Checking in with dad

Father’s Day is just around the corner so I thought I’d check in with the dad of the house.

How’re you doing?

A. Fine. Tired.

What’s your favorite thing about being a dad to two girls?

A. They see me as fun and I love that.

 What’s your favorite thing to do with them?

A. Everything is my favorite thing to do with them.

What’s the biggest challenge about parenthood that you didn’t see coming?

A. Personal time. It’s not that I didn’t see it coming, it’s just that you don’t know what that means until you can’t poop alone.

How do you think it’s changed our relationship?

We have a relationship?

Haha…ugghh…that’s depressing.

It’s not. It’s going to sound like it’s a bad thing, but in my mind it’s turned our relationship into a partnership. It made us a lot closer in a lot of ways, but a lot farther away in a lot of ways. It makes you appreciate each other I think. At least me anyway.

I think parenthood has shown me what I’m capable of. Do you think it has changed you in any way?

A. It makes me want to be better. It’s very important to show my girls what a good man looks like, what a good dad looks like, what a good husband looks like. All of those things they don’t know they’re learning, but they’re learning it. How I speak and the language that I use and how I talk about people and to people. Now it’s more important than ever because there are little people who are going to be doing what I’m doing and saying what I’m saying.

What are you most looking forward to doing with the girls as they get older?

A. I think about it in two ways. I’m really excited to see which one of them is into what I’m into. It would be so awesome if I could get one or both of them into archery, but I’m also really excited to see what they can get me into. Like, I live my world, but it’s pretty exciting to think about how they can influence me. I try to imagine, are they going to be athletes or artists? Or am I going to get super into physics or some scholastic thing? I like that stuff, but if they were into it then I would be super into it just so I could be at their level.

Plus as a dad you have to be one step ahead of everybody. So if they’re into math then I have to make sure I’m just a little bit better at math. I don’t know what moms feel like but dads are just supposed to be good at everything. Think about it, as a little kid, your dad was invincible. I’m not fully serious, but that’s what dads are to me.

How do you define a good dad?

A. In its simplest form a good dad is somebody who cares and can be a role model. And being a good role model means showing them how you treat yourself, how you treat other people, how you interact, how you resolve conflict by not losing your temper, that it’s never OK to treat people poorly. It’s very important to teach respect.

That will be one of the hardest challenges that we’re going to face as parents. How are we going to teach our kids to treat people with respect and dignity, to not be mean, not be a bully when they’re going to be bullied and people are going to be mean to them and they are going to be disrespected? How do you teach your kid to live one thing while understanding that you’re playing by a set of rules that other people aren’t going to play by?

 So what do you hope that they learn from you?

A. I think more than anything, and maybe especially because they’re girls, I want them to learn that they can do anything. I want them to be self-sufficient. There’s no reason that either of them can’t do anything that they want to do. And I want to give them the opportunity to do it and the know-how. I want to teach my kids that even if they don’t know how to do it, they know how to learn how to do it. I’ve always said from forever, that if I ever had girls they’re not going to be the kind of girls who have their boyfriends back their pickup and trailer up for them. That’s a metaphor for everything I think.

And I want to teach my girls to be what and who they are regardless of what anyone says and have the confidence to own that, because having that confidence is what’s going to make and break it for them. How do you give your kids confidence? I know you can break it, but can you give it?

I think you can.

I look to your dad a lot because he raised girls and he raised them here (on the ranch). I think you just do stuff with them, and you just keep doing it. And you know, knowing him now, I know that he was terrified, but he did it anyway. Because mostly being a parent is finding a new thing to be afraid of every single day. You figure one thing out just in time to learn the next thing to be scared of. That’s what being a dad is.

Oh man…some day they’re gonna start driving. I don’t even want to think about that.

I don’t want to think about that either. Last question. What would be the best Father’s Day ever?

A. Going fishing. Hopefully we would catch some fish because fishing isn’t very fun if you don’t catch fish.

You want to go fishing with Rosie? She’s crazy!

