The Steers vs. Pops vs. The Brush

I think it’s time I address some things that have been making an appearance in my stories, walking past my camera lens, stomping at the pug, pooping in my yard, leaning up against the house and looking in my windows…

Yes, it’s time I explain…these guys.

There are five of them out here on this landscape. And they are the only cattle we have on this place through the winter until springtime when a whole mess of angus beef cattle arrive. Pops purchased these misfits from a neighbor who runs a herd for roping practice and rodeo events in the area. Before they stepped off the trailer and into the buttes of the ranch, they had spent their lives in arenas being chased by cowboys and cowgirls and moved around from pen to pen.

They are “the steers,” and they are here “for fun.”

See, we’ve always talked about having a small herd of cattle out here that look like the old west,  and these “longhorns” fit the bill. Each day they are on the wild grass and alfalfa hay they grow a few inches…both their bodies and their horns. I have enjoyed taking their pictures and meeting them on the trail on a walk or a ride through the pastures, but that’s about as far as their worth goes…unless we, ahem…decide one of them might make a good cheeseburger….

Because, well, they are “steers” and “steers” lack the adequate parts necessary for, ummmm, shall we say, “growing a herd.”

But up until this week that was all we really needed from them: to look pretty, munch on grass and stay home. Once the other 100+ cattle arrive at our place in a few weeks it will be no big deal to have them run with the ladies. We were looking forward to it. But it turns out the steers couldn’t wait for the women to come to them.  So they huddled up behind some bullberry bushes and made a plan to casually meander up the road and cross the cattlegard that has been filled in by the dust of the traffic to hook up with the hot momma’s grazing in our neighbor’s pasture on the highway. They all agreed that not only was the grass greener on the other side of the fence, but their chances of getting lucky increased by like 1,000%.

I mean, I can’t blame them. The only creature that has shown any interest in them in the past six months has been the pug, and, well, we can all agree that he’s generally confused…

what with the thinking he’s a momma cat thing and all…

Anyway, it turns out that just because a bovine is missing necessary reproductive parts does not mean his is missing any, uh…urges. And when Pops and I saddled our horses on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon to go retrieve them, we were sorely, sorely mistaken in our anticipation for a casual, laid-back ride. So much so that I let my stirrups hang a little long and my reigns a little too slack. By the time Pops and I made it to the cattlegard that was responsible for the possibility of an escape, we had settled into a comfortable ease, and so had our horses.

On the other side of the fence, just across the highway we spotted our white steer staring back at us from a black sea of cattle.He was nuzzling and sniffing and grazing close to his new-found lady friends. About 200 yards to the south one of the red guys was showing off, chasing a couple mommas around the pasture.

Figuring the other three couldn’t have strayed to far from the herd, we left White and Red to hang there while we searched for their brothers. The plan is always to get who you want together and then move them toward your destination. So we rode south around the tree row, down through our neighbor’s barnyard, in the creek bed, and back north across the highway again. We saw black cows and calves, a hawk, some oil-trucks, a few hundred birds…and no steers. Not too pleased with the outcome of our short hunt, we decided to chase the two located steers north toward home. Pops had me convinced it would be pretty easy, that they knew their way and we would just follow them up the road and put them in the corrals until we found the others.

We didn’t give much thought to the possibility that this plan had potential to turn into a shit-show. Because when two steers find themselves surrounded by 100 eligible and voluptuous women, they aren’t about to go home without a fight.

And fight they did.

The entire three miles.

After a strategic and high-speed move that separated the two steers from their girlfriends and sent them flying across the highway with Pops at their tails, I held my breath and prayed for a reprieve in traffic as Whitey veered back toward the road and toward his women before Pops cut him off from his plan and sent him through the gate of our pasture. I stayed back to close the gate as Pops continued following them toward the barnyard. I was thinking we were out of the woods, that they had been defeated and would get the hint to head toward home…pretty easy Tuesday afternoon ride. Just the right amount of excitement…

But as soon as I my head popped over the hill to discover Pops riding his sorrel at speeds we hadn’t yet hit on horses this spring to cut Whitey off as he escaped from the thick brush of the coulee and veered back toward the cattlegard of destiny, I regretted not shortening my stirrups and my reigns. This wasn’t going to be easy.

