Christmas fudge and other holiday miracles…

Over the Thanksgiving weekend my family and I fully committed to the Christmas season. And when I say, “fully committed” I mean my husband helped me put lights and big homemade snowflake decorations up on the outside of the house. Because I can’t remember the last time he climbed a ladder in the name of decorative lights. I mean, it was even his idea. I swear I looked up to find a couple pigs flying overhead.

A Christmas miracle.

But it was a perfect day to do that sort of thing and we were all home with no other plans besides digesting all the Thanksgiving treats, and so we busted out the five fully disorganized tubs of Christmas decorations and sparkling Santa hats and we loaded the girls up in the side-by-side for a trip to cut the perfect cedar off the ranch.

Tradition. We’re heading into a season where we reminisce while creating moments to reminisce about. And the great Christmas tree hunt always starts and ends the same: heading to the pasture where Papa Gene saw a perfect tree on his last ride, singing along to Jingle Bells and Rudolf on repeat, spotting one on the horizon only to get closer and realize it’s 75 feet tall, hoofing it up a few steep hills and doing the same thing a few times before we finally we get it right. Then a family photo, saw, saw, saw, timber, and the realization, upon getting it home to lean up against the entryway wall, that this tree may have been smaller than the last, but not by much. (Note: items on prairie skyline are larger than they appear.)

I’m looking at the tree right now. It legit takes up half the living room.

And don’t worry, even though we haven’t learned any lessons on sizing, the great Christmas tree crash of 2019 and 2020 (and probably every year before that) has finally taught us to strap it to the wall first thing. When it about took my oldest daughter out, leaving one lone ornament dangling in her tangled hair, we decided we were done taking chances. 

Anyway, we spent the whole weekend decorating and it turns out we needed a ladder for lights on the inside of the house too. The girls got to work organizing ornaments, laying them out and putting thirty-seven or so on the same two lower branches and I made sure they weren’t looking when I fixed them and so now Christmas can come.

I don’t know the last time I’ve been this prepared ahead of time. More pigs fly. Another Christmas miracle. Now if I could just find Edie’s stocking that I managed to misplace, we could make it three.

I’m so in the spirit that I spent the afternoon making Momma’s Famous Christmas Fudge for an event in town, another tradition checked off the list. It was a special request, which is a testament to how good the recipe is. No one ever asks me to make dessert.

So because I’m on a roll I thought this would be the perfect time to share that famous fudge recipe once again, a little early this time so you have the chance to get after it, or fully procrastinate it, whichever you choose!

Enjoy!

Mom’s Famous Fudge

  • 1 12 oz package semi-sweet chocolate chips
  • 1 12 oz package milk chocolate chips
  • 3 teaspoons vanilla
  • 4 1/2 cups of sugar
  • 1 pound of butter
  • 1 8 oz can evaporated milk (not to be confused with sweet and condensed milk. I won’t make that mistake twice)

Got it?

Ok, onward.

  • Butter an 8×12 baking dish
  • Bring sugar and evaporated milk to a boil, stirring constantly. Continue to stir and boil for 7 minutes.
  • Remove pot from heat and stir chocolate chips, vanilla and butter.
  • Stir until smooth and pour into the buttered baking dish
  • Refrigerate until set
  • Muster up your incredible strength to help you cut the fudge into squares and serve it up on cute little platters or in festive tins for your friends.
  • Become the favorite.

Merry Holiday Season from the ranch!  

What we don’t know…

I don’t know what it says about me and my culinary skills, but every year at Thanksgiving, the only thing that anybody wants from my kitchen is a giant cheeseball in the shape of a turkey.

By the time you read this, it has already been constructed, admired and devoured, carrot nose, pretzel feet, cracker fan and its little Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup top hat all slumped and scattered to the side of the decorative plate, joining the leftover beets in the relish tray as the thing no one really wants to eat, but makes the table setting more festive.

Oh, Thanksgiving. So much of the holiday for me represents coming home. Maybe even more than Christmas, and maybe more so because on a Thanksgiving six years ago we spent our first night in our house as parents to a brand-new bald-headed baby and nothing has been the same since.