A. Yeah. I’ll give her a bucket of minnows and she’ll be so happy. She’ll probably eat a worm.

The Cowboy Hat Phenomenon

“Are you a real cowboy?” A young boy in our small grocery store asked when he noticed a man wearing a cowboy hat, boots and jeans head toward the dairy section.

“Yes, I am,” the man replied, smiling at the two young brothers hanging on to their mother’s cart before continuing with his errand.

The boy turned to his younger brother to confirm it with the 3-year-old. “He’s a real cowboy,” he whispered in his ear.

A real cowboy. Just walking around, buying milk. Who would have thought?

And he was probably someone I know — so many of the ranchers are connected out here — but I only heard this story secondhand. My friend called me specifically to tell me. To remind me that we have something unique out here. Something special. Real cowboys. At our grocery store.

Of course I’ve seen the phenomenon the cowboy hat creates in certain environments. I’ve been there, in a sea of people in the big town, heads floating, trying to find my dad or my husband, easy to spot. The only cowboy hat in the crowd.

A line of hats at a hometown funeral

Or the time my husband was holding my purse in the bar in one of those big towns, waiting patiently for me to quit talking, or get done in the restroom, or order a drink, or get going already, and a random guy seemed to be offended somehow, by the hat and satchel combo. “Nice purse!” he said, his face a little too close to the cowboy. “Thanks,” my husband calmly replied, baffling the man looking for a fight.

The situation didn’t line up. So he said it again, a little closer the second time, with the same reaction, and again, a little louder until I finally came for the purse and the cowboy and off we went, my husband no worse for the wear.

My favorite picture of my husband

When you wear the hat properly, it seems you carry the legend of the cowboy with you. And by properly, I mean proudly, with the story to back it. Some with the years of weather showing on their face, some fresh and ready to take on the world, shoulders back, shirt pressed, boots properly broken in. To wear a hat takes the appropriate type of confidence.

Dad and I with Forrie Smith, who plays Lloyd in Yellowstone and has a cowboy story worth hearing.

A few weeks ago, it was farm week at my daughters’ day care. Every day the students get introduced to a different animal — there are wagon rides, dummy roping, pigs and goats, bottle calves and horses, the whole deal. And so we got a note telling us to dress our children appropriately, which meant to us jeans, snap shirt, belt and, of course, a hat.

My oldest daughter, Edie, who is 5, is starting to realize there are uncertainties and discomforts of the world, like worry and embarrassment. So she was wondering if anyone else was going to be wearing their cowboy hats that day. She didn’t want to be the only one.

“Of course!” I declared. “It’s farm week. There will be lots of cowboys and cowgirls dressed up.” And so she went with it, with her sister beside her in a matching outfit, both ready to fully be the ranch kids they are. In town.

But before we even opened the door to Edie’s classroom, I knew I’d made an error. Not a hat in sight. Not even a boot. She looked down at the ground, her hands shyly at her side and slowly walked in. My heart sank for her. I didn’t want her to be embarrassed.

Isn’t she too young to be embarrassed?! Too little to be worried about what other people think? I wanted her to own it. To be proud. To be a cowgirl out loud if she wants to!

And then a little boy looked up at us from his toy trucks and declared, “It’s Edie! Edie’s a real cowboy!” And that was that, just what she needed. She was a legend all day.

And aren’t we lucky here, to have these cowboys just walking around, buying milk and holding purses, riding horses and learning letters. Aren’t we lucky?

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My favorite people in the whole wide world

My favorite people in the whole wide world
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Today Edie, who is 5, told me that Rosie, her little sister, who is 3, is her favorite person in the whole world.

It was in a moment when the day was clear, the rain had just fallen and the wind was calm and so we lingered a bit longer in the barnyard after feeding our bottle calves. We saddled up the pony and the big horse and Edie practiced reining around the one barrel left over in the arena from when I used to practice the same thing 100 years ago.

And Rosie, she sat on Tootsie while the mini horse scouted out every last lone blade of grass in the dirt. One step, one bite, one step, one bite, and on and on until the duo headed back to the grain bucket.

