Inside Old Houses

We live on gravel roads that stretch like ribbons along pasture land dotted with black cattle and a patchwork quilt of grasses and crops. As we kick up dust beneath our pickup tires heading out to a chore or to meet up with a neighbor, we take for granted how these roads were built. Why there are here in the first place.

These days we are in a rush aren’t we? Aren’t we headed somewhere on a deadline?  So we drive faster than we should on these roads beat up from years of wear by our rubber tires, and now, by the new-found rush of a booming industry.

I remember a time when these roads were quiet. It was where my cousins and I could skip like characters from “The Wizard of Oz” down the middle of the pink road without a care in the world. The only vehicle that was certain to meet us was carrying our great uncle driving with his windows down, checking fences and out for coffee with the neighbors; or my mother  looking to borrow some sugar. If we were lucky it would be the Schwann’s Man hauling the promise of orange push-up pops in the back of his truck and we would put the game on time-out and sit on the front porch trying to get to the bottom of the treat before it melted and dripped down our fingers.

We didn’t know that  there would ever be anything here at the end of this road besides imagination and our grandmother’s cookies. We didn’t know that anything but our  boots and agriculture would kick up dust on the road.

I spent Friday afternoon with a reporter from the cities. He came to visit me on the ranch to talk about the landscape, ranch life, my music and what’s happening here in the booming oil field we have in Western North Dakota. I agreed to have the conversation and then gave him the requested directions he needed to find me.

  • Head east out-of-town until you hit the school.
  • Turn right and follow the pavement.
  • Cross a cattle guard, but only one. If you hit the second  you’ve gone too far.
  • Turn left on the red scoria road until you see the small red barn.

Because we’re in the middle of all of this activity, all of this national press, the #3 oil-producing state in the nation, but we are not on the GPS.

I am not sure if it was my very rural directions or the wrong number provided for the county road, but my reporter friend didn’t quite make it to me, so he found the top of a hill (because we don’t have cell service either) and called.

I got in my pickup and found him on the pink road where I used to pretend I was Dorothy, waiting with his hazard lights on for me to show up and tell him what I do, what I think and what it means to me to live here right now.

What I do is ride horses and chase the pug and take pictures and sing and tell stories.

What I think is that every day we work  to live a good and true life as we build a house on my family’s land that once was the middle of  nowhere and has now suddenly become the middle of something that is so much bigger than the sound of Pops’ tractor coming over the hill.

What it means?

The truth is I haven’t put my thumb on the black or the white, because between the past and the future there are so many colors here.

So I sent him on his way with a story and a new-found love for the pug and grabbed my camera to follow that pink road to meet my neighbor, a friend who is absolutely intrigued by the idea of what this place was in another time. We had plans to take our country roads and explore the little pieces left behind by the generations that came before us. My friend knows where every buried treasure lies. Her eyes are open to it, our history and tumbling down memories that scatter across our landscape in the form of old houses and churches and schools.

My friend moved to this area from Montana with her husband almost two years ago, but you would never know she is new to the place. Ask her about the stone house across from her approach or the old Sandstone school and she will tell you a story about it. She will tell you who built the house and what he did for a living, who taught in the school and where you can find photos of the students. My roots are planted here and I’m sure I have heard bits and pieces of these stories as I grew up, but hearing her tell about the families who homesteaded near her new home, watching her put the pieces together as she peers inside the windows of old houses, seeing her wonder and excitement as she unearths an old book from an abandoned house or admires the green paint on an antique table, makes me wonder too.

It makes me wonder what memories were held in the hearts of those prairie people who have long ago returned to the earth. What would they think if they saw us driving down this road in our fancy cars to get to houses for two that quadruple the size of where they raised 12 children?

How far away I feel from that life some days…

And then I talk with my friend I am reminded that our goals were the same.

To make a living, to raise our families. To have a good life.

Just as the family that inhabited that old house with the broken windows and remnants of a life I will never lead, we are existing in a changing landscape where trees grow and fall, baby calves are born and sold, ground is tilled for crops and minds are inventing ways to make the living easier.

Inside those old houses they ate, they prayed, they laughed and worried, just as we do in our own homes with too many television screens and not enough vegetables.

So what does this mean?

The washed out fences and boarded up school-house doors remind us, like the newly paved roads and constant wind that blows across our prairie, tangling our hair and knocking on our windows, that this place, this land, is not ours solely and rightfully and individually. One day we will abandon these houses in decision or death and there will be a new generations searching these roads for our story.

So we should tell it now, honest and true and leave to them what they will need.

19 thoughts on “Inside Old Houses

  1. wow.. Just wow.. you are an artist with words… all I can do i envy the way you write… another prairie person… from South Dakota.. PS. I feel that way about my Lake….. Muriel

  2. As a kid I loved the older that I’m older, I still love old buildings..some look like sad ppl. Hopefully this summer I’ll make it out that way. Have a great week. 😀

  3. I am so attracted to decay, the old house, fallen tree kind of decay it seems so natural somehow, but sad too when you think of all the love and dreams that went into building and growing them. c

  4. your friend – my niece – comes by her curiousity by blood with our family’s similar history in western Montana, and increased in her situation as a history teacher. You two make a great pair – you with your words, her with her interest and stories, and the both of you with your pictures. keep on keepin’ on, Jessie and Megan!

  5. This is beautifully written and presented. Well worth the long wait for my lazy broadband to download it all. I am a suburban girl, born and bred. But reading your blog I can feel the lure of the land.

  6. This blows me right back to our decaying family farmhouse on top of the windy hill in Braddock, ND. I’m wiping my tears for my gone grandparents as I read through old receipts and recipe cards that I’ve dug out of cupboards. I’m remembering great grandbabies with big eyes watching grandpa shoot at rodents in the tall grass and bringing caterpillars into the house to show “big grandma.”

    I’m enjoying some kuchen and knoephla at the threshing bee and being introduced as Frank and May’s granddaughter. I’m 10 years old, rocking hunting on the gravel roads with my cousins, walking the one mile through the cornfields to get to town.

    I’m five years old, chasing chickens around grandma’s yard and searching for Easter eggs in the shelter belt she planted.

    Someday, I will find a place again, where I can pull an old folding chair out of the garage and sit in the front yard and hear nothing but crickets and grasshoppers.

    It’s obvious how much you treasure your world. Thanks for sharing it with me…

  7. Remarkable. Truly reached all the way inside my breathing, and exhailed a much bigger heart. Thank you for this Jessie!

  8. Jessie, I treasure each episode of “meanwhile, back at the ranch” and keep thinking “What a beautiful coffee table book your photos and writings would make”. Never lose your passion for nature, rural gentleness and down-to-earth living. You are a jewel !!!

  9. i really like this post 🙂 Someday some one like me will have a good time going though all my old stuff. I always wanted to leave a journal in every house i live in, hidden someplace, but i can never part with them once i write them.

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