Showtime in the badlands

From fishing trips to film crews, Bible camp a barn dance and a musical in the badlands, family life has been a bit of a blur the last week. I catch up with my husband after bedtime to share the latest and reminisce about memories in North Dakota’s favorite tourist town, Medora. Listen to the podcast here or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. 

I’m writing this as my girls are sleeping in two hotel beds in the middle of the badlands in North Dakota. In fact, the hotel is named The Badlands Hotel. Or is it Motel? I’ve always wondered about the difference between the two.

The lights are off and I’m brewing hotel/motel coffee hoping they sleep another hour or so on Mountain Time because it was a late night coming in from the musical last night.

If you’re from North Dakota or a state within a decent driving distance from it, you probably have memories tucked away from the time or times you’ve visited this little tourist town in the badlands. That’s why Medora exists really. To make those wholesome memories for you. If you were a kid during your first visit (and I hope you were because, like Disneyland, that’s really where the magic is) you remember ice cream cones on the boardwalk, wagon rides, mini-golf and that really cool wooden playground that looks like the town itself. You played there with your cousins at a family reunion or your classmates on an elementary school fieldtrip to learn about Teddy Roosevelt and the Marquis de Mores’ and visit the National Park.

If you were a mom or a dad or a grandparent during your first visit, you probably made everyone get dressed up in vintage western costumes get their black and white, old timey picture taken. Or maybe you told everyone they needed to put on long pants and boots or tennis shoes and meet up at the trail rides and only some of them listened and so there were some sore butts the rest of the weekend.

And no matter who you were when you made the first memories, you remember that it is hot down here in the summer in the deep Little Missouri River valley, surrounded by high clay cliffs and yucca plants, cedar trees and prairie dogs.

And of course, you remember the musical.

For those of you who have never been to Medora, North Dakota, this is what it’s known for. “The Greatest Show in the West!” running in the Burning Hills Amphitheater built right into one of those steep badlands banks since 1965. It’s pretty spectacular really, just the venue itself. I go to take in that view and appreciate the vision and ambition that brings families from around the world to our little corner of it. Where else do cowboys and cowgirls in patriotic costumes carry the American flag up and down the steep banks of the wilderness under the spotlight of the production. And man, do I always want to be the one on that horse carrying the flag in the spotlight. That feeling doesn’t change when you get older I guess. Anyway, there’s singing and dancing and clogging and a little bit of reenactment and special guest performers (last night it was basketball tricks) and fireworks at the end! They really go all out and I don’t care who you are, it’s wholesome as heck, and you leave there feeling a little lighter maybe, especially if you bring a kid or two with you so they can remind you to watch with a little less of the adult cynicism that you’ve come to acquire over the years and more of their innocence.

That’s the part that got me last night sitting between my two young daughters who were wearing the blinking, sparkly, light up cowgirl hats we bought them at the start of the show because who could resist?

They were so dang cute and they were experiencing this little North Dakota kid milestone for the first time. (Well, technically the last time my oldest was here she was a baby and had a massive blowout during the first dance number and we had to buy her a Medorable t-shirt to get us through the rest of the show.) And next to us were their cousins and their grandma and their aunts and that’s why this place holds a special soft spot for so many around here. Because that’s the sort of crew you bring along with you to a place like this, to do something, together and feel good (and usually sorta sweaty) about it.

And so that’s what we’re doing today when the kids wake up. They’re putting their light-up cowgirl hats back on and we’re turning into tourists in our own countryside. We’re mini-golfing. We’re lazy-rivering.

We’re shopping. We’re listening to music and, dangit, we’re getting ice cream (Of course we’re getting ice cream) in this little gem or a tourist town with the other moms and dads and grammas and grandpas and aunts and uncles because, if you can get away for a night, this is what you do in North Dakota in the summer…

And the kids are stirring now and my little sisters knocking with my latte from the cute shop down the street, so we better get to it!

It’s mid July and they’re in the hay fields

From haying to old Bible camp memories, weird pets, the proper way to pronounce s’mores and how to deal with an accidental toad murder, Jessie and her husband cover all things mid-western July in this week’s podcast, because if you blink, you might miss it. 

