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.

When a squirrel becomes a turkey…

On Sunday morning I woke up to a sort of screeching, clicking, weird throaty sound coming from outside my open bedroom window.

When something squawks and makes a ruckus up there in the tree tops I assume it’s that damn squirrel.  He’s always gathering acorns and he makes like a really big deal about it, as if he’s the only squirrel who’s working.

I bet his friends think he’s annoying too.

Anyway,  I was groggy, sleeping in a bit after a weekend of singing and late nights. I thought to myself, wow, that squirrel is sounding a little off, like, he’s got laryngitis or something.

Except I wasn’t quite sure about the diagnosis.

Then I wasn’t quite sure it was a squirrel really.

Because it wasn’t.

I stretched and rolled over to take a look and thought, huh, that squirrel has sure grown…into a turkey.

Yup. I guess we have wild turkeys now.  Like a lot of them. They come gobbling down from the coulee in the morning to see what’s shaking by the house.

All fifteen or so.

And they’re brave. Because we have a bobcat type animal, remember? And that bobcat type animal is brave too. She’s brave and like not even close to the size of a turkey. She’s more like the size of a pretty small cat, despite her wild pedigree. But it doesn’t matter, she flings her body at them anyway. Like launches herself, full force, paws up, claws out, teeth showing with no regard for what she might do if she actually latched on to one of those things.

I’d like to see that. The damn cat clinging to the back of a turkey as it screeches and flops to safety in the tree outside my window. I wouldn’t be surprised if it happened.

Good Lord it can get weird out here sometimes.

Yawning Horse

Anyway, I rolled out of bed to take a look after Husband declared the cat attack. I wanted to see for myself the shenanigans. I wanted to catch a glimpse of these turkeys.

I squinted and shaded my sleepy eyes with my hand and counted…one….two…three…

Six flew and flopped out of my tree…

And one on the roof.

Pooping.

And it’s the same story this morning.

If you need me I’ll be Googling  “stuffing recipes”…

The world is full…

This world is full of wild and thirsty things

skin and bones and muscles
feathers on black wingssoft petals on pink flowers
and stem and branch and leafwaiting on the cool rain
waiting for the greenThis world is full of a sneaking kind of goldyou can find it on horizons
can’t be bought or held or sold and only in the morning
or at the perfect time of night
welcoming a new day
setting up the lightThis world is filled with the most peculiar sounds croaks and sighs and wails
and squeaks coming from the ground and up above a whistle
and from the hills a lonesome cry and I wonder if the calling
is hellos or sad goodbyes This world is full of wonder and moments to be brave and moments to remember
why we’re here and why we came and moments to be thirsty and moments to beholdand moments just to listen to all the life outside our door

A walk.


In honor of spring and the wind and the sun and the green grass poking up around us, I would like to take you along on my favorite trail, the one that leads to the east pasture from our house, up along the buffalo fence, to the top of a rocky cliff and then down again to the stock dam and back toward home.

Next week this walk will be a little bit greener, a little bit warmer and, hopefully, I’ll find some crocuses.

Next week maybe I’ll leave the damn dogs at home so they don’t scare away the wildlife with their slobbering, panting, running, and puking.

I guess that’s what happens when you run at full speed after a duck, ignoring the screams from your owner to come back.

That’s what you get when you try out your instincts after seven months of lounging.

It’s been a long winter.

I would have puked too.

Anyway, I hope the sun is shining wherever you are and you have the chance to explore your favorite spot this weekend.

Now, off we go…

Sorry weird cat, you gotta stay home…

























Take a breath. Take a walk. Take a break. Take some time.

Happy, happy weekend.

The beautiful things.

I have a good life. Not much to complain about when it comes down to it really, except for a weird tail-less cat trying to climb up my leg, not enough hours in the day, unfinished projects and cold toes.

But some days, during a break in the morning news, I cry at the Walgreens commercial.

And the commercial for a web browser that tells the story about a dad sending his daughter off to college. And then they video chat.

And anything with a cute baby or a puppy or a grampa or a soldier coming home.

And lately I cry at the weather report.

Now, don’t get all worried about me yet. I’m not sure I would be diagnosed with any emotional disorder, although Husband has diagnosed me simply “emotional.”

And he’s right.