Especially the holidays.

Our Thanksgiving meal that afternoon was drive-thru Burger King with a frozen Stouffer’s lasagna for supper as we sat in the living room recliners staring at this new wrinkly human who would grow up to become the young girl who requested rainbow cupcakes for her kindergarten class this morning and questioned if I was following the rules when I helped her walk the treats into the classroom.

“I don’t know, Mom,” she said nervously as I pulled into the parking lot instead of the drop-off line like every morning before. “I don’t think we’re supposed to be doing this. I’m just not used to it.”

Not used to it. What a way to describe it. I’m not used to it either, girl. Just yesterday, you and I walked the planet essentially attached to one another. Now you’re 6 and questioning my parenting judgment and authority.

And I’m not sure I’m used to my almost 4-year-old spouting off facts about reptiles behind the driver’s seat on our way to school. When we brought these little bundles of baby home to the ranch, I didn’t know I would blink and they would already know more than me. Like preschool is just the threshold. I’ve already been confused by kindergarten math homework and she’s 3 spelling words and the discovery of voice commands away from being able to Google everything.

I thought my motherhood expert status had more of a shelf life. I mean, up until this year I still believed some of the B.S. parent answers my dad had for our incessant questions. I mean, he always sounded so confident. But back then, we were living in a land of encyclopedias and experience-it-for-yourself. He was golden as long as we didn’t ask for confirmation from Mom.

These days, these kids literally have the world at their fingertips. A few weeks ago I was teaching a writing workshop for high school kids in a neighboring town. I watched them work to complete the short writing prompt I gave them and wondered if I really had anything that might be useful to them at the end of the day.

Then it occurred to me that when I was their age, sitting at a desk in my senior English class, there was no way to anticipate that 10, 20 years later so many careers and tools of our everyday existence would be founded in technology that we could have only dreamed of in our Jetson cartoon fantasies.

Like, artificial intelligence is real, and video chat is a thing that my kids will never not know. And so is travel to Mars, for like, normal millionaires, not just astronauts.

And black holes. I mean, we have an actual picture now. Don’t even get me started on things like Spanx and eyelash extensions and dry shampoo…

Anyway, after a few minutes going down the rabbit hole, I decided to tell those students the one thing that I do know: You just really don’t know what’s to come. But you do know your heart. And what and who you love. Pair that with the mission to do the best that you can, and then when it doesn’t work out (because so many times it doesn’t work out) and when it finally does, you’ll know you put the best of you out into this ever-shrinking universe.

And if you need a recipe to take to a holiday party, a themed cheeseball never disappoints. Just text me and I’ll give you a recipe. Or better yet, we can do it together over FaceTime.

We spent the weekend decking the halls at the ranch and now I’m in the spirit! Shop https://jessieveedermusic.com/store for great prairie-inspired gifts.

Use code HOLIDAY for 20% off now until Friday! Happy Shopping!

The bull’s-eye kind of woman

The year our first daughter was born, my husband bought me a bow. I’d been talking about how I wanted to get into archery for a few years, thinking it would be a fun skill to try to master, something the two of us could do together and another good excuse for me to get out into the hills.

I could have taken the initiative myself, of course, done the research and made the purchase, but I was intimidated by it all and so I just kept doing the things I knew how to do as I settled further into adulthood.

And then new motherhood hit me like a freight train and suddenly everything I thought I knew about myself, the planet and existing on it, was turned upside down.

Forget learning a new skill. Forget self-improvement. Forget quality time with the husband. Forget recreation. I just wanted time to take a full, uninterrupted shower and maybe eat a meal while it was still warm.

And so there the bow sat, in the closet of the spare basement bedroom, for close to six years. Six years. That’s how old our daughter will be in a few days.

And in that time, so much has happened. We almost lost my dad, wrote a book, welcomed baby Rosie, home-improved, built and rebuilt, broke and fixed, fed cows and kids, celebrated milestones, made a thousand messes and cleared them up, lost a job, started a new business, recorded an album, got cut right down the middle, kicked cancer, made some new plans and endured an endless worldwide pandemic.

