Tiny, perfect things

There is a hill on the ranch that is completely covered in tiger lilies. My little sister went on a ride with Dad and they discovered them, a scattering of bright orange petals opening up to the bright blue sky.

It has been a dry year here, with our spring rain coming to us late, and so our wildflower crop is just now appearing. And this news about the tiger lilies may not seem so thrilling to some, but it’s exciting for us.

Because the flower is so perfect, and so exotic looking, and they don’t always come up every year. So when they do, we feel like we have access to our own personal florist, Mother Nature.

I don’t know if everyone has a favorite flower, but the tiger lily is mine. I carried them at my wedding, a bouquet of orange walking with me down a grassy, makeshift aisle in a cow pasture. We had to mow and build benches and move cow pies to make it presentable for guests, but we didn’t get rid of all of the cactus. My little sister found this out as she was making her trek down the aisle in front of me. I didn’t know if she was crying because of the cactus in her leg, or if she was so happy for us. I think a little of both.

Anyway, that’s what happens when you live in a wild place. No matter how you try to tame it, the flies and the thorns, the barn swallows and the raccoons, they don’t care about your fancy new deck furniture that you got for the family reunion — they will show up to eat the cat food and then poop on it.

And so then you sort of become wild, too. I know because I caught myself standing outside in my underwear one morning yelling at the birds to find a new place to make their messy clay nests. Not here, swallows. Not on the side of my house! And my husband? Well, he likes to scare raccoons at midnight… also in his underwear.

Anyway, I guess that’s why the wildflowers seem so special out here. For so much of the year we’re battling the elements, praying for rain, shoveling snow, bundling up, tracking mud in the house, pulling burs out of horses’ manes, cutting down weeds and clearing and cleaning and building and doctoring. The wildflowers, especially the tiger lily, seem like a reminder that there is perfection in this world, in the smallest things. Tiny, pretty miracles surviving despite and because of the hot sun and clay dirt.

I took my girls to that tiger lily hill the other day to check out this year’s crop. On the way they were singing Bible school songs they just learned, doing the actions and repeating the lines over and not quite right the way little kids do in the cutest way.

They had never seen a tiger lily before, and so it was a fun and easy Easter egg hunt, each girl grabbing up more than a handful of the flowers and thrilled with it all. With the familiar songs they were humming, and their sun-flushed cheeks and mosquito-bit arms, I couldn’t help but think: Now isn’t this the quintessential ranch summer?

I wonder what they will remember about being a little kid out in these hills. Do they feel as wild and free as I used to feel out here, enamored with the mystery of this place and how it can change so magically by the hour, the sun sinking down, turning the tips of the trees and grass and my daughters’ hair golden?

I hope so. I hope they feel as wild and beautiful and as loved as those lilies, because they are to me. My own little tiger lilies on the hilltop, growing before my eyes.

My favorite little flowers reminding us that there are perfect things in this world.

Free and safe and lonesome…

There’s a hill outside my house we call Pots and Pans.

When we were kids, my cousins and I would take the trek from my grandparent’s barnyard, past the bulls munching on hay, over the corral fences, along the dusty cow trail, up big granite rocks, stopping to declare we were kings and queens of the world, taking a juice box from our fanny packs to sit for a break along the way, kicking up little cactuses to add to the drama and adventure of finally making it up to the peak where old pots, pans and sifters waited for us among the sandstone rocks so that we could pretend the way kids do, while the grass scratched our bare legs and the wind whipped through our wild hair and the North Dakota summer sun flushed our cheeks.

And we could see everything from way up there. We could see the red barn our grandpa moved in with his brother and dad 50 years before. We could see the grain bins and the black cows and the sorrel and bay horses and the line of old fence posts trying to hold them in. The reflection of the hot sun on the stock dam and the tops of the oak trees bending in the relentless wind. And the mailbox and the pink road cutting through it all. We could see it all up there and I remember it making me feel free and lonesome and safe all at the same time.

And we were just kids, so we could have played anything up there. We could have been superheroes or dinosaurs, gold miners or Jesse James and his gang. We could have been magical fairies or mermaids or wild horses even. Kids that age, in the sweet spot between 3 and 10, with space and freedom like that, we could have been anything.

But we gathered those pots and pans up and we pretended to be grown-up versions of ourselves making supper for our children out of dirt and sweet clover, washing dishes, singing to them and putting them to bed in the house we made from the boundaries of the rocks and the tree line.