Now I’m not an expert in cattle maneuvering, and I sure as shit am not a cow-whisperer like my father, but from my experience once a couple stubborn cattle hit the brush in the middle of a roundup, you’d better cowboy-up. Because hitting the brush is a bovine’s way of giving you the middle finger. And I’ll tell you, the bovine middle finger was flying last Tuesday…

And this wouldn’t have been such a harrowing move on the steers’ part if the three miles that separates our barnyard from the neighbor’s wasn’t filled with some of the most gnarly, thick, bur infested, boggy, fallen-log-ridden brush in the county. It wouldn’t have been a big deal if the steers just walked through it and came out on the right side eventually. But that was not their plan.

Their plan involved an escape back to the south. Camouflaged by the now-budding trees and scrubby underbrush they figured they would get in the thick of it, and then when the cowboy on their trail was crossing a creek or leaning over to keep from being decapitated by a low-hanging branch they would turn on their heels and high-tail it towards the neighbor’s.

As for the girl on the paint? I guess I didn’t look too intimidating bouncing along after my Pops at high-speeds on the back of a horse that had different ideas about the situation. Ideas that included a fast trot through the trees regardless of whether there was a trail, a high jump across the creek and ignoring any signals received from her rider to stop.

Damn the stirrups.

Damn the reigns.

Damn the branch that just slapped me in the face…

And this is the way it went as I struggled and failed to keep up with Pops as he and those rebel steers weaved back and forth across 1,000 acres of land.

In one patch of brush and out the other, they zig-zagged their way toward the barnyard, the steers stopping only to hold still and try their luck at out-smarting the cowboy. But Pops is stubborn and those steers, those worthless runaways, weren’t about to get the best of him. Between tree branches snapping and black mud sloshing, I think I might have heard him wonder out loud whose idea it was to buy these damn things.

And from a quarter of a mile away I might have wondered out loud if Whitey would look good on the living room floor of the new house.

An hour and a half and seventeen brush patches later,  the steers found themselves in front of the barn where Pops latched the gate and I dismounted to pick my wedgie. His horse was lathered and sweaty and I was questioning my cowgirl skills and wondering if I would get bypassed in the plan to go with him to find the rest of the small herd.We locked the steers in the corrals in front of the barn until we could get a handle on the cattlegard situation and go back for the others later on.

But it turned out that during the night those rebel steers put their heads together and conjured up another successful escape route. And when Pops got to the barnyard yesterday to saddle his horse and finish his roundup, he discovered that although those two steers lost the battle on Tuesday…

they sure as shit won the war.

My thoughts exactly…

Love. Lust. Romance. It always wins in the end.

Essential parts or, ummmm, no essential parts…

To always ride horses…

Last weekend Little Sister came home for the hustle and bustle and celebration of Little Man.

Have I mentioned that I love it when Little Sister comes home? Well if I haven’t said it sixty-thousand times already, I am saying it again and singing it softly to myself in a little tune I made up while I work on building her a quaint house in the oak trees next to mine, complete with a tin-can phone stretched across the yard and a couple of reclaimed lawn chairs from mom and dad’s junk pile.

It’s going to be just like old times.

Because here’s the thing. Everyone has people in their lives that they would like to keep wrapped up in a pretty little box in their pockets so they can carry them along and take them out whenever they need a good laugh, a smile, someone who really understands where you’re coming from, and who will, well you know, tell it to you straight.

My Little Sister is one of those people for me. I wanna wear her as a locket and show her off to friends. I want her confidence and quick wit at my fingertips. I want someone to drink margarita’s with and who will consume bowls and bowls of tortilla chips and cheese dip with me in the middle of the day in sweatpants without judgement…whenever I feel like it.

I know this is weird. I tested the theory out on Husband and he said I was a dork. Especially after I told him I wanted to wear him as a scarf around my neck so I would always have him there to protect me and provide for me better judgment wherever I go.

Well, it sounded good in my head, so I’m sharing it here. I imagine a few of you will be able to relate to my desire to be able to morph my favorite people into accessories and then un-morph (?) them back into people again whenever I feel the need…


Well, anyway, since I have yet to find that Genie to grant me my three wishes, I will just have to take what I can get of Little Sister when she comes around. And one of my favorite things to do when she shows up is to grab her and Pops and Husband and the horses and take a long ride out in the buttes. Because really, there’s nothing better than the smell of horses, crisp air, quiet trails, two of my favorite cowboys chatting about plans and my favorite high strung best friend on a high strung horse snorting and laughing and prancing along the prairie beside me.

