Sunday Column: Be careful with this place…

I write about this beautiful place. I write about how it grew me up and sent me out and welcomed me back home again. I write about the cows grazing on the sunny side of hills and what it means to me to step outside and smell the first clover of summer as it reaches and stretches to the sky.

I write about it and I photograph it–the red barn and the horses’ fuzzy ears.

The creek and her banks, the horizon and her sunrises and sunsets. The tall grass and flowers.

The buttes and the red road that cuts through it all.

And then I write about the impact the booming oil industry is having on our home, about how the big trucks kick up dust and throw rocks at my windshield on their way to punch holes that extract the fuel that this country relies on for more things than we care to remember when we curse that dust.

I talk about the people it brings with it, those persistent, resilient people with stories to tell, because there are jobs. Countless jobs being created and recreated every day. Jobs that brought us here, my husband and I, back to this ranch to make our lives. We likely wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for those jobs.

Neither would my sisters.

Because it used to be much harder out here, you know, to make ends meet.

To make a living.

So there are things that I can manage. Things that go along with looking for ways to make the most out of this land we stand on, like the dust and the traffic and the noise over the hill that wasn’t there yesterday, and maybe won’t be tomorrow. Much of this impact is fleeting.

Much of it is forever.

But I don’t want it to fail.

I read in the papers the words of reporters sent out to tell the story of what’s happening around me. If there are mistakes out here, they will be written down. If there are questions, they will be asked. If there is something to say about how this is ruining a place, making it better, making it harder, making it easier, making us mad or happy or richer or poorer or crazy, the air too dusty, too noisy, too much, not enough, too damn good to be true, not what it was, not like it will ever be again…

It will all be said.

Somedays I don’t know what to make of it.

This is what I have to say about it all today…

Coming Home: We’re not all reckless in oil country
by Jessie Veeder
March 23, 2014
Fargo Forum

Inside Old Houses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it means?

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

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

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

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

How far away I feel from that life some days…

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

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

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

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

So what does this mean?

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

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

Halloween in Boomtown

On a dark and kind of windy night a woman in fleece pants and an old FFA sweatshirt sat alone in her farm house in the middle of nowhere eating leftover noodle casserole, waiting for little munchkins dressed as goblins and witches to pile out of pickups and knock on her door while the news anchors on the TV told her stories she already knew about the bustling, busy, over-stretched and opportunity filled boomtown where she once went to school and now works.

As the sun disappeared over the clay buttes and the stars popped out one by one, she munched on a bite sized Snicker bar for dessert. Her Halloween costume from the weekend’s festivities still lay in a crumpled heap, a massacre of fuzzy pink flamingo in the corner of her tiny house. Two days later and she was still recovering from the celebration of one of her favorite holidays. Turns out pink flamingos can’t handle five beers and two shots in the matter of three hours.

“Sweet Martha”, the girl thought to herself as she unwrapped another piece of candy. “What happened to the good ‘ol days when coming down from a sugar high and planning your costume around the necessity of a snowsuit were your biggest worries on Halloween?”

Here I am, six years old in a clown costume my grandma made for us..

She contemplated this for a while, because she could. Because no little Lady Gagas were knocking on her door and her husband had left her here for a week alone to her own dinner plans…and she was already failing. It was day one and she had resorted to leftovers and candy. Yes, she had time to herself. Time that, in another life, would have been spent planning her Pippi Longstocking outfit with her best friend up the hill who would be putting the finishing touches on her  picnic table costume. They would have been loading up in the pickup with their little sisters in turtlenecks and scarves shoved into witch’s capes and stuffed garbage bags that looked like pumpkins. Twenty years ago she would have been visiting the neighbors who lived within a fifteen mile radius of her little house in the coulee. Twenty years ago she would have been thrilled to curl her tongue into three loops, or throw her body into a cartwheel, or recite a poem about a goblin with the Picnic Table for their neighbor down the highway. “A trick for a treat,” she would say as she clapped her hands together.

Twenty years ago she would have performed. She would have thought this out. They would have expected it, the girl and her Picnic Table friend.  Because the stakes were high out here surrounded by gravel roads, trees windswept and bare, dark, starry skies and howling coyotes. It was Halloween for the love of Butterfinger! Halloween in the country and, well, twenty years ago those girls didn’t mess around.

The neighbor girls...

No, it didn’t matter that there were only five stops, only five houses to visit on Halloween night.  That was of no concern. The girls didn’t know about sidewalks and knocking on doors and running wild through neighborhoods. The ribbon of pink road, the miles of fence posts, the grazing cattle, that was their neighborhood…and it would take them days to walk it (especially in her dad’s oversized boots and with all that silverware stuck to the giant cardboard box her friend was wearing.) So their dads would drive them down the road to farmhouses lit up with lanterns and pumpkins with faces. Houses that smelled like dinner on the stove when they drove in the yard. Houses where their friends lived. The same friends who rode the bus with them for an hour every day to get to school.