It’s mid July and the guys are in the hay field. Everyone is in the hay field. The heat and the rain and the humidity have created a jungle of grass out here, up past our stirrups, belly high on the cows, over my daughters’ heads in some places. That’s how we describe it when we see one another in town, at the Farm and Fleet, or a t-ball game or anywhere another rancher was convinced to go because it was a little too wet to bale.

It’s mid July and across the state small towns are holding homecoming gatherings, blocking off Main streets so they can pull in a flatbed trailer and use it as a stage for the band they hired from Bismarck or Minneapolis or just down the road because it’s summer in North Dakota and it’s time for dancing in the streets. And the committee that made the plans, they’re hoofing tables and chairs, picnic tables and signs, dressed in matching t-shirts and sweating because they’ve been at it since 6 am, cursing the weather, but glad it isn’t rain, although even rain wouldn’t stop it. We have three fleeting months here, we don’t have the luxury of letting a little bad weather stop us.

It’s mid-July and the lake people are not coming in. Not now, are you crazy? This is their sweet spot and it shows in their bronzed skin and the pictures of the fish they’ve caught. Their kids have another month to find their shoes, but until then, they’re gone with bedtimes and balanced meals.

It’s mid-July and the peas in the garden are ripe for the picking. We send the kids to collect some for supper and they don’t make it to the pot and that’s just fine, because the best way to eat a garden pea is fresh off the vine anyway, the same goes with beans and cherry tomatoes and does anyone need lettuce? It’s coming out of our ears.

It’s mid-July and the wild sunflowers are blooming in the ditches along the highways and county roads. If you’re not in a hurry — in mid-July it should be crime to be in a hurry — you pull over to pick a handful among the sweet clover and wild grasses, the grasshoppers sticking to your legs, the horseflies buzzing, the heat reflecting off of the pavement forming beads of sweat along your hairline. Some little bugs will take the trip back home to the vase with you, a black ant unknowingly hitching a ride to a new world on the petal of a flower.

It’s mid July and the kids are catching baby toads in the yard, five total in a Tupperwear habitat, pinching them carefully between the pads of their little fingers and holding them up to their eyes to get a closer look at their rough skin, tiny eyes and soft, thumping throats. How they just appear like that in the garden is a mystery like the fireflies blinking outside the fence when the sun finally disappears way past that bedtime we set only to miss. It’s mid-July and the magic of growing and momentary things is everywhere, but most especially in these children stretching up towards the sun.

It’s mid-July and the sprinkler’s on. It’s mid-July and we’re at the Farmer’s Market. It’s mid-July and we’re swatting mosquitoes and cutting watermelon and the tops off of freeze-pops. It’s mid-July and we’re camping, poking sticks in the fire and itching bug bites. It’s mid-July and we’re grilling burgers and sending the kids outside to husk sweet corn. It’s mid-July and we’re at another Rodeo, another softball game, the county fair, the state fair, the grandstands at a demo-derby, a concert in the park, the pool in town, yes we dove right in and there’s as much water under us as there is over our heads and we don’t want to hear it, although we say it ourselves, it’s going fast. It always goes so fast…

What to lose in a fire

Listen to the podcast here, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts. Chad and I discuss how a place like this humbles you and why, when he dies, he wants to come back as my aunt’s Corgi.

Ten Julys ago my husband and I stood on the scoria road on the homestead place and watched as my dad’s childhood home started going up in flames. We had been living there, in what we called “gramma’s house,” the first two years as we worked on building our own home on the ranch until one sweltering summer night we arrived home from a trip to the lake, turned on the lights and noticed smoke coming from the basement and traveling inside the walls. An electrical fire started by a lightning strike while we were gone.

A few months later, when we were living in my parents’ house and all our Earthly possessions were scattered across their lawn, airing the smoke out while we reorganized from a chaotic scramble to save them, I remember thinking this:

When the walls of our home were smoking from the inside out into the night, we did not grab onto one another. No, we placed our arms around computer screens and television sets, appliances and guitars. We threw our possessions on the earth to be saved and to save us from the need we might feel to replace them.

What it would cost us to purchase another would mean time and money, the things that take up the biggest part of us some days.

And there it all was, out in the great wide open of the sky, stacks of important papers and photographs, hats and shoes, books I’ve never read and albums I haven’t listened to in years. We pulled these things from the flames so that it could lay there, waiting for us to decide what to do now. And suddenly I had this overwhelming feeling that I didn’t want any of it. 