So that’s what we did last Saturday as our chatter around morning pancake breakfast brought us too quickly into the afternoon  It was a little chilly out there when we stepped out into the farmyard and Little Sister was dressed just a bit too fashionably for this type of activity, so I promptly dug out my dorkiest hat, gloves and fur-lined vest and we were on our way under the big gray sky that hadn’t made up its mind whether it wanted to rain on us or shine. 

When taking a ride is my idea my posse generally agrees that we will have no particular agenda but to enjoy ourselves out here, to explore and tell some stories, check things out or just be quiet. And so that’s what we did. We strolled through golden grasses, and crunched through fallen leaves in the coulees, the two black cowboy hats in the lead and the frizzy haired women trailing behind.

We stopped on hill tops to catch up, to take a look around at how some of the leaves are desperate to hang on the oak trees, to check out the fences, to listen to one of Little Sister’s stories about school or one of my long stories that usually ends with me embarrassing the shit out of myself.

And as the words between sisters bounced off the hill tops and blew away with the wind and the guys talked hunting and horses, Little Sister’s horse, as he generally does, began to warm up enough to show his personality and the wild whites of his eyes. Here I will tell you that unless that horse and I are chasing after something that is running away from us, I prefer to avoid the Red Fury and stick to the Paint Mare, but Little Sister barely notices the animal beneath her snorting and prancing and all around making sure the other animals know that he needs to be in the lead.

So in the lead she went. That’s the funny thing about horses, while you are on their backs living your own little life, having your own conversations, thinking your own thoughts, they are underneath you, carrying you along on strong and quick feet and, if they are allowed, they are doing the same damn thing. And it was quite apparent that the Red Fury had only one thing on his mind that day and that was to be ahead of the mare I was riding.

It was driving him nuts.

And it was hilarious. Each time Little Sister’s horse would find himself a step behind he would snort and lift his head a bit higher and work on his rider to allow him at least one more step ahead. And so naturally I was tempted to see what would happen if I took off up the hill to catch a snapshot of my favorite people riding toward me. So I did. I rode up the hill ahead of the gang and turned around at the top to find Little Sister and the Red Fury flying up the hill behind me.

Apparently the Red Fury wasn’t about to allow this, and Little Sister didn’t care. She was along for the ride. The ride which I tried to document up until the part where the space between her ass and the saddle measured about a mile and I was almost certain she was going to be launched.

I think I yelled something like “Hang On!”…which is always so helpful in times like these…

but Little Sister just squealed and laughed and said she was a bit rusty after sitting in classrooms.

Which brings me to the point of my story, I do have one (besides embarrassing my sister.) I remember growing up here and taking these rides in the fall air, smelling the same smells, and feeling the same blessed. I remember making a promise to myself not to grow out of this. Not to ever say no to a ride with my father, to a chance to really live out here on these trails. I remember knowing, even at 10 or 12 years old, that I was lucky to have this experience under my belt, even when I had just hit the hard clay ground so hard I couldn’t feel my left arm after being bucked off of my gray mare yet again.

I remember telling myself that until I was old and gray I will always ride horses. No matter the agenda, no matter the responsibilities, no matter the fear of falling. I will always ride.

So seeing my Little Sister fly up that hill on a horse that has just as much attitude and free spirit as the woman on his back, I was reminded of that little girl with wild curls on a white pony named Jerry trailing behind me, singing songs to herself, telling me to wait up, getting her beanie hooked on a branch while riding through a trail in the trees, smelling those same smells, feeling the same breeze and promising herself the same things.

An hour before in the house over pancakes that memory was another life. It was other people in another time with different agendas and thoughts and outfits. But in that moment when Little Sister reached the top of that hill having recovered her balance and her breath, out of my mouth came laughter that was so familiar to me, and out of hers came the same. We were those children again, tucked snug in our puffy coats, cheeks rosy, chattering and riding with Pops in our own little world, promising one another, if such a promise can be made, not to grow up. Promising to stay out here just a few moments longer, to run just a little bit faster.

To stay together.

To remember we are blessed.

And so we rode. We rode with our father, with our other best friend, side by side or tail to nose, or spread out wide over the flat, under a sky that had decided to shine its sun on us after all.

