About Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

I am working on living and writing my story. I grew up singing and writing music and spent my young adult life touring colleges and coffeehouses across the country. I have had a life long love affair with Western North Dakota and the 3,000 acre cattle ranch on the edge of the badlands where I grew up Now, after a couple albums, a couple of moves, a couple of dogs, a couple of jobs, one large home renovation and a long, heartbreaking road to motherhood, I am back at the ranch to sing, write and raise cattle and my young daughters alongside my family as we take this ranch into the next 100 years. Oh, and just in case you want to know a bit more about the woman behind the words...I'm a statewide columnist, the editor of Prairie Parent, a new Western North Dakota parenting magazine, a recording artist and touring musician, a new momma and nature enthusiast. I have big hair. I trip a lot. I say stupid things. I snort when I laugh. I'm a home renovator and a damn good cabinet refinisher. I married the right man. I hate car shopping. I would adopt all of the dogs in the world if I had a big enough yard. I am addicted to coffee and candy and peanut butter. I am working on writing my story. I am home.

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…

Ode to a Kitchen Table

One set of markers. And then another.
Some in their boxes, some without covers.
Two lined notebooks, spiral bound.

An orange water cup. A princess crown.
One egg carton for some creation,
Forgot now what sparked such imagination.
A small sticky puddle of chocolate ice cream.

Some glitter, some glue sticks, a five-year-old’s dream.
And somewhere in pencil is Rosie Gene’s scrawl.
There’s a splash of nail polish, a race car, a doll.

A pile of sweet tarts left stacked from Monday.
Ten-thousand hair bands. A unicorn. Clay.
And underneath, on the floor, I don’t want to look,
half a cookie, a puppy, squished Play Dough. A book.

When the supper bell rings, you’d think, if you’re able
You could serve your fried chicken at the kitchen table
But able we’re not, because, well, we have kids
and it seems that our table has turned into this.

A surface for projects and dreaming and snacks,
and paper for drawings, stacks upon stacks.
I’d clear it away, some days I insist,
then others I simply just let it exist.

As an ode to these times that quickly pass by.
Oh, the mess we can clean, but the clock won’t unwind.
I know it is true, I remember the time
when our table was set up simply to dine

and make up to-do lists, eat cinnamon toast
or romantic spaghetti or a Tuesday night roast.
I remember the quiet, the slow conversation
about long weekend plans, or gasp, a vacation.

But now if we’re lucky, two words pass between us
overtop of tall tales and loud songs and screeches.
And this table, it listens, it hears all these things,
the “Please sit on your butt” and “Listen to me!”

And the “What’s been your favorite part of the day?”
Or, “I love it when you make the hot dish this way.”
Oh, I can’t help but think it’d like to talk too,
to say maybe go easy on the paint and the glue.

Or to comment on how fast they want to grow up
from bottles to sippies to pink big girl cups.
To thank goodness for sponges and quality soaps
and for all of the prayers it heard as we spoke.

Because here among colors and the half-squeezed juice box,
the pipe-cleaner bracelets and collection of rocks,
if you sweep past the crumbs and the coffee cup rings
you’ll find a spot at the table, a front seat to our dreams.

At the curling club

We survived a weekend of curling in Williston. And while I didn’t go there to prove anything, I did wind up proving that my body can’t handle two days of sports with a couple whiskies on top. My last drink was on Friday night and I’m still in recovery. But we had fun. Our team only came in second to last, so in my book, I tally it as a win. A year after COVID shut things like this down indefinitely, our community’s case count is low enough to make us feel comfortable enough to get together again. But COVID still denied us the company of our favorite Canadians. Which is likely the reason we even stood a chance of winning a game at all.

If it weren’t for my low alcohol tolerance, I would say you could basically call me a professional now.

Here’s this week’s column. If you need me I’ll be hydrating….

Not to brag, but I’m pretty good at curling, if you count the sarcasm
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There are things I do well. Pancakes. I’ve pretty much mastered the art of golden brown, not too thick, not too thin, just fluffy enough even if I use a box mix most of the time, breakfast food.