I didn’t want a choice between red boots or black, I didn’t want the papers reminding me what it costs to live. I didn’t want the movies suggesting I should stay in and watch a world that doesn’t exist for us.

I didn’t want the memories waiting in boxes for me to recall what we were when we were sixteen and sun kissed and the world scared us, because things like this, unnerving, uncontrollable things, they will happen. And they will happen to us.

I didn’t want it weighing on me. Not that day. And sometimes, not these days. Not ten years later.

I heard once, somewhere on the car radio, a man who said, “We do not have a soul. We have a body.”

I pause to think of this today when my clothes feel heavy against the wet sticky heat of the summer and the body that houses my soul is feeling tired at the thought of moving through the tasks we’ve laid out for the day, cleaning up after ourselves, moving our stuff from room to room, from yard to house, from floor to laundry, from table to sink.

And I think about where my soul might live next.

Perhaps in the body of the yellow bird that returns to the feeder outside of this office window, concerned with nothing but her next bite, spreading her wings and cooling herself in the puddles left from an early morning rain.

A bird attached to nothing but the sky.

Or maybe a long living oak with the mission to reach my branches out to the sun in the summer, to release them in the autumn chill and sleep until the spring sun asks me gently to bloom again.

I would have roots that would keep me grounded and grass and branches from the aspen or the birch to keep me company, to lean on, to protect me from the wind.

Maybe a wildflower, a thistle or a cricket screeching my song into the night.

I could be all of those things.

But today I don’t want to be attached to anything…

I’ve felt like this as a teenager, before I understood what I was so anxious about and why I suddenly had so many emotions pulling at my skin.

I remember walking out into the rain on a cool late summer evening, just to be out there, away from the four walls of a house, away from the telephone and, things that needed to be thought through. I felt heavy that day and I wanted to be a blade of grass, grounded and soaked in this rain.

I walked further into the protection of the oaks and stepped off of my path, then slowly out of my shoes and finally out of my clothing. I stood there in the lush green of the weeds and wild fruit bushes, under a canopy of leaves dripping the rain down through their branches and onto my bare skin…
I was comfortable like this for only moments before I glanced down at my pale skin and remembered to be self-conscious. But for a moment I was there, holding my breath, and I was the rain and the clouds and the dirt. I was the grass and the still, damp air.

And I’m not wishing for the reminders of a good life to disappear. Today I am just asking to not be held accountable for my possessions or a body that doesn’t do much to hide the relentless emotions of this soul, the one that crinkles up my nose when it cries, bites the scar on my lip in worry and screams air out of my lungs in frustration…Today I am just taking a moment to remember that someday my soul may have wings…

On Marriage and Montana



Dear Husband,

Listen to the podcast where Jessie sits down with Chad to visit about marriage in the thick of it and to hear the audio version of the column. Subscribe on Anchor, Spotify or Apple Podcast

Last weekend when we were heading across the North Dakota, Montana borderline. Looking out the windows as the landscape turned from badlands to plains, we admired the green grass and marveled at how the big Yellowstone and Missouri rivers were pushing their banks to the limits at every turn. It’s that season. The snow melt from the mountains and the rains reminding us that there are very few ways to tame the water when it needs to rage. It’s out of the river’s control really. So many outside forces at play…

The night before we packed up our pickup camper with my guitars and boots, bedding and snacks, lawn chairs and coolers, you worked until dark tearing down an old garage at a neighbor’s place.

With heavy equipment and your muscles, you wanted to leave a clean slate in that yard before we dropped or daughters at their grandparents’ place and you drove with me to sit in the audience while I played songs for a mountain town, who, just days before, was on the edge of disaster as their creek flooded and took houses and streets with it.

But you wouldn’t have known it that weekend on the main streets of this small mountain town. The restaurants were full, the shops were stocked and the doors to the bars and venues were swung open so that you could hear musicians like me strumming guitars and singing songs about hope and loss and family and these untamable rivers and love, of course.

I drank tequila after the shows and you talked about ranching with anyone who asked because your hat and the way you lean so self-assured with one shoulder against the wall in the back gave you away.

Dear Husband, you were there with me so I suppose I don’t have to tell you all this, but I guess I want to remember the way you’ve always let me know that my dream is your dream too. And so you carry my guitar and you sell my albums in the back and you grab the things I forgot, the cord and the picks and the lists and you tell me good job even if maybe it wasn’t my best job.

