Where we float

Lake Sakakawea Sunset

There’s something about having access to a lake like Lake Sakakawea that makes a 16-year-old feel simultaneously invincible and terrified. Jessie Veeder / The Forum

Where we float
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Recently, I loaded the girls up in the car for an impromptu trip to the shore of Lake Sakakawea, where my husband was finishing up a carpentry job on a cabin.

Our ranch is only about a half-hour drive to the shores of that big rustic lake surrounded by buttes and ranch country with more shoreline than California. As teenagers, my boyfriend and I would take every chance we could get to load up his dad’s old pickup with the canoe, or, if we were lucky and could get it running, his fishing boat, and head down to her muddy shores.

There’s something about having access to a lake like this that makes a 16-year-old feel simultaneously invincible and terrified. Like kings of the universe, but insignificant enough to understand that there are things in this world that could swallow us whole.

I stood on the edge of that water with our young daughters as we watched that boy I loved then, now a full-grown man, skip rocks halfway across the bay. The sun revealed a glint of white around his temples where his dark hair used to bleach in the sun, the same way our daughters’ hair is turning white under the first rays of summer.

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I felt the cool clay on my bare feet, the same bare feet that I used to prop up on the dash of his gray Thunderbird going way too fast with the windows rolled down, on our way to find a spot where we could fling open the doors of that old car, strip some layers off of our hot skin and run into the water, frantic and young and splashing until that lake did, in fact, swallow us up, just like it promised. But just for a moment, before we had to come up for air.

And the thing about love is that you can fall into it with anyone, anywhere. And maybe I fell in love with him in the halls of that high school when everything else was awkward and uncertain, except the boy who showed up each day to walk me to science class. But the campfires he built and the fish he caught and the cool water and the laughing and the way that he kissed me in that Thunderbird kept me there with him to see what the next summer might bring.

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That was 20 summers ago. Twenty summers that brought us right back here to the muddy banks where it began, watching our babies strip down to undies, splashing, tossing rocks and searching the banks of this massive shore for treasure upon treasure upon treasure, me with our girls and my darling dear husband, enamored, exhausted and smack-dab in the maddening middle part.

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And sometimes it feels like we were never those kids, like it was a million years ago, but in a million more our daughters will be doing the same. And then unlike us, they will likely fall in love again, and again and again until the timing is right or, more likely, completely wrong, and so then they will dive.

And I will watch them and be reminded about the falling part, the frantic, feet flying toward the freezing water, gasping for air, falling part and be glad for the memories…

And then, when I need to, I will tell them about the holding each other up part. Because that part, well, that’s where we float.

Chad and Jessie

 

How to be grateful

Thank you all for the outpouring of support, well wishes, love and prayers as we take  the next step to get this cancer out of me. I talked to the thoractic surgeon at Mayo on Friday and it sounds like they will open me up at my sternum to get the best look at the remaining tumor. The goal is to remove all of it by cutting my tracheal tract and putting it back together.  They will have a big team of doctors there to make sure they can handle any surprises and will be able to tell right away if they were able to get it all. If they can’t, I will be given the time I need to heal up and then we will proceed with radiation. This type of tumor responds well to radiation (and not well to chemo). 

I feel confident in the plan, nervous, and ready to get it behind me. I’m expecting the surgery to be scheduled in June sometime, but we haven’t made those plans yet. 

We have received such an outpouring of love from people far and wide and we feel your prayers and thoughts lifting us up and we are so grateful. 

How to be grateful
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When my girls walk out the door to play outside, and the sun is shining, and the wind is calm, as they run toward the playground or up the road to the big rocks, they say, “It’s a beautiful day!” Or, “It’s a perfect day for a walk,” or “It’s a good day to ride our bikes.”

And there are plenty of things that I say and do that I don’t want my kids to repeat (because I am a mother, but I’m far from perfect,) but I beam when I hear them have this sort of gratitude for a sunny day.

Because they’re so young, it gives me a bit of hope that the declaration and recognition of the good and beautiful things that they see and feel might become a sort of instinct that will serve them well when life is less than fair, less than perfect or unexpected in the worst ways.

