He flies airplanes.

This is Adam.

Adam plays the bass for me.

Long, low notes ring out from his fingers, finding a rhythm in the melodies I created between the comfort of the walls of the old farm house. Adam’s bass is something I didn’t know my music needed until it was there.

And now I don’t know if I ever want to hear my songs without it.

Adam also plays the guitar.


And the harmonica and the banjo and probably a hundred other instruments.

Adam grew up between the sidewalks of our little hometown. While his limbs stretched toward the sky Adam was listening…to his mother’s singing voice and the beat of his big brother’s guitar, the way the waves of Lake Sakakawea sound when they hit the rocky shore and the buzz of his dad’s airplanes as they took off from the runway and into the sky above his home.

Adam is my little sister’s age, five years younger than me. I can’t help but look at him and think of him as a little boy, though I was just a little girl myself in some of those memories.

Adam doesn’t say much, so I’ll tell you what I know:

Adam plays the bass and the guitar and the harmonica and the banjo and probably a thousand other instruments. Adam sings songs about the North Dakota badlands and that big lake where he’s caught a thousand fish. Adam plays music about big trucks and dirt roads and whiskey with friends around campfires, on front porches, in bars and on stages, anywhere there are ears to listen.

Adam climbs mountains and rides the snow down. Adam balances on rope strung between trees. Adam brings his own beer to the party in a little blue cooler. He wears a green jacket and is waiting for me to bring him some garden tomatoes so he can make salsa.

Adam makes salsa and plays the bass guitar for me.

Sometimes I listen to those notes and I think the things Adam loves are too big for our little town.

Adam flies airplanes in the sky above his lake,

above his badlands

and above the oak groves of this ranch.

He buzzes over the landscape that grew him tall and lean.

And because Adam doesn’t say much I’ll tell you what I think:

I think if you asked him Adam would make you a jar of salsa.

I think if you wanted he would take you fishing and play you a song on his banjo.

He might even play the bass in your band.

And I think he would take you flying. If you asked, I think he would.

I think Adam likes the way his world looks up there.

Because  from up there, the things Adam loves are just the right size…

When you take the time to fish…

North Dakota summers don’t last long.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again as I take notice of the days getting a bit shorter, the grass a bit more golden, the heat a little more dry and nights that cool us all down.

Today the kids of my community will be packing up their book bags and climbing on school busses and I will have the feeling I always get as summer winds down as fall waits around the corner.

I will miss my favorite season before my favorite season is even over.

I will wonder where the time’s gone, why my skin isn’t more tan, why the work isn’t finished, why I didn’t pick more wildflowers, why I forgot to plant cucumbers and why my requirements of summer have not been adequately fulfilled.

I think husband was thinking the same thing as last week drew to a close. He’s been spending every waking minute hammering nails, wiring something, tinkering with plumbing, sawing, planning and wondering if we are ever going to eat a meal before 10 pm again…

Because while my requirements for summer include a sun tan, evening walks to hilltops, numerous cocktails on the deck, floating in the lake and popsicles, most of the men in this area only have one summer dream…

Fishing.

And husband was wondering last week if that dream was ever going to come true.

Up the gravel road a ways my friend has her own husband with his own fishing dreams, but it turns out he’s a little more serious about them.

Because he has a boat.

So on hot summer evenings she has found herself sitting alongside her dearly beloved as he trolls through the waters of Lake Sakakawea searching for a monster walleye to bring back to the ranch and fry up for supper.

And while he scours the lake, she quietly hones her own skills, innocently and unexpectedly pulling in nice sized catches off of the back of the vessel.

While her husband theorizes about bait and tackle and the relationship the two choices have on his ability to catch a trophy fish, his wife chooses the prettiest lure, attaches it to her pink fishing pole, drops it in the water and pulls out a giant northern.

And then a walleye.

And then a bass.

And another northern.

And another walleye.

And another bass.

Her husband finds this amusing at first, until the tenth fish begins to inhibit his ability to concentrate on his own catch.

He re-baits his line to match her concoction:  “A purple lure, one minnow and a half a worm.”

He drops his line in the water.

She follows.

He waits.

She yells “Oh, yep! Yep! Got one.”

He grabs the net, she reels in her catch and the cycle continues until the sun sinks down below the horizon and casts sparkling light on the waves of the big lake.

I’m not sure this story would have been told this way had I not seen it for myself this weekend when our friends offered to take us along on one of their epic fishing trips. Husband was glad to oblige and I quickly loaded up our Cheetos and cooler of beer while he dug around the graveyard of lonely and unused fishing tackle to find the poles we last touched on our unsuccessful May catfishing excursion.

We were happy to leave our work behind and glad to have friends willing to take us on out on the water.

I was prepared to lounge in the boat, soak up some sun, drink a few cocktails and probably not catch a thing.

Husband was prepared to do the same.

But three minutes into the fishing excursion, two minutes after we baited our hooks, my friend started her roll.

“Oh yep. Yep. Got one!” she hollered off the end of the boat just as I dropped my line in the water.

And she reeled in a great big northern.

I opened the bag of Cheetos and she caught another.

I took my first drink of beer and she reeled in her third.

We all changed our lures to match her sparkly green one.

And then we put on one minnow and a half of a worm.

And as her husband steered the boat along the banks of his favorite spots he worked to set the hook on his first nibble as his lovely wife reeled in her fourth catch of the day.

My husband got a bite.

She got another fish.

I got a snag.

My friend caught a bass.

Her husband caught a tree, my husband caught some bait…

and my friend caught another walleye.

I cracked another beer and her husband suggested that perhaps she should give it a rest so the rest of us might have a chance.

Oh, somewhere in there I caught a few fish of my own and so did the boys.