Anyway, there was no place on earth we would have rather been at that moment, and I think that’s why it struck me. That Edie declared it. Her favorite person in the whole wide world was just born three years ago, and so how lucky to have that many more years ahead of them to ride ponies and fight over the tractor seat and jump off corals and cheer one another on and steal shirts and shoes and keep secrets…

And I know they love one another. I know because for every 10 minutes of peaceful playing, there is another five or so where one is devastated by the other. If it’s not a push or a hit, it’s usually over who gets to be the mom when they’re playing dolls. And generally it resolves with them deciding they can both be moms. They’re aunties, taking care of their kids together, because that’s what they see I suppose, and that makes me smile.

“Pretend that we’re sisters,” they say, as if they can’t fathom a world where they’re not, and so they fast-forward it to make it more interesting. Teenage sisters. Mommy sisters. Superhero princess sisters. And then there’s the game where Rosie turns into a troll who ate, well, Rosie, and then it becomes the game where you fight a troll to save your sister…

And on and on they go, as sisters.

Most evenings, at suppertime (which always runs too late in case you were getting any sort of impression that we have it remotely figured out around here), we ask the girls, “What was your favorite part of the day?”

And before they can answer, they have to argue a bit about who gets to ask first, and who gets to answer first, but eventually we get around to the fact that, most days, they can’t decide.

Was it when they found the barn kittens? Or was it riding horses? Or picking sweet peas or swinging in the backyard or getting a Popsicle and then an ice cream cone at Gramma’s? Or maybe it was climbing gumbo hills with their cousins or big flakes of snow that fell in the yard, oh wait? Was that today? Or was that yesterday? Little kids, their memories are like a dream I think.

Because there is no time when you’re more fully in the moment than when you are a child. Mornings into afternoons into evenings, it all lasts, as Rosie would say, “for ages!” And then not long enough.

A few days before the favorite sister declaration, I was walking with my daughters along a trail in the trees behind our house, watching them adventure, stop for every stick and bug, navigate every poop pile, and I found myself anxious to tell them to move along. We have to get up this hill so we can look for flowers so we can get back to the house so I can get supper on. This is the narrative that runs through a mom’s head, the next thing that affects the next thing.

But I looked at them then, with the light streaming through the trees, lighting up the tiny buds on the branches and their gold hair loose from their ponytails, and I stopped, took a breath and willed myself to be more like them. Because we had nowhere to be but there. And these are my favorite people in the whole wide world.

On pain and carrying on

Dealing with chronic pain requires taking things one day at a time
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To those of you who are suffering with chronic pain and showing up to your life, day in and day out as best as you can, today I want to say “I see you.”

For the past year or so, before the scope and sternum surgery that removed the tumor from my airway and declared me cancer free, and for the months since, I have been dealing with chronic headaches and nerve pain that is always there, sometimes putting me flat on my back and other times relenting just enough to allow me to do something other than think about the pain. I’ve been doctoring, researching, trying medications and treatments, changing my diet, justifying it as a repercussion of the trauma my body endured and crying in frustration because I want my life back to the way it was before.

Today I feel like I’m finding a light at the end of the tunnel, help through physical therapy and check-ins at Mayo Clinic, and I’m feeling hopeful. Hopeful enough to realize that maybe it’s time to share it here. Because people on the street, or at the grocery store, and, of course, in my circle of family and close friends, they ask me how I’m feeling. And, in the spirit of being honest, I’ve made a promise to myself after what I’ve been through, to not beg off on that question. In the spirit that my story, even if it’s not pretty right now, might help someone else.

And so, I tell them: I’m still recovering. I’m hopeful I’ll get to the other side of this.

But man, when you’re in the middle of it, in the middle of work that needs to go on, in the middle of motherhood and trying to be a good partner instead of a sick partner, in the middle of wearing out the optimism, putting off big plans not to mention the laundry, and worst of all, shushing my children when I should be dancing with them in the kitchen, it’s hard.

