A goat and a Lincoln

A Goat and a Lincoln: When Childhood Memories Turn Whimsical
3-12-17
by Jessie Veeder
http://www.inforum.com

Some days, when I feel like life hasn’t thrown me an adventure worthy enough of reflection, I like to dig back in the archives for a memory to recount, the way you do when you find yourself sitting around the table having a beer with old friends.

We all have our favorite go-to stories in times like these, the kind that work in mixed company, just off-kilter enough to reveal something about you to new friends while reminding old ones you were a younger girl and you once drove 30 miles in the car you borrowed from your best friend’s dad, to pick up a goat.

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That’s the story I’m thinking of today.

It’s funny how far your own memories can detach from you, making you a character in the plot line of a life you once led. Everyone seems to remind me of the “hold on tight to these memories” refrain now that I’m a mom, but I should have been warned more when I was kid to hold on to the part of my life where I was 14 and reckless and my best friend was beside me in her dad’s nineteen-seventy-something Lincoln. We were driving on the highway alone for the first time in our lives, feeling grown up and capable, with a late spring rain hitting the windshield, turning the scoria roads bright pink against a neon-green landscape …

Road Home

We used to listen to our dads swap stories around the kitchen table when we were children playing make believe in the other room. We would hear them talk about old times — cars with no seat belts, dirt bike ramps and no helmets, horses that bucked too hard — and I wondered if one day my childhood stories might sound as whimsical to my kids.

I didn’t have much real experience driving outside the prairie trails and back roads of the ranch. But my friend and I were getting ready for our first year in high school rodeo, and we thought we needed to get ourselves a goat to practice tying.

Now, I’m not sure what our parents were busy with that day, or why on earth they at least didn’t send us with one of the ranch pickups to take the 30-mile drive in the rain alone to buy a goat from the neighbor’s farm, but that’s the way it happened.

We were an innocent enough pair as far as young teenagers go, and I was born with enough old woman running through my veins that my parents were pretty confident I wouldn’t dare hit any speed higher than 55 … and anyway, the Lincoln couldn’t go much faster.

But, oh how quickly that old lady was driven out of my 14-year-old veins when the open road was before me and my best friend was beside me, and there was hardly another car on the road. My confidence was building with every mile and every mile-per-hour I got closer to the speed limit, until I turned off the highway and onto the church road and decided to really gas it to get a good splash out of that puddle.

That Lincoln jerked hard to the right, fishtailing on the gravel before ramping off the shoulder of the road then sliding down the slope of the ditch and coming to rest at the front of the deep mud trench it buried itself in next to a freshly planted field.

The world outside that old car evaporated as my friend and I stared silently and straight ahead for the moment we needed to evaluate if we were still alive.

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Once we found our breath, we found each other, sucked back a few tears, and then, eventually, found the spare tire in the trunk, just in time for one of the neighborhood grandpas to find us.

What a sight we must have been there — two soggy, pathetic kids standing in the rain and in the agonizing moments between freedom and a lesson.

But maybe not as much of a spectacle we must have been when we finally headed back home, slow and steady down the highway, wild and young and free, just two best friends and our goat standing on the backseat, popping his head up between us.

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A country kid needs a town kid

me-and-ashley

Door always open to home of old friend
by Jessie Veeder
2-16-17
http://www.inforum.com
Fargo Forum

I used to go to her house in the time between after school and basketball practice. I would eat graham crackers with cheese, and we would sit at the table in her family’s kitchen, her mom popping in to say hi and get the scoop on our day.

I was a country kid in junior high, and I had a few years and a few tests to pass before I got my driver’s license, so the chance to participate in after-school activities meant finding town friends who would save me from roaming the streets between the last bell and the starting practice whistle.

She was one of those friends for me. In the fragile time between elementary school and being ruled adult enough to leave home, she played a role in my adolescence that not only helped me survive it, but made me feel like my quirkiness (weirdness?) was not only accepted, but also appreciated.

I could make her laugh, and she made me feel safe in a friendship at a time in a young girl’s life when friendship is often volatile, fleeting and prone to drama.

(Except for that time in eighth grade when we got the rebellious idea to walk down to the local drug store to pick up a couple boxes of hair dye and disastrously turn her perfectly blonde hair blaze orange and mine a weird color of navy blue, our 20+ years of friendship has been pretty clear of drama.)

I can’t speak for her, but I feel so lucky and sort of surprised by it sometimes. As childhood friends go, our stories are linked in many ways, but in many more ways we are completely opposite.