We could have been anything, and so we pretended to be grown-ups. What a thing to pretend. If we only knew how much of it really becomes cooking supper and tidying up the messes we make, tucking one another in at night and wondering what it’s going to be like…

Because we thought that we would someday be old enough and know enough to be as free as we wanted to be. No more rules. No more bedtime. No more supper table to sit at until we finished the spinach on our plates. We didn’t know then that maybe, on that hilltop, picking cactuses out of our little cousin’s bare legs, that we may have been as free as we’ll ever be.

Last week, we gathered up on that hilltop again, all of us cousins, over 30 years later, carrying our children on our backs, or holding their little hands, explaining the magic to our husbands and boyfriends, stepping on cactuses and gathering up the old pots and pans that had scattered down the bank over the years, just like us I suppose, gathered up from Texas and Minnesota and South Dakota and from just down the road outside the houses we put here, under that big hill, all grown-up now, like we wanted to be.

If you’ve ever wondered, like me, what keeps us bound to one another, I wonder if it isn’t as simple as the memories. It sounds silly, but for us cousins, it only had to be as epic as finding kittens in the old barn, or pretending that pink road was made of yellow bricks and one of us was Dorothy.

We held onto one another because we were given time and space to create a bond on a landscape with no agenda but to be to us what we dreamed it to be. And so the years between then and now, in the growing-up part that took us far from those hilltops, we held those memories, those old pots and pans and cactuses and black cows and clay buttes as a part of us.

Standing on that hilltop with them again, all these years later in the thick of the messy and wonderful and complicated lives we built, the grass scratched our bare legs and the wind whipped through our wild hair and the North Dakota summer sun flushed our cheeks again. We could see everything… free and safe and lonesome, all at the same time.

Maybe it’s the rain

Maybe it’s the rain
Forum Communication

I’ve been working on another book the past few months. Like the last, it’s a compilation of some of my favorite photos, columns, blogs, poems and recipes from the past 10 years I’ve spent documenting what it means to raise kids and cattle and make a life on the ranch.

Like the last, it’s been a nostalgic and difficult project to take on with full-time work, ranch life and two loud and wonderfully distracting kids in the house.

I typically don’t spend much time looking back on what I’ve written because I have to focus on what to write. And so I’ve been seeing our lives a little differently lately, thinking about how far we’ve come and how far we haven’t, how some things have changed completely and how some things haven’t changed at all, and it’s from that place that I share this piece on that limbo between past and present, a reflection brought on by the rain.

It was late August, and it had been hot for weeks, the kind of heat you remember as a kid, where Popsicles melt on sticks in the heavy air that sends the flies gathering at horses’ bellies and driving them to bob their heads and swish their tails in the trees.

We were sweating it out in the little house in the barnyard where my grandparents used to live, three years into our marriage and three months into unpacking our lives back home at the ranch where I was raised. And it was only six years ago, but we were just kids, really, with plans big enough to keep us busy.

But that day we resigned to the weather, keeping busy with tasks in a house that was sinking and shrinking with the weight of time.

And then the clouds rolled in, dark and as ominous as the lightning on the horizon, and we found ourselves standing, noses pressed to the screen door, watching the water form new rivers and waterfalls in the corrals.

The buttes in the horse pasture turned from rock to slick mud in a matter of minutes, and soon I found myself running behind my new husband through the mud, past the new barnyard river and scrambling up to the top of those buttes where we stood side by side before launching our bodies down the steep bank of that hill, sliding on the slippery, wet gumbo, just like we used to do as kids.

I’ve told this story before. You may remember it and how it ended in bruises, bloody scrapes and a heap of laughter spilling out into that dark, rainy night.

I’m thinking about it now because last weekend I found myself out in the rain again with my husband. We were riding through an unfamiliar pasture looking for a couple stray cows. The day was still, but the sky kept spitting on us, a little mist followed by small, flying drops hitting our cheeks and gathering on our horses’ manes.

It was a quiet rain, the kind that seems to clean up the landscape, making the colors richer against the gray sky. And I just kept looking at my husband on the back of his bay horse, his black hat and red scarf moving along the big landscape, and I started thinking about the times in my life where the rain made the moment.

I decided this was one of them.

And it was perfect timing, I think, following behind him on trails where he broke branches for me or hollered my name from a hilltop. We were doing work, and we were living out a plan, rain or shine.

