September and what keeps it precious

This week on the podcast I sit down with my little sister and talk of the weather turns to embarrassing moment confessions. The flies and the wasps and the rooster and the tomatoes and the mice are taking over the ranch and we talk about it all. Catch it here or on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

The evenings are getting cooler as the sun sets a bit more quickly and I’m canning tomatoes and chopping up peppers from the garden for salsa so we can have a piece of summer when winter hits hard.

I can preserve our garden vegetables, but haven’t yet found a way to capture the smell of the season changing and the color of the green and gold leaves against an overcast morning sky. This season is so unpredictable, sneaking up on us slowly in the middle of a hot summer day and leaving with a strong gust of wind.

But this year it seems to be settling in despite the heat. The trees that were first to display their leaves this spring are the first to display their colors this September and I’m reminded of roundup season and spitting plums at my little sister on her pony, Jerry, as we rode behind our dad to gather cattle.

Working cows in the fall has always been one of my favorite events of the season. My memories find me as a young girl bundled up in my wool cap and my dad’s old leather chaps braving the cool morning and a long ride through coulees, up hills, along fence lines and under a sky that warmed the earth a little more with each passing hour.

I would strip off my cap first, and then went my gloves and coat, piled on a rock or next to a fence post for easy retrieval when the work was done. Dressing in layers is a different level on the ranch.

Moving cattle, even then, never felt like work to me—probably because I was never the one responsible for anything but following directions and watching the gate. It was during that long wait that I would make up the best songs, sing the loudest, find sticks for slingshots or the perfect feather for my hat.

Turns out these days my role working cattle hasn’t changed much. I remain the peripheral watcher, the one who makes sure the cows don’t turn back or find their way into the brush or through the wrong gate.

Recently our little ranch crew met in the morning to move cows to a different pasture. Dad, my uncle and aunt who summer up here from Texas, my little sister, my husband and I saddled horses in the crisp air of the morning and met to stretch out across the Peterson pasture and make the move through a couple gates to Hughes (every pasture has a name, these attached to the old homesteaders.)

It was pretty nice and easy because that’s the way we work cattle here. Just let them take the lead mostly, which occasionally finds you off your horse walking through the thick brush or chasing out across the pasture after a stray, or, sometimes deciding on another approach entirely because that’s the way they want to go.

With the exception of a wreck, nothing can really ruin this for me, sitting horseback on a cool morning slowly making its way into a hot afternoon.

I could walk these trails on the back of a horse forever and not get tired of them. Because each month the pastures change–a new fence wire breaks, the creek floods and flows and dries up, the ground erodes and the cows cut new trails, reminding me that the landscape is a moving, breathing creature.

And I am the most alive when I’m out here, and what makes it even sweeter is that I know the rest of the crew, my family, feels the same way too. I listen as they make conversation about the calf crop and plans for the day. I follow behind like I always have and look around to notice the way the light bounces off of cowboy hats and trees slowly turning golden.

I wait for instruction and find my direction while my husband cuts a path through the trees to search for hidden cows and my dad lopes up to the hilltop to scan the countryside.

I move a small herd toward the gate with my sister and wake a bull from the tall grass at the edge of the pasture. Dad comes up off the hill to join me, the cattle he’s found moving briskly in front of him toward the rest of the herd. We meet up quick to wonder where uncle Wade might be and find him over the hill waiting at the gate with the rest of the cattle. We push them through to taller grass and up to water to help them settle in. We wonder if we got them all.

And that’s how it goes generally, the six of us, this time with the exception of Dad stopping to take a picture of my little sister, creating the opportunity for one squirrelly calf to cut back. He laughed as he went after her, thinking what his own dad might say about stopping for a picture.

But why not take a picture? Morning makes its way into the afternoon and if we let ourselves, we might remember that we don’t get an infinite number of fall days like this in our lifetime. Isn’t that what keeps it all so precious?

We head toward home and talk about lunch and the fencing that needs to get done. And cattle prices. And the deer population. And the weather and the changing leaves and all of the things that need discussing when you’re on the back of a horse, on the edge of a season, on a piece of earth that’s constantly changing…even though, year after year, up here… I always feel the same.