So if I can’t have a locket at my fingertips to hold these moments with my sister, or a scarf around my neck that is Husband’s strong arms keeping me safe from the world’s worries,

or my Pops on a horse forever riding beside me telling me I’m doing fine…

…at least I will always have that promise. The promise to make more moments like these.

and to always ride horses.

Waiting for the cold…

It’s late October and our windows have been closed for weeks, sealing our houses up against the chill that this month lays upon the nights. And we button up in the morning as we step out to start our cars, or saddle a horse, or feed the livestock or take a jog while the streets are quiet. We rub our hands together and notice our breath pushing out our bodies and floating in the atmosphere, hanging our words up there to linger for a bit. “Huh, look at that,” we say. “Haven’t seen my breath for months.”

Our words forget that they can be seen now.  Our skin forgets, somehow, what this chill feels like. It forgets it bites a bit. It forgets the way the cold comes in, rustling the near-bare branches, dancing with the dried up grasses and the remnants of the wildflowers left behind brave and brittle…just as we have been left here season after season. 

Yes it’s late October and we are reminded by the flush in our cheeks and the boots on our feet, prepared for the moment the sky could fall. Any moment . Our senses know it, we were animals once. The ones who move along ridge lines and on horses’ backs, behind the path of a deer, they remember. They remember that animal’s still there.

So we put on our wooly coats like the horses do and crunch through blankets of leaves on the ground, stripping off layers as the sun rises to give us one  more day of warmth. Oh, we know it’s a gift. If only it could stay until late November. But we take it. We do.

We roll up our shirt sleeves and bring the cattle home. We stroll our babies dressed in fleece on sidewalks along paved streets. We sit a little longer on the front porch. We think of making apple cider, some biscuits, maybe a pie for dessert.

We eat soup and hang on, like the last of the yellowing oak leaves, to a hope that the snow will stay up in the air.

We hang on to the colors that don’t dare leave us, the colors that stick out on the landscape and promise a reprieve from the brown…

from the inevitable white that is to come.

We hang on and take trails still made of dirt, breathe in the damp air and find a quiet spot to watch the birds get ready for it too, wondering where they go in times like these…

…wondering if they’d take us too.

Wondering if they are ready.

Missing them already.

Yes, it’s late October and just like us the sun is slower to rise and faster to set, the dog takes pause before he walks out the door,

the horses nibble on hay, the cows stay close to the barn, the birds move in bunches and call to one another “come on, come here, stick close together, we have places to go” as they fly over a landscape that is rough like our skin,

and an earth that has given in to rest and is waiting, like us, for the cold.

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…


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.

A moment with Pops…

On this Sunday evening I would like to share with you a few moments in the life of my pops. It’s a scene I’ve witnessed a few times before, but I imagine it hardly ever occurs as he’s out traipsing the pastures, working, making sure nothing is amiss…

But when it appears all is well, the garbage has been taken out, the cows are in the proper coulees, the horses are watered and fed and the dogs are taking a break from terrorizing the above animals, pops finds himself a quiet spot to rest…

just for a minute…

just to examine the back of his eyelids…

Really. You understand don’t you? It takes energy to lean against this autumn wind.

I knew you’d agree.

So while we are all at home thinking, “Man, pops has been gone a while…he must be working hard…fencing maybe…cows must be out…wonder if he needs help…he must be hungry…or chilled on this brisk fall day…I’ll put on some coffee for when he gets in. He’ll like that. Poor guy, working overtime all the time out on this rough landscape in this harsh weather…he’ll need a nap when he gets in…”



Hope your weekend had some moments like these…
And these…

‘Cause  it was a rough couple of days at the Veeder Ranch.

Back in the saddle

Ahhh,  finally. I got my butt back in the saddle this Sunday for the first time this spring.

Well, technically this was my inaugural ride:

(Two butts in the saddle, always better than one.)

But after the babies left husband and I saddled up the sorrels and took off over the greening landscape to really test things out.

Really, my first ride of the spring should have happened a month or two ago, but given unpredictable weather, skies spitting snow and writing deadlines the horses got to stay out to pasture for a few extra weeks.

I like to think they were itching to go too, but their big bellies and lazy attitudes gave me the impression they were just fine with procrastinating the inevitable.

Ahh, the first ride. It’s something we wait for all winter long as the snow drifts pile up at our door. We try to remember it ever being green. We talk about all of the work we will get done when it thaws. We can’t wait to rummage through the tack, brush the winter hair off the horses and slip the them some grain to coax them in and see which one has the most spunk and, you know, who might hit the ground for lack of practice in both human and beast.