But that day, I preferred the rain, because I was starting to wonder if it is possible to spend the rest of my life here without losing the magic of this place. A few days before, I received a note from a man telling me that my life seemed romantic in a way that few people know and that I was lucky for it.

I sort of felt like a fraud, wondering if I gave him a false conclusion. Settling into a new life as a mother and a new partnership as parents, no matter how much we wanted it, hasn’t been an easy and seamless transition. I’ve been struggling with it in ways I hadn’t expected.

I began to wonder if I was the same woman who slid down that gumbo hill with that young man six years ago.

We pushed up the bank of a wooded coulee, and I listened to the rain hitting the leaves and the branches break against the chest of my horse, and I thought about how I was taught to lean forward as a horse takes you through the trees so that you don’t catch one to the face and get pulled off.

It’s a lesson I reach back for when I’m in the thick of it, the same way I reach back for the girl who kissed a boy under that old oak tree in the field, promising him forever, no matter the weather.

So maybe it’s the memories we make that keep this place magic.

Or maybe it’s just the rain.

Rain on the Buttes

I’ll be performing at the TAK Music Venue in Dilworth, Minn., on June 17 and in Jamestown, N.D., on June 24. Hope to see you all out and about!

North Dakota, we’ve been claimed

Somehow we’ve been claimed
Forum Communications


As a woman whose heart has been planted solid here in the buttes and prairies of North Dakota, but whose feet and mind have wandered with music and education and the winding road for years, I have often found myself on the other end of the question: Why here?

Before I made the decision to stay here for good, before I became a mother working and raising those children in the middle of my 30s, trying desperately to find a way to do the right thing for the legacy of this ranch, I struggled to find an answer. I used to think I had to be so profound. I used to think I had to convince them…

Because asking me why North Dakota, why the prairies, why Middle America, is like asking what it means to you to hold your last name, or wear your grandmother’s ring, or to lay down next to the man you love every night. How do you answer it?

Who are these people who hold the scent of the dirt, the push of the wind, the endless winters, the wheat fields, the small town in such regard? Who has lived here for years, or arrived fresh and unconvinced? Who comes home again?

We are rural route roads, beat-up mailboxes and dusty school bus seats. We are rides in the combine, summer sausage sandwiches, a thermos of coffee washed down with warm lemonade and faces streaked with dirt after a hot August day in the field. Two miles to a gravel road on the edge of town and we are freedom, our father’s pickup, 12 years old behind the steering wheel.

We are first loves and last loves and forever loves found on those back roads at night, on front porches, in the back seats of cars and under blankets shared in the stands at football games.

We are the stars that light up the endless sky at night, family farms, four generations of the same recipe on Christmas Eve. The barnyard light.

We are white wood prairie churches, our mother’s voice quietly singing the hymns, Jell-O with suspended vegetables and mayonnaise casseroles waiting for us in the basement when the service is through.

We are wet clay caked to cowboy boots, the black soil of the valley, the only stoplight in town.

High heels and business suits, running shoes and hoping things will stay the same and knowing, working, voting, crying out for change.

We’re number crunchers, songs that must be sung, books that must be written. Snake-bitten.

We scream for sun and pray for rain and push the river from our doors. We’ve been here before.

Chokecherry jam, mosquito bites, country fairs, one station on the radio, too young for our first beer, FFA and 4-H steers. Too young to leave here.

We are race car tracks and endless power lines, hockey rinks and barbed wire fences. Drilling rigs and endless fields of wheat. September heat.

We are bicycle tires on quiet streets, fireworks in May, Popsicles and swimming pools and a stop at the Tastee Freez, please. The new kid in town. The doctor who knows you and your children too. Rodeos and American Legion, football heroes, lead singers, the Ferris wheel in town for the weekend. The underdog.

Powwows, three-legged races, familiar faces, dances in the street.

Throwing rocks in the creek.

We’re “Pete’s kid,” and “Your mother wants you home right away!”

We are pushed to go and pulled to stay; we are leaving this place as soon as we’re grown.

And we are the sky we can’t explain, unpredictable, colorful and full of rage and gentle hope that it’s all going to be OK.

We are someday.

We’re the wind, relentless. The snow, endless. Sharp and hard, steadfast and certain like the winter and the change in weather.