Lessons in life and heartbreak on the ranch

I started this piece last week as an introduction and recap of the latest spring storm. Since then we’ve been on the warm up, watching the snow drifts turn the ground to mud and exposing some green grass. And we’ve added another bottle baby, a twin, to our mix, putting us up to a total of 4, one for each little girl to feed if we can all get out there together. It looks like this week we’ll see 70 degree temperatures for a few days, and everyone’s spirits are lifted by that. Uncle Wade headed back to Texas and the girls are in their final month of school for the year and we have summer on our minds. I’m headed off to visit a few schools this week with the book “Prairie Princess” so I’ll be seeing some of the state thaw out and green up before my eyes and whenever I get a chance I’ll be on those hilltops, checking again, for crocuses, and probably collecting a few ticks.

Lessons in heartbreak on the ranch
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As I write this, the sun is shining after another really tough weekend of weather. As you read, we are likely getting more of the forecast moisture, but by now we’re all familiar with the storm that rolled into western North Dakota that started with rain, turned to ice and then into over a foot of more snow blowing sideways in up to 65 mph gusts throughout last Saturday and into Sunday afternoon.

This one was just as hard or harder on our herd because, No. 1, wet and freezing weather is tough on livestock, especially newborn calves. No. 2, we are full-on calving now, and No. 3, we lost power on Saturday, April 23, around 3:30 p.m. and didn’t get it back until around 6:30 p.m. on Sunday. As I write this, some in our county are still waiting for the lights to come back on. And it all felt a little spooky, honestly.

On Saturday afternoon, right before we lost power, the guys pulled four soaked, shaking and newborn calves in from the storm to try to save them and our entryway turned into a bovine nursery, complete with all four little girls helping to dry them, warm them and get them to eat if we could.

My sister, Alex, sat with the newest calf on her lap, scrubbing him with towels, drying him and asking him to hang in there. But after our last-ditch effort of pumping him full of electrolytes, he didn’t make it another 20 minutes. The girls were heartbroken and so we sat on the steps together, working it out with them, wiping little tears, worried that he might not be the only one in our entryway with such a fate.

My sister and I hang on to memories like this one of being kids during calving season. The excitement of bringing the calves inside always held with it a bit of anxiety knowing that they were there with us because something wasn’t going right. So that’s the lesson I tried to give the girls, that nature can be cruel, and we’re here to be caretakers, doing the best we can. But sometimes there’s nothing more we can do.

And so we move on to the next thing we can do. I don’t think they’re too young right now to learn about life and death and how to care for helpless things. It’s not too early to learn how fragile it all can be and what a big job it is to be responsible for these animals.

I don’t want to be dramatic, but my sister and I cried a bit about that calf, too. We were hoping for a victory, but it was a tough day to be born. So we focused our attention on tiny No. 4, the one the girls named Strawberry, who wouldn’t stand up or take a drink. The next morning, after a fair amount of patience, I finally got her to drink an entire bottle. This morning, she was bawling for it and I got my victory there. Funny how you can be so proud of a calf. And so the guys loaded all three of those baby bovines into the back seat of the pickup to graduate them to the barn — and that right there is why everything we own out here is covered in poop and slobber in the spring.

This week, the guys are counting the calves and keeping close watch, making sure they all get paired up with the cows who get mixed up during stressful times like this. When we woke up on Sunday morning, all four of my family members tucked in our big bed to stay warm, we were a little unsure of what we’d find down in the trees where the cattle hung out for protection on layer upon layer of hay. But these cattle are tough, and so are their babies, and as soon as the sun started to peek out from behind the clouds, there were calves running and bucking and perking right up. I couldn’t believe it.

Baby Calf Kevin tucked in safe and sound

Nature is cruel, but instinct and being bred for hardiness plays a part in the equation, and those two things didn’t disappoint us in our herd. Neither did the natural protection of the trees and valleys and all of the family around us helping take care.