I spend quite a bit of my life laughing though, so I figure I’m balanced.

But I admit, some days are worse than others. I admit it because I’m human and I know you’re human (unless you’re a dog and humans haven’t discovered your abilities to access the web without thumbs) and we all have days like these.

Days that send me running for the hills.

I’ve learned over the course of my nearly 30 (gasp!) years alive in this breathtaking and heartbreaking place it’s the only thing to do to recover my senses and gain my balance and center myself once more.

I remove my body from the television screen, the radio, the music, the computer and all of those heartbreaking, heartwarming and heart wrenching stories and just try to live in my own for a moment.

It hasn’t been easy to do this lately, between the life-threatening cold temperatures, scheduled meetings and darkness that falls too early in the winter, I’ve had to make a special space in my day for clarity.

It’s why I keep an extra pair of snow boots and a furry hat in my car just in case. You never know when you might have a chance to escape.

I found one yesterday afternoon. I had a few of those teary moments over coffee and the news while I moved through my morning trying to pull it together, get to the office, make it to the meeting, keep up on emails, plan for an event, meet a deadline and live comfortably in pretty work sweaters between four walls.

4:30 came around and I had a meeting at 6.

An hour and a half hours would do it.

I got in my car and pointed it toward a favorite refuge, the only other place in the world beside the ranch where I can look winter in the face and call it truly beautiful.

The Theodore Roosevelt National Park.


I’ve taken you there before on similar weepy days in the  fall when I’m overwhelmed and worried, on summer days when I’m tan and moving to the next adventure, and winter.

I really love it in the winter.

And it never lets me down.

So in 15 minutes I was there, turning off of the highway and following the snow coated road toward the river and the buttes,


stopping to capture how the sun looks above the frozen water and if I might catch the bison grazing somewhere in the snow.

I drove slowly to admire the lighting. I rolled down my window a bit to feel the fresh, 20 degree air and pulled over where the road ends, next to a trail that can take you to the top of it all.

I checked my watch. I had 20 minutes before I needed to turn my car around and head back to my other world. I was in my town coat and dangly earrings.

I switched out my fancy boots for snow boots, covered my hair with a beanie and trudged on up there, slipping and sliding and panting because, well, I just felt like it.

I felt like climbing.

Because this is what winter looks like in the badlands.

This is what it looks like from the top of it all…






all 360 degrees of it, surrounding me and telling me it’s ok to cry.

Especially for the beautiful things.

To be a human in winter.


Mid January in Western North Dakota doesn’t have the best reputation. It’s indecisive. One day it’s a kind, 20 some degrees,


the next a bitter, chilling 20 below.


Then, just when you find peace with your wedgie-inducing long underwear, it decides to warm up  enough to melt the snow. “How nice!” you think to yourself as you get in your car to drive to town. “I think I could get used to this winter thing if it stayed like this…”

But you know better and you should have never taken off those long underwear, because as soon as you get far enough away from home that turning back wouldn’t make much of a difference, the wind picks up and drops the temperature enough to turn that once slushy highway into a long and lethal ice-skating rink where a constant stream of semis and oil tankers are your competition.

And you’re no Nancy Kerrigan.

Ah, shit. I admit, January and I are enemies. I try to stay positive, keep my guitar out and my snow-shoes and neck-warmer handy. I try to do some sledding or walking or make a snow angel or something…


but mostly I wind up in my sweatpants under the John Wayne blanket reading a book about someone near the ocean before I turn out the light for the night and prepare to tackle mid-winter in the morning.

White knuckle driving, the “arms-out, it’s icy out,” sidewalk shuffle, an intimate relationship with Henry, the morning weather man, phone calls to Pops and Momma and Husband and Little Sister and my friend down the road about whether or not to believe the storm report, feet shoved in slippers and then in boots and then in slippers and then under the covers, soup and coffee and tea and some sort of disgusting warmed up cold medicine because everyone’s sick around here….and a constant craving for pastries.

Yup, that’s January.

And although it comes every year, I’m always surprised how this month seems to suck the creative light right out of me and makes me question the practicality of packing up the pug and heading south.

But I’m not leaving.

Well, there’s the Vegas thing in February, but as of today, I’m planning on coming back. Because I’m here for the long haul, and the longest haul of them all just happens to be winter.