We are the dirt under our nails, tangled hair, the cattails and bluebells and big white-tailed deer. We are new Main Street signs, and small high school hallways, and hope, even though…

We are all of these things that make up a home, but home is not ours to take. Somehow, we’ve been claimed.

The ranch and the weather

Hoping for the weather to cooperate
Forum Communications

Last Friday a grass fire began to rage up north near our neighbors’ house. I had planned to have our Arizona-turned-North Dakota friends over to help feed the bottle baby calf, pet the horses and make them a proper Tater Tot hotdish.

They were coming over at 5, and my husband left to fight a fire at 1. I asked him, stupidly, as he was rushing out the door, “Do you think you’ll be home by 5?” And of course, he replied, “I hope so!”

And I hoped so too. Not just because I wanted him home in time for hotdish and friend-hosting, but because it would mean that they would have that fire under control by then.

The face of a fireman

On Saturday, the wind died down and the sun shone so bright that my oldest daughter couldn’t help but strip off her shirt and play in the dirt left waiting for the spring petunias in our flowerpots. I sat my husband down on a stool on the deck, he pulled his shirt off as well and I started to clip and buzz and cut the winter hair that had grown long on his head, shedding another layer as we moved slowly into a new season that was feeling so different than all the springs before it. Crocuses and muddy puddles, plum blossoms and new grass blades evaporated by a sky that just won’t give up the moisture.

That afternoon, looking a little less like a mountain man, my husband went out to check the cows and found a tiny calf, just barely over 30 pounds, left trying to get milk off her sick mother. He scooped her up in his arms and brought her down to the barnyard where I was brushing out horses and the girls were taking turns seeing how high they could climb the corral panels before they became too scared to jump off.

The tiniest calf we’ve ever seen

I just helped Rosie up on Tootsie and was watching the fluffy, old, partially blind mini horse wander around the barnyard with my youngest on board, when my husband arrived with a calf the size of a small goat — and just like that, the ponies were old news. The girls squealed and sprung to action with pets and snuggles, concerned looks, bottle-holding and more questions about calf poop and umbilical cords turned to belly buttons.

Little Mommies

RELATED COLUMNS:

Chad and I quietly hoped that poor little baby and her mom might make it through the night and told the girls to be careful now. Not so high. Why don’t you come down and help get these calves some fresh hay to lie on?

With my niece, the animal whisperer

The next day we woke up to rain, just enough to coat the ground and make us dare hope for more. We mixed up three big bottles for the two calves and the girls dug for their rain jackets and rushed out the door to dance in it. “Rain!” they hollered. “It’s raining!” And they twirled and ran and jumped and danced as if there was no way to contain themselves. As if, in their tiny little bones, they understood what a miracle it was.

If I wasn’t holding three big ‘ol calf bottles with a mission to finally get to the barn after two pancake refills, a hair-brushing argument, a hunt for the right mittens, two boot changes, two coat changes and a trip back for a snack for the way, I might have danced, too. And alongside the road on our way to the barn, the baby calves kicked up their heels, running and bucking and playing just like my daughters, thrilled for the drops on their backs.

We tucked our girls in that night too late and we both fell asleep beside them while our muddy boots worked on drying off in the entryway, our cattle bedded down in the draws and the rain quietly turning to snow to pile up to 3 inches on our thirsty land.

And so on Sunday, we dug out the snow pants, caps and mittens, fed a little more hay and found another stray calf, maybe the twin to the tiny one we’re still fussing over. And hoping for… just like I hoped, on Friday, when the land was burning up, that my husband might be home in time for supper…

My sister over the hill

My sister over the hill
Forum Communications

My little sister, her husband and their two young daughters have lived over the hill from us at the ranch for over a year now. When they sold their cute little home in town and moved into the cabin while they built a house out here, Alex was pregnant with her now one-year-old, her two year old was climbing the walls and neither one of us could have understood how much the two families would come to rely on one another in the coming months.

Not many people predict a cancer diagnosis, let alone a global pandemic over the horizon waiting to make us all feel isolated, helpless and utterly disorientated, but here we are, all more grateful than ever to have backup.

We celebrated my youngest’s third birthday last night, and this morning my little sister texted me: Let me know if your girls’ poop is blue from all that frosting!

Only a best friend/sister would want to know a thing like that, if only to laugh together about the absurdities of parenthood.