Fresh new baby on greening grass

This one will be in the record books. Some neighbors in other corners of the county were literally digging cows and calves out of snowbanks where they were stuck standing. And there’s so much to reflect on, and so many lessons my husband and I have learned about how we could be better prepared for next time. And so we put that in our pockets and in our plans and keep digging out, more thankful for the sunshine than ever.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Under these snowbanks is green grass, and this, I think, has become a metaphor for almost every hard time in my life. The rainbow after the rain. I believe it always comes, sometimes naturally and in its own time. Sometimes you have to just buy yourself an ice cream cone and make that count. Either way, I hope you’re all finding your silver lining. Stay warm out there. Chin up. If you need us, we’ll be mixing giant calf bottles and heading to the barn…

Listen to this week’s column with commentary in my first attempt at a podcast

Ok folks, I’m trying something new. I’ve decided to record each week’s column with a bit of commentary in a weekly podcast format. This first attempt is a bit rough as I just wanted to see what it was all about, but I think it could be a nice option for readers to be listeners. My plan is to incorporate more discussion on each week’s topic and to hopefully include some of my family, friends and maybe you in the conversation. Oh, and there will be music too.

Hang with me as I work through this, but I think it’s going to be fun!
Click here to listen on Spotify
Or search “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” on Apple Podcasts

What they left behind Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

This week Jessie sits down with her husband to talk about homestead houses and how history can haunt us, just like the Goat Man Chad encountered near the Lost Bridge in the badlands. Find out what word Jessie just made up out of thin air last week, hear a story about Lutheran kids dressing up as nuns and get the scoop on the spooky relic from the old house behind Jessie's childhood home that chills her still.  Plus, Jessie  reads this week's column. Read it yourself  in Forum  Communication's newspapers across the region or on her website at http://www.veederranch.com — Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/veederranch/support
  1. What they left behind
  2. It's Tomato Season and I'm Coming For You
  3. The yard light's back on
  4. Welcome to the season change
  5. Cheers to Middle Age

Fall work and the promise of rain

On Saturday, it rained.

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

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

Never has.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s almost always hard.

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

Why I’m moving to the suburbs

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

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

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

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

And neither is trotting for that matter.

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

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

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

I yell, “What?”

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

So I do.

Only there isn’t a trail.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I cuss.

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

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

It does not start.

So I drive him and the horses home.

Slowly.

Because I have precious cargo.

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

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

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

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

“Because I just bit into a stick.”

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

A year of work ends at the sale barn

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We sold our calves last week.

With snow on the ground and our warm breath turned to ice in the crisp morning air, we layered up, saddled up and gathered up our herd of Black Angus and Simmental cattle and loaded up the calves to head toward the sale barn in town.

My husband pulled a trailer load out of the ranch while I served the neighbors and family who helped us some of that good ol’ spiceless North Dakota chili and watched one of the bachelors eat at least six or seven apple bars for dessert.

And when they all left, I was suddenly alone in my house for the first time in months, smelling like horsehair and plenty warm because of the long underwear and silk scarf that stayed on through lunch. And I probably should have taken the time to clean up the kitchen and do something domestic-looking after the whirlwind that fall inevitably brings to the ranch, but sale day gives me a bit of nervous energy.

 

Typically we think of it as a whole year of work riding on what the market is doing that day, but for us, even though it’s not our sole source of income, it’s so much more. It’s holding your breath to be given a sign that we are not crazy people. That there might be a future for us in this cattle business somewhere, no matter the slow, steady and cautious pace with which we are pursuing it, working to find our footing as the new generation here.

And so I decided I couldn’t stay at home cooking and cleaning, waiting to hear the numbers — I had to go watch it myself. So I grabbed my young daughters and their tiny pink cowboy hats and we headed toward Dickinson.

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I wasn’t going to bring them. I mean, taking a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old to a smelly, noisy sale barn 60 miles away on a Thursday night during suppertime is really just asking for it, but I felt like we all needed to be there, this year especially.

Because, despite the smell, I love the sale barn. It reminds me of the Carhartt coveralls that I outgrew long before I was willing to hand them down, and being 8 or 9 and sitting shotgun next to my little sister, next to Dad, warming our flushed cheeks in the old Dodge pulling a load of Black Baldy calves through the breaks after an early-morning roundup.

It reminds me of patience in a time with less distraction, of a time when a can of Mountain Dew, a cheeseburger and maybe a Snickers bar at the little cafe there was a big-deal treat and took the sting out of the 45-minute wait in the pickup to unload with nothing but AM radio to cut the boredom.

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And so when I walked my girls into Stockmen’s Livestock Exchange, we wasted no time getting that pop and a burger, feeding my nostalgia while feeding them supper.