All those things we did and all the new lessons we learned, yet still the bow sat, in the basement, a little reminder of the type of woman I could be someday, when the dust settles maybe. The type of woman who can drive an arrow right through the bull’s-eye of a target. That woman, dressed in camo and confident, sounds like she has control over things.

Bet her kids listen to her the first time when she tells them to brush their teeth. Bet she doesn’t do her makeup in the car’s rearview mirror in the parking lot after she drops her kids off at school because in the car, alone, is one of the only places she can focus fully on her eyeliner. Bet her meals are planned and she can walk around barefoot in her house without collecting a decent amount of dirt, glitter and a dead fly or two.

That woman wouldn’t have left that bow in the basement for six years waiting on her to do something she said she wanted to do.

Anyway, I’m thinking of this now because a few weeks ago, my husband brought home two little bow and arrow sets for our daughters. I watched them squeal with excitement at the idea that they were going to do something that puts them in the same world as their dad. Because at almost 6 and almost 4, they still want to be like us.

So I followed them outside and watched my husband kneel down next to them, coaching them through the safe ways to handle the bow, helping them pull it back and easing them into a couple target hits that sent them bouncing with joy and asking for, please, one more time. I clapped and encouraged, yelled “Good job!” and watched them work on getting the hang of it in repetition.

And as much as they wanted to be like their daddy, I found that I wanted to be just like them. So fresh and confident with a whole life in front of them to discover what they love, to learn, to explore, to become experts at things. At almost 6 and almost 4, every single minute these girls are learning something new about their world, and about themselves.

At 38, I wonder now, when was the last time I worked hard to learn something completely new? My daughters reminded me that there’s no better feeling really, when something finally clicks and you go from not knowing to knowing. It’s incredible. It shouldn’t be reserved solely for the young.

A few weeks ago, my husband dug that bow out of the basement for me. He tuned it up and called me out to see if I could pull it back. Turns out the whole splitting your chest open thing wreaks havoc on the exact muscles needed to become that woman who can shoot an arrow through a bull’s-eye.

So, for now, I’ll be the woman in my bedroom lifting weights and getting stronger and finding her way no longer as a mother of babies, but of two growing girls who could benefit, I think, from watching their momma grow, too.

Hunting and a soup recipe

It’s deer hunting season! I’m telling you in case you haven’t been over to notice the blaze orange and camo hanging on hooks and draped on chairs and benches, sprinkled in among the cowboy hats, mud boots and chaps.

Hunting season at the ranch means friends and family sneaking around the hills of this place and stopping in the house in the time between morning and dusk to share stories of what they found, where they were, chances they missed, luck and how it did or didn’t change and the massive little herd of wild turkeys we have out here.

It’s hunting season and it means the coffee’s always on and so is the soup. And while I’m now on a mission to follow my friend Lee around the kitchen to write down every step of his vegetable beef soup recipe, until then, I’m sharing this no fail, always the right time, yummy, warm and cozy knoephla soup again. And if you don’t want to make your own knoephla, Baker Boy sells frozen ones that are just a good, I just haven’t been able to find them in the grocery stores lately. So if you do, please grab a few packs for me!

Cheers and good luck and stay safe all you hunters!

Cowboy Cooks Knoephla Soup
(Click for the full recipe in the archives)

The Messy Middle

My husband and I moved home to my family’s ranch almost 10 years ago with a few little dreams that could live because of the big dream that came true when we decided to stay here forever.

Between then and now, it seems that we’ve learned most of our lessons the hard way (as if there’s any other way), maybe the most important one being that nothing happens in a straight line. Nothing is black and white. And sometimes we get there, short and sweet, but mostly it’s up and down and down further and further still and then up again and up again before we’re off shaky ground.

When you dream of your life as a little kid, do you dream of yourself at almost 40?

And then, if or when you marry the person you love, the vision is mostly of the wedding day and then hop, skip and jump to the two of you sitting side by side in rocking chairs, old and gray looking out into the sunset, reflecting on a beautiful highlight-reel history together.