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Since the removal of the tumor that was blocking my tracheal tract this month, and the unexpected diagnosis that it is “cancerous,” I’ve been thinking about what has notoriously pushed me through the difficult times in the past. And I’ve been thinking about gratitude and how it serves me.

But first, I want to share that I’ve been having a hard time saying that I have cancer because I don’t feel like the amount of suffering I am going to endure here warrants that loaded and scary word. Because I’ve seen cancer take its difficult toll on the people I know and love and I’ve seen sickness ravage their bodies and take the light from their eyes.

I don’t know this for certain, but from what I understand, my life with this diagnosis will be short-lived. And because of that, something in me wants to save that word for the warriors who’ve had to fight harder. And the ones that we lost to it.

I realize now the “it could be worse” mantra is one I go to when I’m staring down a fear or suffering with grief or worry. I would say it during our infertility struggle and pregnancy losses, and I would say it when my dad was sick and dying in the hospital bed. He survived. We all survived it. It could be worse. We are the lucky ones.

To recognize others’ suffering beyond our own, I think, is a useful tool. But then, sometimes, so is walking to the top of a hill and crying out “Why?!” In my life, I’ve done both.

But for now all I can think is that I’m thankful to breathe better and thankful for a diagnosis and for good doctors and a supportive community and that it’s a beautiful day to watch my girls drink from the water hose and tear off their clothes to run naked in the sprinkler.

Thankful that, because the stars aligned just right to keep me safe, I can be here for that.

And I’m thankful that all through my childhood, the people who surrounded me pointed out their blessings as they saw them so that I could see them, too.

Even if it was as simple as melting snow on the hilltops, a ripe tomato from the garden, the back of a good horse, enough Juneberries to make a pie or just the sunshine on our shoulders on a perfect day to ride our bikes.

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Do what we can do

Do what we can do
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Last week, I sat down and recorded myself singing. It was sort of chilly, but warming up the way early spring mornings do. And I wanted to be outside.

I wanted the recording to pick up the sound of the wind and the geese flying in overhead. I wanted to show the trees and sky behind me, and the sun I was squinting into. It wasn’t the most professional or produced, but it was a moment I felt I needed to take to do something in the face of the circumstances that are out of our control.

So I did one thing I knew I cold do — I sang familiar songs and hymns and talked into the camera about the crocuses blooming and the calves being born, my way of sending a little mini-concert and a piece of spring to the residents at nursing homes in our communities who can’t go out and can’t receive visitors.

This weekend at the Good Shepherd Home in town, they were supposed to be having a prom, complete with dresses, a fancy meal and a live band. Instead, they are playing tic-tac-toe on the window with their relatives and friends who sit on the other side, close enough to touch, but still so far away. What a heartbreakingly backward scenario our elderly find themselves in, the people they love most staying away to keep them safe.

It feels especially tragic when you know the positive effects that human interaction has on their physical and mental well-being. It’s the same for humans of all ages. We were made to be social. Made to be part of a village, made to take care of one another, to touch and hold and to laugh and cry together in the same spaces.

What an impossible situation to find ourselves in, going out in the world with the notion that every other person we see is a threat to our health. And yet, for now, this is our reality. To help one another. To keep one another safe.

On Feb. 4, 1920, The McKenzie County Farmer reported, “The McKenzie County Board of Health on account of a number of cases of influenza in the county deem it advisable to close all churches, lodges, theatres and public gatherings for a period of two weeks, or until further notice.”

100 years ago, in a time before video chat, Amazon Prime, grocery and food delivery, the county was asked to stay home, too. But 100 years ago, people weren’t as accustomed to instant gratification and 24/7 news and information streaming into their homes and in the palm of their hands.

It makes me wonder how the fear and uncertainty, isolation and loneliness compare. Those stories are held now only in journals, letters, newspaper clippings and the memories passed down in conversations with the people who raised us.

So much of the perspective we need right now can be found in the past. Because in the middle of it all, it’s the good memories that sustain us, and the new, good memories made that help push us on into another day.

And so I sang for them, because music can help transport us. And my friend, she brought her horses into town for a nursing home visit, because the smell and touch of something so familiar does the same.

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And we arranged for an artist to come to paint on the other side of their windows and ask them questions about who they are and what they love as they watched their story come to life in a picture.