I’m also good at telling long stories that take a while to get to the punch line, mixing up cocktails, and making sure there are appetizers at gatherings, major or impromptu. There has to be a few more for this list, but you know, I don’t want to brag.

Anyway, yeah, I’m good at some things, but being a valuable member of my curling team is not one of them. Unless you consider “valuable” to be sarcasm, complaining about why sports take so long and playing so bad that it makes you feel better about your skills. Under those criteria, I’m a true contributor.

But that doesn’t stop me from leaving the kids with grams and gramps every Wednesday evening so my husband and I can actually do something together without them. I would prefer that “something” to be margaritas and street tacos at the cool new restaurant in town, but he chose being on a curling team together. And because that can also include margaritas (in a can) and full control of the playlist on our drive to town, I agreed. When you’re the parents of young children, time in the car alone together without listening to the Frozen II soundtrack is a gift, one that, if you’re not careful, may have you considering adding another child to the mix. That notion, however, lasts about as long as it takes you to step back into the house to find the children eating Girl Scout cookies and watching Jimmy Kimmel with grandma Beth.

Anyway, sleep deprived children are a small sacrifice to make in order to be a part of one of history’s oldest team sports, popular in Canada and the northern states because sweat pants and wool caps (or toques if you’re proper curling material) seem to be part of the official uniform. And (GASP! Get this..), politeness is encouraged. Winning teams are known for buying losing teams a round of drinks after the games, even and especially at the highest level of competition. How very Canadian of them.

Once, my husband won a bonspiel. (Bonspiel is curling for tournament).  And he got a trophy featuring a little curling man on the top with a bomb 70’s style shag haircut. And for some reason that trophy wound up in our master bathroom and I have no explanation for that and also no real drive to move it. Perhaps it’s a little motivation for my husband’s early morning teeth brushing session. Like, “Welcome to the day! The sky’s the limit! You won a small town curling bonspiel three years ago and that means you can really do anything! Even pull off that haircut if you wanted to. Or let the mustache stand alone without the help of the beard. Go ahead. Be bold.”

This weekend we’re going to participate in a bonspiel in a neighboring town. I’m going to be on a team and so I took that as a good enough reason to go shopping for some new cute cold weather gear, because if I can’t convince them with my skill, maybe I can distract them with a neat sweatshirt I got on sale at Target. It’s going to be so romantic. We might even do karaoke after, but only if we secure enough losses to be properly hydrated by the opposite teams. And if you use that as a qualifier for a valuable teammate, well then, Red Rover Red Rover send Jessie right over.

Peace, Love and Slippery Shoes,

Your friend in team sports

Warming up warming up

I got away last weekend. Left the kids and the husband to head east to play some music and work on my book. (I’m set to release another compilation book of photos, stories, recipes and more, as soon as I can get enough time to get my shit together). So I took an extra day away to dig into that. I could use a week or two of isolation where I DON”T have COVID.(..yeah, I had COVID this month…) and I’ll be getting somewhere. And then I played some music for an actual live audience, ordered in food, went shopping and felt normal for a minute.

Or maybe not as much normal as released a bit from a weight I’ve been carrying, we’ve all been carrying, for months and months and months and months. My husband got his second COVID vaccination as a first responder last week. So did my mom. My dad’s on track to finish his vaccination in a few weeks and so I feel my family’s started on a path of protecting themselves and those around us the best we can, and it makes me breathe easier. Also, leave it to my little sister and I to wait until our county essentially has ZERO cases of COVID, and for the weather to finally hit -30 below zero for weeks, for us to to take our turn on contracting it. Luckily, it wasn’t such a bad case for any of us. Luckily my husband and kids, and gramma and grandpa didn’t get it, and luckily my taste and smell came back after a few days. I was going to start getting a little more bitchy if I could no longer taste cookies and kneophla and similar carbohydrates needed for us to finish off the winter here in the North Country. Turns out even though I couldn’t taste, it did NOT mean I gave up on trying…(cue food randomly shoved into my mouth every ten minutes just to test my tastebuds…)

Anyway, as we tend to say around here, now we know what THAT feels like. Sending love to those who have lost loved ones or are still struggling with this horrible, unpredictable virus.