As a teenager, she was focused, practical and matter-of-fact where I was uncertain about fitting in. I was messy and disheveled; my car was covered in scoria dust and full of pop bottles and dirty socks. I was creative and in my own head, tentatively tipping my toes in the wild edge of bad decisions. She made her bed every day, washed her car in the driveway on the weekends and showed confidence in who she was — solid, studious and pretty well-behaved — no matter who approved.

She was long and lean with coordinated limbs built for sports. I didn’t have an aggressive bone (or muscle) in my body. And while basketball, volleyball and track turned into her high school passions, I traded sports for music, rodeo and high school love.

So our schedules and interests didn’t allow us to easily spend every waking minute together the way many childhood friends are often defined, but I hope she looks back on those days and says I was there when she needed me.

I know I can say that for her. Because if there was a quality I’d like to steal from her (besides those long legs and lungs for long-distance running), it’s that I might be as fiercely loyal.

I’m thinking about her today because we got to spend some time together last weekend as we often do when I head to the big town where she lives with her husband raising two sports-crazed boys between the sidewalks.

Whenever I make a trip there for music or shopping I give her a call and her door— just like it’s always been — is open for her friend who usually rolls up later than planned in a dusty car, plastic bottles and spare mittens spilling out onto the driveway.

Not much has changed as we tallied the years, except we’ve gotten closer. I’m going to give her most of the credit there. My loner and introspective tendencies don’t always make for the best phone-call-maker and catcher-upper. It’s a weakness of mine that I’m humbly aware of, one that’s disconnected me from some of my favorite people. But she’s hung on to me in the ways only people who really understand one another tend to do.

And when I called last weekend to tell her we were going to swing by to say hi on our way to go furniture shopping, she offered to watch Edie to help save our sanity and ultimately feed graham crackers to the next generation of country kid waiting out her time in town.

jessie-and-ashley

The moral of the old friendship story

Some old friendship keep you young. I’ve been lucky enough to grow up witnessing that phenomenon, one  adventure and mishap after another.

Here’s this week’s column.

The moral of the old friendship story
1-29-17
by Jessie Veeder
http://www.InForum.com

We were all sitting around in the living room visiting about weather, politics and how Edie managed to get her second bloody nose in two days in church that morning when Dad came sneaking sort of quietly through the door, slipping off his snow boots and wool cap before shuffling down the hall and sliding into the chair.

The last time we saw him he was at the top of the neighbors’ sledding hill, brushing the snow off of his Carharts after a lightning speed solo trip on the orange toboggan.

His best friend just came back from the shop with his chainsaw to cut down a dead tree that he thought was in the way of the epic run they were building.

All the kids had already gone in the house due to frozen cheeks and my little sister and I, exhausted from a half hour of trying to save Edie from the ideas she had about running, unassisted and unafraid, down the sledding hill, decided we would all be safer and happier in my living room.

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And so that’s where we left him — grampa Gene with his best friend, neighbor and grampa himself, Kelly — alone with two other dads, a slick sledding hill, a stack of sleds and no supervision.

“I bet if Gene and I took that orange sled down this hill together we could get going ’bout 150,” I heard Kelly say as he walked up the hill behind me.

And so I called Dad. I knew he wouldn’t want to miss out on a chance to go 150.

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I should have known better, but neighbor Kelly is notorious for building epic escapades in the middle of an ordinary Sunday afternoon.

And in the winter, the go-to adventure is always their sledding hill, which is as meticulously cared for as an Olympic rated luge track.

“So, did you and Kelly go 150?” I asked Dad, thinking his unusual silence was a little suspicious.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “It was plenty fast.”

He sort of half-laughed the way a kid does when he’s holding on to something funny but knows giving in will undoubtedly mean having to explain himself.

Which is exactly what happened as he entered the living room scene, with my mom, little sister and husband all staring at him, knowing there was more to the story.

“What,” I said.

He scratched his head where his hat had been, making his silver, scruffy hair stand up straight and gave it up.

“Oh, it … it was bad,” he puffed. “Kelly got hurt. I don’t know …”

“What? How? Where?”

“Well, his arm I think. Think he tore a tendon. I don’t know … We tried snowboarding.”

“Dad!”

“Yeah, well it’s not a challenge for those young guys; they just fly right down there. It’s more fun for us. To see how far we can go. Anyway. I hurt my shoulder … ”

“Your shoulder?!”