 

And in a time where we feel helpless, doing what we can do, whether it’s singing or sewing or cooking or making a phone call or simply playing tic-tac-toe on a friend’s window, can help lift us all up in these uncertain times and remind us that, even when we’re apart, we exist for one another.

Resident at her window art

*Bismarck based artist Melissa Gordon was hired by our local arts Foundation through an Art for Life Grant offered by the North Dakota Council on the Arts. 

A piece of the sky

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A piece of the sky
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I spot a feather lying in the tall brown grass on my nightly walk to the east pasture. It’s from the wing of a hawk that has come back home for the spring, and I imagine it twirling and fluttering down from above to land softly on earth, a little piece of the sky landing right in my path.

I bend over to pick it up and put it in my ponytail for safekeeping, the same way I’ve done since I was a kid following my dad around the ranch, chasing cows on horseback or in his footprints on a hunt. It didn’t matter what we were doing, he would always stop in his tracks, get off his horse or bend down and pick up that feather to give to me.

This afternoon, I took my young daughters out to fly the kites I bought them for Easter. It was sunny and the wind seemed right, but it was pretty cold and I didn’t really have time for it. I should have been prepping for a conference call or making them lunch, multitasking my way to the end of another day.

Instead, I took to a pretty unmanageable task: a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old, a puppy, two kites and one mom hauling them all up a steep bank of a slippery hill to get the right wind. Because I was in it now, committed to getting those kites up, a small accomplishment turned big when that butterfly caught the air just right and started dancing against the sky.

The girls squealed with amusement and started jumping up to try to catch it, clumsy little ranch kids dressed in snowsuits in April. And for 30 seconds I felt so proud, before that kite did a nosedive back to earth, little Rosie needed to go potty and Edie got distracted by an old anthill.

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My dad told me his mom used to love to fly kites. She used to make them, box kites out of newspaper with tissue tails, and she would take her kids out on the right day in March to fly them.

Until today, I’d never flown a kite myself, not that I can recall anyway. Until today, I didn’t know that story about my grandma and her kites.

And I don’t know quite what I’m saying here except there are things we do just because we do them, like rolling all the windows down on the car on a hot day to let the air whip through our hair and dry the sweat on our sticky skin, even though the air conditioning’s on and it doesn’t really make sense except it makes us feel something.

I don’t know when my dad’s feather picking went from something he did once to a ritual, but 30-some years later here I am, a grown woman walking home with a feather in her hair. And I used to think that if I collected enough of them, I could build myself a pair of wings and fly away.

I know better than that now. We have to leave the flying to the birds, and focus on the task of being human.

But every time I see a feather, I pick it up. And if I told you now that I do it for my daughters, I’d be lying. I pick up those feathers for me. It’s what I do.

And I don’t really know why, except maybe it’s like my grandma and her kites, planted firmly in the earth, holding on tight to a little piece of the sky.

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A safe place to land

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A safe place to land
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Today it’s the wind that’s getting to everyone.

Even in the protection of the trees, the house is shaking, creaking and groaning under the assault of the weather. If I let my little kids go outside, they might fly right out of here, Mary Poppins-style.

So we’re playing inside today and watching the trees bend and sway while I shuffle these children from activity to argument to food and back again as time ticks on. It’s the outside that’s saving us these days, exactly the way it always has for me, rescuing me from the darkness of my own thoughts and from the work and worry that seems to push on me harder between the walls. And outside is the only thing currently rescuing my couch from being used as a trampoline…

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Outside is where new calves are being born on this ranch as I type, their mommas finding a safe spot in the trees or a dry spot in the sun to bring them into this world, lick them clean and urge them, only minutes earthside, to stand on their own four legs.

And if all goes well, like nature intended, a day growing in the sunshine will find those little calves running and bucking and kicking their legs up into the sky.

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The same sky that chatters with the faint cry of cranes and geese flying back to us, their summer home, trading places with their fellow bird for their spot in the V that helps carry them to a safe place to land.

 

They’ll come down to poke through a tangle of last year’s foliage to find green grass and clover and, right on time, the soft petals of crocus after crocus, slowly and deliberately emerging from the damp earth.