Here’s last week’s column

Since I can’t have you over…
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I don’t have to say this, because you all know it, but I’m gonna say it anyway — we really got what was coming to us, didn’t we? After a few weeks of 40 degrees below zero with minus 100 degree wind chills, I stepped outside this morning and thought, “Wow, it’s really warmed up out here.” It was minus 4.

But there was no wind, you know, so dang near tropical.

And, as luck would have it, the universe would dish out two weeks of COVID quarantine during the time when bundling up to get some fresh air could literally threaten our lives. So, yeah, we’ve been a good experiment on what’s more dangerous: 40 below zero temperatures, or staying in the house for two weeks with a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old, a husband and a pug.

At least they make neckerchiefs, face masks, Muck boots and hand warmers to help protect us against the weather. There’s no protection from a half-naked 5-year-old popping in on the middle of my inspirational Zoom monologue to 80-some school counselors. I mean, I thought there was. I thought his name was Chad and he was my darling husband, but he put too much trust in the fragile promises made by a young child when faced with an iPad that needs charging, so yeah, now my husband needs protection from me.

Turns out he’s just fine with taking a chance on the cold. I never thought I’d be jealous of having to fix a water tank in 23 below zero temps, but here we are.

Anyway, that’s how we’ve been holding up — with an unhealthy helping of Netflix, carbohydrates, arts and crafts, five-day sweatpants and naps. I’m not complaining about the naps. But I guess I am complaining, just a little, but in good fun and with gratitude for the fact that we all came out of it relatively unscathed and no worse for the wear.

I mean, really, it could be worse than having to hunker down for a few weeks during the longest, shortest month of the year in North Dakota. And while we’d all rather be on a tropical vacation somewhere, minus the freezing water tank and extra 5 pounds I likely gained (I don’t wanna know) maybe this was the next best thing.

What a weird, uncertain, unprecedented time to be alive and raising children, trying to be optimistic… trying to do the right thing. I want to reach out to you all and tell you that the other side of this pandemic will be easier, and that it’s coming, but we don’t know that for certain, do we?

Nothing’s promised. All we can do is do our best. Sometimes that’s letting your kids turn the gymnastics mat into an indoor Slip ‘N Slide and sometimes it’s a structured and well-executed, sanity-saving Pinterest activity that leaves your kitchen table looking like a tornado went through the craft section of Walmart.

But if I could have you over to our place, I’d sit you down at the counter and serve you crackers and cheese and whiskey or wine or hot tea and listen as you dished your troubles or told me a funny story about how your kid chose the wrong time to drop her first cuss word while we waited for the soup to finish simmering on the stove.

And since we can’t do that, I thought I’d fulfill some requests I received to share that cheeseburger chowder recipe I mentioned last week. I hope you take some time to make it and I hope it warms you up a bit. Until then, peace, love and I’d put some bacon in it if I were you…

( I shared this last week, but here it is in more official form)

Cheeseburger Chowder

PRINT: Click here for a printer-friendly version of this recipe

Ingredients:

8 ounces ground beef

¾ cup onion

4 cups diced potatoes

1 ½ cups frozen vegetables of your choice

1 teaspoon basil

1 teaspoon parsley

4 tablespoons butter, divided

3 cups chicken broth

1/4 cup flour

8 ounces Cheez Whiz

1 can cheddar soup

1 cup milk

1/4 cup sour cream

Directions:

Brown beef; drain and set aside. Saute onions, vegetables, basil and parsley in 1 tablespoon butter until tender.

Add chicken broth, potatoes and beef to a soup pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer 10 minutes, or until potatoes are tender.

In small skillet, combine 3 tablespoons melted butter and flour, and cook and stir until bubbly. Add to soup, then stir in Cheez Whiz, cheddar soup, milk and sour cream.

Peace, love and stay healthy!

To live wild

To live wild
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When I was a little girl all wrapped up in the magic of this place, my favorite book of all time was “My Side of the Mountain.” It’s a story about a boy who finds himself living away from home in the wilderness of the mountains inside of a giant hollowed out-tree.