But really, despite the jokes about luck and timing and never taking his wife along again, it wasn’t about the fish at all, except I couldn’t help but hold my breath every time my friend dropped her line in the water. Because the excitement that flew out of her lungs with each nibble was bouncing off the buttes and energizing the water surrounding us. All I wanted was for her to catch more fish.

I think we all felt the same way.

Because the season is short and fleeting around here, the sun doesn’t shine forever and the fish don’t always bite. But watching my friend squeal as she reeled in fish after fish gave me something to keep in my pocket for those days when December feels like years.

So I think our neighbors have it figured it–that summer isn’t about the time, but how the time is spent…

And it turns out you just can’t go wrong when you take the time to fish.

 

Paddlefishing. Who said Rednecks aren’t fancy?

Oh, the river. So calm, so peaceful. So beautiful and serene. Take a look at this scene and you would never guess that during the first week of May the shore is filled with hundreds of rednecks, grilling bratwurst, pitching tents, sporting camouflage, making small talk and casting their fishing poles and hooks into the current on a hope that emerging from the surface will be one of the North America’s largest freshwater fish.

Husband was one of those lucky rednecks.

He pulled this from the river on Friday afternoon.

It’s a paddlefish. 74 lbs of a prehistoric, dinosaur-esque creature with fins and no scales, tiny eyeballs and a long flat nose from which it gets its name.

Husband’s smiling because he’s managed to snag one with a giant rod, reel and hook at the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers where, ironically, the state’s biggest and brightest rednecks work to harvest a creature that supplies some of the best and most coveted caviar in the nation.

Who says hicks aren’t fancy.


I can say this because I’m one of them. And I am behind my camera-phone barely able to hold the thing up while my dearly beloved basks in his victory. Because I have been casting and whipping my giant fishing rod into the channel of the river for nearly three hours and I haven’t caught anything but a couple of logs, lots of sticks and my father-in-law’s boat.

Yup.

Caught that thing on the first cast.

But I was happy for husband. And so were the 20+ people down stream from him when he hollered “FISH ON!” and worked to keep the creature on the line. The other fisher men, women and kids who shared our sandbar came running toward where they saw the fish roll to the surface to assist with its capture. Two kids appeared with a gaff (a long stick with a hook on the end used to pull the giant river-dwelling creature to shore), a girl came over with her camera and muck boots, a couple older men chimed in with advice, our friend waded through the strong current to try to locate the thing and I screamed and started running toward it with my video camera fully engaged.

That’s the way it is out there during the few short weeks when these massive and strange creatures are up for catch. Sports-people from all over the region gather at the banks of the river, pitching tents, making little cities with their campers, revving the engines of their pickups, barbecuing, drinking beer and sharing fish stories. Depending on how the fish are moving fisher-people generally have less than two weeks to snag their fish before the limit is reached and the season is closed. So they move through campsites and shoot the breeze, asking about the catch-count so far, exchanging stories about the one that got away, the one that weighed almost 100 lbs, and the one their friend’s, sister’s grandmother caught yesterday up river from them…

Yup, if you happen to be down river from someone who snagged a paddlefish, their fish story becomes your fish story. Because one man cannot reel one of these creatures in on his own. It seems it takes a village of men and women in muck boots and ball caps cheering you on, offering advice, grabbing supplies, hollering, and leaning in toward the water to see what’s on the other end of the line that’s bending the pole and making the fisher-person attached to it sweat and squirm for a good five to fifteen minute fight.

If it sounds intense to catch one of these buggers, I tell you, it is.

But it doesn’t take skill.

I know because once upon a time I caught one myself. I was somewhere in-between the first verse and chorus of a Disney song as I cast that giant hook as far as I could throw it…(ahem…three feet in front of me)…into the current. I looked over my shoulder to my audience shaking their heads at me on top of the steep banks. I  laughed and threw one of my arms in the air to really hit the punch line of Pocahontas’s “Just around the river bend”  and just as I started in on my grand finale my hook caught something and jerked me dangerously close to the edge of the bank and ironically close to a literal image of the song I was performing. I gripped my pole and worked to regain my footing just as my brother-in-law came bounding down the riverbank to grab the back of my shirt to prevent me from becoming just another casualty of the sport.

It was the hardest I’d ever worked at the sport of fishing–a sport that usually involves me sticking my pole in the sandy banks of the river while I kick back with sunflower seeds and a brewsky and wait for the catfish to bite.

But it was exhilarating leaning back against the weight of the fish and the current of the river, reeling the beast toward shore as the party of people hanging by the river with me scrambled to help retrieve my catch with nets and gaffs and rules and superstition.

We got the fish to shore and, at 25 lbs, it wasn’t a whopper in paddlefish land, but it was the biggest fish I’ve ever caught. And ever since I  stood on the banks of the river in the rain and my camouflage coat, channeling every red-neck fiber in my body as I held that fish up for the world to see, I’ve been itching to re-live that feeling.

And so have the hundreds of other fisher-people who flock to the banks of our rivers each year.

They come with their coolers and sleeping bags to hash out the game plan, meet up with friends, and re-live past year’s catches the same way we re-live my fish story every year when I meet my in-laws and friends from college and Canada at the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone River at the beginning of May.

Yes, paddlefishing is a tradition for us that includes matching t-shirts, beer darts, barbecue, laughter, bad jokes and memories of each fish caught.

And this year husband gets the bragging rights as the only man in our party of twenty who actually pulled something living from that river.

Oh, it doesn’t matter if he only casted like seven times.

It doesn’t matter that me and two of my friends stood in ice-cold water up to our crotches casting and reeling in the current of the two converging rivers as the water and paddlefish floated on by for hours.

It doesn’t matter that we wanted it so bad we held our breath and made up our own superstitious chants as we pulled back our lines, visualizing, sending positive energy into the river as our bare legs turned raw in the deep mud of the river and our arms turned to noodles with each hefty cast.