That whole part where you wake up at 5:30 every morning to get yourself and the kids groomed and fed and out the door and then to school and then to gymnastics and then home and then supper and then bath and then bed and then up and at ‘em the next morning, that’s the less popular middle part of the dream-come-true.

The number of times you sweep the kitchen floor only to do it five minutes later after the kids spill the cereal or dump out the Play-Doh or your husband rushes in with muddy boots to grab the wallet he forgot. The flat tires and broken tail lights.

The stomach flu, the amount of grilled cheese you’ve charred on the stove because the kids are fighting over dolls or clothes, the arguments about closing cabinet doors that really aren’t about closing cabinet doors, the huffs and eye rolls, the little laughs, the banter, the leftovers that mold in the fridge — all of that we skip over in the planning and dreaming and the telling of our lives.

But the cancer diagnosis, the infertility, the loss of the people you love, the divorce, the firing and layoffs, the big epic failures, those things, those traumatic things, they stick in your guts, expanding sometimes to tug on your heart, to punch your ribs, to help keep you bruised and broken and human the same way we take all the good stuff and say we’re grateful, not giving proper credit to the hard stuff that likely deserves the accolade, too.

And I know what I’m trying to say here, but I guess I’m taking the long way. This month we lost a classmate. In my small junior high and high school, she was one of my favorites, who, upon graduation, became a person I hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years.

And as I sat in that pew in that church next to my high school boyfriend who became my husband, surrounded by individuals who have woven in and out of our lives throughout the years, I couldn’t help but feel robbed. Not personally really, but on her behalf. Because she left us smack dab in the middle of her middle part, in the mushy and complicated center of her dream, in the part that may be skipped over in the Cliffs Notes version but is, in reality, where all the best stuff lies — the characters, the mistakes, the complicated relationships and small and big wins building and brewing and growing and culminating to get us to that last chapter, you know, the one with the rocking chair…

She didn’t get her rocking chair, but then, it was never promised in the first place.

So I guess what I want to say is something that’s hard for me to recognize when the mundane or hectic tasks of the days overwhelm me. That task is part of the day is part of the little plan that is part of the big plan and maybe, if you take a breath, if you pull out the weeds and worries that want to convince you otherwise, you might find that right where you are, sweeping that dirty floor, or rolling your eyes, or losing an argument, is sorta right where you dreamed you’d be someday. You just forgot to give the middle part the credit it deserves.

Homemade Halloween

Happy Day after Halloween everyone! How’s your blood sugar level? I’m feeling the need to check in on you all after a Halloween that lasted three whole days. Are you upright? Did the kids make it?

This week’s column is a reflection on my Homemade Halloweens, and this year we carried on the tradition successfully, although I was a little nervous when I wrote the column that my five-year-old was going to reject the homemade and head toward her rack of princess dresses. But alas, she proved that she has a soft and gooey center and dressed up as Bluey, the star of her little sister’s favorite show, making Rosie’s dreams come true and her momma proud and thankful that I didn’t get out the glue gun for nothing.

So here’s the thing about having Halloween officially land on a Sunday–not only does it make for a three day celebration, it means that I had a whole day and a half to thoroughly obsess over my Trunk-or-Treat display. Because when I was a kid, Trunk-or-Treat didn’t exist. But oh, it exists now and I. Am. Here. For. It.

So the girls and I spent Saturday night and Sunday morning turning the back of my car into a campsite. We painted signs and mountains, brought up the sleeping bags and Teepee and old time lantern, took out the fishing poles, gathered sticks and cut up paper to make a fake fire and fully and completely destroyed our kitchen in the process. And then we loaded it all up to head down the road to figure out how to coordinate our Bluey Family costumes with our winter gear. Because weather’s never really stopped North Dakotan’s from doing our best to celebrate something. And so we celebrated, in 70-some degree weather on Friday on Main Street and 30-some degree weather on Sunday handing out candy from my lawn chair and “fishing hole.” the fishing hole.

The girls and I went all out on our Trunk or Treat Theme this year. My kitchen is covered in paint and crafting supplies, and I had to take a half-hour shower to thaw out from sitting in 30-some degree weather handing out the chocolate, but it was worth it.