Husband, we haven’t been away together, just the two of us, in a while. The kids and the ranch and the chores and the work fill our days and nights like the melting snow from the mountains floods the river and so we think we have no choice but to keep rushing, keep pushing, keep flowing harder to keep on our feet, to keep between the banks.  

The last time we slept next to this unruly creek at the edge of this mountain town we were in your dad’s old Ford pickup with a broken AC and a 1970’s pop-up camper in the box and I had never really been in the mountains so you were taking me there.

We were just kids then and I remember hoping that it could be like this forever, you in the driver’s seat, me singing along to the radio and helping us find our way. 20 years later, on the very same route, you turned our pickup off the interstate and told me you missed me and I cried. I cried because I knew it. I missed you too, in the kind of way that you’re right there but I can’t get to you. I cried because didn’t we know better?

That weekend I sang a love song I wrote before the kids came, when we were younger and building a life, not knowing then that the tools will always be out on the kitchen table, we just need to remember to pick them up. And I don’t have many love songs, I’m not sure why. I’ve been in love with you much longer than I haven’t in this life. On that stage, I realized that’s probably why. Sometimes we admire the big oak we’ve grown, but don’t thank the strong branches for the leaves and the shade and for hanging on to help weather the storms.

So Husband, we may be that great big river right now, running and rushing and picking things up along the way, but along the banks of that creek that weekend I made a quiet promise to myself not to wait for disaster. And I promise you I’m not waiting any longer for the sun to dry off of the mountaintops and force us to slow down. Can we promise to be a different kind of river?  Let’s find a flat meadow and spread out and slow down and be grateful anytime we can, but maybe most importantly when we think we can’t.

Dear Husband, I have plenty more love songs to write.

Love,

Your wife  

Sweet clover, sweet summer

Listen to Jessie and her sister Alex get interrupted and sidetracked as they try to catch up on motherhood and memories, a real live look into the chaos of life at the ranch on this week’s podcast, “Meanwhile, back at the Ranch…”

Read in the Fargo Forum

It’s officially summer and my daughters have officially done the thing that I’ve sorta been waiting for the past month or so — they’ve made the great escape over the hill to my little sister’s place, without mention to me. By themselves.

Don’t worry, there are no major roadways between the two places. In fact, it’s just a long driveway connected by a prairie trail that cuts across the homestead place and barnyard and into another long driveway (the beauty of country living) — but it’s a big deal for them to be able to do it alone.

So much so that when they asked if they could go exploring in the trees by our house and I said yes and then also said, specifically, “Just don’t go over to Aunt Alex’s,” they went ahead and did it anyway. Because maybe they were feeling brave and maybe they were feeling grown-up in their jean shorts and tie-dye shirts, but mostly if kids listen to their parents all the time, are they really even kids?

I stepped outside and hollered for them with no answer back and had a hunch. My sister texted — “Your kids are over here in case you were wondering.” And I was. Sort of.

I couldn’t blame them really. To have an aunt who gives out Popsicles and two cousins your age who have different toys and a trampoline just over the hill and now all of the sudden your little legs (or the battery-operated plastic Jeep) can get you there unaccompanied, well, see ya later girls.

I don’t know how many times this summer I’ve said something like, “I’m so glad they have each other.” Or watched them run full speed down our scoria road and had a flashback to my childhood out here alongside my cousins, doing the very same thing.

I can almost feel my knees being skinned and scraped on that very road and the sweet clover itching my bare legs as we took a cardboard box down a grassy hill. I swat a mosquito and itch a bite and feel the curls spring out of my ponytail, unarmed against the humidity of a hot June day, and I might as well be 4 or 6 or 8 again on our grandma’s deck eating an orange push-up pop from the Schwan’s man.

I walked myself over the hill and found them hauling buckets of water to the little clay butte in front of my sister’s house so they could make mud pies. And in her daughters I saw my sister standing 3-foot-something, with a permanent crusted tear on her cheek, Band-Aids up and down her arms from picking at mosquito bites and patches on her little overalls.