We were not bitter when husband pulled that whopper of a fish right out from under our noses. Nope. We dropped our poles and went screaming toward him with cameras and hands clasped in delight.

We took his moment with him. We oooed and awwweed over the event that was to be a part of our story too. We shared our reaction: how S had jumped out of the boat and into water up to her knees when she heard husband holler. How L threw her arms in the air and grabbed her camera. How B and my father in law were convinced husband lost it when the fish didn’t reappear…

How husband stayed calm, cool and collected as I screeched and ran and jumped up and down…

How the clouds were fluffy and the sky was blue and the sun was so warm we could wear shorts and tank tops and walk around in bare feet…

How husband caught a paddlefish on his seventh cast…

and how I caught the boat on my first….

a log on my second…

the river bank on my third…

a buzz on my forth…

and fifty-seven sticks in between.

Paddlefishing.

It’s not a sport…

It’s a lifestyle.

Falling out of the sky…


So you might have noticed there hasn’t been much news from the ranch lately and I have some explaining to do. See, in the last week the world has kept turning out here, the steers have been grazing, the trees have been budding, the crocuses have been blooming and the dogs have been running away…and so have we. All the way to South Padre Island to meet up with some of my favorite people on the planet.

Sometimes after months of dangling from ladders, chasing the damn dogs, climbing around in the hills, cooking casseroles, trudging through the mud in muck boots and  waiting for spring you just have to throw your hands in the air and go find a place where summer never leaves.

So we closed up the house and pointed our car toward the plane that would take us to South Padre Island, TX. A place where the ocean crashes on white sand,  the air is just the right type of damp, leaving my hair in that scary place between chia pet and Bride of Frankenstein, and our friends were waiting for us with open arms and giant glasses full of tequila.

I have been planning this trip for months, looking forward to the warm sunshine and an ocean swim, but mostly anxious to wrap my arms around this group of friends who squeezed their way into my heart six years ago with their crazy sense of humor, open-minds, open arms, and just the right amount of grace and intelligence mixed in with a willingness to look and act absolutely ridiculous for the sake of a good belly laugh.

The truth is, I could go anywhere with these people, we could do anything, from scaling the tallest mountains to grinding out paperwork in a cubicle, and we have always have fun…as long as someone has the sense to provide appropriate hats.

And on this agenda we would need them because our days were filled with things like ocean swimming,


cocktail sipping,


pool floating, hot tub soaking, fishing for our supper,

sunset sailing, beach walking…


lawn chair lounging,

 and skydiving.


Yup. You heard me.

Sky. Dive. Ing.

This landlocked woman from the prairie who gets woozy from looking over the edge of an anthill, who just a week ago was hyperventilating about her husband’s location on the top of a ladder signed up for an activity that sent me flinging my body out of a questionable airplane and plummeting to my inevitable death at 150 miles per hour strapped to a laid back man with bad-ass tattoos and even more bad-ass dreadlocks.

I don’t know what was going through my mind when I responded “Yes, Yes, Yes!” to my friend’s email request for company as he attempted this death-defying activity. I am not sure what compelled me to make the decision to be his companion on this adventure except I couldn’t think of anyone else I would rather jump out of an airplane with. This friend, he’s always made me feel like I could do anything. And I believe him.

So we greeted one another with hugs and tequila and made our plan to face death.

Friday at noon.

It only took a nod of my head to get husband on board with the idea. Skydiving? Why the hell not?

And so we were off. I contemplated my outfit carefully that morning, wondering what would look best on me as a flattened corpse on the beaches of the island. Wondering what would be less appetizing to the sharks if I were to land in the ocean. I chose a pair of blue shorts and an unassuming black tank top. A classic and easy look for someone looking death in the face, and all of the paperwork that goes with it.

It turns out though, that when you are harnessed up and huddled at the back of an airplane that reminds you of a really loud VW bus, the last thing you are thinking about is your wardrobe.

No. As you stare into the face of the adventurous friend who got you into this predicament just moments before he launches his body out of the buzzing and bouncing aircraft, you wonder if maybe you should have peed first.

And as the VW plane reaches the inevitable 11,000 feet, you think about your husband who just moments before you was sent spirling through the air. You think how pissed you will be if he became a sand pancake…you wonder who will unclog the drain and finish fixing the deck…

then you think of how pissed his momma will be when you explain to her whose idea this was…

Your mind snaps back to your immediate situation when your instructor pulls you toward his lap, the plane bouncing well above the fluffy clouds. You notice that you can see the curvature of the earth. You think you might be able to see the ranch from here. You wonder if you’ve gone crazy. You remember that you belong down there, on the prairie, with the animals that graze the grass, the ones who don’t swim or fly or launch themselves out of the sky.

As your traveling companion latches up and secures your body to his own, connecting the two of you together by only a few, in your opinion, inadequate straps and hooks, the thought enters your mind that this man’s instructions to arch your back and lift your arms could be the last voice you will ever hear. Then you ask him if maybe you should have had dinner or coffee first…you know, to get to know one another…

But it’s too late, he laughs as the door of the plane flies open and a rush of air hits you like a slap across the face. He feels your body tense up and tremble as you watch your most adventurous and lovely friend swing his legs over the side of the plane and then drop out of sight.

You wonder if you’ll ever see him again.

You wonder if you ever told him that you liked his new haircut.

You hope he peed before he got in the plane.

You wish again, that you would have done the same…

Then suddenly the man who strapped himself to you is moving toward that very same door and you discover you are moving too. You think, “Wait, I don’t even know your last name!” but before you can ask what it is, or what his tattoos mean, or what his father does for a living, where he’s from, what is his favorite food, animal, plant, color, he is sitting in the doorway of the plane at 11,000 fricking feet above the tiny strip of island surrounded by ocean and really tall, sharp buildings and he is telling you to put your left leg out there on the ledge. And because you’re strapped to this man and your life is literally in his hands dangling out of an airplane you are compelled to listen. The air coming into the open door of the plane is so strong that you have to help your leg move with your hand.

