See those buttes, way off in the distance in this photo? Yes. You see them? Good.
I love those buttes. They are like the backdrop to this little painting we live in here at the Veeder Ranch. They are always there in the distance, reminding us of our neighbors to the north, reminding us that we are pretty small here on this landscape, you know, in the scheme of things, and staining as a fixture of the beauty that surrounds us.
The Blue Buttes. That’s what we call them around here. Why? Well, because they look blue don’t they? Yes? Bluish, purplish…
Every time I look at them I am reminded of a story that my pops told me about a drawing he colored of a cowboy on a mountain during a project at school. He used his crayons to make the man’s hat brown, his shirt yellow, the sky blue and the mountain he was riding along purple.
When the teacher asked “Why did you paint the mountain purple? Mountains aren’t purple!” young pops said he felt embarrassed and confused. Because the only encounter he had up to that point with anything resembling a mountain was the Blue Buttes that waved to him from about seven miles north. And they sure looked purple to him.
Oh, my heart.
Anyway, on Tuesday I found myself up close and personal with those buttes that have been such a far away mirage on this place. A new friend who moved to the area with her husband and settled into a little farmstead a few miles north asked me to come spend the day with her poking around the countryside, taking photos and climbing the area’s famous Table Butte.
Of course I was on board and for many reasons. Number one is that I had a chance to spend some time with a woman who I hadn’t quite had enough time to really get to know in person, but who already understood that I was the type of person who would be enthusiastic about this kind of activity. She didn’t ask me to go shopping or to help her bake a pie. No. She met me a few times and understood that hiking might just be my thing.
And it was her’s too.
This had potential to be a great friendship.
Number two was that I have grown up here, traveling to the small town of Keene for youth group activities and meeting up with friends on the other side of the buttes, but never have I had the chance to stand on top of one of them to catch a glimpse of my world from way above and all directions. I was grateful for the opportunity.
So I headed up the gravel road in the morning armed with my camera, sunglasses, hiking shoes and water and began poking my way to her house, kicking up dust and admiring how the day was shaping up. The sky was blue, the clouds were fluffy and the breeze was just right. I followed my new friend’s directions and pulled off the main gravel road and down into a coulee to find her standing in the door of her quaint, renovated farmhouse and her border collie-blue heeler mix running up to greet me.
And I’ll tell you, it was all over from there. See, this woman from eastern Montana, who married one of my High School Rodeo buddies and found herself out here making her home at the bottom of the Blue Buttes, couldn’t have been more connected to the land or more appreciative of it if she had sprung from the soil herself. While we loaded up the dog and our bodies into her husband’s old pickup she drove me down the gravel road toward our hiking destination and talked about the history of the area as she understood it. Because she’s enamored with the stories and finds the old houses, barns and shacks that still remain as ghosts off a different time among the rolling pastures and fields of the countryside so intriguing, so mysterious. And while she spoke about what family owns what acreage and told me stories about who homesteaded in the little wooden house with the green trim and who taught at the old sandstone school, I was struck by the fact that just as much as my new friend was at ease in her new surroundings, she was equally, if not more, astounded by it.
And so we drove a few more miles, chatting about growing up, our husbands and the people we knew in common, a tail of dust floating behind us, until we reached our destination.
Table Butte. A well known sacred spot for the Native Americans of the area and a landmark, a striking feature, a special place for any rancher, farmer, teenager or passerby who has stood in its presence, no matter the heritage. As we approached I understood why. See as you head north, away from the badlands, the countryside evens out a bit, the fields get larger and more fertile, the oak coulees less thick, the clay soil dissipates. While you drive further from home you feel like the wheels under you are literall stretching the earth…
And you think the landscape might all just even out eventually, until you find yourself approaching two massive looming towers of rock and dirt and grass that seem to have sprung up from the depths of the earth in an explosion of rocks and vegetation. And although from the back of your mind you extract some knowledge about glaciers and weather that could scientifically explain the formation, what you really want to put in its place is the story from the perspective of the Native Americans who climb to the top on their vision quests.
We parked the pickup under the cliffs of jagged rocks, unloaded the dog, and made our way through a herd of red cows and on up to the top.