Raising kids in a place that raised you will do that sometimes. In the crisp smell of a storm brewing on the horizon, or the wind blowing the sweet scent of fresh-cut hay to your door, the sprinkler whirring on your lawn and their happy screeches, a handful of sweet peas, the pop of a wild plum in your mouth, in the heat of the summer you are transported for a moment to a time when those things were all that mattered to you in the whole wide world. Those things and ice cream, maybe.

My summers with my little sister used to be fort-building in the trees by the creek, a tin-can telephone, singing at the top of my lungs running on cow trails and her following close behind despite my protests. Summer for us out here was riding horses bareback and mixing mud and flower petals in a leftover ice cream bucket and riding bikes and skinning those knees; it was a tire swing out over the banks of that crick and getting lost bringing lunch to Dad in the field and it was our bottle calf Pooper and the way he would escape and chase us down the road to the house, but I was faster and she got the brunt of it. It was telling her about the elves that lived under the big mushrooms that grow out of cow poop and her believing me.

And me wanting to believe it myself.

Because summer is magic, and it’s easy to forget that in the reality of living in this adult-sized world.

But the kids, with their sun-bleached hair and sticky cheeks and skinned knees and small voices singing while they run, full speed, down the road into the sweet spot of childhood, the sweet spot of official summer, making their great escape, they remind you. And I’m so glad they do. And I’m so glad they have each other.

A sentimental branding day roaster

Listen to Jessie and her husband Chad discuss the big plans they have for the ranch and the reason they love having guests at branding day on this week’s podcast, “Meanwhile, back at the Ranch…”

I have a big roaster that sits on my shelf in the storage area of our basement. It’s next to the cake stand and the air mattress pump, the extra mason jars and the quesadilla press thingy I’ve never used. I received this giant electric roaster as a wedding gift 16 years ago. I can’t remember now if it was something on the gift registry or if I asked for it, but I know I wanted it.  A roaster that can hold a full sized turkey. A roaster that can hold enough chili to feed half the county at a fire department fundraiser.  A roaster to serve three hundred sausage links at a pancake supper. The roaster that I imagined using to feed the crew roast beef sandwiches after a long day of riding, sorting and branding calves.

And maybe one day the roaster that I’ll use to serve our famous cheesy potatoes at my daughter’s wedding rehearsal dinner. Who knows. But I had dreams for it. 

What happens to my oldest’s face when you say “smile!”

I pulled that thing off the basement storage shelf last weekend and dusted it off. On the bottom back side of the appliance, sixteen years ago, I had written SCOFIELD in black magic marker. As my husband was helping me unwrap and season six rump roasts for the next day’s branding, he mentioned that we should write our last name on the lid too. “I’ve done enough firemen supper dishes to know how helpful that is,” he laughed.  And I realized then, right in the middle of my messy kitchen on a Saturday afternoon at the beginning of summer at the ranch, that I was also standing right in the middle of a little piece of a dream that had come true.

It sounds so silly. A roaster. But there we were.

And the next day we were pushing cattle across the greenest pasture you could imagine, riding good horses side by side and laughing at my little sister getting chased by a calf who mistook her horse for his momma. On a hill a half-mile away my dad was chasing another bunch of cows toward us with neighbors and friends checking the draws. The plan was to meet on the flat and follow them up through the gates to the pen, and it didn’t go perfectly, but it never does and that’s the fun of it really, as long as no one gets hurt.

And in the pens up on the hill, another group of friends and family were waiting to help. Some of them had driven from their homes in the neat rows of the suburbs three hours away to lend a hand and be a part of the action. This is my favorite part about branding day. It’s getting the work done, riding out on a stretch of green pasture, making sure the calves and mommas are all accounted for and healthy, but it’s also the fact that we get to watch our friends’ kids from town run around the ranch, climb trees and fences, practice roping, help hold the little calves down and get on the back of a horse or snuggle up to his soft nose.

I like that they can have free access to the barn cat’s kittens and to the frogs in the stock dam. I like that they usually discover something slimy or dirty and that is the exact reason they are here. And I like to see the excitement and the pride my daughters hold for their home when they have guests to show around, to play with and to help climb up on the ponies. The way their friends run full speed into a wide open pasture meadow reminds them how special they have it.

And I guess that’s what that big ‘ol roaster is making me think about today as I wash it up and put it away. The work is never ending here, but one task is done for the year and I have moved from being that kid climbing fences and trees and taking kids to my secret spots on the ranch, to the adult here that maybe they will remember for my branding day beans and roast beef sandwiches, and, more hopefully, for always making them feeling welcome here.