You think about this for a second, about how the universe might be telling you something, that maybe, maybe…may…

And then…

I supposed you guessed the outcome, that I survived and so did my two companions. I have never been so happy to feel the sand between my toes, to hear the cheers of my best friends in the world screaming my name, to see the sparkling ocean and finally catch my damn breath already.

And I’ve never been in love with another man, but I think I might now be in love with this guy, the dreadlocked, tattooed, hero from South Padre Island that nearly killed me and saved my life all in the matter of ten minutes.

When they asked me about my favorite part of jumping out of a plane, I am pretty sure I said “when it was over.”

And then I breathed “I’m alive!” and ran into the arms of my friends, the friends who make me feel more alive in their presence, more capable, more free and loved and hilarious and beautiful than I will ever feel jumping from a plane.

But  I wouldn’t have anyone else there waiting for my crazy ass to touch down. And for them I would jump out of a plane, climb a cactus, sing in an opera, climb Mt. Everest, run a marathon, swim with the sharks, dance like Lady Gaga, backflip off a cliff, and grow wings and fly…because they make me believe it’s possible.

Peace and love from the solid ground of the ranch!

*All photos from Skydive South Padre Island. Thanks for the adventure guys! And thanks for bringing us safely to earth!

A long story about a woman in fleece pants and a bunch of tomatoes…

Once upon a time in a land  far, far away there lived a woman with unruly hair, a one eyed pug, a tiny kitchen and a Pops with a garden full of tomatoes.

Now, this wild haired woman was good at some things…like the game Catch Phrase, making guacamole, eating tortilla chips and wandering among the buttes and singing songs to fields full of pretty birds, deer and wildflowers (picture Snow White, without the impractical dress and minus six or seven dwarves). She had a good life, yes indeed. She felt fulfilled living in her small cabin, waking up to a pink sky and a sun rising over the red barn and taking on a day filled with creative things, like taking photos, writing stories, playing guitar, riding horses and, well, eating guacamole. Her life was complete and organized just the way she wanted it.

Having lived in this cabin in the middle of nowhere for over a year, the woman was indeed comfortable. She had seen the summer sun, felt the snow on her tongue and watched eagerly as it melted into water in the spring sun and filled the creek beds. She had basked through two glorious summers and wound down with the wind that blew the leaves off of the trees in the fall. So when the weather began to shift,  the breeze turned crisp, the horses and the pug started to grow their long coats, and the woman’s tan skin began to fade back to its pasty white appearance, the woman with wild hair knew what was in store for her. Winter was coming and she was excited to celebrate accordingly. She took longer coffee breaks, she wore her down vest when she was out on her paint in the golden hills, she put another blanket on the bed and at night and traded in her shorts for her favorite thing in the world: fleece stretchy pants.

All was well and right in her autumn world as she sat in her recliner, feet adequately slippered, sipping on hot homemade soup and watching “Project Runway” with the surround sound engaged. Then, just as Tim Gunn was telling the latest fashion loser to “pack their needles, or sewing machine, or weird, creepy mannequin body and go,” the woman with wild hair heard someone at the door.

"Who's there?"

“Tap tap…hhheeelllooo”

She set down her soup, un-reclined, rolled her fleecy body out of her chair and went to the door.

It was her Pops. And he was carrying a giant box….

full of tomatoes…

And a really, really big and heavy looking garbage bag. …

“Hi Jess, whatcha doing?”

“oh, hi, umm, nothing. Cleaning. Yeah. Cleaning the house. Whew, been working on it all weekend,” the wild haired woman replied.

“Oh, ok. Yeah. I don’t want to interrupt that then, but I thought I’d stop by and bring you some of these tomatoes…my garden was full of them and I had to pick them before the frost…”

“Oh, ok. Yeah. Great. Tomatoes. Wow, there’s a lot of them aren’t there. Haha. Yeah. That’s a lot of salads…,” she felt her face begin to flush and her armpits go sweaty.

“Yeah,” said her Pops. “I had a great garden this year. Lots of tomatoes, and, well, say, I was thinking maybe you could do something with these. You know, like salsa or soup or something…you know how to can don’t you? I mean, that strawberry-rhubarb jam you made this spring  was pretty delicious…” He smiled a toothy grin and the woman felt an unruly curl spring out of its place in her unkempt ponytail.

She was full-on sweating now, regretting her fleece pants and recalling the overconfident, naive, head first dive approach she has used to attack every new kitchen experiment in her life…and the piece of rhubarb she’s been meaning to clean off of her ceiling for months.

Her voice came out of her lungs a few octaves higher as she replied, “Oh, sure Pops. No problem. I’ve always wanted to try canning salsa. Never had the opportunity. Look there, I could make jars and jars with that yield…and, umm, so well what’s in that giant garbage bag there?”

“Oh this?” he replied, hefting a thirty ton bag up from the ground and over his shoulder. “These here are crabapples! I picked them from the tree behind our house…”

“Oh really? I remember that tree…”

“Yeah. Your gram used to make the best crab apple jelly. I absolutely loved it. I was thinking you could try it? Don’t you think? It shouldn’t be that hard. Oh, it’s so good. Nothing better.”

The wild haired woman paused, recalling for the first time in years the sweet taste of her grandmother’s crab apple jelly on a piece of hot toast. It was delicious, there was nothing better. He was right. She could handle the thirty tons of apples–jelly she had done before without killing anyone.

But how does a giant box of tomatoes turn into restaurant style pacante sauce?

And how could she say no to a man who sees her as his only chance to taste, once again, his favorite homemade goodies?

She smiled and hefted the thirty ton bag of apples over her own shoulders as her pops set the boxes of tomatoes on the table in her quaint kitchen.

“Can’t wait,” chirped her Pops as he flew out the door.