“Yeah, but he wiped out pretty bad at the bottom, don’t know how much hand shaking he’ll be doing these days … ”

“Might be the end of his curling career … ”

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And the conversation spun on from there about past near misses, heroic injuries and the epic 2-mile toboggan run from the hay field to the barnyard. One story blended into the next the way they do when you get an old guy rolling in memories with a friend who’s lived up the hill from him his entire life and can always be counted on to help with things like roundup, keys locked in cars, or kittens stuck behind refrigerators.

My favorite is the time he spent the evening at our house in the dark sitting on the floor in the living room while Dad sat in his easy chair, both holding BB guns pointed at the open cabinet under the sink waiting for the unwelcome pack rat they were hunting to make his next and final appearance, a really great scene in the wonderfully ordinary story of their long friendship.

“Well, if there’s a chance to go sledding I’m taking it,” Dad said when someone swung back around to ask how his shoulder was feeling.

And I think that might be the moral of the story, and maybe of friendship in general, no matter how old and reckless you get.

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Sunday Column: Raising a new generation in a familiar place

Best Friends 2

This is a photo of my best friend (the tiny little blonde thing) and me sitting on her dad’s lap when we were just babies.

This was likely taken in my parents’ little trailer where they first lived on the ranch when they got married.

I think we still have that rocking chair.

I spent my entire childhood with that little blonde girl who lived up the hill along the highway on the place where her dad was raised. We had plenty of adventures and we were lucky to have each other out here growing up in the middle of nowhere. I guarantee having her in my life went a long ways in the ‘happy childhood memories’ department.

Best Friends

We used to plan on how we would grow up, have some adventures and move back to our ranches and be neighbors forever.

Who would have thought that the best laid plans of ten year old girls would wind up coming together twenty years later.

It’s a story that doesn’t get told much out here in Western North Dakota where the focus is on Boomtown and oil and all the trouble and sacrifice and nervousness it creates.

There is that. Some of that.

And then there is the fact that I would never be here, on my family’s 100 year old ranch, living down the road from my childhood best friend who was out helping our dads work cattle last Friday just like the old days, one or two of her four kids in tow, if it wasn’t for an economy that could support us building houses and making lives and carrying on traditions out here on our family farms.

When I graduated from high school in 2001, the porch lights along the gravel roads that connected us to town, were going out one by one.

Now they are turning on by the dozens, fourth and fifth generations getting a chance to be involved in the family business, or, like many of our friends, taking advantage of the opportunity to return home to a place they were raised and raise their own children.

Take this picture for example. This is a photo of my husband and some of his closest friends at our senior prom fourteen years ago (gasp!).

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At a time when our hometown and home state were dealing with outmigration and we were told to get out of here, go get an education, move to Minneapolis or Chicago and start a life, make something of yourself, it’s interesting to note that of the six young men in this photo, all six of them have moved back to western North Dakota to raise their families.

Three of them are back on family ranches and one of them is in a beautiful house outside of our hometown raising three boys.

These guys, for all the wild shit they survived in their teenage years, grew up to own successful businesses, build houses and hold and be promoted in professional jobs. One of them is even a teacher and a coach. And between them all they are raising (or will be raising, if you count our little one coming along) fourteen kids out here in Western North Dakota…a place that seemed to once be on the verge of extinction.

Now, when I look around at events happening in town, basketball games, figure skating shows, dances on Main Street, I see about a hundred more stories of hometown kids coming back to make a life in a familiar place that is growing and busting at the seams.

A place they help make better by volunteering to coach 2nd grade football or, like my best friend up the road, help run the gymnastics program. Because their memories of this place motivate them to make sure they’re making good memories for their own children.

A few weekends ago I went up to have supper at my best friend’s beautiful house up the road. She invited some of our other friends to join us, and they all brought their kids and we ate meatballs and gravy and it occurred to me how unique of a situation we’ve found ourselves in…knowing each other’s history, loving each other from the time of fanny packs and biker shorts, and getting the opportunity to raise our own children together.

So that’s what this week’s column is about. Generations having the opportunity to build lives out here.

Who would have thought?

Coming Home: Newfound hope means we’re raising kids with our old classmates
by Jessie Veeder
10-25-15
Forum Communications
http://www.inforum.com

On top of the hill across from the golf course, my hometown is busy building a brand-new, beautiful high school.

Plans have been in the works for a few years as our student population continues to grow, forcing classes to be held in portable rooms even after a recent elementary school renovation. 