I hope you all enjoyed this fun holiday the way you prefer to enjoy it–eating all the candy, entering the costume contest, playing tricks on the neighborhood kids, or shutting the lights off and hiding out–because if there was ever a holiday that screams “you do you” it’s All Hallow’s Eve.

Ok, here’s this week’s column.

Another Homemade Halloween

If you don’t watch Bluey with your kids, you should. An adorable Aussie show featuring a family of Heelers. They have two little girls, Blue and Bingo, and two little girl cousins, Muffin and Socks, and I feel like it’s our life on the ranch as a cartoon.

By the time you read this, I will have successfully consumed all of the chewy SweeTarts, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Milk Duds I purchased for Halloween, proving yet again that I can’t be trusted to buy any candy early, unless I somehow hide it from myself, which would mean I won’t find it until they clean my house to move me into the nursing home.

By the time you read this, I will have hot-glued some felt to a couple bright sweatshirts (and added puffy paint just for fun) in an attempt to create a costume you can’t find in stores, only to learn that my oldest would now rather be Elena, Princess of Avalor than Bluey, a cartoon blue heeler puppy made out of a hoodie.

I’m not sure I have enough hot glue sticks, felt or glitter in the house to construct a full-on ballgown, not that I won’t try. Edie’s too young to understand that I will, indeed, try.

Because her father and I come from a long line of “make your own costume” people. Walmart wasn’t just down the street, you know. Oh, and money didn’t grow on trees then either. And uphill both ways, and all that stuff that will send my daughters’ eyeballs rolling.

Anyway, did anyone else’s mom stuff you in one of those pumpkin leaf bags, paint your face green and call it a costume? How about a princess in one of her old bridesmaid’s dresses with a pipe cleaner crown? No.

Halloween in the early 90s. My little sister as a garbage bag pumpkin and me as an old lady in my grandma’s dress.

Well, then there was always the one clown suit our grandma made that we could get from the cousins down in South Dakota who wore it last year, trying to decide if it’s best to wear the snowsuit over or under the baggy striped and polka-dotted jumper. Then we all crammed in the neighbors’ pickup with the tiny seat in the back and covered the 15-mile radius from neighbor to neighbor to neighbor, stripping off our beanies, coats, mittens and snowpants to reveal our characters and sit and have a cup of hot chocolate or a cookie before heading to the next house.

Trying to incorporate my broken leg into my costume

I was a full-blown adult before I ever dressed in a store-bought costume — I was a deviled egg, and I borrowed it from my little sister. We still have it if you want to borrow it, too, along with some wigs, a couple witch hats and a child’s flamingo costume we acquired along the way.

Me and my husband, as full grown adults…in homemade costumes…

We love Halloween around here, but it’s such a different time. Since my oldest daughter was born, we’ve collected enough princess, mermaid, Wonder Woman, Batgirl, Supergirl, cheerleader and ballerina costumes, complete with the plastic high heels, crowns and capes to play dress-up or trick or treat every day for a month.

But when Halloween comes knocking on our door, I get that old familiar urge to construct something. One year, I hot-glued hundreds of colorful puffballs on a beanie and made 11-month-old Edie into a gumball machine.

The next year I ordered as much harvest-colored tulle I could find and spent two days making a giant tutu for a cute little scarecrow and my daughter took one look at it and cried. Apparently it wasn’t pink and sparkly enough for the 2-year-old.

Recycling the idea on Rosie a few years later

But that didn’t stop me from whipping out that glue gun the next year to create an epic mermaid crown out of old costume necklaces and beach shells and turning a little sweat suit into a flounder fish for baby Rosie. Because I have to glue while I can! I knew that the days of my daughters appreciating my homemade efforts were going to be short-lived.

I didn’t know that the timeline would be so short. Apparently almost 6 is when your daughter turns to you out of the blue and asks you, very frankly, to not embarrass her.

And I’m not sure what qualifies as embarrassing to a 6-year-old, but apparently I’ve done it. A few times actually.

If you need me, I’ll be drowning my sorrows in Reese’s and bedazzling something.