Yes, twenty years ago those best friends lived for this holiday–the planning, the creativity, the stories and  piling into the warm ranch pickup with their squishy little sisters, caramel apples, mom dressed as witches, dads dressed as monsters and, well, the treats…

Momma and Pops on Halloween

Ah, the treats. The woman in fleece pants opened a box of Nerds and closed her eyes…

First stop was the neighbors to the south who would have a bowl on their kitchen table filled with pre-packaged goodies for all of the girls: stickers, small games, skittles, candy corn, chocolate shaped as pumpkins and, on your way out grab a scotcharoo why don’t you.

Second stop a half a mile down the road: homemade popcorn balls in orange and green. Glow sticks, apple cider, and a PayDay for the road.

Third stop on the highway: Time to perform. A trick for a treat and a long visit with a retired teacher who loved them and gave them pencils and made them hot Tang and sugar cookies. And they loved her too…and knew better than to say anything about the prunes she placed in the middle of those sugar cookies.

Back to the gravel to finish off the night with caramel apples and a handful or two from the bowls at the doors and then on to the Picnic Table’s house to dump out pillowcases full of treats and trade and sort and count.

A sad clown with a broken leg. Yes, I was accident prone even as a fifth grader...

The woman tilted her head back to finish off the Nerds and then got up off of the chair to take a peek outside.

“There will be no puffy gremlin visitors tonight,” she said quietly to herself.

Because times were different. Twenty years ago this landscape she lived on was dotted with young families working to make a living out on family farms thirty miles from town. Twenty years ago the country school was still open and playing host to Halloween parties with green punch, piñatas and those to-die-for popcorn balls.

Twenty years ago the woman in fleece pants wanted to be Pippi Longstocking…

But somewhere in those years, between eight years old and twenty-eight, people got older and moved to town and no more babies were brought home to those farmsteads that smelled like dinner when you drove into the yard. Moms who once dressed as witches became grammas to babies in other states and the hair on the young dad’s head grew gray or fell out.

And there was a time in there, it occurred to her, that perhaps her dad thought all was lost. When the last of his daughters packed her pumpkin costume away in the toy chest in her old room only to pull out of the driveway to get on with growing up, that he may have believed that he and those five neighbors may be the last to make it out on this landscape where the coyotes howl and the moon is bright.

There was a time like that for him, when there were no picnic tables or Pippis to drive around and the knocks on the doors on Halloween went from ten to five to none…

But she was back. Here she was. And so was her picnic table friend. And their other friends who once walked the sidewalks in town as kids were now holding the hands of their own children on Halloween. Here they all were, back home because it seemed, the times were changing.

The woman saw it first hand after a day of work in town, she understood that the nostalgia came from the stop she made  in the local department store on her way home to help her momma hand out candy to kids trick-or-treating in town. She needed to get a taste of the magic she was missing as a childless adult on this holiday, so she stood by the door unsure of what to expect from the children in her once sleepy hometown that had come to life in the midst of an oil boom.

And what she saw was bowl after bowl of candy diminishing before her eyes as a stream of princesses and Spider Men and bumblebees and pirates paraded through the doors, smiled and opened their treat bags hour after hour. She had never seen so many adorable, sparkly, smiling children out and about at one time. Her friend’s children were dressed as army men and Buzz Lightyear, her nephew as a lion, children she worked with in 4-H were witches, children of families she had never met before wandered in all dressed up and excited…all adorable, all doing what children should be doing on Halloween, all here, in Western North Dakota, on Main Street Watford City laying roots for their futures, making memories here in the woman’s hometown.

So, on a dark and sort of windy night a woman in fleece pants and an old FFA sweatshirt sat in her house reminiscing about a childhood full of Halloweens on a landscape that was dotted with friends and neighbors and black cows. She remembered this. And then remembered  a time when she wanted nothing more to be back in that place…and a time when she thought it might never be possible.

So although that woman knew that she wouldn’t hear a knock on the door of her little farmhouse from a witch or a gremlin or a picnic table tonight, she smiled as she popped another Snickers into her mouth knowing that out there her community was changing. New goblins and firemen and zombies were walking the streets of her hometown, finding themselves bonding over skittles and costume ideas. And for one night those children in sequins and cardboard boxes and masks spoke louder than all of the truck traffic, worries, gossip and news stories that move and swell along a Main Street that is changing every day in a town that is pushed to its limits.

Yes, there, on Halloween, on the scariest night of the year, were the children– building strength, camaraderie and hope.