Because it turns out that the level of their voices, their enthusiasm, temper, frustrations or needs don’t quiet down because we aren’t feeling well. In fact, I think, these children might amp up just to see if we’re still the momma or daddy they know us to be. Turns out we still want to/need to be a parent even when it physically hurts to raise our voice or comb their hair. And the house seems small when we so desperately need a rest, especially when they find us at the moment we’ve finally fallen asleep, or snuck away for a shower. They want to climb in the bed or get help with doll clothes or need a drink or to tell us how her sister wronged her. And we listen while our body aches or works so hard to heal it feels like we’re drowning…

And so this is another lesson I’m learning in compassion during the past year or so of getting rid of cancer and trying to heal up a body that is screaming at me. Because I’ve been smiling and carrying on as best as I can despite it, it occurred to me that there are people around me doing the same thing day in and day out, working and raising kids, taking care of aging parents and businesses, serving on boards, continuing to show up while coping with physical pain or mental illness that tries its hardest to break them down. And when you ask them how they are, they will say, “Oh, just fine, thank you.”

And so today, while I’m feeling good and hopeful, feeling like I have a plan and that I can see the other side, I just want to tell you that you are strong and brave and doing good. I pray you get well if you can, and if you can’t, you find relief from the pain and a peace to the chaos.

And while I’m here, thank you a million times to the partners, family and friends who are fully and completely here for us, to pick up when and where we can’t.

Here’s to one day at a time and a better tomorrow.

North Dakota, we’ve been claimed

Somehow we’ve been claimed
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As a woman whose heart has been planted solid here in the buttes and prairies of North Dakota, but whose feet and mind have wandered with music and education and the winding road for years, I have often found myself on the other end of the question: Why here?

Before I made the decision to stay here for good, before I became a mother working and raising those children in the middle of my 30s, trying desperately to find a way to do the right thing for the legacy of this ranch, I struggled to find an answer. I used to think I had to be so profound. I used to think I had to convince them…

Because asking me why North Dakota, why the prairies, why Middle America, is like asking what it means to you to hold your last name, or wear your grandmother’s ring, or to lay down next to the man you love every night. How do you answer it?

Who are these people who hold the scent of the dirt, the push of the wind, the endless winters, the wheat fields, the small town in such regard? Who has lived here for years, or arrived fresh and unconvinced? Who comes home again?

We are rural route roads, beat-up mailboxes and dusty school bus seats. We are rides in the combine, summer sausage sandwiches, a thermos of coffee washed down with warm lemonade and faces streaked with dirt after a hot August day in the field. Two miles to a gravel road on the edge of town and we are freedom, our father’s pickup, 12 years old behind the steering wheel.

We are first loves and last loves and forever loves found on those back roads at night, on front porches, in the back seats of cars and under blankets shared in the stands at football games.

We are the stars that light up the endless sky at night, family farms, four generations of the same recipe on Christmas Eve. The barnyard light.

We are white wood prairie churches, our mother’s voice quietly singing the hymns, Jell-O with suspended vegetables and mayonnaise casseroles waiting for us in the basement when the service is through.

We are wet clay caked to cowboy boots, the black soil of the valley, the only stoplight in town.

High heels and business suits, running shoes and hoping things will stay the same and knowing, working, voting, crying out for change.

We’re number crunchers, songs that must be sung, books that must be written. Snake-bitten.

We scream for sun and pray for rain and push the river from our doors. We’ve been here before.

Chokecherry jam, mosquito bites, country fairs, one station on the radio, too young for our first beer, FFA and 4-H steers. Too young to leave here.

We are race car tracks and endless power lines, hockey rinks and barbed wire fences. Drilling rigs and endless fields of wheat. September heat.

We are bicycle tires on quiet streets, fireworks in May, Popsicles and swimming pools and a stop at the Tastee Freez, please. The new kid in town. The doctor who knows you and your children too. Rodeos and American Legion, football heroes, lead singers, the Ferris wheel in town for the weekend. The underdog.

Powwows, three-legged races, familiar faces, dances in the street.

Throwing rocks in the creek.

We’re “Pete’s kid,” and “Your mother wants you home right away!”