But no matter the months it seems to come back easy every year. The cinch gets tightened, the horse grunts and swings his head around, I pull up my pants, put my toe in the stirrup and launch my butt into position.

Deep breath in, I give my ride a bit of a kick to ease him out of the barnyard. This time around it took a bit of convincing, but soon we were off, right behind husband who has been oiling and training the stirrups of his saddle in the basement of the house all winter. Finally he got to test it out.

Finally he got to climb to the top of that hill and feel the breeze on his skin, smell the sweet grass, feel the sway of the horse’s back beneath him, test out a trot and then a lope along old cow trails and through the clay buttes…

down the draws to his last elk spotting, just past a bull snake basking himself in the sun, quick to escape to the nearest gopher hole.

Finally I was able to relax and fall in line with the rhythm of my horse’s pace, feel the sun on my shoulders…

be reminded of how the land rises and falls when the weight of winter has been lifted, take in the view of the most handsome man…

smell the sweet sweat of my favorite animal, hollar at the dogs who follow too close and be exactly where I wanted to be.

Yes, no matter what we say during the winter months, the promises we make to ourselves to get the work done, to check the fences and cut trails, the first ride of the season is nothing but a meandering, soul rejuvenating, deep breath in, unpredictable, blissed-out therapy session with just a little edge, you know, because of that hitting the ground thing.

The first ride–a necessity for sanity and a sweet, sweet success (and I am happy to report no butts met the ground this time around).

Such a success that nobody here gave a second thought to picking ticks off our jeans the rest of the night.

Wish you were there with me. I promise you wouldn’t have had issues with the ticks…or the snake. That’s just how heavenly it was.

Ah well, maybe next time.

Until then, go find your blissed-out place, you know, the one that confirms a change in season, and bask in it…

A lightning bolt and a cowgirl with a wedgie

Not all days are picture perfect around here. No. Not all.

Because sometimes you’re a cowboy, and then other times, well…you’re a D-

…no matter the outfit.

See, I had a couple days of meetings in town, which helped fulfill the polished career woman that sometimes finds it necessary to make an appearance, but also resulted in lots of car time, computer time, time in high heals and dangly earrings, planning time, hand shaking time, question asking time and one instance of cold coffee being dumped down the back of my dress shirt (don’t ask). So by the time I got home today I was feeling a little pale and clean-cut and itching to put my big girl pants on and whoop it up on a good ‘ol fashioned round-up…you know…get western on the world.

It turns out I should have had supper first…

So after a change from fancy print to practical flannel, the guys and I saddled up and headed out on a mission to bring all of the cows home.

Yes, all the cows that were grazing so oblivious, so innocent, so peaceful in greenish-brownish pastures–all the girls, with their hefty teenagers trailing behind them, blissfully unaware of what was about to shake their world.

Because just like that, over the hill popped two calm, cool and collected cowboys and one cranky woman with a wedgie and an empty stomach on the back of a wild, red bolt of lightning full of burs and oat fueled energy—not as much cool and collected as hot and uptight.

And we got right to it. Or at least the men did. After we parted ways to move the unsuspecting cattle from each corner of the pasture, The Red Fury and I began to have our differences.


With hair as bad as his attitude...


Because I needed to go left and Lightning Bolt Full of Burs most certainly needed to go right—right back to the other horses who were concentrating less on socializing and more on the task at hand.

For those of you who have had any experience with horses with strong wills and a bit of a spoiled streak, you know the drill. The shrill whinny. The stomp of the feet. The head flail. The snort. The spin around. The side-pass. The crow-hop. The ear perk-up. And, of course, the dead calm that occurs right before they go through the hissy fit process all over again.

Yeah, I’ve been there many times. And even if you haven’t been there with a horse, I am sure you can relate anyway: think child without the cookie he really, really needs, your sister during a fight over closet space or your worst boss on his worst day.

Anyway, some days you’re up for the fight. Some days you don’t back down. Some days you laugh it off and slap ‘em on the ass (the horse, not your boss…or your sister I suppose) and move on with your life.

But then some days you just want to rip off your big girl pants and snort and stomp and flail along with them. Or at least light a cigarette (the fact that you do or do not smoke is not relevant in these situations)

Well, contrary to popular belief, the Marlboro Man doesn’t just pop on over the nearest butte around here. At least I haven’t seen him anyway. And out in the middle of this country, the work just has to get done, no matter the mood. No matter the stomach growl. No matter the urge for a martini and a Virginia Slim.