“Me too,” whimpered the woman as she assessed the situation.

“You have not seen the last of me,” said the eliminated designer over her surround sound.

And so there she was, alone. Alone in a house filled with autumn’s harvest. Fruits of her father’s labor and a nearly 100 year old apple tree. The woman poured herself a glass of wine, accepted that television wouldn’t be an option for three to four years, sat down at the table, closed her eyes and tried her best to channel Martha Stewart…

…then woke up the next morning with a tomato stuck to her cheek and a vague memory of a dream involving Martha and a mini mansion made out of pumpkins.

She grabbed a cup of coffee and turned to the only thing she knew: Google.

Yup. She Googled it. She Googled  “tomato canning,” “salsa,” “what the hell is a hot water bath?” “can I poison relatives if I attempt to make homemade salsa without the supervision of a professional?” and “Martha, help me.”

Finding, again, no direct answers and no home phone number for Martha or Paula Dean, the woman put on her town clothes, went to work and talked to her neighbor….the same neighbor who got her out of the plum jelly mess of 2010.

And her life was saved as her lovely, experienced friend presented her with her mother’s own original tried and true salsa recipe. And as the wild haired woman marched her weary butt to the grocery store to pick up the rest of her ingredients, it occurred to her that the very recipe she had in her purse could possibly have been made by her grandmother. The two women were best friends!

Revitalized by that thought, the woman drove home, ran inside and unloaded her ingredients and set them alongside her hand-written recipe. She dove in…ignoring the fact that it was 8:30 pm on a Tuesday.

Tomatoes? She had ’em.  Onions? Check. Tomato paste, spices, celery? Yes! She even mustered up the strength to purchase two green peppers and six jalapenos–scary, scary ingredients for this pasty woman with scandinavian blood. This was going to be good. Easy. Just follow the recipe…

She boiled water and submerged the fresh, ripe tomatoes for one minute, then transferred them to ice water. And although this was a new process, this tomato peeling thing, she was getting it. She had it down. It looked like a regular tomato massacre had occurred in her kitchen. Boy, time flies when you get the hang of something, she thought to herself, because by the time she was done with step #1 it was already 11 pm. No worries, she could power through. She must! Jalapenos here she comes…wait, a minute…where were her caning jars?

Shit.

She stormed the three steps to her bedroom and laid down face first on the bed and passed out. Tomorrow was another day and she hoped the naked tomatoes could wait.

The next morning the sun rose like it always does over the red barn as the tomatoes sat chilling in the refrigerator. The woman pulled on her fleece pants and called her momma in town to ask her to bring some jars home with her. See, the woman had a big project due that day, and unfortunately that big project didn’t involve a trip to town…or the tomatoes. It was 7 pm before the woman looked up from her work to a knock on the door. It was her momma, and the jars.

Thrilled with the arrival of her final supply, the woman got to work. She mixed herself a margarita, chopped up the naked tomatoes, cut up the onions…and proceeded to weep like a baby, stepping outside every few moments to compose herself. This salsa thing was serious business. Then she moved on to the green peppers. She crinkled her brow against the sweat that always forms in response to these green vegetables. But really, it was no problem. Check. Phew. On to the jalapenos…she needed six.

Six? Really?! “Are you sure?” she muttered to herself as she examined the recipe for the sixteenth time. “I thought this woman was a Lutheran!”

But despite her questions, the wild haired woman, whose hair tends to grow larger in stressful situations, has always been one to follow directions. So onward she went, carefully cutting the foreign peppers, removing the seeds, wiping her eyes and….

“ahhhhh, my eeeyyyeees, my eeyyyyeeees, they’re burning! BUURRNNINNGG!!,” she screamed as her husband jumped six feet off the chair and appeared in the kitchen.

“What, what is it?” he asked calmly.

“Myyyy eyyyyeesss, they’re on fiiirreee,” she screamed again as she swung open the bathroom door and submerged her head under the running water of the sink.

“Good Lord, Jessie. Don’t touch your eyes when you’re cutting up peppers! Mercy, calm down,” her husband instructed as he leaned in over the sink with her.

“ugghgghghghgh,….gargle gargle….I…hateah…pepphhaaas…” she sobbed.

She sat down on the toilet as her husband examined the damage. With a clean bill of health and her characteristic determination, the woman with wild hair and blood shot eyes, returned to her work in the kitchen. She finished slicing. She finished dicing. She finished seasoning and measuring and put it all in a pot to cook while she prepared for the next step: the hot water bath.

It was now closing in on 10 pm on day three of what she was now referring to as “The Great Salsa Debacle of 2011.”

The woman reached into her cupboards, dug around and pulled out the biggest pot she owned. Her instructions clearly stated that the “jars must be submerged in the boiling water for 30 minutes to ensure that when consumed the salsa will not poison every person in your life you loved enough to gift with homemade salsa.”

She grabbed a jar, tested the depth of her biggest pot…then threw her body to the floor…

her husband handed her the phone.

She dialed…

“Hi, you’ve reached the Veeders…leave a message and we’ll call you back…” said the answering machine.

“Heelllooo, momm, are you theeerreee. I am in the middle of a canning crisis and I need a bigger…”

“Hello, yes. Jess. What do you need?”

“Oh, thank the LORD. You answered. I am in the middle of canning salsa…I need a bigger pot. I know you have one. You HAVE TO HAVE ONE!”

“It’s 10:30 at night”

“I know, I’m coming over.”

So she did. And made no apologies. The wild haired woman in fleece sweatpants with blood shot eyes got in her car and drove the mile to her mommas to get a bigger pot. She was determined and was pretty sure she was sweating jalapenos out through her skin. Sweet Martha, she was itchy. But she got her pot. She got her pot, went back home, solicited her husband’s assistance, filled the jars to the top with the peppery, tomato-ey, spicy concoction, accidentally rubbed her eyes again, ignored the sting this time, because dammit, this was getting done, submerged the jars in the water bath, put the timer on 30 minutes, sat down on the couch to watch the latest episode of “Modern Family,” dozed off, drooled a little and was startled awake by the beeping of the timer.