 

And when we took those steep steps up to sit on the benches in the ring, I quickly became aware that we were the kind of circus they just might appreciate around there.

“What is going on, Mommy?!” my little Rosie asked in complete wonder, pausing to watch before unloading all the tiny plastic cows, steers, horses and a Mickey Mouse onto the bench to amuse herself.

“We’re selling our calves today!” I told her proudly, which promptly set her big sister off into tears, declaring dramatically that she was going to miss them “so, so much!”

Twenty minutes and three plastic ponies flung at the buyers below us later, our load number was up and our calves began to enter the ring, just as Rosie spilled the entire contents of her pop down my husband’s back.

And just like that, the day we’d been working for all yearlong had come and gone, the scent of cattle on our clothes and plans for the year ahead drowning out the doubts as we chased our headlights and our bedtimes back home through the Badlands.

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The Rancher’s Wife Mic Drop

Gramma and Grampa

Grandma Edie and Grampa Pete

If a rancher invented cussing, a rancher’s wife invented the walkaway mic drop
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The first time I heard my dad swear was when he was standing in the horse trailer at a high school rodeo in New Salem while my horse was standing on his foot.

Or maybe it was that time the bulls got out and bringing them back with only the help of an 11-year-old was going about as swimmingly as you can imagine.

Wait, no, I think it was the time he stepped off a young horse to open a gate and that horse began his slow and methodical side pass toward home, leaving the reigns just out of Dad’s reach.

Well, I can’t remember exactly, but my dad doesn’t swear much — so when he did, it made an impression on me. It meant a brief loss of the positive nature he exuded that fooled us all into believing we were going to be all right out there chasing bulls out of brush patch after tick-infested brush patch.

But mostly it was the string of words he chose to stitch together when it all finally did come spitting out, slowly and with utter, exasperated passion in a sort of poetic way that only a frustrated rancher could pull off.

Anyway, it just sinks in the point that being a cowboy is glamorous and everything, until it’s time to do cowboy things. I think it was likely a rancher who invented cussing. He was probably working on broken equipment.

And it was the rancher’s wife who invented the walkaway mic drop. Because the rancher’s wife is often times a rancher, too, unless you’re my mom who steps about as far into the calf pen as the porch outside her house and only gets her hands as dirty as they can get while planting geraniums, which is probably one of the reasons they’re still married, honestly.

My dad’s parents, however, worked side by side on the Veeder ranch during a time when the stakes were a bit higher on this place. And so it wasn’t always as romantic as their once-a-year trip down to the river to go catfishing.

And because I admired my Grandma Edie so much when I was young and she was still alive, I always lean in when my dad and uncle start sharing stories of their childhood with their mother at the helm.

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Last night, after the last few bites of my mom’s lasagna and a comment about my recent run-in with a cranky cow, the brothers sat back and remembered the time their mother was out helping move a bovine with a similar attitude from the pen below the barn to one in front of the barn.

It sounded like one of those moments where my grandpa passed on his own unique string of cuss words to the next generation as the cow did her best to fight the system and run past the gate and toward members of the happy family yelling and waving sorting sticks.

And then that cow turned on my grandma, chasing after her as she ran for her life toward the fence while my grandpa yelled at her, “Run toward the gate!”

And the part where their mother continued her climb over the fence and, without a word and without looking back, walked straight through the barnyard and up the hill into the house, leaving her husband standing there with only his foot in his mouth and stick in his hand, will forever be etched into the memories of her two sons.

And that, my friends, is what you call a mic drop that will live on in history…

Shifting winds of confidence…

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Shifting winds of confidence
Forum Communications

Some days, if the wind is just right and I’m the proper amount of sleep-deprived, I can convince myself that I’m a rock-star cowgirl who has this work, ranching, cattle and kid-raising situation under control.

Like last weekend when I was helping sort cows into the chute for medicine, for example. I was following the cattle down the alley with a sorting stick yelling “Whoop, whoop, c’mon girls, hya, hya, hya!” feeling strong and capable. When they loaded right into the chute and I grabbed the rope to close the gate, climbed up on the fence for a head count (which we all know is the most important thing, really) and then hopped back down to do it all over again, I had a brief moment where I thought, “Well, this is the life. I can do this. I was made for this.”

But that confidence? Well, it comes in waves. Or, because we’re in North Dakota, more like gusts.