I can’t remember the exact story now or why he was alone out there, but I remember diagrams of how to build a fire with no supplies and something about a windmill and making a spear for fishing.

I still have the book buried somewhere. It was one I couldn’t give up to charity or to my younger sister, as if keeping it meant that I wouldn’t forget what I wanted to be at 9 or 10 years old — wild and young and capable of survival out in the wilderness alone. Without a house. Or a toilet. Or my mom’s cheeseburger chowder.

Yes, there was a time that was my plan. In the evenings I would step off the bus, grab a snack and head out to the trees behind our house. For months I would work on building what I called “secret forts” all along the creek that winds through our ranch. I would drag fallen logs to lean against tree branches bent just right, keeping watch for my little sister who always followed far enough behind to not be noticed right away, identifying my plan and ruining the whole point of secret forts.

Once my log “shelter” was constructed, I would lie down on my back on the tall grass, fallen leaves and twigs underneath, and I would think about the next step. I would need a door, some rope and a knife… a fire ring, of course…

I would scour the creek bottom for granite rocks when the sun would start its slow sink below the banks, and then I would decide I wasn’t quite ready to spend the night, my stomach rumbling at the thought of supper on the stove at home, and then I would follow the cow trail back toward the familiar comfort of the house.

This was my daily ritual for months and one of my signature childhood memories. Eventually I gave in and helped my little sister build her own fort. A much smaller fort. Across the creek. Out of sight.

I thought I wanted to be alone out there, left to my own devices, but it turned out that having company was sorta nice. So we built a tin-can telephone that stretched from my fort to hers and brought down old chair cushions from the shed, searched for wild raspberries, tried to catch frogs and minnows in the beaver dam and spent our evenings planning our next move: spending the night.

But we never did it. Summer gave way to fall and the leaves fell and covered the floor of our paradise. We would pull on our beanies, mittens and boots and trudge down the freezing creek to clear out the fire ring we weren’t yet brave enough to use. And then the cold set in and the snow came and the neighbor girls called us to go sledding and our dream of being wilderness women collected snow and waited on a warmer season.

I can’t help but think about those girls on days like these. Days when the cold sets in and the house seems smaller. Days when the demands of the grown-up life I’ve built weigh heavy in responsibility and uncertainty and I feel tethered to them…

I try to remember a time where I felt like there was no one but me and the wind out here… the wind that calls, “Come have an adventure, girl. Come dream about hollowed-out trees…”

I step outside and I try to summon the magic as the cold bites at my cheeks and the snow crunches under my feet. I turn around and I miss the summers of my youth… I turn around and I’m alone with a woman who used to be a girl I knew, a girl who thought she might tame the coyotes one day, and break unbreakable horses, and live wild.

I follow the creek and look for her. I know she’s here somewhere. I hope she hasn’t given up…

You either keep driving or you pull over…

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I started traveling as a touring musician up and down the middle of America when I was barely 19. I took the interstate exits to highways that ran through small towns held up by community colleges and cafes, Main Street bars and churches with steeples, grain elevators and railroads and the promise of spring.

I came with my guitar and my white Chevy car pushing 200,000 miles with a bashed-in trunk from the icy North Dakota streets that render brakes worthless. That trunk, even after it was fixed, would stick sometimes, so I would have to pull down the seat to access my suitcase full of CDs and T-shirts, my set list and microphone and sound system. I played the part of struggling folk singer well, looking up the closest Super 8s and sustaining on fast food and gas station snacks, wondering what it would be like if I upgraded to a band with a van.

I decided I liked the solitude of the gig, but it would be nice to have backup. A stronger set of arms to help me with the trunk would have been nice. Or a navigator I could blame when I took the wrong turn through Green Bay that sent me in circles, throwing me off by an hour or two and landing me right in the middle of a blizzard heading west of Bismarck toward home on Interstate 94, white-knuckled on the wheel in the dark pushing midnight.

This predates the GPS everyone has on their phones now, but I did have a cellphone. And it’s times like these that a 19-year-old girl calls her dad, as if he has the power to stop the wind whipping blinding snow across a road you can’t see that’s supposed to get you home tonight.