They’ll come down to sit in the beaver dams and stock dams and sloughs and lakes that are just warming up enough to lose the last of their ice. We would be so cold, but they were made for this, the birds.

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So then what are we made for? I can’t help but wonder it more each day as the world is shaken and we adjust our habits and face loss and uncertainty in so many of its forms. And unlike the birds, unlike the beaver or the cattle, the grass and the wild wind whipping through this place, humans can answer this question with list upon list of our individual strengths and passions that help make the world go ‘round.

But if there’s a collective answer for us, I think now more than ever we might realize that it is to take care. And so it has always gone out here on the ranch. The regimen of digging into the stockpile of work, feeding and caring for the animals and the land so that it can, in turn, feed and care for a larger world, feels a bit more comforting now.

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It reminds me that even the howling wind has a purpose, to slow us down so it can help move the rain clouds and spread the seeds. And although we might not all be able to withstand the bitter cold or the blazing heat or this relentless uncertainty alone, we can lean into the wind and, like the geese and the cranes, find our spot in the V and together, find a safe place to land.

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Only the crocuses know

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Only the crocuses know
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A few days ago, I went out searching for crocuses.

The sun had been warm enough to dry the hilltops and gravel roads and so I thought a few of them may have been summoned. With my head down searching, I climbed to all the familiar places on the ranch where I know they live, just under the dirt, waiting for the right morning to take the risk and reach up.

I didn’t see a hint of that purple promise of spring.

The next day, I woke up to a blanket of fresh snow covering every inch of this place. It was April 1. I’d been fooled.

And so the snowflakes fell in big chunks outside our window all morning as my kids were slow to wake up for another day of playing mommies or monsters or dress-up. I shuffled around this house, picking up toys, kissing owies, taking phone calls, making food, cleaning up food and answering countless inquiries for Mommy to find it, Mommy to fix it, Mommy to come here, Mommy to hold me…

A few weeks ago, these tasks and countless requests from my children would have been competing with my sense of urgency to get my work done, to meet a deadline, to prepare for an event, to wake my kids up early to get in the car and leave the ranch with the sunrise. These days, the only place we need to be is home.

And aren’t we the lucky ones.

“Seems like we’re just living like we used to live out here,” my dad observed, recalling memories of his childhood on this place before the road to town was paved, before private phone lines, before he was old enough to know what he might be missing in that great big world that existed beyond these hills.

A few months ago, my 4-year-old started to ask me every night, “Where are we going tomorrow?” It was a question that snuck up on me, like somehow I didn’t think she would notice the rushed breakfasts, the late suppers, the weekends spent without me while I was on the road singing for that supper.

You all know we’re only in the beginning of this plea to retreat and distance ourselves from the lives we’ve grown accustomed to. And that looks like different things to different families, depending on situation and story.

But for us, even with the weight of worry heavy on my chest for all of the circumstances out of our control, I’m finding peace and strength in leaning into what is, like picking up toys, kissing owies, taking phone calls, making food, cleaning up food and answering countless inquiries for Mommy to find it, Mommy to fix it, Mommy to come here, Mommy to hold me…

And my walks to the hills, a daily reminder that to everything there is a season, and there’s no amount of worry and wishes that will make the crocuses grow.

Because only the crocuses know.

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Greetings from isolation

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Greetings from quarantine where we’re thankful for two full freezers, homemade chicken noodle soup and a community that is taking this outbreak and showing colors of caring and foresight and solidarity.

Also, YouTube. I am thankful for YouTube. Edie and I used it yesterday to work on our drawing skills and pass the time creatively while we wait for things to warm up so we can spend more time outside.

If you are home with little ones who like to create, I recommend visiting Art for Kids Hub and trying out their drawing tutorials together.

I am making it a goal to try to find a different creative project to do with Edie (and Rosie if she can sit still) each day, so watch my Instagram and Facebook stories if you want to follow along.

In the meantime, I’d like to share a podcast that I was honored to be a part of a few weeks ago. Rebecca Undem is the host of The Small Town Big Talk Show where she interviews guests about what it means to live big in a small town. As you can imagine I felt like this woman was hand picked as a friend for me, and we connected right off the bat. I was honored to be able to share a bit of my story and theories on why it’s important to invest in our small towns.