Being in the middle of this season of raising our daughters together is one of those unexpected gifts that all of those years of infertility struggles gave us. If my husband and I would have been able to start our family the way we thought we should almost fifteen years ago, our children would be babysitting their cousins instead of growing up alongside them like sisters, eating blue frosted cupcakes together in their leotards after gymnastics on Tuesday nights and fighting over baby doll strollers and Play Dough rolling pins. And while Alex wouldn’t turn down a couple babysitters living down the road, I think we all feel pretty lucky (not to mention outnumbered) around here.

And the thing is, while raising children on the ranch thirty miles from the nearest structured entertainment comes with so many blessings—the wide open spaces, the life long lessons, unlimited pet inventory and an abundance of big rocks and hay bales to climb—there’s plenty about it, especially as a parent of young kids, that can make you feel pretty isolated. 

Like when you’re in the middle of making supper for a hungry family and you realize you don’t have the main ingredient in your pantry. Like beans for chili or, in my case a few weeks ago, cheese for grilled cheese…

You just can’t have tomato soup without grilled cheese. Also, you sorta halfta have cheese….

Yes, my neighbor/ little sister is my extended pantry, sounding board, change of scenery, chicken nugget lunch time date, quick drop off point and, most importantly, a second mother to my daughters, which is my favorite part.

Because everyone needs a fearless backup who isn’t afraid to climb her own auntie/mom butt up to the top of the playground to retrieve your defiant screaming child while you have your hands full helping the other one take an emergency pee in the grass…

When my girls play “babies” together and neither one of them wants to be the daddy, they pretend they are aunties who live in the same pink house together because their husbands are out hunting or working, or, you know, they died….

Yeah, it can get a little dark in my kids’ pretend world. Alex tells me that’s normal, which is another reason I like having her around.

Now if you’ll excuse me, Rosie needs help on the potty and, frankly, now I’m curious.

Cheers to sisters/friends/family/shoulders to lean on in this crazy world of parenting. My wish is you have one down the block or right over the hill.

Every kid needs a tire swing

Every kid needs a tire swing
Forum Communications

We used to have a tire swing tied to the branch of a scrappy and tall oak tree that reached out over the steep banks of the small creek that runs through the ranch.

Mom could see it from the window above the kitchen sink, hanging on the other side of the fence that separated our mowed yard from the horse pasture that us kids regarded as the wilderness. When we could get a push or two from Dad between the work and the worry, there was nothing in the world that felt more like flying.

But mostly my little sister, or the neighbor girl and I, would take our turns on our way to the beaver dam to check on the frog population or to pull logs up over leaning trees to make secret forts and pretend we were living as grown ups in another time.

Even when I was just a kid, I thought that every kid should have a tire swing. The only thing that would have made it better was if we could let go to be dropped in the water on a hot day, the way I saw them do it on the country music videos. But the only time the water was high enough was in the years the snow turned to water fast and furious enough under an unexpectedly warm March day when we still wouldn’t dare put away our knit caps and coveralls, let alone strip down and jump in.

It didn’t matter to us, though — we were happy with any formation we could come up with that would make a big push out across the steep bank a little more dangerous — standing on the top, one-handed, no-handed, doubles, triples, a fast spin from your friend, a pullback and running leap on your own… and on and on until we were called inside or got distracted with another idea for how to make our own fun.

Remember those days? When time stretched out in front of us like a newly discovered trail, curiously winding instead of urgently ticking down on wristwatches and cellphones, screaming at us to hurry, reminding us there isn’t enough…

This fall, my husband spent several days behind the wheel of the backhoe, clearing out a tangle of fallen trees and underbrush to build a bigger driveway in front of the house, leaving behind a tall oak, gnarly and mangled, to stand magnificently on his own right outside our door. I always liked this tree, the way the twists of its branches told a story of perseverance, the way its trunk consumed ancient remnants of barbed wire, its bark determined enough to grow over the scars, revealing the secrets of a tree with a purpose beyond growing and shading and shedding its leaves.

But clearing the brush and weeds away really showed it off, ominous against a gray sky, inviting in the sun. Magical no matter what. It seemed both me and the tree loved the new landscaping plan.

But we weren’t the only ones. As soon as the dust cleared, my dad came over with a rope swing for the grandkids, and just like that the old man of a tree had a new purpose.

I watched my girls spin and squeal with their cousins under the shade of that oak. As the leaves cut loose in the breeze and spiraled to the earth around us, I laughed as I remembered the break of the rope all those years ago, and my little sister marching up to the house, tears in her eyes, to deliver the news (and request a trip to the hospital because the wind that got knocked out of her convinced her of internal damage).