We are pushed to go and pulled to stay; we are leaving this place as soon as we’re grown.

And we are the sky we can’t explain, unpredictable, colorful and full of rage and gentle hope that it’s all going to be OK.

We are someday.

We’re the wind, relentless. The snow, endless. Sharp and hard, steadfast and certain like the winter and the change in weather.

We are the dirt under our nails, tangled hair, the cattails and bluebells and big white-tailed deer. We are new Main Street signs, and small high school hallways, and hope, even though…

We are all of these things that make up a home, but home is not ours to take. Somehow, we’ve been claimed.

Lost tooth memories

Losing a tooth and gaining memories
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My oldest daughter lost her first tooth last week. On her 47th jump off the panel fence while we were feeding bottle calves, she fell and jarred her little jaw enough to knock a loose tooth looser.

By bedtime, all bathed and fresh and ready for sleep, she let her daddy pull that wiggly tooth, the one I swear she just grew yesterday.

And while she went into the whole thing brave and tough, chaos ensued well past bedtime when she realized a part of her that was once in her mouth, was now in her hand.

And there was blood.

And crying. From both Edie and her little sister. (And maybe me a little, because I thought he was just going to wiggle it!) But, for Edie, all that was scary was calmed by the dollars left under her pillow. I’m still not sure Rosie is over the trauma of it all.

Come to think of it, maybe neither am I. Because it all seems to be happening at once. She turns 5 and learns to ride her bike without training wheels, she loses her first tooth, I register her for kindergarten and listen to sad ’90s country for a week straight — and then I blink and she’s taking the painting she did in junior high, the old lamp in the attic and packing up the station wagon, waving goodbye to me while I stand in the very same driveway where she just learned to ride her bike yesterday.

At least that’s what Suzy Boggus told me as I drove out of the elementary school parking lot wiping my tears away. The song has a bit more bite than it did when I was singing along to it on my bus ride to school.

Letting go.

We’ve taken a large step into that phase of parenting now, and my girls take twirling leap after spinning bike tire toward their independence. I see it now in how they’re suddenly so aware of the wide-open spaces that surround them. No more fenced yard holding them in — they climb right under it and wonder now if they can get themselves from our house to Gramma’s or aunt Alex’s.

Maybe if they run to the top of the hill and stand on the tallest rock. Maybe if they follow that deer trail, or the cow dog. Maybe if they didn’t pick up every pretty rock they found along the way. Maybe if they wouldn’t have face-planted in the dirt running too fast down the hill. Maybe if they would have told their mother they were leaving the yard, she could have come and rescued them from themselves a bit earlier.

But oh, so much of me loves to watch them suddenly realize that all of this is theirs to make footprints on. To take care of. To inspect for crocuses, to pick up a cactus or two on their jeans. The big blue sky, the tall oaks, the stock dam and the crick and the sticks they throw for the dogs, the mud that gets stuck to their boots, the big rocks that will become their special, secret spots, even though we can see them from the house…

My daughters, at 5 and 3, are entering the sweet spot of childhood where memories are made and the world seems wide open and full of questions and mystery. They’re entering a phase of childhood in which I can remember for myself now, and how it felt to fall in love with this place.

How it felt to hold my little sister’s hand and help her through the fence.

How big my dad’s fingers felt in my mouth when he helped pull out my first tooth…

I can remember that, Edie. You’ll remember it now too… you’ll remember now…

The ranch and the weather

Hoping for the weather to cooperate
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Last Friday a grass fire began to rage up north near our neighbors’ house. I had planned to have our Arizona-turned-North Dakota friends over to help feed the bottle baby calf, pet the horses and make them a proper Tater Tot hotdish.

They were coming over at 5, and my husband left to fight a fire at 1. I asked him, stupidly, as he was rushing out the door, “Do you think you’ll be home by 5?” And of course, he replied, “I hope so!”

And I hoped so too. Not just because I wanted him home in time for hotdish and friend-hosting, but because it would mean that they would have that fire under control by then.