Thank goodness she remembered to set the timer.

And thank goodness for neighbors, mommas, husbands,  big pots and tried and true recipes.

and  for winter and a break from tomatoes.

Oh, and really…thank the Lord this story, this project, this drama has a happy ending…

Yes, once upon a time in a land  far, far away there lived a woman with unruly hair, a one eyed pug, and a tiny kitchen who thought she had her comfortable world figured out…until a box of tomatoes not-so-effortlessly turned into a shelf full of delicious, homemade salsa…and the wild haired, red eyed woman with a tomato stuck to her face into something that resembles…

the exact opposite of Martha Stewart

The End. 

Margaritas/mimosa…and get me on a horse…

type type type type, click, click, type, click (a sound effect to set the stage for the following Facebook conversation that occurred a few weeks ago)

Me: “Looking forward to your visit to the ranch. List three things you MUST do when you get here.”

J:          “1. Margaritas/Mimosa
2. Cowboy Photo Shoot
3. Get me on a horse”

That’s my friend J. And that’s why I love him…our list of priorities seem to always match up. That and the fact that he made sure to include a ranch visit in the time he took off after running a MARATHON in the Twin Cities just days before. He chose this as his relaxing place…and I wasn’t about to disappoint, seeing as I am a professional relaxer myself.

J, at the ranch!

So I stocked up on wine, tequila and dark beers, pulled the burs from our trusty trail horse’s mane and tuned up my camera…and then proceeded to make a grocery list that had a front and a back side full of important ingredients like cream cheese, avocados, butter, heavy whipping cream, bacon, eggs, biscuits, tortilla chips, and a question mark next to the word “apple pie?”

I was pumped. I love hosting friends who appreciate the adventure of taking a trip out to the middle of nowhere to hike the hills, learn to cowboy and sit close at the kitchen table in this small house and tell and hear stories from my family and neighbors, eat and drink and fill the space and the barnyard with laughter, just the way life was intended to be spent.

J understands this. I haven’t known him to take a single moment for granted. But he’s not the type to preach about it, it’s not an action taken from the pages of a self-help book or from the trauma of a loss. It’s just his mentality. Live…really live. So when I met him in town I was not surprised to find that I could check the “make pie?” item off my list. Because J had already made one. A serious homemade, Martha Stewart looking pastry made with the freshly picked apples from his mom and dad’s backyard.

Yup. That’s J. He just whipped it up, no problem. No real recipe really and no big dramatic statement to the world screaming from the rooftop “hey world, I’m making a ppiiieeee…home made crruusstt…filled with juicy aaapppllleeess…my own rrecciippeee…” Not that anyone I know would ever make such a big deal about a baking attempt…

ahem.


Anyway, I gladly took the pie in its perfect little pie box and then drove my guest and longtime friend to the badlands to hike up some buttes and show him the North Unit, a National Park he had yet to see from the top.

It was no problem that he had just run 26 point whatever miles a few days before. No problem at all…he was happy to lead the way up the trail to the top of the world with me. He’s got this under control. I mean, just a few month’s earlier he completed a 500 mile bike race and then went on to some sort of 100 + mile running relay in Colorado a few days later (I can’t remember the exact details because I was too busy trying to catch my breath on the way to the top of our destination…I’m not sure, but I could have blacked out and started dreaming of what I was going to make with cream cheese and biscuits…anyway…) what was a little hike in the uncharacteristically warm and characteristically windy ND weather?

Physically it was nothing for him, but what it meant to him to experience this with a friend I know was as priceless to him as it was to me.

And along the way we caught up. I hadn’t seen him since we met up in Minnesota to listen to music and ski down mountains in sub zero temperatures. I caught him up on my plans and he informed me that his goals for the year included getting in shape, and taking on new physical challenges…which explains the marathon and camping out on a mountain under the stars in the chill of the winter.

The man really follows through.

And I was so proud of him as I huffed and puffed along, back down to the car, explaining that Cowboy’s cooking has been pretty divine lately and I have settled into a comfortable life of eating and milling around the homestead coulees taking photos and thinking about things.

He said he knows, he’s been keeping up with me here and sharing what I’ve been doing with others.

And so we drove out of the park, stopping to discuss the impractical composition of bison, with their tiny tails, big shoulders and flat faces, along the way.

Then it was off to the ranch (with one stop for vodka and ice on the way) where I didn’t have to apologize to J for the lumpy yard, a result of the cow volleyball tournament. He didn’t care, he was too busy mixing up Jameson ginger ales and settling in. And then husband came home to whip up a batch of his famous knoephla as we sat around the kitchen table and munched on appetizers that, you guessed it, featured cream cheese as the main event.

Because we needed to get nice and fed and warmed up for our long day of exploring the ranch. So after supper we loaded up in the pickup, I squeezed my cheese loving ass into a bathing suit and we gazed at the stars as we soaked in the hot tub and made our plans for the next day…

which included waffles, homemade chokecherry syrup, mimosa, coffee and a walk along the creek that runs between the two places only to run into pops who had come home early to take us on a ride out east…

and the rest of the week went as follows…

more dip, roast beef, saddle up the trail horse, battle with my mare who has now decided she is absolutely uncatchable, but that’s ok, because I could show off my running and cowboy skills to my guest, go riding with pops, meander through the fall pastures, look back at J’s huge smile when his horse broke into a trot…

come home to guacamole, chips, more Jameson ginger ales, wine. Greet my momma at the door, pour her a glass, put on the steaks, welcome the neighbors, put a leaf in the table and bring up the folding chairs, put the bread in the oven and heat up the soup, take the potatoes and steaks off the grill, think that we should probably have vegetables and whip up a salad, pour some more wine, make a vodka tonic for the new guest, make sure we aren’t missing a food group, sit down behind our plates and tell stories, ask questions, laugh and don’t turn in until we have a slice of that pie with coffee…

go to bed full and happy, wake up for caramel rolls, coffee, another ride…

and then come home in time to get in on the end result of an elk hunt, which meant riding in the back of a flatbed trailer attached to a 4-wheeler and trying to avoid permanent damage to your rear end while pops drove at a reasonable speed over some unreasonable terrain….