At least that is what I told The Red Fury. And after a pops prompted swat on the lightning bolt’s rump and a forced gallop up the nearest butte and back, the two pains of the pasture straightened up a bit.

When Red Fury accepted that I was just a bitch today (more than likely due to the tight pants and the wedgie) and I accepted that Red Fury was going to take me across the landscape with an attitude that resembled the biggest jock in high school, we were fine.

Just fine, ok.

Yes, we did indeed fall in line and the cows made their merry way up hills, across cricks, through the brush and to the sweet gates of home with the two of us finally working together for the greater good. And I was glad I had the sense to “cowboy up.”

But I was also a bit discouraged.  Because these emotions, these frustrations, this uptight, scared to hit the ground, nervous and untrusting attitude I was exuding was not supposed to follow me out here. It was supposed to stay home on the pillow where I left it the night before when I couldn’t sleep because I was too busy counting my shortcomings. I was supposed to be something else out here…something resembling the scene from “The Man From Snowy River”—taking on the task with a bullwhip, a sweet hat and a passion. I was supposed to have confidence. I was supposed to have fearlessness. I was supposed to have skill and power and control out here in this wild space.

And instead I cowered a bit. I crumpled a bit. I gave in a bit. And the beast beneath me?  Well, he knew what he was dealing with and it turns out that made him nervous. My attitude, my body language, my frustration revealed to him vulnerabilities and weaknesses that don’t work too well in the important and magical beast-and-master partnership. Because when this animal panicked, so did this human–and all trust was lost.

I guess what happens in real life does happen out here after all.

And you know what. That’s ok. Because not all days are picture perfect around here, or anywhere else for that matter. Sometimes you feel like crying and eating macaroni and cheese from the pot and you don’t want to have to explain it. Sometimes you stub your toe and run a red light and get a ticket and come home to a pile of dishes and you don’t feel like looking on the bright side.

Sometimes you spill coffee down the back of your nice clothes and have no idea how that happened and then you say the f-word. Loud.

Sometimes you just want to run like the wind and don’t want any bitch trying to stop you or trying to hold you up.

And sometimes you’re just hungry.

But no matter how dramatically you lose your nerve, the cows always find their way home–especially when calm and collected cowboys have your back.

Thanks for supper pops.

Thanks for the ride Lightning (and making me feel better about my bad hair day.)

And husband, thanks for loving your wife, even when she is a hungry crab with a wedgie.

The art of cow cooperation.

I had the pleasure on this fine fall day of accompanying pops, just like old times, in bringing the cows home in fall roundup fashion.

My pops loves cows. He is first a horseman, but second a sort of cow whisperer. I am not kidding. It is, in its own way, extraordinary. His method for punchin’ cattle is not necessarily the bullwhips and whooping and hollering old western type of scenario most think of when visualizing a cattle roundup.

No, there isn’t even much swearing involved (unless I’m along. Then there might be a few slung here and there, I’m not gonna lie…) Anyway, the art of chasing cows with my pops is actually, I might stretch as far to say, a sort of “zen” experience, with the motto being, “slow and steady…let the cows think they are in charge.”

And really, they are. In charge that is. The cows. Because they will always outnumber us, no matter the strategy, no matter the brains and brawn you and the cow horse that is under you posses.  Most of the time things generally go as planned, with the cows catching wind of the horse at their backs and filing, nose to rump, on the trail to the gate. Just like pops had visualized. But then there are the days when the cows see that same gate open to greener pastures, and then choose, very casually, very snarky, to simply not enter and, you know, run as fast as their creaky legs can carry them to the nearest, most snarly, most thistle ridden brush there is on the entire place.

Yeah, I can see ya girl.

Then laugh and whisper to each other as pops and I discuss the idiotic fact that we own a pug, two labs and an old, crabby shepherd between the two of us and not one sense to possess a decent cow dog (whose job it is to correct these bovine attitudes). And then we proceed to dismount and walk into the critter and weed ridden brush to chase them out ourselves.

“Hya”  “Whoop.” “Come on girls.” “Yip. Yip. Yip.”

Arms waving, these are a few of the most choice phrases used by pops and me to encourage cow cooperation.

(I admit, I sometimes say “Dammit.” I know I shouldn’t, but I am passionate.)