The face of a fireman

On Saturday, the wind died down and the sun shone so bright that my oldest daughter couldn’t help but strip off her shirt and play in the dirt left waiting for the spring petunias in our flowerpots. I sat my husband down on a stool on the deck, he pulled his shirt off as well and I started to clip and buzz and cut the winter hair that had grown long on his head, shedding another layer as we moved slowly into a new season that was feeling so different than all the springs before it. Crocuses and muddy puddles, plum blossoms and new grass blades evaporated by a sky that just won’t give up the moisture.

That afternoon, looking a little less like a mountain man, my husband went out to check the cows and found a tiny calf, just barely over 30 pounds, left trying to get milk off her sick mother. He scooped her up in his arms and brought her down to the barnyard where I was brushing out horses and the girls were taking turns seeing how high they could climb the corral panels before they became too scared to jump off.

The tiniest calf we’ve ever seen

I just helped Rosie up on Tootsie and was watching the fluffy, old, partially blind mini horse wander around the barnyard with my youngest on board, when my husband arrived with a calf the size of a small goat — and just like that, the ponies were old news. The girls squealed and sprung to action with pets and snuggles, concerned looks, bottle-holding and more questions about calf poop and umbilical cords turned to belly buttons.

Little Mommies

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Chad and I quietly hoped that poor little baby and her mom might make it through the night and told the girls to be careful now. Not so high. Why don’t you come down and help get these calves some fresh hay to lie on?

With my niece, the animal whisperer

The next day we woke up to rain, just enough to coat the ground and make us dare hope for more. We mixed up three big bottles for the two calves and the girls dug for their rain jackets and rushed out the door to dance in it. “Rain!” they hollered. “It’s raining!” And they twirled and ran and jumped and danced as if there was no way to contain themselves. As if, in their tiny little bones, they understood what a miracle it was.

If I wasn’t holding three big ‘ol calf bottles with a mission to finally get to the barn after two pancake refills, a hair-brushing argument, a hunt for the right mittens, two boot changes, two coat changes and a trip back for a snack for the way, I might have danced, too. And alongside the road on our way to the barn, the baby calves kicked up their heels, running and bucking and playing just like my daughters, thrilled for the drops on their backs.

We tucked our girls in that night too late and we both fell asleep beside them while our muddy boots worked on drying off in the entryway, our cattle bedded down in the draws and the rain quietly turning to snow to pile up to 3 inches on our thirsty land.

And so on Sunday, we dug out the snow pants, caps and mittens, fed a little more hay and found another stray calf, maybe the twin to the tiny one we’re still fussing over. And hoping for… just like I hoped, on Friday, when the land was burning up, that my husband might be home in time for supper…

Driving the backroads

Life on the backroads
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Ever have to yield to a guy trying to clear a giant tumbleweed in full motion out of a parking lot by way of running it down with his pickup? Ever see him fail the first time and then feel guilty that you didn’t just let it hit your car when it was coming for you, you know, to be helpful?

Ever been in line at a drive-thru and have the man in front of you get out of his vehicle to say that he can guess where you’re from by the amount of dirt on your car?

Ever hauled a live goat home in the plush back seat of your best friend’s dad’s car before you even had a proper license?

Ever been 17 sleeping in the gooseneck of a horse trailer at a rodeo to save money on hotels?

Ever stopped to take a photo of your shortest friend in funny glasses next to the highway sign for Gnome, N.D.?

Or what about grabbing a photo with a roadside smiling stack of hay bales? Or the ones that look like jack-o’-lanterns in the fall and snowmen in the winter?

Ever rush to the aid of the people certainly dead or badly mangled in the car you just witnessed fly off the highway in the Badlands and crash directly into a tree, only to find the passengers completely unharmed and in the middle of an argument that no near-lethal car accident was going to end? Ever stand in the middle of that highway and demand that the driver let you give him a ride instead of walking the 10 miles home?

Ever swear you saw a man run across that same highway in the dark dead of night, only to have your search turn up nothing but the memories of a ghost?