Even during these times of lower oil prices.

It’s hard to imagine, but it’s true. The kindergarten class this year registered well into a hundred students, and in a matter of six or so years, we have not only exploded in population from 1,200 residents to closer to 10,000, but we’ve turned from an aging community into a young one.

Last weekend, my best friend — the neighbor girl who used to meet at the top of the hill so we could ride our bikes along the centerline of the highway — called us to come over for supper. A few years ago she and her husband, my classmate, built a beautiful house on her family’s ranch, fulfilling the plans we made when we were kids jumping from hay bale to hay bale to “grow up, get jobs and be neighbors forever.”

So I grabbed a bottle of wine (because someone should be drinking this wine) and headed up the hill to her house where she’s raising four kids, the youngest a son who will be only six months older than our baby on the way.

Lord help us all if this baby is a boy, too.

Anyway, that night we gathered for meatballs and gravy to catch up with a house full of friends. I looked around the kitchen, listened to the guys talk sports and bounce new babies and realized that every single one of those five grown men grew up together. And there were more of them, quite a few more of them, who couldn’t make it to the party.

And while it’s not a surprise (more than half of the classmates who attended our 10-year high school reunion had either moved back home or were making plans to move), it was fun to take a look around and think about the next chapter in our lives as friends in a town they told us no one could come home to.

But look how wrong we can be about predicting the future. One of my husband’s best friends — the one who lived right down the block and was in on more than a few paint ball and principal office shenanigans with him — held his newborn son at the table. That friend was my locker buddy, and his dad was locker buddies with my dad, and it just occurred to me that the baby boy he was bouncing could very likely be locker buddies with our baby, too.

(Would it be more or less trouble if our baby is a girl?)

And there are quite a few stories like this in my hometown these days, not just among our small class of 40 or so, but among other classes here as well. Best friends from childhood raising families alongside one another, taking turns driving kids to football or gymnastics, meeting up to barbecue, to sit and visit with a sort of ease and familiarity that comes with knowing one another when we wore our pants too baggy and drove too fast.

Who would have known? When I left home almost 15 years ago, the porch lights on the farmhouses were going out one by one. This landscape was so much darker without any real hope of new and younger hands to flip the switch back on.

And nothing was going to make it any different except a change in the makeup of this place that would make it so we wouldn’t have to struggle the way our parents did.

Around the supper table that evening there wasn’t a person raised here who didn’t respect and love it in their own way. But just because we’re connected by the land doesn’t necessarily mean that we would naturally remain connected to one another.

Except in this case it is enough, to find this place worthy of returning to and planting new seeds, a new generation raised in a familiar, changing and unpredictable place.

Sunday Column: The good ‘ol fashioned coffee break…

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In this time of texting, messaging, emailing, Instagramming, Tweeting, Facebooking, Pinteresting, Parascoping and all of the other digital ways I haven’t learned about yet that allow us to communicate with the entire world with a click of a button, sometimes it just really nice to have a friend that will drive 30 miles out of her way (with soup) for a good ‘ol fashioned visit.
Because of all of the things we might invent to bring us closer, nothing compares to the original–sitting close and hearing each other laugh out loud.

Coming Home: Impromptu visits still important in modern, hectic life

by Jessie Veeder
10-12-15


Forum Communication

www.inforum.com

Last week, a friend drove from town with her young son and a pot of soup to our house in the middle of nowhere on a mission to have a lunch date.

It was a regular Monday afternoon, and I was working from home. When I work from home, I don’t get things like “lunch dates.”

Because I can’t just pop out to my favorite sandwich place to meet a friend.

No.

Out here, my lunch date is watching the cows walk by the yard on their way to the dam to water as I sit down in front of my computer with a summer sausage sandwich I threw together in haste.

So needless to say, it was nice to have company, a cheerful face with a red-headed toddler in tow to liven up this empty midday house a bit.

It was a simple gesture, one that had us chatting about mommyhood and our growing town, the nice fall weather and the story about how my husband and I got the pickup stuck smack in the middle of a muddy road the night before and had to be pulled out. Because it’s been raining, and this is still a wild and inconveniently unpredictable place sometimes, despite and because of oil industry action.

And this wild place doesn’t typically lend itself to town friends making the long trip out just for a quick visit and a bowl of soup. Usually it’s the other way around, and then when we get to town, we make sure to stop at the bank, get some groceries, grab a piece for the broken water tank at Tractor Supply and generally try to fit in what we can before heading back home.