Enjoy and stay safe and healthy out there.

Sending love and a picture of Millie in a sweater.

The Small Town Big Talk Show with Rebecca Undem

On the show today, Jessie Veeder, musician, rancher, and author of a weekly column in North Dakota’s largest news publication, joins us to talk about her journey back to her rural community in western North Dakota. She shares about growing up in her community, and how she wasn’t encouraged to return due to the belief that there wasn’t a future for her there.
Now, after making her way back home, she’s contributing so much to the vibrancy of her community and she encourages us to do the same.

In this episode, we tackle… Why did it seem that you had no future in your small town? At the time when Jessie graduated, it didn’t seem that they were many prospects. Now, with great rural internet, she’s living a multi-passionate life that allows her to express all her unique gifts in a way that only she can. This future didn’t really exist for her then and now, it does.

Listen to this episode to hear more about: How to create a sense of place in your community and why it matters
Why quality of life and economic development are no longer separate in small towns How to make changes without ruffling feathers
How reconnecting to what you loved as a child can spark ideas
Why giving others ownership over projects is so important

Connect with Jessie: Websites: http://www.veederranch.com or jessieveedermusic.com Instagram: instagram.com/jessieveeder Facebook: facebook.com/veederranch

About Jessie Veeder: Singer, songwriter, writer and community advocate Jessie Veeder tells the story of Western North Dakota. An Americana musician with heartfelt, honest lyrics, Jessie has been singing and talking about the buttes and creeks of her family’s working cattle ranch since releasing her first original album at age 16. Since then she has gone on to tour nationally and record four more albums, the latest, “Northern Lights” recorded in Nashville in 2015. Jessie’s nationally acclaimed song “Boomtown,” a folk ballad about life for people in the Bakken has been featured on area news programs, national and international documentaries and put her on the frontlines of telling the story of community in oil country.

Since 2010 Jessie and her husband, Chad, have worked alongside her father as the fourth generation stewards of the Veeder Ranch where she chronicles life on the land as a weekly columnist for state-wide newspapers and on her popular blog titled “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…Her book “Coming Home,” released in 2017 is a compilation of her favorite photos, poems, stories and recipes. Jessie is currently working on a new album, “Playin’ Favorites,” due to be released this spring.

Jessie is a founding member of McKenzie County’s Long X Arts Foundation where she works as Tourism’s Art and Event director to help create and promote cultural and arts based activities in her hometown, blending her love and connection to the arts with her drive to make her community a better place to work and live.

No one’s sleeping

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My oldest daughter hasn’t been sleeping well lately.

Nighttime has become a routine of reading four books, then one more, please one more, and then singing three songs and then one more and then fulfilling a request to tell her the entire plot of “Frozen” while she comes up with another excuse for me not to leave her alone in her room.

“Please don’t go. Now tell me about ‘Frozen II.’ Please. Stay and snuggle me…”

She doesn’t want to be alone. And so none of us have been sleeping well lately, struggling between wanting to teach our 4-year-old independence and self-soothing and just giving into laying down with her, holding on tight before she grows too big to need us this way anymore.

Who cares if I wind up with a foot in my face and my body dangling halfway off the bed with no covers in reach? Who cares if we’re sleeping with her until she goes to college?

“Why now?” I wonder aloud to my husband as we telepathically will the other parent to deal with her 2 a.m. visit to our bedroom.

Is she growing? Is she scared of something? Are we spoiling her beyond repair? Are there really monsters in her closet? How do we not screw this child up?

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Last night, after the bedtime stories and snuggles and songs and snuggles, I tried a compromise to spending the night with her and set up camp outside her bedroom door. I could hear her tossing and turning as I scrolled through the news on my phone that, minute by minute, seemed to pile up to what was starting to feel suspiciously like the end of the world.

Every once in a while, my daughter would get out of her bed to check to see if I was still there, and with each check-in I reassured her, but tried not to give in. “I’m still here. Go lay in bed. I’m still here. Please, try to go to sleep.”

This went on for a good hour or so, which left me alone on the hard hallway floor facing the news of a country that’s divided and a disease that’s spreading and a world that’s uncertain and populations of people trying not to panic.