Anyway, no matter the attitude, this type of situation is bound to occur on a cow-moving extravaganza, but it very rarely causes heart failure and hissy fits in the cowboy.  Because pops is a man who has been working cattle on this ranch his entire life, so he knows the drill.  He gets in their heads. He sees what a rebellious cow is thinking before she makes her move. He knows where all the gates are located in case the bovines get picky, he has been in all of the draws and has crossed all of the creek beds and has had to run damn quick to the tops of all of the clay hills. He’s got it down, so there really is no need to cuss, Jessie, geesh.

But for the last five years, pops has done this type of work, moving anywhere from 10 to 50 to 100 cows by himself on the back of his most savvy horse for years, being out here as the lone cowboy since his kids left home.

So he is really happy to have help, no matter how distracted that help may be by her camera and the lazy, spoiled pleasure horse she stupidly selected to take with her on the job.



But it all worked out, like it always does on this fine fall day. After watching as a few surly strays decided to run down the steepest cliff with the most thorns and bogs in the entire pasture, with pops in the lead, saying “Well, if this is how they’re going to be, we’ll just follow them around the entire pasture until they find the gate,” we calmly rode in after them. And then I remembered why cowboys wear chaps as one of those thorns found a home in my shin. I might have said “shit” but I can’t remember.

And then, after a few “Yip yips” and Hya”’s, like well trained beasts, they came out of the brush…and proceeded to head for the other side of the pasture to a lovely spot where a deep creek winds up and back again through cliffs and washouts and lots and lots of thistles.

We followed.

We followed as the cows, with their rather large calves at their tails, waded in mud up to their knees to get away from us. And then proceed to swim across the deep creek and climb and claw and scramble out its steep, 90 degree bank. You know, to get away from us.

I shook my head, kicked my pokey mount along and scratched at the thorn in my leg. Pops laughed and commented on how gorgeous the view is out here. He said this is his favorite pasture. He pointed out the nicest calf.

What a beautiful day.

And it was, because just as I was sure these cattle were calling the Greyhound Bus to get the next ticket to NYC  (you know, to get away from us) we popped up over the hill and saw them file in line behind their girlfriends and their babies who were making their way through the open gate.

Just like pops had planned. Just like he asked them to.

And as they all gathered for a drink of water before their final destination, pops looked out over his spread, their shiny black coats glistening in the sunlight and said, “Look at those beautiful cows. What a herd. Take a picture of that Jess. Those are some great cows.”

So I did. I took a picture.

Then shifted my lens to snap a picture of a cowboy. You know, a real one.

“Happy Trails Y’all”…well we don’t really say “ya’ll” around here…let me try it again..

“Happy Trails You Guys!”

Yeah, that sounds about right.

Until we meet again.

There’s nothing wilder…

There is something about a girl and a horse.

Yeah, boys have their toys with wheels, their guns, their tools, their dogs and they look noble and masculine (and a bit like a western movie if they’ve got the outfit right) on the back of the beautiful beasts….

But it’s not the same.

I was reminded of this phenomenon this week when my twelve-year-old cousin from The Cities (yeah, we’re in Western ND, so even though Minneapolis/St. Paul is an excruciating 600 plus miles to the east, those are our cities ok…) came to visit the ranch for the first time (without her two brothers). My cousin is a fiery, sweet, smart redhead who has spent much of her childhood on the pavement giving all of that animal loving heart to her declawed cat who moves, like city cats do, throughout their beautiful home from sunny spot to sunny spot until he is let loose in the night to lurk through the neighborhood, exercising his wild side.

I love this girl and have spent time with her when she was younger, but never, I realized, one on one. So I admit I was a little nervous to have her out to this wild place, so far removed from the Super Target that is located down the street from her house, so far from the structured entertainment and the embracing neighborhood full of friends and swimming pools and a bike rides and movie theatres at your fingertips. I was worried she would be bored. I was worried she was going to miss her friends. I was worried that the things I liked to do when I was twelve (and let’s just admit it here, still do) would not appeal to her.  And to top off the unexpected anxiety, it occurred to me that this pre-teen might never survive without cell service!


So the plans I made to walk through the creek beds and pick wild berries and go fishing in the big lake and ride bike were on a list right next to the back-up plans of movies and swimming pools and manicures…you know, just in case.