…because it wouldn’t be a visit to the ranch without at least one genuine redneck experience…

Come home laughing, hug one another goodbye and make plans for our next adventure…

and be thankful your good friend, the one who drives 12 hours after a marathon to the land of cockleburs, mud and an uncatchable horse just to spend time with you and husband, is the kind of man who would leave you the rest of his pie…

We’re so thankful we have a friend like that.


Small town reunion

Here I am. Graduating from high school.

Do I look happy? Maybe just a little.

That was 10 years ago.

WHAT! Aren’t I still 17? What happened?

Yup, today I celebrate my 10 year class reunion.

Me and 54 of my classmates from ranches, small town neighborhoods, farms, the outskirts of town and tiny communities along the way graduated from WCHS at 17, 18 and 19 years old and made our way into adulthood somehow.

I just finished going through old photos and memorabilia to bring with me to the event this evening and was struck by how long ten years actually is (and how bad I was at managing my hair back then…).

To be honest, I am known for my poor, if not selective memory. I am also known for having a camera attached to my hip at all times. So I am thankful to my 12, 15, 17 year old self for having the foresight in the time of film cameras to dish out the cash to get these priceless photos developed, you know, the good old fashioned way.

Because it reminds me, as I imagine I’ll be reminded tonight, what it really meant to me to have grown up as a student of a small town. I thumb through photos and it is like thumbing through family albums. Because these kids making goofy faces at me from the pages of my scrapbook were by my side, for better or worse, during the years of my life when I was trying desperately to figure out who the hell I was. And for a girl from the sticks, a girl who wore wranglers and boots and took the dirt road on the small yellow bus to a country school until I was 11 years old, it was of vital importance that there were a few souls who could help save me as I opened the glass doors to the big school and prepared myself for a world completely foreign to me.

Me and my country school pal

Oh, yes, there were issues. There were fights, there were misunderstandings and tears in the halls of WCHS–that’s a given. That’s what happens when you are working your way into and out of best friendships, relationships, difficult tests and the fact that you weren’t cut out for the basketball team.

I wasn't cut out for the basketball team...

But you know what else I found in the halls of that high school besides teachers who inspired me and continue to cheer me on to this day?

Friends.

Friends who helped me remember the combination to my locker, who welcomed me into their homes after school while I waited for musical or volleyball practice to begin, who practiced with me for hours as we perfected the art of goat tying, barrel racing and cowboy chasing at high school rodeos across the state. Friends who sat next to me in the back of the pickup on the way home and got me laughing even though I may have bobbled my tie or face-planted from a tumble off my horse.

Friends who helped fix my hair for prom and came to listen to me play my guitar at my first real concert.

Although many of us may not ever be in the same room together again like this (in a matching velvet trend) I can’t forget that it was those girls who taught me about friendship, what it is and how truly amazing and heartbreaking it can be.

And the boys? The boys  have no doubt turned out be some of the best men. Because they just don’t make them like that anywhere else–good North Dakotan boys who grew up in baseball caps, tinkering with the engines of their father’s trucks, fishing on the banks for Cherry Creek and Lake Sakakawea, hugging their football teammates after a sorry loss, helping their neighbors brand cattle and always searching for the next big adventure on the back of a horse, a 4-wheeler or anything they can drive too fast.

I love one of those boys and love him more everyday.

And that a man who first met me when I looked like this…

married me anyway is a gift my small town high school gave me that I will never be able to repay.

And it makes this reunion for me more reflective, more special I think.

A Junior Prom version of husband and I...

Because in a small town you don’t have a large pool of friends and boyfriends to pick from, so it is my theory that you love stronger, hold them closer and lean on each other and often, as a result,  a bond forms between two opposite people who may have not connected otherwise.

All grown up with my very blond, very athletic, very clean and organized, very lovely, very opposite high school best friend...

And between the blacktop and dirt roads that didn’t stretch far enough for teenagers with windows open and plans stretched out wide, sometimes the rumors hurt, you felt confined and wished away the time it would take to get you to the date when you could leave this place…a place where you knew all your friends’ parents’ names and they knew what time you were to be home at night.

High School Musical, "Bye Bye Birdie"

Yes, as students of a small town we grew up in a circumstance that gave us every reason to set our eyes wide on the open highway ahead of us. But as we drove the gravel roads at night with a CD of Red Hot Chili Peppers blaring through our speakers, or built a bon fire in the middle of a field or on the edge of the big lake, when we celebrated birthday after birthday with the same neighborhood kids who drank Kool-Aid with us and gave us our first My Little Pony when we turned six, when we could sit on the roof of our boyfriend’s house in town and count the stars in the quiet of the hour before curfew, when we had our first kiss in the back our best friend’s old, beat-up car, we didn’t realize how free we really were.

And when we pushed the limits, when we drove too fast, drank too much, yelled too loud or loved too quickly, when we got our hearts broken, missed the winning point, forgot the lyrics to the song, or failed the test, we thought, indeed, the world would come to an end at 14 or 16 years old. We didn’t have all our muscles yet and didn’t understand, we didn’t appreciate that the world we lived in protected us enough to allow for these kinds of mistakes.

We didn’t appreciate that our world just picked us up, shook their heads and said things like “she’s a good kid, this will be a good lesson for her…”  and then went on loving us anyway.