ARCHIVE: Read more of Jessie Veeder’s Coming Home columns

And even though I knew I should tear myself away from it, take a deep breath and find my perspective again, I just felt my own anxiety rising in the back of my throat. In the dark and quiet of a privileged life in a house on the ranch that used to feel so far from everything, I was feeling scared.

And the fear wasn’t necessarily for myself, but for a world full of people who could be impacted beyond repair, not necessarily just by the things out of our control, but more disturbingly, by the decisions we make. How do we not screw this up?

Suddenly, it was me who needed reassurance. Suddenly, it was me who didn’t want to be alone in the dark with my own thoughts. Suddenly, I could relate to my daughter who had been tossing and turning and worrying and checking to make sure I was still there for her for the past hour.

She just wanted to feel safe. I just wanted to feel safe, laying smack in the middle of a metaphor my tiny daughter had created for me.

Because collectively, right now, that’s what we all want. To feel like we’re taken care of and that we have the means to take care of ourselves.

We want to have a plan. We want to be in control. And if we can’t be in control, we at least want to feel like we have the right people, our community, sitting on the other side of the door telling us not to worry.

We’re here.

We’ve got you.

Rest easy tonight.

I know it’s not just this house losing sleep these days. So I got up off the floor and went in to lay with my daughter, who curled in next to my body and immediately fell asleep. And it might not be the right thing, but it felt right to me then, because sometimes the only thing we can do is be present and hold on.

Now, let me tell you about “Frozen II.”

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To gather, and all the things that phrase means to a ranch woman

Cows by the dam

To gather, and all the things that phrase means to a ranch woman

To gather. As a ranch woman, this phrase conjures up images of roundup season, sitting on top of my horse and moving our cattle together from all corners of our pastures.

It’s the throaty hum of the animals’ voices as they call to their calves or to one another or out into the world, seemingly saying, “I’m here, I’m coming. All right already.”

It’s the creak of the old cows’ bones as we let them slowly navigate themselves toward a well-worn path they know toward home. And it’s the “heya” and the “c’mon” we let out of our lungs as we follow the small sea of black backs, the quiet counting and calculations in our heads, our warm breath cooling down in the autumn air.

It’s the swing of our leg off the saddle and the swing of the gate when they’re all in and accounted for so we can take a deep breath, put our hands on our hips and say, “Well, all right then…” and move on to the sorting.

I recently participated in a different kind of gathering down in Elko, Nev. A gathering of cowboy poets, musicians, artists and fans from across the world in an event dedicated to the stories we tell about a way of life that I would say is more rough than it is romantic, except it’s the rough parts that make it so.

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The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. That’s what they call it. And I like that they call it that, because that’s what it is.

It’s a gathering of people, ideas, stories, music, art and conversation in a small town in the dessert in the middle of winter when the cowboys and ranchers that create have time to take leave from the Plains or the mountains to connect with other artists and an audience eager to hear from them so that they might be a part of that life, too, if only for a few days under a felt hat.

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Mike, Dad and I with Cowboy poet Jake Riley

That is, if they have someone at home to feed the cattle and the kids. Which is where my husband falls in the story. Because everyone wants to be a cowboy until it’s actually time to do cowboy stuff, and so he got the less-glamorous gig of wiping toddler noses and rolling out hay bales while I was shaking hands and singing under the lights.

ARCHIVE: Read more of Jessie Veeder’s Coming Home columns

And I couldn’t help but look out into the audience of hundreds of anonymous silhouettes sitting still and quiet and ready to nod along and feel overwhelmingly grateful that somebody thought the world needed an event like this. Because in the 20-some years that I’ve been writing music and performing, I’ve never found a better muse than the rural community, rugged landscape and ranch life in which I was raised.

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An American Forrest , Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Corb Lund on stage in Elko

But in the miles I’ve traveled up and down the Midwest, I have questioned if it ever really resonates, if there is anyone else out there who thought the world needed a song with a rhythm based on hoof beats. I’ve spent a career slowly finding those people who do, and then, three airplanes later, I found myself in a land where they’ve all congregated for us, caffeinated, fed, inspired and ready to listen.

To gather.