Notes on Summer

Notes on a Rural Summer

Listen to this week’s column and Jessie’s conversation with her daughters and her little sister in this week’s Meanwhile Podcast.

By the time you read this, summer will have officially arrived for most of the kids in North Dakota. That last bell, it means more to me now that we wrapped up our first official school year with our six-year-old. I watched her stand smack dab in the middle of one hundred other kindergartners on risers dressed in matching shirts and singing a school kid version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.” My favorite line? “Teacher in a tidy room, smell of paint and Elmer’s glue. For a day that seems to go on and on and on and on…” But wait? Wasn’t I just embarrassing her by existing in the classroom on the first day of school? Now she can read and frankly, does math better than me and so we’re on to our next task of cramming as much fun in a three-month time period as possible.

For my family it also means trying to keep up with fencing and haying and barnyard reconstruction projects while juggling yard work and day jobs, my performing schedule and getting the kids in their swimsuits as much as possible, even if it just means splashing in the tiny plastic wading pool currently collecting dirt and bugs on our lawn.

I’m ready for it and determined to keep my focus on what really matters…

Because summer means that my babies constantly smell like sunscreen and bug spray and come in from outside with a warm, sweaty glow on their faces. It means 9 PM supper and 10 PM bedtime because no matter how hard we try we just can’t settle down until the sun settles down. It means picking wildflowers and swatting bugs, brushing the ponies, sleepovers with the cousins and slow walks down the gravel road pulling baby dolls in the wagon.

A western North Dakota summer means digging in the garden and praying the hail from the summer storm doesn’t take our little tomato crop while we lean into the screen and count the seconds between thunder and lightning.

Summer out here means searching for the right place to dock the boat or plant a beach chair on the shores of Lake Sakakawea and spitting sunflower seeds waiting for a bite to hit your pole, trying to convince the kids to swim where they won’t scare the fish away.

And then summer is laughing even though they aren’t listening, knowing that this time of year, especially in a place where it’s so fleeting, is magic for kids. And you can’t blame them, because you remember the rush of the cold lake water against your hot skin and how you would pretend your were a mermaid or a sea dragon and the afternoons seemed to drag on for days before the sun started sinking, cooling the air and reminding you that you were not a mermaid after all, but a kid in need of a hamburger and juice box.

You remember the way the fresh cut grass stuck to your feet as you did cartwheels through the sprinklers or the how you smelled after coming in from washing and grooming your 4-H steer in preparation for county fair. You remember the anticipation of the carnival, the way the lights of your town looked from the top of the Ferris wheel and how maybe you brought a boy up there with you and maybe he held your hand.

Summer in North Dakota is dandelion wishes and a fish fry, fireflies and camping in tents that never hold out the rain. Summer is wood ticks and scraped knees, bike rides and gramma’s porch popsicles, catching candy at parades, swimming pool slides, drinking from the hose and trying to bottle it all up into memories that won’t fade.

And so I am stocking up on popsicles and doing my best to make some plans for my young daughters that don’t include any plans at all. Because they are in the sweet spot right now, wild sisters who have one another and who are just big enough to take on the kind of summer adventures that only happen when nothing’s happening and the sun is shining and the day stretches out long and lazy in front of them. Because they can only be four and six for one June, one July and one sweltering hot August before the next summer rolls around with another year behind it. And I have my memories, but the girls, they are smack dab in the middle of making them. And for all that they don’t know, for all the things they are still learning, they don’t need anyone to tell them how to spend their summer. They are experts on that one. And I intend to take notes.

The vows and working cows

The Vows and Working Cows
Forum Communications

Listen to this column and Jessie’s conversation with her husband on this week’s Meanwhile Podcast

Do you know what almost 16 years of marital bliss looks like? It looks like yelling at each other in the wind across the cow pasture because 1) you didn’t fully understand his plan 2) even if you did, the plan wouldn’t have worked and 3) you don’t and never will understand his hand-signaling for crying out loud and 4) turns out catching an orphan calf with you in the ATV and him on foot real quick before our daughter’s piano recital was not, in fact, going to be real quick.