I was thinking this last night as I sat behind the wheel of my four-wheel-drive and turned up the volume on some melancholy music, singing along soulfully and feeling frigid and uninspired and hungry for carbohydrates. I put my foot lightly on the brake to navigate a snowy curve, when up ahead, about five mils from home along the side of the road I noticed a large, tall, dark figure moving slowly toward the white ditch.

I slowed down as a few hundred scenarios whipped through my mind as they do when you see something unexpected on a very familiar path…to big to be a deer…

A grizzly bear?

A tall, scary, insane hitchhiker?

Bigfoot?

An alien? Probably an alien.

No.

No.

No.

I pulled a little closer until the length of my headlights revealed the figure: two massive and stunning bull elk moving with ease and confidence across the road toward an oak filled coulee on the edge of the badlands.

I stopped in the middle of the road and looked around. Not much traffic meant I could relax and bask in this mysterious moment for a beat. And apparently those elk felt the same way, not the least bit intimidated by the flare of an oil well behind them casting light on their bodies and transforming them into beautiful silhouettes.

They stood still in that warm glow on a flat, snowy patch of ground and stared at the metal contraption lit up in front of them.

An alien.

I rolled down my window to hear them breathing, to hear their hooves squeak in the crust of the snow. As they moved along the highway I lightly pressed the gas pedal and moved with them, imagining I was on my way to the oak grove on the edge of the badlands, imagining my body was held up by a set of massive, hoof-clad legs.

Imagining my coat was thick and my head was held high and I could run like that.

Imagining I was one of them.

But people were made for houses I suppose. Houses and words and questions and the wisdom and thumbs to make wool caps to protect us from the cold.

And of all the qualities a glorious North Dakota elk possesses, I don’t imagine he can be inspired.

Although perhaps he is the definition of the word standing magnificently on a snowy flat, staring into my soul.

So I’ll take it. I’ll take the ice and the fur lined boots and the hot cup of coffee because being human on a cold January evening means the ability to become breathless and warmed clear through and falling in love, over and over again with our big, wide, white, frozen, wonderful world.

Summer: A photo recap.

September is creeping in on us as summer draws to a close.

Summer.

It’s my favorite season, but this year it has definitely been a challenging one. So I’m sad to see it go. I haven’t enjoyed it the way I should have. I haven’t ridden enough horses, I haven’t taken enough walks. I haven’t basked long enough in the sun or written enough songs about  the way the light floods through these windows in the morning.

So tonight I want to celebrate the moments of summer I was able to catch. We may not have had the chance to spend the time together, but the time she gave me was breathtaking and heartbreaking and awe-inspiring and peaceful and colorful and all the things summer is in my heart.

March 10. First ride of the new spring season.

March 21, my first crocus siting of the season…

April 17: My world starts to blossom

April 22: A spring joy ride…

with my favorite cowboy

April 25: Celebrating the green grass.

May 1: And the sky is a perfect blend of blue and white and fuzzy horse face.

May 6: Paddlefishing season!

May 10: The wildflowers bloom.

May 14: And the ranch comes to life.

June 2: The river calls again and it’s my turn to catch something.

June 5: The babies arrive!

June 7: The rain soaked the leaves…

and the badlands…

and the horses…

and the pug.

June 12: A country church along a back road…

June 17: And then there was the back road itself…

July 2: Summer settles in and we pick our favorite horses

July 7: We turn our faces up toward the hot sun.

July 10: We welcome the friendly bugs and watch our garden grow

July 21: The hot sun sets on us.

July 21: Checking the cows.

August 7: We’re home!

August 16: Bullberries in the morning.

August 18: Husband got himself another big catch!

August 26: And then there’s the dogs again…

Ah, summer, if I could put you in a jar beside my bed you know I would.

Enjoy the dog days everyone!

If you need me, I’ll be out catching salamanders…

My weird and mysterious backyard…

When you live out here it is easy to see the big picture. All you have to do is climb to the nearest hilltop and take in the view.

From way up there you will see the Blue Buttes to the north, the creek bed lined with oak trees below, the rolling grasses and the stock dams under the big blue sky.

I like the view from up there, it puts me in perspective. It takes my breath away when I need something breathtaking and gives me a second wind when I am running low.