Because just as soon as the wind blows my neckerchief the right way so that I start feeling like the underdog ranch hand in a John Wayne movie finally getting the respect I deserve, the wind shifts and covers me in a nice, authentic layer of dirt and cow poop better known as a reality check.

But I’m nothing if I’m not diverse in my experiences. Sometimes, in the course of two days, I feel like I’m five different people.

Last weekend I started my morning off as snuggly-booger-wiping-Mom, moved on to pony-riding-lesson-Mom in the afternoon

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and then I loaded up my guitar to be a singer-in-the-big-town at night.

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Then I headed home in the dark so I could get up early to be pancake-making-Mom in the morning, cow-chasing-Mom in the afternoon and supper-making-dishwashing-deadline-meeting-bedtime-story-lullaby-singing-Mom in the evening.

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And maybe that’s where the whole problem lies in the first place, now that I think of it. Maybe there are just too many things weighing on my mind for me to properly and swiftly react to the angry, pregnant, half-ton cow lowering her head and running toward me in the sorting pen while my husband tries to find his voice to warn me.

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“Surely she isn’t coming for me?” I wondered to myself in the half a second I had to think about the meaning of my life. “Surely she’ll go around this rock-star cowgirl who has her life under control. Seriously, everyone underestimates my capabilities. I was born to do this. It’s in my blood. If I just wave my hands and yell ‘hya’ and…oh…my…g… RUN!”

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Yeah, some days, if the wind is just right and I’m the proper amount of sleep-deprived, I can convince myself I’m an underestimated rock-star-cowgirl-mom. And some days a 1,300-pound cow rams her giant, angry head into the bony part of my backside, sending me running for my life to the fence line and my husband into near cardiac arrest.

Because, like I said, this whole “under control” thing? Yeah, it comes in gusts.

And the sigh of relief I breathed when I reached that fence? Well, I just hope it shifted the winds and blew someone’s neckerchief the right way.

If you need me, I’ll be folding laundry and sitting on an ice pack.

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The way my grandpa sees the world

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Theodore Waddell, Gallatin Angus 2001

The way my grandpa sees the world Forum Communications

There’s a print of a painting hanging in a frame beside my bed that reminds me of my Grandpa Bill.

It’s a framed card actually, a watercolor of a rugged landscape, dark blue buttes forming a horizon against a gray and white sky. And below the buttes, in the foreground, the brush stroked green and beige, and then the artist, seemingly with the blunt end of his brush, came back to add a scattering of black dots.

The cattle.

I took the print off the wall tonight to take a closer look as I was crawling into bed and the back of the frame came off to reveal the reverse side of that card and my grandpa’s handwriting.

“This scene looks much like the blue mountains from the hills above your place. Happy Birthday.”

And he was right. If you sit on the top of a hill on our ranch, you will likely see the live version of this scene — a moody sky casting sporadic golden light in the pastures where our cattle graze. And off in distance, as far as you can see, those buttes that cradle our neighbors 10 miles to the north shine blue on us and frame every scene of our lives out here.

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My dad tells a story of when he was a little kid in elementary school. He was coloring a picture of Roy Rogers riding through the mountains on his horse, Trigger.

“Why are you coloring the mountains blue, Gene?” his teacher scolded. “Mountains aren’t blue.”

I always thought that was one of my dad’s sadder stories…

But I don’t think Grandpa Bill had this sort of teacher in his life. And if he did, he didn’t pay her any mind.

And I like this little card with black dot cows because I like to imagine it’s the way my Grandpa Bill sees the world, like a painting waiting to be made and admired. And I’m so glad to know that about him.

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When I was 11 or so, my dad’s mother, Gramma Edie, died on the ranch, leaving the little brown house in the farmyard down the road empty and lonesome. So in the fall and winter, my mom’s parents, during their early years of retirement, would move out here to breathe life into the place.

Grandpa traded his Minnesota dock shoes for boots and immersed himself in ranch life. He fixed fences, he rode along to move cattle, he updated that old farmhouse, hung his chaps and hat like a work of art on the entryway and took beautiful photographs, even trying his hand at painting the simple, old, everyday scenes of this place I might not have thought to find extraordinary if it wasn’t for him.