The climb was steep and as stories and childhood memories and marriage and family flowed from our hearts and memories and out our mouths, we had to stop halfway up to take a break, because it turns out spilling your guts and climbing up the face of a massive cliff at the same time requires a good amount of oxygen to the lungs.
And then we were at the top and words stopped in our throats for a few moments as we took it in.
From the cusp of the giant cliff you could see for miles in all directions. We could take in our entire rural community in one sweep. To the north the big lake laid like a dark blue slate.
To the south, the coulees of my home and neighboring pastures.
To the east, miles of grass, oil wells, a ribbon of highway and wheat.
And to the west Chimney Butte stood in our view, the other side of the story, another magnificent formation.
We milled around up there, kneeling down to pay tribute to a memorial that was placed at the top of our world in honor of two members of my new friend’s family, we watched her dog get as close as she possibly could to the edge of each rock while I had mini-heart attacks and my new friend called her pet back.
We knelt down and snapped photos of the wildflowers growing out of the rocks. We laughed and shared funny stories. We sympathized with one another as we told tough ones about the hard stuff.
We got to know one another up there as the sun moved from the east to the west and the wind tangled our hair and we had scanned just about every inch of the landscape with our eyes and our lenses.
And then we headed back down when we were ready…
back into the seats of the brown pickup, and back along the winding road, stopping at my new friend’s favorite places: that old house with the green trim,
the Sandstone School my grandmother attended…
By the time we pulled back into her yard I noticed the sun was planted pretty close to the horizon. I tried to guess the time as we chatted about her horses and her husband pulled into the drive…home from work already?
I said hello, told one more story and loaded into my pickup to head home. I took a look at the clock for the first time that day.
It was already 8 pm! Ten hours I was out there among the grass and wind and sun and in the company of a new friend. A new friend that I felt had known me for years.
What the heck!? I had so much fun I forgot about lunch! That never happens.
I meandered home, snapping a photo or two of the wheat fields on my way,
and gave husband a few words about the day before stripping off my clothes and crumbling into bed, my spirits lifted, my body tired, my heart a little lighter from a day on top of the purple colored buttes.
So yes, when I went out the next evening and looked toward the buttes, I thought of their purple color, of course, and the story of my pops as a young, net yet worldly boy. But I also thought of the day I spent with my friend…
Practically speechless…you live in such an amazingly beautiful corner of the world!!! Glad you are wise enough to appreciate it.
P.S. Is the little schoolhouse still being used?
It’s so beautiful. What a wonderful day you had.
Maybe a panoramic picture from Table Top would make a nice print?
Beautiful pics as always..have heard of that place as I have a few Native friends of course. The first or second pic reminded me(w/o as many trees) of Asheville, NC where indeed it has a blue hue(Blue Ridge Mtns). I got to experience that part of the country and where my lil sis lives. Love the old buildings as well. My great aunt told me of many stories about teaching in a one room schoolhouse..I guess I’m nostalgic when it comes to that sort of things. It is like the past comes to life. Have a blessed day my friend. Nicole
I loved the land out there, too. You are so lucky to have met someone who loves it as much as you. Beautiful North Dakota.
Thanks for such a beautifully written story. I had a wonderful day in the Badlands yesterday and today with my children. Back to the flat RRV now!! Take care Jessie!
Beautiful. You can just walk right into the school house?
I’m glad your dad colored the buttes purple…
I also loved the Blue Buttes. We lived ten miles northeast of the river, but when I climbed the hill behind our house, they were visible in all their blue glory off to the southwest. As a kid, I always wanted to see them up close. Then when I was in high school, I dated a girl who lived directly below the Buttes, so I got my wish many times.
Another beautiful post. Your words and your pictures share the beauty of place and emerging friendship. I am happy for you that you can appreciate where and who you are.
Wow. Just … wow! A boatload of wonderful photos and a nice story about the things that connect us to our people and our land. Thanks for sharing your “views”!
I could nearly feel the winds whipping my face as I climbed up the Buttes with you! Beautiful story, wonderfully told.
I love .. but am always saddened by … old houses. It makes me wonder what story they’re begging to tell.
Great pictures, great stories. I loved ND, worked on the grasslands for 8 years, knew you father, remember the landmarks well
Shame on the teacher, your Pops when a boy was right. As in: “O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesties. Above the fruited plain. America, America…!”
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