And while my little sister was just fine, it was a big dramatic last trip on that swing. I was a teenager then and I realized it had probably been years since I had my last turn. I remember feeling a little sad about that…

We’re all grown-up now and so much has changed, so many things missed, pushed aside as memories we visit when we need them.

But I’m comforted knowing time hasn’t changed our minds. We all still agree every kid needs a tire swing, and a big push that feels like flying…

7 billion hours until chokecherry jelly time

IMG_8248

7 billion hours until chokecherry jelly time
Forum Communications

Do you know how many chokecherries it takes to make six jars of jelly? Seven billion.

Do you know how many hours it takes to accomplish this task? About the same, give or take.

Depending on whether you decide to bring most of the small children on the ranch with you when you pick them. Which I did.

And a grandpa, too.

IMG_8243

And when you take small children with you to pick chokecherries on a warm (OK, hot) August afternoon up in the fields where the cows haven’t had a chance to graze yet, you lose those small children in the tall grass.

That’s an actual thing.

You think they’re following you to the low hanging branches, but then you turn around and they’re gone. Don’t worry — you can still hear them, which is helpful for the rescue.

IMG_8239

I have so many memories of chokecherry-picking throughout the years growing up out here in western North Dakota, monitoring the blossoms in the spring, hoping a late frost didn’t kill our chances at jelly.

We would stand in the bed of the pickup backed up to the tall bushes to reach the clusters of ripe berries on the top, or I would scour the scoria road ditches with my best friend, trying to meet our goal of a full feed bucket. I can feel the horseflies biting my arms, the grass itching my legs and the sun scorching my shoulders just thinking about it.

Last week was my first time making those sort of rustic memories with my daughters and niece in tow. And given the amount of time they spent lost and tripped up in the tall grass, I think I accomplished making them appropriately itchy.

IMG_8228IMG_8231

The oldest two bounced back up pretty well, though, and with a lot of praise and Papa Gene basically bending entire bushes down to meet them, they kept to the task.

IMG_8229

My 2-year-old? Well, it was over for her as soon as that grass touched her armpits, and so she spent the next 45 minutes in the side-by-side yelling various versions of “Are you done yet!?” into the sky and bushes during breaks between singing at the top of her lungs and trying to figure out how to get the thing started.

IMG_8247

We called it quits when both my girls were whining enough to scare the horseflies away, but I think my little niece and Papa Gene would have stayed out there until every branch was bare.

IMG_8245

Did I tell you about the time we thought we lost my dad entirely picking chokecherries a couple years back? Sent out a search party and found him basically in the next county, because apparently the berries keep getting better one bush over…

Anyway, so that’s the first step. The next? Put the 2-year-old down for a nap while I try to convince the 4-year-old that sorting the sticks, leaves and bugs out of the berry stash is a fun game. And she believed me, but only for like 15 minutes.

7E30A870-994A-406C-9D6B-7F1886B35B82

Then she needed to go put on some lipstick or change her princess ball gown or something, leaving me alone with the task of sorting, washing, boiling, straining and juicing these berries — all while breaking up sister fights, finding snacks — and, oh shoot, it’s suppertime.

Do you know what you shouldn’t do? Work on a chokecherry jelly project while also trying to make pork loin and rice. To my credit, I thought I started this project with plenty of time in between. But it’s been years since I tried to be this domestic. Like, before I had children.

And it turns out time moves a bit differently when you have small children in the house and I didn’t recall that it takes 7 billion hours and about the same amount of kitchen utensils to make six small jars of jelly.

And so this is your reminder, in case you were thinking about taking on the chore, to make sure you clear your schedule. And all of the surfaces in your kitchen. And when you spread it on your toast or pancakes, you better not spill a drop…

Maybe next time I’ll try making wine.

2C992185-2795-4D2D-974C-679465BEEB79

The Animals of Winter

Animals of winter
Like the animals of winter

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

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

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

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

Horses in Snow

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 8.41.40 PM

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

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

Winter barn

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

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

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

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

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

Winter Horses

A year of work ends at the sale barn

112419.f.ff_.veedercolumn.1

We sold our calves last week.

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

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

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

 

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

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

112419.f.ff_.veedercolumn.3

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

112419.f.ff_.veedercolumn.2