Ever take your little sister to her orthodontist appointment in the big town and drive through parking lots and back alleys to avoid stoplights because you learned to drive on a gravel road and weren’t quite ready for that sort of traffic?

Did your friends ever make you drive the pickup and gooseneck trailer full of rodeo horses through a new town just to laugh at you when you stalled out because they knew you sucked at driving stick?

Ever been 8 or 9 with your best friend, weaving your bikes with playing cards pinned to the spokes through the dotted centerlines of the highway?

Ever have to put oil in the tank of your 1982 Ford LTD every morning before you drove it to school and every afternoon in the parking lot after if you had any hope of starting the thing?

Ever go in the ditch three or four times the first day you got to drive that car to school by yourself, because you missed the lesson about icy roads and rear-wheel drive?

Does anyone even know about rear-wheel drive anymore? Or three-wheelers that twice cracked his ribs, and then his collarbone and then his shoulder blade?

Ever sit in the back seat of his Thunderbird on a hot summer day with the windows rolled up and the heat blaring, driving too fast on your way to the shores of the big lake just so you could be sweaty and desperate enough to strip down and jump in its barely thawed waters when you arrived?

Ever wore the red mud to town on the front of your dress pants? Hauled a couple square bales or deer heads for the taxidermy in your SUV on the way to Thanksgiving? Drove a pickup with no back seat and napped in its shade in a hayfield? Pulled up to a job with a fully intact pheasant stuck to your grill?

Ever cruised the three blocks of Main Street over and over in a car with a name your friends gave it, pushing curfew under the big, black sky just to move because you were young and restless in a small town?

Every once in a while, do you get behind the wheel on the back roads of North Dakota and feel that way again, and so you take the long way home?

Answering the call

Answering the call, because someone has to
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Last weekend, my husband had plans to work on the house addition that extends our living room and gives us a main level master bedroom for when our joints start to get too creaky to carry laundry and our bodies up and down the steps to our loft.

When your husband’s a carpenter, the renovation ideas never stop, and so we were looking forward to the progress he was going to make in two days of uninterrupted carpentry work on our own house. Except that uninterrupted thing lasted only a few hours into Saturday morning before his phone sounded the alarm.

If I didn’t hear it myself, I know immediately by the way he strides, big steps through the house, grabbing his coat and his hat and that big duffle bag in the entryway. “Going to a fire,” he says calmly as he swoops past me in the kitchen or out in the driveway where the girls are practicing riding their bikes on the only patch of cement for miles.

If I think he can hear me, I might ask him “where?” because for some reason knowing the general direction he’s heading in such a hurry puts me a little more at ease with the idea that he’s literally running into a fire.

That was Saturday. Sunday sent him out until past supper. We’re having grass fires in March. We desperately need rain.

When my husband and I first moved back to the ranch about 10 years ago, we lived in my Grandma Veeder’s small farmstead house while we built a new house over the hill. One hot summer evening, we arrived home to a blown breaker. Chad went down to the basement to flip the switch and just like that, the inside of our wall was on fire.

“Call 911,” he said calmly as he emerged from the basement and started handing me things to throw out on the lawn. Within minutes our neighbor, a volunteer rural fireman, was at our side, telling us the trucks were on their way. And under a calm, starlit sky, standing surrounded by my guitar, piles of clothes still on hangers, photo albums and paperwork, our computer and all the material things we could grab in armfuls from the house before it was no longer safe, I watched as the men and women of our “neighborhood” that spans dozens of square miles worked to save my dad’s childhood home from flames.

And they did. The house wasn’t grand, 650 square feet of wood and a crumbling foundation, but it was sentimental and it was one of the most helpless and lonesome feelings I’ve ever experienced, standing back and watching the flames rise. Those volunteer firefighters, my neighbors and former schoolmates, they managed to successfully put out the fire so that we had a chance to walk back inside and sift through the damage, gather the rest of the things worth saving, and shut the door for good.

That moment, my husband decided to become a first responder. I’m certain he would have made that decision without the upheaval, but true to the way we learn lessons around these parts, I know he made note of what those people meant to us in that moment. And he knew, at the very least, he could try to do the same where he was able.

