord. Why? Whhhhyyy?”

It was my husband. The only other living thing in this house that can form words and the only other living thing in this house that would attempt to stand upright and form them in the hour before the sun arrives.

I’d never heard this sound before. I searched my sleepy mind for what could possibly be wrong:

An work disaster email?

A giant dog poop?

A dishwasher/washing machine/sink explosion?

Maybe we left a door open and that damn squirrel set up shop in our cupboards? Or a turkey. A turkey could have gotten in. They’ve been knocking on our door all month.

Or an alien. Never rule out the aliens.

Or a robber. We were sleeping pretty hard up there, I mean, maybe we didn’t hear him.

Maybe he’s still down there.

Oh Lord, I haven’t heard another moan for a good three minutes. I could have a hostage situation on my hands.

Where’s the phone?

Where are my pants?

Where’s that baseball bat I don’t own?

I swung my legs over the bed and snuck toward the door of the bedroom, peeking my head out and over the loft to quietly assess the situation.

What I discovered was worse than anything I could have conjured up.
LOFT

No. We weren’t being robbed. There was no intruder, furry or feathered or otherwise.

Nothing was flooding or exploding or pooping.

No. No. No. No.

Husband.

Broke.

The.

Coffee. Pot.

The. coffee. pot. was. broken.

Thecoffeepotwasbroken!!!

Cracked.

Leaking.

Smashed.

B.R.O.K.E.N

BROKEN!

BRRROOOKEEENNNN!!!!!

coffee pot

I heard another groan. A similar low, agonizing growl, but this time it was coming from a wild haired, pants-less  woman leaning over the edge of the staircase clutching her heart with the realization that she had just become powerless against the perils of early morning at the ranch while staring at a horrified man in middle of his own stunning realization.

We looked at each other, my mouth agape and his forming the silent, whimpering words “I’m sorry. I’m so. so. sorry.”

At that moment we would have taken the alien.

You think I’m over-exaggerating. You say to me, no big deal. Just grab some coffee from a gas station or a coffee shop on your way to work and pick up a new pot on your way home. You’ll make it.

But I tell you you don’t understand.

The only thing worse than the absence of coffee in the wee and vulnerable morning  hours at the ranch is the absence of toilet paper in the middle of a vulnerable night. You know what I’m saying?

Because unless we want to disturb our neighbors’ early morning ritual, seriously, the closest cup of coffee is twenty-five miles away.

TWENTY-FIVE MILES!

That means we have to drive, groggy and impaired behind oil trucks, service pickups, moms in SUVs and school busses carrying precious cargo before we even had the chance to properly fuel our veins. And once we finally arrive at a gas station or a coffee shop we have to stand in line behind fifteen people who are buying gas or muffins or beef jerky or aspirin or TEA FOR CRYING OUT LOUD! WHO DRINKS TEA? WHAT’S EVEN IN TEA? LEAVES? SOGGY HERBS? I DON’T GET IT! TEA IS A NON-ESSENTAIL ITEM! THESE ARE NON-ESSENTIAL ITEMS!

NON. ESSENTIAL.

COFFEE DRINKERS UNITE! IT’S 7:30 AM AND WE HAVEN’T HAD A SIP.

IT’S 7:30 AM–WE’RE MOVING TO THE FRONT OF THE LINE!!!

See what I’m saying.

Without coffee the two of us become an environmental hazard.

It really was serious. But it wasn’t all my careless husband’s fault. I should have been prepared. When you live out here with the wild turkeys you shouldn’t leave yourself vulnerable to these disasters.

Before the fire hit the little ranch house and we moved to the new place I had three additional coffee sources on hand to sustain us through power outages, broken or faulty equipment and carelessness. No electricity? It’s fine, we have a propane stove and a camp percolator. Broken coffee pot? No big deal, there’s an extra downstairs.

Want to get fancy with the beans? Great! Let’s use the french press!

We were safe then. We were secure.

coffee

Then there was a fire and we got distracted with things like, you know, building shelter for our bodies and our earthly possessions, and some important things fell by the wayside.

Important things like backup coffee pots.

How could I be so negligent? How could I forget about the essentials? How could I be so ill prepared?

It doesn’t matter now. My lesson’s learned. Never again will I be left standing sleepy-eyed,  pants-less and horrified in my own home.

Never again will I put the lives of the innocent children in danger.

School Bus Stop Ahead

Never again will I allow a simple mistake like the slip of a hand leave me stranded and powerless in the face of an early morning and long work day.

Fed-Ex lady, I hope it doesn’t snow next week, because there’s going to be some big shipments coming in.

Because today I’m clearing out a space in the basement and Googling “Coffee Pots,” and, well, I guess I’ll be seeing you soon.

coffee

Peace, Love and, you guessed it, Coffee,

Jessie

Heroes Proved

I’ve been writing music since I was a little girl. Some of it has escaped the walls that held me at the time, others have been locked up, unfinished, never ready to be played for anyone.

I have ideas. I try to show you. I try to tell it as I see it, or maybe as a stranger might. I try to share a little piece of me and my surroundings with whoever wants to listen.

I don’t always know what it is that I want to say.

Sometimes, if I’m lucky, the song knows better.

When I was in college touring the midwest in my Chevey Lumina, I wrote a song called “Heroes Proved.” It was the middle of winter in Northern North Dakota and I was cold. I was on the road and alone a lot. I missed home,  the smell of the sage and horse hair, black cows and the way the grass bends in the breeze.

I missed the neighbors and how they would come and visit on Sunday and linger over coffee.

And I missed cowboys, the ones I was convinced no longer existed in the world, except the few I left behind,  scattered and  lonely on the quiet scoria road.

I didn’t know if I would ever get back to that place for good.

I didn’t know if that place even existed anymore.

I didn’t know anything.

“Heroes Proved” was my way of asking the world to slow down.  I was desperate for it, but in a completely different way then I am now.

Now that I’m home and never leaving.

Now that I’m home and watching the world drive by–rushing, digging, kicking up dust on the way to meet the bottom line.

At 20 years old I couldn’t see the future. At 20 years old what I was writing felt so personal and disconnected from my peers. At 20 years old I couldn’t have known the progress waiting to barrel down that dusty road toward my family’s ranch, bringing me and the world with it.

“Heroes Proved” hasn’t been on my set list for years. I moved it out of the way to make room for new words and ideas.

I never considered that some of my songs might have become more relevant to me over time.

This is one.

“I think what you notice most when you haven’t been home in a while
is how much the trees have grown around your memories.”

― Mitch AlbomFor One More Day