Eventually, my grandparents made the decision to settle into summers in Minnesota and winters in the Arizona sun. In fact, Grandpa Bill is likely reading this to Gramma as they have a cup of coffee and a doughnut hole on their deck.

And he’s probably noticing how the morning light creates a soft glow around his wife’s silver hair and thinking that it would make a lovely photograph or painting.

And every time I take the turn off the highway to head north, toward home, toward those blue buttes, I slow down a bit as I come up over the hill overlooking the gold pastures dotted with cattle and, because of Grandpa, I think the same thing.

Road Home

Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband and daughters on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. She blogs at https://veederranch.com. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.

The promise of spring

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I wrote a version of this week’s column for a presentation I gave to a congregation and community celebrating Harvest Fest. I wrote it after roundup and shipping and selling our calves, a special time of year for us and one we were so grateful to do alongside my dad this year.

On Saturday we celebrated my oldest daughter’s third birthday and on Sunday we celebrated my baby, who turns one this Saturday. We were surrounded by friends and family in a life as parents. A life that just four years ago, I wasn’t convinced we would have.

And while I won’t deny that there are hard and sad and hopeless things in life that will not and can not be changed, but simply endured, sometimes there is light. And we have seen it.

Read the full version of my talk below or click on the link for the newspaper version. I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend filled with gratefulness.

I am grateful for you.

Coming Home: The promise of spring

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When I was a kid, on the first warm day of spring, my dad would take us to the top of the nearest hill to find a dry spot where snow gave way to grass. We would sit down then on that piece of ground, maybe without our snowpants for the first time in months, and lean back, letting the warm sun shine on our faces and my dad would say something like, “Such a beautiful day. Isn’t this marvelous.”

Dad is the only person I know who regularly uses the words “marvelous.”

But it makes sense for a man who’s been accused of being optimistic, sometimes to a fault. On his way to roundup cattle or to fix a fence, my dad never passed a raspberry bush, a chokecherry tree or a plum patch without taking a detour for a taste. He’s never driven by a deer in the draw or an eagle in the sky without stopping or slowing down to recognize it. And when he sees a feather from a turkey or a hawk on a ride through the hills, he stops along the trail, gets off his horse, and picks it up to put in his hat. Or when we were younger girls, to give it to one of us.

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This is the way I grew up. The fourth generation born to a ranch that has now been in the family over 100 years.

As a kid it was hard not to fall in love with a world, with life, when someone was walking in front of you pointing out all of the things there was to love about it. And that bluebird that followed my father while I was following him, well, it was hard to live a life without her following me too.

As a ranch kid, though, you don’t get the benefit of being sheltered from some of the tough lessons of life. The unexplainable stuff. The things you can’t control. I remember saying silent little prayers to myself when my dad would bring a calf in from the cold, feed it and warm it in the basement, only to delay the inevitable.

I saw how his eyes dropped, how he shook his head and paused for a moment before sucking in breath, exhaling and moving on.

I remember my heart breaking and somehow knowing, that he could only do what he could.

The rest wasn’t up to him.

Winter

Last week I sat on the top of my horse and rode next to my father as a grown woman. We were chasing the cattle we own together on the place where my dad was raised, where I was raised and where I’m raising two daughters of my own.

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Last year at this time my father lay in a hospital bed at the beginning of a five-month battle with pancreatitis that had him fighting for his life. And while my mom sat by his side in a hospital hundreds of miles away, my husband, young daughter and I were home, taking care of the cows, shoveling snow, carrying out holiday traditions, waiting for our new baby to arrive and feeling powerless to change the trajectory of my dad’s circumstances.

His prognosis was dire and our hands could not do anything to fix it.

Losing my dad so soon was not in our plan.

And while all I wanted was a big, extraordinary miracle to save my father’s life, I have never lived in my faith that way. When I lost my grandmother when I was only eleven years old, I remember looking at her casket at the front of the church and wishing she would just sit up and tell us it was all a bad dream.

But I did not pray for that, because I didn’t believe those were the sort of miracles God sends.

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I find my faith in the small miracles, the way the setting sun illuminates our world in glowing pink and orange on it’s way to the other side of the earth. The way it rises every day, regardless of our joy or our pain. I see my faith come to life in a newborn calf, just born minutes before, standing steady on his own four legs as his mother licks him clean. I see it in the snowflakes piling up on my doorstep, knowing, when I look closer, each one is perfect, unique, and so, so fleeting.