A ranch house is a work in progress

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My husband and I have lived in our house over the hill from the homestead place at the ranch for nearly nine years. I remember the day that it came, in three parts on the back of a semi-trailer all the way from Wisconsin where they started it — the framing, the siding, the windows and some sheetrock here and there — and then we were going to finish it — the floors and doors and loft, the light fixtures and fireplace and railings and the garage and the yard and the deck and and and and…

This photo is why this chandelier will live in that spot of eternity

Let me just tell you the ideas come fast around here, but the progress is slow. I wish I could blame it all on my handyman husband, but it’s my fault really… I’ll take the blame for all those ideas.

Last weekend, my daughters helped their dad put rock on the pillars outside of the front entrance, the one that we added three years ago, turning the house side of the garage into a giant entryway. Because when we designed the house initially, it was only Chad and I and our boots and hats and coats, and we grossly underestimated the amount of space you want to kick that all off (and the mud and the slush and the poop) when it comes down to it. Add a couple munchkins in the mix, and the family and the friends and the help that comes through the door, and, well, you’re facing a renovation project that shrinks the garage and gives us another spot to put a fridge and a hat rack and all the muddy boots you can manage.

Because when you live out in the middle of nowhere, apparently one cannot have enough refrigerators or hats or muddy boots.

The ranch house. It’s a thing that you see featured in HGTV shows, in those big ol’ spreads in Texas-themed magazines and Southern blogs. The sprawl of the family table, the cast iron kitchen sink where you do dishes looking out the cute curtained window facing a lush spread of a lawn, cattle grazing across the fence, a sleepy dog in the yard, maybe a kid on a tire swing or something.

I’m here to tell you that my reality in particular is a little less frosted and shiny.

Yesterday I stood on my back deck, the one that isn’t finished yet but needs to be redone, and yelled at a bull who found his way to the only green thing on the ranch, the unmowed weeds in my yard. And he looked up at me, fully confused and offended that I would be asking him to leave. And so he took a run for the broken fence where he entered, a burst of movement creating a burst of poop that he distributed from one end of the yard to the other, making sure to deposit a few decent piles in front of the kids’ swingset.

It was picturesque indeed. About as picturesque as the barn cat that has decided to poop on my patio table. Like, all the dirt in the ever-loving world and that’s his spot.

Help me.

I feel like I’m ranting. Sorry. There’s just so much poop out here.

Meanwhile, inside the ranch house, the calf-vaccination guns are in the dish drying rack, the kids got a hold of the calf tagging marker to decorate the 37 gourds they got from Grandpa’s garden and they’re all spread out across that kitchen table and we cannot move them because They. Are. Not. Done. Yet!

And outside, one dried-up petunia plant sits outside the half-finished rock pillar. Half-finished because a fence needed to be fixed, supper needed to be served or the sun went down in the middle of the project.

It’s fall y’all, welcome to the ranch house. Watch out for the dive-bombing boxelder bugs on the way in.

Nine years ago we pictured raising our family here, a family we weren’t sure if we could ever have. And so we were thinking about light fixtures and where to put the outlets, and having the carpet or no carpet debate.

And what a thing life is, so surprising and messy and unpredictable that of course we wouldn’t be able to envision that the Barbie Dream House would take up half the basement and I would be showering with at least two or three naked baby dolls every morning in our master bathroom that my husband and I tiled together and lived to tell about.

I didn’t know it then, when that house rolled down the hill, that it would shift and change and grow in this little spot we chose for the rest of our lives. And that it might not make the magazines, but it’s us, isn’t it? Unfinished and flawed and an ever-loving work in progress.

Fall work and the promise of rain

On Saturday, it rained.

It rained and it soaked the earth and it made mud puddles and the kids splashed in them and we all pressed our noses against the screens and windows and held our breath. Hoping it would last.

My dad was in another town, and so I expected a call or a text, wondering how much rain we had so far. I didn’t realize it until this very dry year, when the man called me every time it rained, to see how much we got. Because I have a rain gauge. And he doesn’t.

Never has.

Isn’t that crazy? A rancher in North Dakota without a rain gauge! It’s even crazier when I tell you why. Why?!