But my friend’s visit got me thinking about lunch dates and coffee breaks and how we’re spending our suppertime and our downtime. If you look at it all together, those little in-between moments, the pauses in the work and the regular routine, add up to some of the really good (and dare I say best) parts of our lives.

What are we doing with those little moments? Who are we spending them with?

Now, I remember a lot of things about growing up out here — the freedom to roam about and play in the hills, riding horses and chasing cows, big birthday parties and family gatherings — but what holds unexpectedly warm memories for me are the coffee visits.

As a kid, of course, I wasn’t there for the coffee. I would tag along with my parents up the hill to the neighbors’ for a chance to play with my friends on their tire swing before coming in for a glass of Kool-Aid and catching pieces of conversation and laughter coming from the adults sitting around the counter.

From them we learned about humor and gossip and what it sounds like to offer up help, concern and well-intended advice. We learned how to weave a story and get to the punch line, we learned what trust looked like, and we learned that you should keep cookies or bars around, especially on the weekends, in case someone stops by.

And in all of those lessons learned over Kool-Aid and coffee, I can’t help but wonder now, in this fast-paced world I’ve found myself in, did I hold on tight enough to the lesson of simple time spent together? Messy house or clean. Work done or work looming. Who cares if you’re caught in your ugly cleaning sweatpants on a Saturday morning?

I feel like in the hectic schedule we’ve made for ourselves, riddled with deadlines and ranch work and housework, I might have slowly lost the art and importance of the impromptu visit.

With a baby on the way, somehow my friend’s visit, with her toddler and his backpack full of toy cars in tow, reminded me of the importance of doors open, coffee on and simply swinging by, no matter how far down that highway a neighbor is.

Because this busy life we’ve created isn’t just about tasks and goals, but about feeding our souls with a homemade cookie and a little conversation to remind us we’re in it together.

So keep the coffee on, friends, we’re coming over.

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Sunday Column: Summers that can change your life

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Summer is making a promise to appear once again and I am thinking today about the way life can change in that short season.

When we were younger, summer meant a break, a breath, a transition onto the next phase in our lives, the next grade, the next chapter.

Now that I’m all grown up, it’s changed a bit. Summer means hustle and heat and a chance to get things done around here. It’s not a transition but a season we look forward to so we can warm up and make plans.

But sometimes when you’re in the middle of making plans for your life, your life changes.

That’s what happened to me almost nine years ago today. I opened the classifieds to look for a summer job to get me through the slow months between touring in the spring and fall, and I ran across a job opening for a Special Event planner at a performing arts school in Fargo, ND.

I was a year out of college, planning a wedding and getting ready for the rest of my life. The job was going to be a stopover, a temporary position, a stepping stone to the happily ever after.

Turns out on my way I found what have become some of the most important people in my life. I fell in love with them between flipping burgers, moving picnic tables and changing the lights in the porta potties. They made me laugh while we worked our asses off in the 104 degrees of the hottest summer of my life.

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And when that summer was over, we just held on to each other. Not out of some master plan to never lose touch, but because we liked each other. Because when we meet up we get a break, a laugh, a chance to be our true selves together before rushing back off into the real world, the one we were imagining that summer, the one that we never seem prepared for.

The one that’s a lot easier with these friends on the other end of the line.

We’re scattered all over the mid-west now, married or paired off or single, but we meet up when we can. Just a few weeks ago it was flinging ourselves down a mountain in Colorado.

It seems we always find an excuse to drive or fly in the direction of each other.

And so I was thinking about my friends when I wrote my column this week. I was thinking about them and so I wrote about them,  but maybe didn’t get to say exactly what I wanted to say in the end. Because it turns out it’s hard to conjure up words to describe how lucky I am to have found a set of people who are just so perfectly themselves that they make me believe in all different kinds of love.

And in summers that can change your life…

Coming Home: Stepping stone job fosters lifetime of friendship
by Jessie Veeder
4-12-15
Forum Communications
http://www.inforum.com

Sunday Column: On best friends and lemonade stands

We all had a best friend growing up. The one we would meet on our bikes every day in the summer, the one we got chicken pox with, the one who would fearlessly have our back in an argument with the stupid boy who kept pulling your ponytail in 3rd grade.

Mine had short blond hair and freckles and blue eyes and was always a foot or two smaller than me. She could do backflips and front flips and side flips on their trampoline, and could ride her bike with no hands or feet when I was still working on the one-handed trick. She had a tall roan horse named Teddy who looked pink and she would climb up on his back like a spider monkey and ride like the wind in the badlands after her dad after the cows.