But for as much as we can all appreciate a great view from above it all, for me there has always been something magical about life on the ground level of the world.

I’ve written about it before, about taking a step off of the road to cut through the trees. I’ve written about looking down, about honing in on the soft petals of a flower or the way the dry grass glints in the sunlight.

All of those small things that live down there among the pebbles and budding seeds remind me that there is a world still unexplored and mysterious.

And kinda weird and disgusting.  

Fall Spider

I’ll tell you, out here, Husband and I are easily distracted by these sort of things. We spent this weekend cleaning up the construction debris that had accumulated in the yard of our new house. It wasn’t the most thrilling of tasks, throwing weathered pieces of broken siding, particle board and plastic warp into the back of the pickup only to unload it into the dump site and come back for another load, but Husband kept it interesting by hollaring at me to come and look at every creepy, crawly thing he found under the wood pile. He would take my guesses on what we would find as he flipped over big, heavy boards or moved sheeting.

I always guessed worms.

And hoped for something better.

It was like a treasure hunt, especially when we would discover a frog or a salamander.

Not so especially when we tallied up Husband’s spider count.

Husband hates spiders.

But the two of us share an affinity for reptiles and amphibians, both known to have kept lizards, snakes and frogs as pets in our lifetime. So when he yelled out “Jess! Found another salamander over here!” he wasn’t surprised that I was quick to throw down the current piece of junk I was hauling and drop to my knees to inspect the creature.

And then take some pictures.

I can’t imagine what Pops thought when he came into the yard to find me in the middle of our trash piling project pointing my camera into a dirt clump.

He did shake his head a little when I continued to interrupt our conversation with my obnoxious command at the pug to leave the salamanders alone.

My dad was so distracted by my break-up tactic that the man actually relocated the salamander to a safer spot to get me to shut up.

Pops is used to this sort of thing.

Anyway, this is the part where I ponder my fascination with the creatures that lurk and buzz and squirm below our feet. This is the part where I wonder why I’m so enamored with the tiny bodies and skeletal structure of the creatures who share my backyard.

But I don’t have much to say about it except that I know why I look down.

Because when I think all has been discovered, that there is no more adventure in the world, I just have to remind myself to look a little closer, to discover the barn spider and marvel at her web.

When I notice the perfect pattern on the salamander’s slimy back and the way the tiny frog blends in perfectly with the mud I am reminded that there’s always more ways to be in awe.

If I just remember to notice the small things. 

When it pours…

We got drenched here yesterday. The morning brought us thunder against the glow of a sunrise trying to peek through the clouds and, well, it just escalated from there.

Around here we don’t get too many downpours like this. Typically we get our moisture in the spring and then watch the sky for a chance of showers to help soften the hard clay throughout the summer, so this day of gully-washing rain was a welcomed site for us.

And when I say gully-washing, I mean it. The coulees were flowing with raging river rapids, the corrals below the house turned into swimming pools, a new ravine was cut along the edge of my driveway and, well, I got myself a free pug wash. It’s days like these that make me feel like I’m in a different world altogether. The ten-year-old in me itches to run around in it, to let the rainwater soak in my hair and squish between the mud in my toes. But the logical grown-up in me decides it’s best not to get pneumonia, even though I’m fully convinced the pneumonia scare was a ploy by  mothers and grandmothers everywhere in an effort to avoid soggy kids running into the house with a pile full of muddy laundry waiting to be stripped from their pruny bodies. But whether it was the threat of a sniffle or the scarier threat of more laundry that willed me to stay inside until the monsoon-like rains subsided, it doesn’t really matter. I was out in it at the first sign of let-up.
Because I love the way rain makes my world look. I love how it changes things, how it drenches the wildflowers causing their petals to recoil.

I love the sparkle of the rain drops waiting to be evaporated back into the sky on the soft surface of the leaves.

I want to lick the drips from the un-ripened berries.

I like to visit the horses, to see how they fared as they stood still against the opened sky, their butts turned against the wind, soaking the heavens into their skin. It always seems a storm makes them ravenous, starving for the lush green grass that seems to turn neon at the first drop of moisture.

 But after the storm they won’t have me poking my nose in their business. They are not about to come in.
 They braved the storm, now they’re going to feast.