I didn’t understand then, standing under that black July sky, what it really meant to be a rural firefighter. I didn’t know it meant, years later, that they would be the first on the scene to help my dad on the stretcher in the middle of the night — neighbors seeing neighbors at their most vulnerable.

I didn’t know it meant monthly meetings, training sessions, suppers interrupted, weekend plans paused, hammers dropped, doors left open, jobs left undone, breath held until the coast was clear. Until they’re out of the woods. Until they’re needed again.

And it certainly isn’t for the money — they volunteer, after all — or for the accolades. It’s 100% because that’s what living out here in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of everything means — to be on standby. To be there when the call comes.

And my husband, he will be the first to admit that he’s got work to do, that he could be better, take more trainings, get to more calls, that he’s working on it, that he’s doing what he can. But to know there are people like him out there with the call to action in their front shirt pocket, it makes that big black sky feel less lonesome, those county roads less desolate, nerves less shot.

It makes us feel so much less on our own to fight the flames, the out-of-nowhere crashes, the unexpected pains or slips that threaten to change it all in a blink…

To know, Sunday dinner or house project be damned, someone’s running when we call? What a thing to do. What a thing to be.

The things we leave behind…

The things we leave behind
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’ve always been enamored with old buildings, the kind you see standing haggard and hunkered down along a county road or state highway.

Or, when you’re sitting in the passenger seat as he zips past on the interstate and you’re looking out at where the sky finally meets the curve of the earth, you might catch a glimpse of a memory way out there on a section line. A school maybe. A church?

It would be small and unassuming except for the lack of trees and similar structures on the prairie landscape, and it might as well be a castle. To me, a place like that holds as many mysteries.

I don’t think the sentiment toward abandoned places or things is unique to people who grew up on these Plains dotted with weathered-out buildings, humble, tumbling barns and a row or two of lilac bushes and windbreak trees left to fend for themselves against the prairie elements. On days when the wind blows 40 miles an hour or the temperature drops well below freezing, I build up more of a sentimental response to those who came before us and how they might have survived it, well aware that I am here because they did more than stay alive somehow.

On top of a hill in the horse pasture connected to our barnyard, if you stand the right amount of back and look close enough, you will find two sets of teepee rings, armfuls of nice granite boulders placed in the dirt in a nearly perfect circle under the big blue sky. I stand up there and wonder what it looked like all those years ago, without fences, or water tanks, without this smattering of bur oaks and ash growing taller in the draws. Without houses or roads.

If you put yourself in the right spot out here, there are a few places you can look that don’t so evidently reflect the modern era. You can imagine it then, how high the grass might have grown, how thick the mosquito swarm, how you might find more value in a flower or the creek that runs through it all. How different the quiet sounded.

And it’s so much easier to think about the lives of the souls who left structures and tools and equipment behind for us to ponder, to poke around in, to photograph. We forget these days that there was a time humans lived without leaving so much behind. It’s remarkable to think about, the innovation we’re capable of as humans and how it can simultaneously make us and break us.

I’ve said this before about living on this 110-year-old ranch. I’m a fourth generation raising the fifth, and some days, I feel like I’m surrounded by ghosts. My girls dig in the sand under their swings and they find a glass medicine container, pieces of ceramic bowls and plates, a 7UP bottle. We’ve built on top of an old burn pile, and some things don’t go so quickly back to the earth.

Old plow outside the Veeder House

Dad dropped fencing pliers in the east pasture 20 years ago, and I stumble upon it on my evening walk. I wonder, who will someday find that hat I caught on a tree a few years back?

My husband digs out the corners of the old shop, grease cans and motor parts, welding units and scrap metal, wooden skis and a chair no one truly thought they could part with. Except they could. They did. There’s nothing left in that shop worth photographing, really, and so we might as well make it useful.

I fall off my horse at 10 years old and pick up a perfect arrowhead, just laying there now with no job but to be discovered, making us wonder what it might have been like before the world turned 55,000 times, day by day slowly shedding the past for valiant pursuit of the future…