Hope that there is an opportunity for people to make it again, to really build something, to make it possible again for children to grow up in the hills among the hay bales, to eat a neighbor’s popcorn ball, to sit and sip hot cider, to perform a trick for a treat..

To live a good life.

To have a Happy Halloween.

Whether on sidewalks or better yet, country roads.

A cup of coffee and a change of weather.

Ok, ok. I had my little hissy fit yesterday, you know, about summer leaving. I have always be proud of the fact that I accept change, welcome it with open arms, persuade it to occur really more often than I should…but I admit, I always have a hard time letting go of the sunshine season.

But let’s move on. Because (after the snow melted) it is truly spectacular out here. Maybe I have a super hero nose (it is rather large), but I think each season has its own distinct scent…I swear I can smell the fall coming in the musty, damp waft of leaves falling to the earth and turning to dirt. When I step outside today, even after a raging, uncharacteristic thunderstorm this early morning, I breathe in the crisp air and it is like this world that surrounds me has cleaned up and started over once again.  I suck in and feel the cool wind on my face and I am taken back to the first day of school, football games in town in my new jacket, chasing cattle to the reservation line and spitting plum pits at my little sister as she kicks her pony along.

What is it about us North Dakotans and our obsession with the weather? I ask this all the time. I walked into the local Cenex in town yesterday, the one that used to be a little diner called the “Chuckwagon” when I was growing up, and there sat my Great Uncle sipping coffee with his boys, talking about the crops and the cattle and kids these days and, of course, the weather.

Cue another flashback and ode to old times: because there he was, my Great Uncle, a few years older, with less mud on his boots from having moved into town years ago. He was sitting in the same building with the same group of men with whom, at well past 70, he has had coffee with nearly all his adult life.  And as he talks crops and takes a dip of Copenhagen and laughs, just as he always has, while offering me a pinch, around him the world is changing.

His once regular table where he would order the pie of the day is now a “Hot Stuff Pizza.” And instead of sitting down next to him for my own slice  (or chocolate ice cream with chocolate sprinkles,) like I would have done 20 years ago when I came to town with my gramma, I said a quick hello, gave them a smile and ordered my coffee on the run.


And outside the window in this once sleepy town the high-school kids are driving up and down main street, just like they always have, but this time with fast, flashy cars and cell phones, weaving in and out of the constant wave of truck traffic that has swept in with the second coming of oil to this area. An industry my uncle has watched boom and bust and boom again outside this very same window.

Across the street, he has seen his favorite hardware store change hands, close down, open up again and get a face-lift. He has enjoyed his last movie for a nickel and then waited years and years until he could see one again on Main Street…for $6.99.

He’s watched as the storeowners have wrapped gifts for his wife in dozens of different boutiques, in the same three buildings, and has purchased new-to-him pickups to take him to and from his farmstead thirty miles away. He has watched his children play sports and move out and have children of their own, who he has watched sing in the school concert, ride horses, get their first big buck, and their first job and move on and out and back to this once sleepy town.

And he takes that pickup to coffee every morning.

Old Truck

Yes, this is dramatic stuff, this cycle of life. Watching my uncle smile the same smile behind modern glasses in his remodeled and repurposed coffee joint, I think I am beginning to understand what it is about the weather…

…Imagine your lives here, in the middle of the mid-west, where one day it is sunny and the crops are thriving and the next day a hail storm wipes your heart and work out in a blink as you stand helplessly looking out your back screen door, powerless to change the outcome. Imagine standing in water up to your waist, carrying calves through a flash flood to dry ground, giving all of your energy and passion to save your animals. Or, after a severe spring storm, taking a newborn calf into your basement and warming it by the fire to save the fragile life. Imagine the most beautifully, unexpected spring day where you skip work to go fishing. Imagine losing someone you love on the road in the grip of an ice storm. Imagine waiting for the rain to stop to get your crop out before the snow flies…and the rain just turns to flurries…

And all the while, with each coming fall, your children are one year older, one year away from starting a new life…and with each drop of a leaf, gust of wind, and change of season, one more laugh line appears, one more year of work and sacrifice and special movie dates in town is gone.

So weather–this is how we talk about life here. This is how we talk about the hard stuff, the new stuff, the stuff that makes us crazy and lonesome and completely and utterly blissful. The stuff that puts the gray in our hair and the wedding dress on our daughters and the grandchildren in our arms. The stuff that makes us lose and gain and lose again…

Because nothing stays the same, nothing is for sure here, nothing is certain….nothing…

Except a good cup of coffee and a change of weather…

Summer Leaves

Winter Branches

Listen to Heroes Proved, a song I wrote about change in the rural lifestyle.