“What should I do?” I asked him, crying in frustration, thinking maybe 90 miles from the ranch was close enough for him to come get me.

I remember now how independent the wide open road made me feel. I was comfortable there, driving early mornings and through the dead of the night. I navigated four-lane traffic and toll booths with much less confidence, but the highways and cheap hotel rooms seemed to be my element, just waiting there for me to find a story…

But that blizzard quickly humbled me up. Exhausted from 15 hours in the car, I felt helpless, wishing someone could come take the burden of the weather off my shoulders and onto their own.

“Well, there’s not much I can tell you, Jess,” my dad’s voice echoed on the other end of the line. “You either keep driving or you pull over. It’s your call.”

And that was that. There would be no rescuing that night.

So I inched my way off the interstate to the exit to Mott and pulled over to sleep the storm off in the car, waking up every 20 minutes or so, as you do when you’re a young woman alone with nothing but the radio, the car heater on high, three granola bars and the whipping wind to get you through the night.

I supposed then that this is what it means to be grown-up — paying the price for your idiot mistakes or decisions that didn’t turn out as you planned. With all the miles under those tires that needed to be changed, it hadn’t really occurred to me until that moment that the path I was carving for myself was mine alone to drive through.

I had officially left the nest for Super 8s and coffee shops and a car that would perpetually need repairs, or at least a new set of windshield wipers every once in a while.

“You either drive or pull over. It’s your call.”

But how do you know what to choose? I’ve asked myself that 1,000 times since my dad spoke those words, standing at the back window on the ranch, brow furrowed, worrying, watching the snow blow.

All these years later I haven’t come up with an answer except either one of them is a decision and it’s best for everyone if you make one at some point. It’s hell to go in circles — I learned that back in Green Bay…

On donuts and grandparents

On donuts and grandparents
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My dad has a funny story he tells about when he was a little boy living over the hill from his grandpa Eddie. Eddie, a widower since his mid thirties, made the best homemade donuts, fried and cakey like the ones we get at the local Lutheran church fundraiser ever year. I always buy an extra dozen or so thinking I’ll freeze them for special occasions, but they never make it to the freezer…

Anyway, my dad was about six or so and was sent over the hill to get a fresh made batch his grandpa promised to his family. So off he marched on a well-worn path between the places. He probably lingered at his grandpa’s for a bit, where he was treated to one or two with milk for his good deed, and then he was off to meander back home, back over that hill, swinging the bag around his head, slapping it against his legs and maybe a rock or two for good measure because it’s fun, and then back and forth across his body until he arrived home with his treats: a dozen perfectly fresh donuts completely annihilated to nothing but crumbs.

I love this story because it gives me a little glimpse into my dad’s relationship with his grandpa on this place during a time in a kids’ life when grandparents are particularly magical, freely sharing knowledge, laughter, pushup pops and in possession of a candy drawer within a child’s reach.

I also like the one where Dad and Uncle Wade ran over to grandpa Eddie’s without declaring their intentions. They were likely missing for a little too long, and so when Grandpa Eddie saw their mother marching over the hill, well, he did what any grandpa would do. He calmly said, “You boys better get home now” and sent them by short cut, so the boys would successfully beat their mother home without crossing her path along the way.

Having grandparents nearby is a special gift that I’m so grateful we’re able to give our children. I had it in some form or another growing up myself and I hold the memories of after school snacks, homemade bubbles, popsicles on the porch and card games of Skippo and Uno in the whimsical and comforting parts of my memory box. There was no one else who thought we were as special or funny or talented or charming. No one else as willing to have us sit around their kitchen tables and tell our long winded stories, or clap as enthusiastically for our saxophone concerts, spontaneous interpretive dances and living room plays.

On the porch with grandma Edie

And no one else would actually stop the car when my little sister yelled that her imaginary friend, Becky, had her hand stuck in the door.

Oh, good grandparents are pretty special. Any day now I’m expecting one of my girls to pack her suitcase and head down the road, running away from her mean mom to someone who truly cares (and who will let her have a cookie for breakfast, lunch and supper.) 