Because he’s superstitious. He figures if he buys one, it will never rain again. Kinda like the old “buy a snow blower and it won’t snow” thing.

So he’ll call his brother who’s 3 miles down the road in the summer with a big ol’ rain gauge nailed to a fence post. And then he’ll call me, who’s closer by 2 miles and has a butterfly gauge stuck in my flower pot, flapping in the breeze, and then he’ll compare the two and calculate if he can breathe a sigh of relief or keep worrying.

It seems this inch of rain let him breathe a bit. And I think he needs to thank my husband for the wet forecast, because he started a deck project with a deadline a few days ago, which pretty much guarantees a weather delay.

But we’ll take it, just like we took the rain on Saturday with homemade tomato soup cooking on the stove and a plan to work calves the next morning in the mud, up on a horse as soon as the sun broke over the horizon. We put on layers, long johns and jeans and chaps and sweatshirts and neckerchiefs, gloves and earflap caps.

We could see our breath against the morning light. And as that sun burned the chill off our cheeks and the bare branches of trees that had given up their leaves, we pushed lazy cattle from one pasture, across the cover crop and into the corrals where we sorted and checked and counted and stripped off those carefully plotted layers the way North Dakotans do in the transition of seasons.

This kind of fall work takes a village, and we have a good little group. Two young cowboys from down the road show up with horses, one of our best friends from high school who wouldn’t miss the chance to ride these hills, and my husband and my dad and me. And my little sister, who brings the kids to watch and climb on fences and old haying equipment and helps her tiny daughter push calves through with the pink sorting stick.

And my mom who puts the soup on, makes the Scotcharoos and lays the sandwiches out for the crew so I can stay to help in the corrals a bit longer. Nothing tastes better than warm lunch after work like this. And I like having them all in the house to feed them as a thank you for the help.

This kind of work is good for the soul I think. Hands busy, heart pumping, air in your lungs. It’s precisely why people remain in this lifestyle no matter the practicality of it really.

Despite the lack of vacation days and stability. It’s because the back of a horse in the hills becomes your office space and your church and your therapy and your living and your family and your friendships and it’s all wrapped up out here in the least complicated way so that even when it’s hard, it is worth it.

It’s almost always hard.

But then, if you’re patient enough with the promise, it will rain…

Will our children know the quiet?

Will our kids have a chance to know the quiet?
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On a recent trip to a Minnesota town, I took a walk along a path by the river that wound through the city. I kept my headphones out and listened to the sound of slow-moving traffic, wind moving through the changing leaves, dogs barking, a mom and dad chatting, strolling their newborn down the sidewalk on a sunny evening, the sound of my own thoughts…

In the quiet neighborhood I noticed a little girl swinging, alone on the playground behind her apartment complex, her mom sitting on a bench at the corner of the sandbox while the child sang to herself, pumping her legs up to the sky, lost in thoughts of her own, only the way a child can do it when left to herself. What might it be like to be a bird? She closes her eyes and imagines she’s flying, imagines she has wings and a place to be. She sings to herself and the world she’s created in that slow and steady moment she was given to play alone.

I used to be that girl. I hope we all have been a version of her at some point in our childhoods, whether we grew up between these sidewalks or, like me, with miles of road and trees and creeks separating me from parks like these. With years between my sisters and me, I spent plenty of time alone as a kid, using my imagination to occupy me, to come up with a project or a song or a place I needed to be that day — checking on the wild raspberries, trying my hand at catching a frog or pushing logs up along a fallen tree and calling it a fort. I didn’t know it then, but it was the best gift I could have been given, the time to learn how to be with myself.

It’s served me well now as an adult in a career that’s sent me traveling thousands and thousands of miles along lonesome stretches of highway, navigating it alone. Dining alone. On a mission to wander.

To be quiet with myself has never been a thing that’s scared me, and now, as a parent to two young children in a world that feels noisier every day, the thing that scares me about the quiet is that our children won’t have a chance to know it. And without the quiet moments, I worry they won’t get to truly know themselves.