She could make an expert Juneberry pie long before her 16th birthday and was my passenger in her dad’s old Lincoln when we got a flat tire and spun around on the road and into the ditch on our way to pick up a goat to practice tying.

She cried with me for one second and then pulled it together enough to help figure out how to change the darn thing…just a few minutes before some neighbor men showed up…

Yes I hope everyone had a friend like her. A best friend who knew you before you had lost all your baby teeth and made big plans with you while jumping from hay bale to hay bale. Plans to grow up and move out, get married and bring those boys back here someday so we can live here and be neighbors forever.

We all know most childhood plans don’t quite come to fruition, maybe because they are a little too big or too wild or too bold.

At the time when the roads were quiet out here and the towns were shrinking as fast as the porch lights were going out on homesteads along the pink roads,  asking to be grownups making a living on a ranch in North Dakota was probably about as far fetched a dream as we could conjure, and we only sort of understood that…

But we still believed it. And we were right to. Because just a few weeks ago I stood in the yard of her new house with a bottle of champaign and a request for a tour.

I didn’t ride my bike because I’m a grown up and now, but I came over to welcome her home, her and her three blonde haired, blue eyed kids and that boy she said she’d bring here,  along that once quiet highway.

My best friend, my neighbor again…

Coming Home: Childhood summers full of good ideas, plenty of things to do
http://www.inforum.com/content/coming-home-childhood-summers-full-good-ideas-plenty-things-do
by Jessie Veeder
8-10-14
http://www.inforum.com

Sunday Column: Adventures in boots…

Our stories make us. To sit around the kitchen table, or to stop and chat up a friend on the street, to lean against our shovels, taking a break from work. To grab a beer on a patio somewhere and lean back into our memories with our good friends, or the friends we are making. To tell about the time you got bucked off so hard you couldn’t feel your right arm for days, the one that turns into a memory from your new friend or old friend about her favorite horse that used to eat her hat, stories that lead into other stories, stories that show us parts of one another, they mean something, they say something about the fabric woven in us.

Stories are how we come to know one another. Stories are how we share pieces of our lives with pieces of the rest of the world.

But I have to tell you that when I asked you to share the stories of your favorite boots with me here on the blog, I didn’t expect to be so moved. Each memory or commentary is touching or funny or perfectly heartfelt in it’s own way and I feel like I have the best group of loyal, well-dressed friends out there.

I’m so glad I asked for your stories

So thank you for sharing!

And if you haven’t commented with your own boot story yet (or Facebooked at Facebook.com/veederranch or Tweeted/Instgrammed a photo with #rockybootstories) there’s still time to enter for your chance to win a FREE PAIR OF BOOTS!  I will post the winner on Wednesday!

And now to celebrate spring and our stories and all the kinds of trouble we can get into way out in the country with our best friends in our favorite pair of boots, I present to you a story about childhood, breaking rules and paying the price.

P.S. This is a story about wood ticks and I apologize in advance for that creepy, skin-crawly feeling that will likely result after reading it…

Coming Home: Bending the rules ends in surprise infestation
by Jessie Veeder
5-11-14
Forum Communications
http://www.inforum.com

Keep those stories coming friends! And here’s to many more adventures in those boots!

How faith might find you…

Yesterday morning one of my best friends, my neighbor down the road with curly hair kind of like mine, a similar obsession with photographing wildflowers and a much better success rate with house plants, gardens and crafting projects, gave birth to her first child.

A beautiful baby girl.

When that baby drew her first breath from within the safe walls of a hospital made of bricks standing strong against the chilly North Dakota air, I had just landed in MInneapolis after taking the red-eye out of Las Vegas where I slept face down, hair splayed out on the tray table for nearly three hours.

When I finally landed in North Dakota, my momma and I rushed to the floral shop to buy tulips and chocolate, a small token of appreciation for the newest addition to our neighborhood, then we pointed our car toward that hospital made of bricks so that we could take a look at those tiny hands and count those toes and say hello, we’re so glad you’re here.

I’m so glad she’s here.

Now, babies are born every day. All of the people I passed on my way through the airport, all of those souls standing in line and sitting shoulder to shoulder, taking off across the sky together, have mothers who grew them and carried them and brought them into the world to grow up and drink coffee, tell stories and host dinner parties, drive cars too fast and take midnight walks, make a mean cheesecake and fall in love, fall out of love, then back again and bite their nails, own too many cats and someday, have babies of their own.