I think my little sister was around three, Rosie’s age, when our grandma Edie found her dragging the giant red Samsonite down the scoria road, running away from the ‘witch’ that was her mother.

Grandparents, simultaneously saving our children while saving us.

Babysitter falls through on Wednesdays? Call Nana. She’ll bring over a project and fold the laundry. Want to join the curling club? Grandma and Papa will take the kids for that evening once a week. Need reassurance that you’re not screwing them up? Papa will tell you they’re perfectly normal and then get after you for thinking otherwise.

Need someone to remind you that a little dirt won’t kill them? Just look to your own mother. She has proof. I mean, you’re still here after all.

No, I can’t imagine getting through parenthood without these wonderful humans, but more than that, it’s magical watching my daughters live out their grandparent sweet spot. I just wouldn’t trust them with the donuts quite yet.

Looking for my reflection in my grandmother’s journals

My reflection in Gramma’s old winter journals
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It’s January and we’re working cows again, sending our later calves out to the sale and retiring a few old cows, a couple who won’t stay on any side of the fence and the one that will run you over if you don’t watch your back.

If I get my office work done in time this morning, I will go out and help. My mother-in-law will be here in a few hours to watch the girls who, these days, are passing the time by drawing pictures and then cutting them up. All those toys for Christmas and right now my black magic marker and the kid scissors might as well be gold. I just have to remember not to turn my back on them too long…

Yes, January’s settling in. And it should be about 20 below zero these days, with wind whipping snow, but we haven’t seen that yet around here. It rained yesterday. The day before, I took a 2-mile walk out to the east pasture dam in nothing but a light coat and a vest with the dogs zooming out happily ahead of me, zipping back and forth across the hills like blurs.

The guys have been busy fixing fences and setting water tanks, tasks that are usually reserved for different seasons. It’s sort of eerie, this mild winter weather. Yesterday I stepped outside and it was quiet, the kind of quiet you can’t put your finger on, until you realize your ears aren’t freezing and your nose isn’t running and there’s not a lick of a breeze.

It reminded me of the winter we lived in Missoula, Mont., where the snow floated straight down in fluffy puffs, settling like frosting on rooftops and windowsills and tree branches where the thermometer never dipped too far below 20. In Montana, winter was more magic than punishment. When we returned back to the ranch for Christmas, I felt the North Dakota wind chill on my face in a new way, looking out across the prairie, a line of black cows slowly moving toward us as we worked on serving up the best part of their day.

Up here, the weather exasperates every possible sense and I hadn’t had the autumn to help me work into the bite of that kind of cold. I swear I could see it come to slap me on the cheeks and sting my eyes into squinting. More stable creatures would have retreated to the mountains to stay put. We were back in North Dakota by late spring.

Last week, my mom brought over some of my grandma Edie’s old journals, a stack of notes scrawled in the squares and margins of a Cenex calendar. Recounts of the day-to-day from a woman who was born, married, mothered, worked, lived and died on the edge of these Badlands.

I was only 10 when my grandma died suddenly; she was barely in her 60s. These days especially, I want her to have never left us. I didn’t get a chance to know my grandmother the way a grown woman knows her grandmother, and given that we’ve moved in on her turf, I’m sure she’d have some things to say. And I have questions.

So I pore over her words again. It’s been several years since I’ve done so, before I was a mother, before settling down for good in this place. Back then, I was searching for something with a little more dirt on it, a reflection on her mood or the way someone rubbed her the wrong or right way, some inner turmoil that revealed a sweltering side of her humanness… or maybe I just wanted to see myself reflected there somehow…

Oh, how we make the departed so exalted, don’t we? I pick them up again…

January 6, 1982: -26. Pete changed filters on the tractor, then it ran better. We hauled a load of calves to Dickinson for Paul, he bought us supper at the Queen City. Got home at 9:30.

January 10, 1982: -42. Tractor and pickup didn’t start until late in the day. Wade helped Pete feed so I didn’t go out.

January 14, 1982: + 40. I almost tipped the pickup over today, it was slippery.

January 15, 1982: -27. Really stormy today. I am cleaning the closet in the bathroom, what a mess…