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Shared the stage with Brigid & Johnny Reedy

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This talented little ranch girl Marinna Mori

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With film maker Clare McKay and songwriter Anna Rose Pozzi

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Ran into Cowboy Poet, songster and podcaster Andy Hedges

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With the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliot

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And then randomly, one of my favorites, Colter Wall was in the greenroom

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Dad

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The morning gathering of entertainers at the Western Folklife Center

I kept saying it to myself as I looked out in this community the Western Folklife Center created in Elko for people like me and people nothing like me at all.

What happens when we gather? Those differences become less important than the way a song about loss reminds us both of similar struggle.

Or the way we collectively clapped and laughed, the whole auditorium full of us, as he yodeled and kicked up his leg.

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Backstage listening to the Munsick Boys

Or the silence none of us discussed but honored as an 85-year-old legend, with a voice worn from years of songs and stories, closed his eyes and worked through another one on a stage that afternoon.

And so I couldn’t help but feel a bit like our cattle that week down in Elko, surrounded by a sea of hats and smiles, reaching out to touch one another as we drew closer to say, “I’m here! I’m coming. All right already,” taking a familiar path toward a place that feels like home.

And I’m back at the ranch now, hands on hips, ready for the sorting…

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The Animals of Winter

Animals of winter
Like the animals of winter

Last week, I went out into the winter. I squeezed into my long underwear, pulled on layers, tied my scarf around my neck, made sure my wool cap covered my ears and zipped my coat to my chin.

The snow was fresh and the wind was blowing it in sparkly swirls around the barnyard. The hay bales were adequately frosted in neatly stacked white drifts, remnants of the small blizzard that blew through the ranch in the evening and was lingering into the late morning hours.

I stuck out my tongue to taste the snowflakes and snuggled down into the collar of my coat like a turtle as I walked toward the horses munching on hay below the barn. I wished I had their fur coats, thick and wooly and brave against the wind. I wished I had their manes, wild and tangled and smelling of dust and autumn leaves, summer heat and ice.

They keep it all in there, all of the seasons.

Horses in Snow

They nudged and kicked at one another, digging their noses deeper in the stack of hay, remembering green grass and fields, tasting warmer weather in their snack. I lingered there with them, noticing how the ice stuck on their eyelashes and clung to the long hair on their backs.

I scratched their ears and pulled some burs out of their manes and imagined what grove of trees they picked to wait out the storm last night, standing close and breathing on one another’s back. A herd.

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I followed them out of the protection of the barnyard and into the pasture where the frozen wind found my cheeks and the dogs cut footprints in the fluffy snow in front of my steps. They played and barked and jumped and sniffed and rolled in the white stuff, like children on a snow day.

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I found the top of the hill and let myself feel the cold. I had forgotten how my cheeks can go numb, how my fingertips ache, now my eyelashes stick together at the close of a blink and how the wind finds its way through the layers of clothing and freezes my skin.

I forgot that sometimes it doesn’t matter that you took care to wear wool socks and three pairs of pants — we are never as prepared as the animals. Sometimes, the weather just wins.

Winter barn

I wished I had fur on my ears, tufts on my feet, whiskers to catch the snow. I wished I had hard hooves to anchor me, my own herd to lean against, to protect me from the wind. I wished I was part of a pack, chasing and jumping and rolling through the drifts.

I might have stayed out longer if I had these things. I would have explored how the creek had froze, stuck my nose in the snow, walked along the banks of the coulee, leaned against the buttes and followed the indecisive sun.

But my scarf wasn’t thick enough, there was snow in my boots and my skin is fragile and thin. No, my body’s not wooly and my nose is not fuzzy. And my fingers? Well, if we can’t have hooves, then we at least have fingers, to knit sweaters and sew together blankets, our hands to build fires and houses to protect us, our arms to wrap around one another, our feet to propel us toward shelter or sun and our brains to invent things like warm, spicy soup and hot coffee and buttery buns.

No, we might not have fur coats, but we have opposable thumbs. I pointed my frozen feet toward the house and flung open the door, stripped off my layers and stood over the heater vent, happy for my warm house and man-made blankets.

And happier still for a promise of spring that isn’t too far away on this winter day…

Winter Horses