And while all of these living and breathing people, all 7.046 billion of us, have stories we can tell each other about work and family and that great restaurant we visited last night, stories we might hear over a long overdue phone call or while standing in line at the post office with a stranger, every single one of us carries with us a different story about how we came into this world.

And although we carry it with us, not every one of us is able to tell it. Because not every one of us were told–not all of us really know.

That’s the thing about humans, we may choose not to share every detail in words.

A child may never know how much he was wanted.

Or how he was a plan.

Or a surprise, a pleasant surprise.

A terrifying one.

A surprise that couldn’t be handled.

But I’ll tell you something about my friend and her husband, the couple who welcomed that beautiful baby into this cold little corner of North Dakota yesterday–yesterday they witnessed a miracle.

And they knew it.

Now their story is like everyone’s story in that it is their own. And I, as their friend down the road, am not qualified to tell it, to give justice to what it’s like to pray and worry and drive hundreds of miles to spend countless hours in doctors appointments explaining and re-explaining, planning and re-planning and spending time on procedures and money on drugs while hanging on to a hope, a hope that has hung on for years…

Five years to be exact.

That someday she will be a mother.

And he will be a father.

And they will hold their daughter, a daughter with a little splash of red hair, tiny pink cheeks, long fingers like hers and eyes like his in their arms in the brick hospital in the middle of winter on the edge of North Dakota.

Because even some of life’s most natural promises are not promised to everyone.

And then sometimes that promise does not come easy.

But when it does, well…

There are no words.

Last spring I was driving my pickup down a gravel road, coming out of the badlands and onto the highway. My friend with the curly hair like mine was my passenger and we were talking about our struggle to become mothers, another thing, besides the unruly hair, that we have in common.

My hope was dwindling, wavering and faltering after years of disappointment. Six pregnancies celebrated and then lost with nothing but an unsolved mystery, heartbreak and frustration left in their wake.

“I don’t know if I’ll ever be a mother,” I told her. “I don’t know how much more of this I can take. It might be a sign it’s not meant for us.”

She sat there beside me then, a woman with the same hope of a family, but one who had not yet seen those two pink lines.

“I just know there’s a plan. I have faith. I can see it for us,” she said. “I can see it for you.”

Faith.

In my life I’ve had it and lost it…

Moving along that gravel road with my friend talking and holding on tight to her hope, I believed for her it would work out.

But I couldn’t hold that same belief for myself.

And then I got the phone call in the early morning hours of January 5th, the one with my dad’s voice on the other end of the line begging for help. The one that sent our whole life reeling with prayers and hope and desperate pleas that the man called dad, grampa, husband, Pops, brother, uncle, friend would live to hear us tell him we loved him a thousand more times.

The one that promised this man was not going to live.

But some of life’s promises are not promised to everyone.

I stood in that North Dakota wind outside of that hospital as they prepared my faltering father for a plane ride he might not survive. I watched that wind bend the trees down and cool the air and I struggled to catch the breath that I lost with the news…

I tried to imagine a world without my father…

Today my dad stopped by the house. He wore his blue jeans and boots, a checked wool vest and a cap he got free from a company he’s likely been working with now that he’s back working. I made him a  cup of coffee and we sat at the counter and visited a bit about the weather and plans we have for spring when the cows come back…the things I promised him we’d do when he was lying in that hospital bed for a week working on pulling through.

Yesterday I got off a plane that flew me high above the clouds, shoulder to shoulder with a hundred other people with heartbeats and stories who were flying too…

And then we came back to the earth safe and sound so that I could hold my friend’s baby in my arms where she wiggled and opened her tiny little mouth to cry a bit before I bounced her and shushed her and told her she’s ok.

She’s got all the love in the world around her and in this world where she now lives, sometimes, miracles happen…

I know, because I have faith…

A neighborhood tradition.


We helped our neighbors brand  calves this Sunday. The sun was finally shining enough to give us hope the corrals might dry up by the time the day was over, so it seemed like the perfect day to get some work done.

Branding calves is a traditional chore that happens once a year. And whether your herd is 50 or 500, branding is always a great and necessary excuse to get neighbors, friends and family together to get some work done under the big prairie sky.

Branding, for those of you who are not familiar with ranching operations, is what cowboys do to identify their calves a month or two after they are born in the spring. Each ranch has a certain symbol associated with its operation and that symbol is placed on the cattle by using grey-hot irons that have been heated up in a fire and placing those irons momentarily on the calf’s hide.