I see God in the red on the tomatoes I planted with my daughters our garden, each one round and perfect and ready for picking with nothing but dirt, water and that trusty sun.

And I see it in the chubby fingers of my daughters, the ones that came to us just as I was losing faith in miracles of any size.

As I grow up I come to understand that I was right when I was a child, that faith and God aren’t wishes granted or one big miracle that answers your prayers, but a million tiny, beautiful moments that pile up like those snowflakes on the top of the hill outside our window in the winter only to melt with the spring sunshine and remind us that, as my husband would say, “There’s more here than us.”

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My dad’s recovery was proof of those small miracles. The kind hands of a caring nurse, my mother’s relentless devotion to her husband, the capabilities and training of the doctor,that moved him to take a risk. My dad’s strong heart that refused to quit beating. His lungs that continued to suck in air.

I looked over at him as he sat on his horse in his wool cap and leather chaps, the cattle in front of us moving their way across the creek and toward the gate. My husband, uncle and neighbor stretched out on horseback in the hills surrounding us, and my dad stopped. He put his gloved hands together, the leather of the reigns between them, and he looked up at the sky. Then he looked over at me and he hollered,

“This is me. Thanking God.”

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And it’s cold today. The snow is blowing sideways outside our windows. Winter is coming to test us. To freeze us. To make us sad or lonely or desperate. To make us question.

But faith? Faith is the promise of sunshine on that hilltop to melt that snow

Faith is remembering the marvelous promise of spring.

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Calving season and small triumphs

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The babies are starting to be born out here just in time for warmer weather. And although calving season means more work and less time with daddy, it’s also a fun excuse to load up the girls and ride along on the treasure hunt for new babies in tall grass.

And I’m happy to report that this week we’ll be able to ditch the beanies….

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Coming Home: Calving season brings mix of wonder and worry

We’re in the middle of calving season here at the Veeder Ranch. And because we’re in North Dakota, our plans to calve mid-April didn’t necessarily get us out of the cold woods.

Every coulee and protected place on the ranch is still full of snow, so every day is like a scavenger hunt for shiny, little black heads popping out of the tall grass, if they were lucky enough to be born in a dry spot.

Edie is the queen of the barnyard when she’s sitting next to her daddy, bouncing along the prairie trails in the pastures, unaware of the lessons she’s already learning about life and death and a mother’s fierce love.

Last week she stood on the pickup seat looking out the window as her dad’s attempt to tag a new baby turned into a game of Ring-Around-The-Pickup with a protective momma.

When he flung the door open, faced flushed and breath heavy, Edie unflappably asked, “Whatcha doing, Daddy? Running with the cows?”

And it reminded me of all the times I watched my own dad test his speed and agility in snow boots and coveralls trying to avoid a concerned momma’s head-butt as he worked to get a closer look at her baby. This business of being born out here is a dangerous game for every man and beast involved.

I’ll never forget the time I opted out of my bench seat perch to stay in and watch “Wheel of Fortune” with Gramma only to have Dad come crawling up to her doorstep, bruised, bloody, covered in earth and lucky to be alive.

Yes, calving season, even in the best weather, sprinkles ranch life with adventure and wonder. On the best days, it’s miraculous to count the precious new lives that arrive without fanfare and are up on their four wobbly feet sucking and ready to live within minutes.

On the bad days, when the wind whips hard and cold and wet, it takes every muscle and all your spirit to lift those lives out of the muck and trudge on. Ask any rancher and he’ll likely admit this year has taken its toll, sending a fair share of babies from the pasture to the entryway heat lamp, each life saved a sigh of relief.

On Sunday, we walked into Mom and Dad’s to find our own entryway baby, born in a snowbank to a momma with good intentions but bad timing. It was one of the first Sundays since Dad has been home that we had the whole family together. We huddled around that poor frozen soul lying among our boots as my uncle helped Dad put warm colostrum in her belly, rub her body and move her limbs.

And even though we knew we probably shouldn’t get attached, we named her April, put our warm hands to her cold nose, stroked her soft ears and watched her come back to life, stand up on her own four legs and find her place back by her momma’s side.

And among all the mud and medicine, work and worry, it felt like nothing short of a triumph for us all.