And now as I prepare to reunite with old friends at 27, 28 and 29 years old, I can’t help but think that’s what most of us want right now: our best friend living next door, a place where our children, born or unborn, can see the stars, casual conversation between friends on Main Street, an open road and a home that welcomes us, no matter how far we’ve traveled away, with open arms.

A warm vacation in a cold place…

So I made it home alive. I know some of you were worried seeing as the last time you heard from me I  was putting chili in a Tupperwear container and requesting your prayers on my way out the door to hit the slopes of Minnesota on the shore of Lake Superior–headed toward music, mayhem and dangerous winter sports.

Yes. I am all about the danger.

So I left the cozy little snow pile that is my corner of the world for another cozy, bigger snow pile across a couple states.

Because sometimes all a girl needs to make it through the winter is a beanie and a much steeper, icy slope to slide down.

…and one of her BFFs…

…a BFF who will sport a union suit and pose with you by the fire just because it’s funny…

And a little sister who will do the same….

…a little sister who I just realized looks a lot like Burt Reynolds…

…oh, and some tinsel…

…and a couple bands who play the fire out of every stringed instrument I’ve ever loved…and then throw in a clogging percussionist just to make sure my heart is nice and melty…

…and of course, some beautiful scenery….

So yes, I made it back to the ranch alive and I would like to tell you that the only time I fell during the entire ski trip was down the steps going out of our condo.

And up the steps at the bar.

And down the hill to the hot tub.

Hmmm, having put that in print, I’m now thinking that’s not such a good thing….

Anyway, other than that, and a couple bruises on my butt from where the lift smacked me multiple times (that damn thing catches me off guard) I am doing pretty good…

…which is more than I can say for my fearless, snowboarding, determined sister…

So I am working on the back to real life thing as we speak. But I have to tell you, the chili was delicious, the company hilarious, the drive treacherous, but we made it across the great state of North Dakota and on up to northern Minnesota, stopping through the most adorable towns where the local men still drink coffee at the Cenex and talk about the weather and the ice fishing and wonder out loud where the road-weary, frizzy haired, bundled up North Dakotans were headed, besides the restroom.

Oh Minnesota, town after town, just like the real life Lake Wobegon.

I love it.

And I love a good road trip that takes me down highways and dirt roads and through towns that remind me of why we need to get out and see and touch and breathe and live in this world.

Because I love where I live and all its familiarity, but I love to leave too, you know, every once in a while.  I love the art of packing up my favorite sweaters and socks and jeans and shoes and then realizing that three bags is a ridiculous amount of luggage to bring for three days, so I learn to love the art of unpacking some sweaters and shoes and adding in some leg warmers and six hats and nineteen graphic tees and a banjo…

I love planning our meals and closing up the house tight and singing at the top of my lungs to the music coming out of dashboard speakers. I like sitting close in the cab of a warm vehicle while the trees and farmsteads and snow fly by outside our window as we anticipate our destination and eat handfuls of Cheetos and Skittles and Snickers bars.

 

Don't judge me, I'm on vacation...

I love that sitting in a car for hours on end is a valid excuse to eat handfuls of Cheetos and Skittles and Snickers bars.

And I love to arrive in a place I have never been and make it my home for a few days. I like to reside in a schedule that includes decisions like: “Should I take a nap?” “When should we eat?” “What kind of cocktail should I invent?” “Should we sit in the hottub tonight?” “What games should we play?” “When should we hit the slopes?” and “Do I really need to shower?”

I like the feeling of making plans with traveling partners hand picked as the cream of the crop who have the same intentions of a casual adventure laced with chips and cheese and fresh air and not picking up after ourselves…

…you know, the people who applaud and laugh until they pee a little when you slide on your ass all the way down a slippery flight of stairs in your first attempt to enter the mountain air to hit the slopes. Yes, they laugh hysterically at you and your fresh bruise, but only after they make sure you are not bleeding profusely.

And as much as I like to be surrounded by the people I adore who I can count on to peel my sorry ass off of the frozen ground and carry my stuff as I limp it off, I like the idea of going somewhere on a mission, somewhere I am surrounded by strangers on the same mission to see, to listen, to take pictures and conquer mountains and have a cocktail or two and laugh until they pee.

Which got me thinking a bit about time well spent as we were making the twelve hour drive back to the ranch on Sunday through a few blizzards and the darkness. Because when most people around here visualize a vacation, especially in the dead of winter, they think of going somewhere with sandy beaches and warm sunshine and Cabana boys with bottles of sunscreen waiting for them. I don’t think many consider driving themselves and a bowl full of chili to someplace slightly colder with a bit more snow and then actually choosing to hang out and frolic in the weather.

But you know, I couldn’t have been warmer by that fireplace sharing stories and dealing cards. I couldn’t have laughed harder as husband tapped his toes to the beat of a bluegrass band and smiled for the camera as all of the worries about a new house, a business plan and work on Monday melted away under his blue snowsuit.

I couldn’t have been more at ease dangling my legs, attached to skis, on a lift moving me up a mountain…

…well, I take that back, I could have been more at ease, but for a girl who doesn’t like heights, I think stifling my screaming was as good as it gets…

This is my "I'm not scared" face...

And I couldn’t have been happier knowing that there are places, wonderful places in this world with snow covered trees and lakes that lick miles and miles of rugged shores dotted with small towns full of great, simple people who don’t ask for much but a little time to play. I couldn’t feel better knowing that there are people who have music inside them who choose to share it with joy and foot stomping gladness out of their mouths or a banjo or tapping feet and into an evening filled with listening ears. I couldn’t be more intrigued by the idea that the big wide world is mine to see, mine to hear, mine to fall down and lift up and get lost in…

And I can load up my car with my chili and my sweatpants and my shoes and my union suit and my best friends and be there if I want to…

…and come home again to a paradise of my own.