Last weekend my husband was digging in a water tank for the cattle behind my parents’ house, along the creek that used to be my old stomping grounds. My 5-year-old suggested we take him a picnic and so we packed up juice boxes in lunchboxes and ducked through the fences behind dad’s garden, past where the tire swing used to hang and along the beaver dam where a tin-can telephone used to connect my fort with my little sister’s across the creek.

We found a log to sit on and dug into our treats, talking about how I used to float sticks and watch the water bugs row across the clear water, and pretty soon I was leading them along that creek bank, making crowns out of reeds, picking riverbank grapes, jumping after frogs and digging in the sand. I was transported and they were transfixed the way wild places work on children. Let’s go farther, stay longer, look for more frogs, please.

Do you know we can still feel this way if we allow it? The magic — it still works on us too. I forget sometimes, but I was reminded.

There’s magic in nature. Magic. Magic in reaching for the sky, in the pumping of our legs to the rhythm of the songs we sing to ourselves. What’s it like to be a bird? Close your eyes, let the quiet in and grow yourself wings…

Why I’m moving to the suburbs

And now a true story about what it’s like being me trying to be a ranch hand and a housewife and why I may need to start shopping for khakis and a house in the suburbs.

The scene: Going with my dad on a ride to gather cows. We are in a hurry because every day it gets darker a little earlier. It was 7:30. It gets dark at 8:30… or something like that.

And now me explaining myself: I’ve never been able to keep up with my dad on a horse, and I’m afraid no matter how much help I think I am, I’m quite certain he would be better off without me.

I mean, I could be riding a racehorse. You know, one of those fast buggers that wins the races that racehorses win. It could have countless trophies, made jockeys famous and fans from around the world could be chanting his name. And that horse would take one look at me and decide that running isn’t his thing today.

And neither is trotting for that matter.

Nope. Not until we’re pointing toward the barn anyway. Or cutting a path through the thick trees. Yeah, in the trees he’d find a quick pace.

But Dad? Dad could ride a horse that was halfway to the light at the end of the tunnel and that horse would turn right around to give him his last breath.

So this is what I deal with when we’re in a hurry: Kicking and pushing and working to find a pace on a lazy horse to keep up with Dad as he heads toward the trees, providing me with directions that I cannot hear because he is facing the hills and I am three horse lengths behind him.

I yell, “What?”

And he says something about following a cow through the trail in the trees.

So I do.

Only there isn’t a trail.

So me and my suddenly lightning-fast horse make our own trail through the brush so thick that I lose sight of the cow I’m supposed to be following (and all forms of life and light for that matter).

I hear Dad hollering from what seems like 20 miles away and wonder how he got that far in what I thought has only been 30 seconds (I’m not sure though because I lose all sense of time because I’m focusing on trying to keep both my eyeballs as we duck and weave and through the thick brush).

“Jessss!!!” Dad’s voice echoes through the trees. “Wheeereee youuuuu attt?”

“Uhhhh…” I spit the leaves from my mouth. “Just, uh, cutting a trail here…”

…and bringing with me some souvenirs: sticks in my shirt, leaves down my pants, acorns in my pockets and twigs jammed nicely in the puffs of my ponytail as I emerge on the other side of the brush alone and searching for any sign of the cow I was supposed to keep an eye on.

Ah, never mind, looks like Dad has her through the gate.

I cuss.

I kick my horse to catch up while I work on ridding myself of the vegetation I acquired on my “Blair Witch” journey through the coulee.

I catch up just in time to follow him to the top of a hill, down through another coulee, along the road and into the barnyard where we load up the horses and I wait to make sure Dad’s tractor starts so he can get home and get a bale of hay.

It does not start.

So I drive him and the horses home.

Slowly.

Because I have precious cargo.

And because apparently I like to torture this man who is trying to beat the sun.

And the other man in my life, the one I married, was still at work when I got in from “helping.” So I decided to make him a casserole, only to be asked, three bites into his meal, what I put in this thing.

“Cheese, noodles, hamburger… the regular… why?”

He gets up from his chair, pulls something from his mouth, looks and me and says:

“Because I just bit into a stick.”

If you know of any nice places in the suburbs, give me a call. I’ll be shopping for khakis and looking for a new job.