 I always walk to a hilltop then. I scrape and scramble my way up the face of the clay buttes, my boots, suffering from a severe case of mud-pack, weighing an extra 10-20 pounds. I scour the bushes for flowers, check out the sky for more rain, listen for the birds coming back to life and breathe in the fresh, new air.

Funny how a good rain can cleanse us, even when we watch it from the other side of the windows or come to know it after the calm has set in.

I love this land.

I love what exists here.

The changing and unexpected beauty cannot be recreated, not matter the repetition of the seasons.

I find I’m manic about being a witness to its changes, running out to be a part of it…

to be a part of the down pour…

Because when it rains I feel there’s something up there responsible for this…

When it rains, when it pours…I believe.

A winter breath in Theodore Roosevelt National Park…

I took a moment on a regular weekday morning, a morning when much of the state was preparing for one of our first winter storms of the season, to find some magic in the winter.

I knew just where to go to find it. A place that was set aside just for us when we need magic moments like these.

The Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

It’s right in my backyard really. I’ve shown you before. It’s just down the road from the office that was waiting for me to take phone calls, finish some reports, and stay caught up. But it was snowing ever so lightly, frost was hugging the branches of the trees and the wind was calm enough to for me to hear something calling me out to explore, to look, to listen.

I needed to see what it looked like out there in its winter outfit.

I needed to listen for silence because in the absolute quite, everything inside of me quiets too.

I needed quiet.

I needed quiet enough to remember that I was in there all along. I needed quiet to tell me I was in there with all of that noise and static and voices drowning out the sound of those young deer on the trail ahead of me, cutting a path with their hooves, leaping over fallen branches and stopping to check out that creature behind them in a puffy coat and mittens. They don’t miss a thing and if I hadn’t stepped off of the road and up that hill, if I wouldn’t have stepped softly, slowly, I certainly would have missed them.

I don’t know what it is about being alone in nature. I write about it often. I dream about places not yet discovered, about trails that have been untouched by human feet. I don’t know anything except for it heals me in some way. I know that being alone under the branches of the oaks or the arms of the big cedars awakens something in me and reminds me that not only am I alive, but completely insignificant in the grand scheme of it all.

Insignificant.

But that word doesn’t scare me. It thrills me. It thrills me to know that one charge of the mighty bison, one stomp of his hoof, could send me reeling.

It excites me to know my limits out there and to know to keep to them. To know the dangers of a mis-step could send me into a catastrophic fall.

To know the river flows fast under the ice and I have no matches for a fire and no intention of staying out past my allotted time.

To know that once we belonged here, but not anymore.

Because somewhere along the line we have separated from nature, from the quiet spaces on an earth that was laid out for us. We covered ourselves from the stars to survive, laid floor on the dirt and found new ways of making things that were good and true and simple damn complicated.

We’ve built fences and staked claim to things like rocks and mountains and grass. We have named it all. Dissected it. Studied why anything would turn out the way it has.

We’ve learned how it all could benefit us. How it could help us cure diseases, build more skyscrapers, heat our homes and reach us closer to the satellite we have placed among the stars in a sky we have yet to conquer.

So I go to the park, I take the back roads, I follow the trails on the ranch that holds my family’s name to be reminded of this:

I know not a fraction of what the acorn knows. I will never tame the wind nor will I ever touch all that the breeze has touched. I will never listen close enough to hear what the coyotes hear. I will never be as brave and howl my life into the night.

I count the striations of the exposed earth on a landscape that was formed by tons and tons of moving glacial ice and I know I will never have a story that grand. I will never be as interesting or romantic as those buttes.

I catch a hawk circling above the tree tops and am reminded I will never soar. I will never see our world the way she sees it.

And I won’t possess the strength of the bison, the authority of the season, the power of the sun and the clouds. I will never stand as tall, or know the patience of the old birch trees. And I will never own the delicate strength of the wildflower.

No, I come to the park as a spectator. I come to the park as a girl. A girl who has hands that need gloves made of leather and boots made with fur. I girl with thoughts and ideas and dreams about how to capture this place, how to share it by telling the story of the bison, singing the music of the hawk, and whispering just as softly as the doe caught on my trail.

But they are stories I am not worthy to tell.

So I stay quiet and listen.