At one time cowboys ran their cattle in open range on land not divided or sectioned off by fences. Branding your cattle meant that each ranches’ herd could graze freely on the open range and could easily be identified come roundup time when the calves were taken to market. Today in Western North Dakota ranch land is split up and sectioned off into pastures. If a neighbor’s cattle break down a fence and get into a field or an adjacent pasture, they are easily identified. In addition, branding cattle has traditionally been a way to deter cattle thieves, as brands are registered and inspected when taken to market.

With most calves born in March and April, ideally a rancher would want to get their branding done in May, but with the snowy and wet weather that occurred during calving and on into the late spring, things have been delayed a bit this year.

Now every operation has their own traditions and ways they like to work their calves. Around here a typical branding day would start early in the morning with a ride out into the pastures to roundup all of the mommas and babies and gather them into a corral where the crew then sorts the calves off from the cows into a smaller pen.

There’s a lot of mooing at this point, which will not cease until the mommas are back with their babies, the end goal the crew will work to accomplish as quickly, safely and efficiently as possible.

Once the calves are sorted the real work begins.  Typically, if the calves were younger, a crew of able bodied cowboys and cowgirls would work to catch and “wrestle,” or hold the calves in place on the ground while another crew works quickly to vaccinate, fly tag, brand and, if it’s a bull calf, castrate.  If all goes well the calf is only down for a few short minutes before the crew releases the baby back into the pen to find his momma.

At the neighbor’s last weekend the process was the same, but because the calves were a little older and a little bigger, Cowboy Kelly decided it would be easier on all of us, calves included, if we used the chute.

And because, as I have mentioned earlier, I was out a little late the night before, drinking some adult beverages, I was ok with missing the opportunity to brush up on my calf wrestling skills. But my desire to be involved was completely selfish anyway, because around this neighborhood it seems you always find you have plenty of help.

And so was the case on Sunday as one by one under a sun that turned my fair skinned friend’s skin pink, even under her cowboy hat, the crew pushed the babies through the chute and Cowboy Kelly marked them with a brand that has been attached to his family’s ranch and cattle for over 100 years.


I stood by Kelly’s daughter, my best friend and neighbor when we were growing up, as she tagged the calves to help keep the summer flies away and counted and inspected each and every one for her father.

My best friend is a mother now. I watched her carry one of her babies piggyback as she trudged through the mud to shut the gate and I wondered when it was exactly that we grew up.


She just had her first son, her third child, a little red headed boy, a few months ago. He was likely sleeping in his great grandmother’s arms in the house as his grandma set out the dishes, turned on the oven and put ice in the cooler for the crew.

His two blonde and freckled sisters were hanging on the fence in their pink boots and ponytails, watching the action, counting the calves and asking questions next to their cousins and aunts who stood just close enough to make sure they didn’t fall and hurt themselves.

I look at those girls and it’s like I’m looking at my friend, new freckles appearing with each hour those little noses see the sun. I used to stand next to her on that very fence, watching our dads, asking questions, wearing holes in the toes of our red boots, happy with the business of being friends.

And so I stood next to her again on Sunday and we were ourselves, older versions of the children who used to ride their bikes up on the highway between our two ranches, weaving in and out of the yellow center line, our feet off the pedals, the wind tossing our hair, making plans to grow up and get married and work and be cowgirls and mommas out here on our ranches, the only place we knew, the only place on earth for us.

So I guess we are grown up now. And so are those boys we brought home to help with branding back when we were sixteen or seventeen and hoping they could pull it off.

Hoping our dads approved.

When the last calf got his brand, the crew gathered for a Bud and to  lean on fences and find some shade. I snapped a few more pictures as my friend tallied up the ratio of bull calves to heifers.

She’s always been good with numbers.

I’ve always liked words.

And so I’ll tell you the most important part about branding. Everyone will agree.

While we were standing in the sun and the smoke of the branding irons, inside the house our mothers were cuddling the babies and cooking up a casserole meant to stick to a hungry man’s ribs.

Because the number one promise after a successful day of work in this neighborhood is a hearty meal and the chance to catch up, to visit a bit after a busy calving season.  It’s why you can always get a crew, because the work load is eased by friendship and comradery and the spirit that still lives out here on 100 year old ranches, the spirt that holds hope that it could carry on like this through the generations in the faces of the children we used to be.