But sweet Red was not nervous at all. Red packed her bags diligently in her room in the suburb of Minneapolis at the end of her summer with sweet adventure in her sight. She was on a quiet mission as she endured bravely the ten hour trip out west in a car with nothing on her mind but exploring every inch of this place on the back of a horse.

As soon as the car pulled through the breaks of the badlands and down into the valley of my parent’s home, Red stepped out and sucked in the fresh air and immediately buried her face in the necks of the two dogs rushing, tails wagging, coming to greet her. I’ve never seen a smile that genuine. I’ve never seen a heart open that wide.

And in that moment it was quite clear that this girl, with the freckles and the blue eyes and the beautiful, straight, long red hair–a girl so far away from me in miles and looks and lifestyle and years, did indeed share the same blood.

I should not have been surprised.  I should not have doubted this wonderful, curious, adventurous child.  With the perfectly placed ponytails and the cowboy hat and boots I lent her she even reminded me of Annie Oakley!

So I took this as my cue and I shredded my backup list and made plans to check off everything on the first one—the real one.

We had two days.

So we scoured the hills for chokecherries and plums, got her shoes muddy in the black mud of the crick (“do you say creek or crick?” “Well, I guess we say crick around here…”), threw the stick for the dogs to fetch and caught a frog. And because she is a Minnesota girl, I thought she should see a lake completely different than those in her backyard. So down the road we went to big, rugged, untamed Lake Sakakawea to fish for walleye against the clay cliffs that border the shore. And damn if Red didn’t catch the only fish. Big Fish.

Oh, her brothers would be jealous.

She swam with the lab in the cool North Dakota lake, she shot a Pabst can right off of the fence post with the .22, she rode the 4-wheeler, she tamed the wild cat, she sat out in the yard with the four dogs as the sun went down on what I hoped was a day of her dreams…

And she rode horse.

And If ever there was a moment that needed to occur in the life of a twelve year old girl—a moment that makes all of the annoying troubles of the world disappear (like puberty and high-water pants and friends who betray you and parents who just don’t understand), a moment where complete innocence and trust and hope appears again in the eyes of a girl on the verge of womanhood, it was this one.

We walked into the corrals and I pointed out her horse. Her eyes sparked.  I slowly and carefully showed her how to bridle the creature. She listened intently. I gave her the currycomb and she brushed his coat and mane. She asked where horses like to be scratched and her hand reached up under the chin of her animal and he answered her question as her new four-legged friend showed his appreciation by stretching out his neck and nuzzling her shoulder.

And if I thought Red’s heart was open as wide as a heart could be with her face nestled into the necks of the labs and the pug and the shepherd, I know now that I was strongly mistaken about how big hearts really are.

But I should have known. I was that girl.

I am her.

Because there is nothing like a girl on a horse. And until now, I guess I must have thought I was the only one who lost myself completely on the back of an animal who takes your life and carries it across the rugged prairies, through fields of clover and snakes and wild, wild things. I guess I thought I was the only one who threw my heart wholly to a beast who could launch you high in the air with one kick and send you tumbling to the ground, but mostly chooses not to (mostly…but sometimes you need to learn a lesson or two) and instead listens as you ask him to climb a hill

or go fast around a barrel or get up close to a raspberry bush so you can have a sample and then help you bring the cows home.

See, there is a certain amount of trust, a special trust, a different kind of connection between a girl and a horse. And bear with me because I think there is an amount of truth here…

A boy, a man, and his horse have a different agreement. There is a certain amount of power a man, whether physical or mental, is not willing to relinquish to a beast. There is an understanding between the four legged animal and the two legged creature on his back that they will indeed accomplish a task, together, successfully, the way it was meant to the man. And the man thanks the horse for his assistance.

And this is a wonderful thing.

But a girl loves her horse with the kind of tenderness only a woman can give. She longs to understand the animal and knows there are days when all you can do is walk slowly together down the road, no matter how pressing the issue. A girl wants to ride just to maintain a connection with her animal, to let him know that he is hers, she is his and she is here. But when the time comes to run, there is nothing more untamed, there is nothing wilder, there is nothing closer to the wind than a girl, hair tangling behind her, face close to the neck of a her beast as they reach for the horizon.

And up until now it didn’t occur to me that maybe that sort of wild is in every woman, somewhere.

So thanks Red. Thanks for coming over and showing me that even city girls can open their hearts and let go of their fear and their life and the world as they know it and….

ride like the wind.