My husband and I have known each other since we were kids. We have had so much fun together, lots of lovely moments, which really helps in the stupid idea times, like taking on a total house remodel in our 20s and not taking the time to go get a horse to get this calf in. And the hard times, like years of infertility, a sick parent and cancer. But working cows together? Well, it’s in a league of its own in the marriage department. There should be a line item in the vows about it. Like, “I vow to not hold anything you say or do against you when we are working cows if you promise to do the same for me. Amen.”

When it comes to starting a life together, no one really mentions stuff like that. I’m not just talking about the annoying and surprising things, but the things that come with sharing a house, and plans, and dinner and children and new businesses and careers and remodels and a herd of cattle and six bottle calves in the barn.

Because, if we’re lucky, there’s a lot of life in between those “I do’s” and the whole “death parting us” thing. Not even our own wedding day went off without hitches. (If I recall, there was a cattle incident that day as well. Guess that’s what you get when you get married in the middle of a cow pasture.)

Yes, marriage officially joins us together, our love, yes, but also our mistakes and small tragedies, goofiness and bad ideas, opinions and forgetfulness and big plans in the works. You’re in it together. You get a witness. You get a built-in dinner date that sometimes is really late to dinner and it now you’re annoyed.

And it isn’t our anniversary or anything, but, after we chased that tiny calf across the pasture and down the road and into the next pasture and then into my little sister’s backyard where my husband finally dove in and caught a leg as I slid down a muddy gumbo hill in my muck boots after him and we finally got that calf onto the floor of the side-by-side and drove her to the barn, made her a bottle and got her to drink and wiped the sweat off of our faces, I couldn’t help but think that maybe the reason this will last until death parts us is that we don’t hold grudges.

Because (and this doesn’t always happen) we were laughing at the end of it. About the yelling part. About the dumb idea part. About the part where he’s terrible with a rope and knows it. About the ridiculous predicaments raising kids and cattle put us in. How is it that it’s equal parts easier and harder to do these things together? What a balancing act for a life that’s never balanced.

Because it’s all so annoying sometimes, and sometimes it’s his fault. Sometimes it’s mine. But I tell you what’s also annoying, that pickle jar that I can never open myself or the flat tire he’s out there fixing on the side of the road in the middle of a winter blizzard, proving that regardless of our shortcomings, life is easier with him around.

Ugh, it just has to work out. That’s something, isn’t it? As if the whole working out thing happens on its own because love will make it so. Love helps, but it doesn’t make you agree on the arrangement of the furniture. Love will not make him throw away that ratty state wrestling T-shirt, but it will make you change out of those sweatpants he hates every once in a while, you know, on special nights. And initially, love will send him running when he hears you scream in the other room, but there will come a time when he will wait for a follow-up noise, because love has made the man mistake a stray spider for a bloody mangled limb too many times. And, really, love makes it so you don’t really blame him.

And, just for the record, sometimes love is not patient. Sometimes it needs to get to town and she’s trying on her third dress of the evening.

And sometimes love is not as kind as it should be. Because love is human.

And no human is perfect. Not individually and surely not together. And especially not when working cows.

The Promise of a Greener Summer

This week’s column on the rain and the rain and the rain. It rained almost five inches over the course of a couple days out here last week, filling the dams, pushing the river over its banks, sending creek beds rushing and greening up the grass. There are places that were flooded in the state and it got a little scary, but out here we opened up our arms, lifted our faces up to the sky and said a prayer of gratitude.

The Promise of a Greener Summer
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Click to listen to commentary and this column on the Meanwhile Podcast

It’s been raining at the ranch for the last few days.

Raining, and thundering, and pouring and making puddles and filling the creek beds. It’s been a while, a couple years maybe, since we’ve seen a long, soaking rain take up the entire day, followed by another and then another, so I didn’t believe the thunder when it was threatening my walk in the hills the other night. I thought it was bluffing the way it did all last spring when the sky refused to open up and the wind howled and the prairie was burning. So I carried on like the superstitious kid I am, the kid raised by a rancher whose never owned a rain gauge for fear that if he ever put one out, it would never rain again.

My dad, he judges the amount of rain by what’s sitting in the dog dish or the buckets outside the barn or the puddle that always forms in his driveway. And then he calls me, just a mile down the road, to take a look at my gauge. Because up until a few months ago, I didn’t know the reason my dad never had gauge himself was so specifically calculated. I just thought he never got around to it or something…so maybe it’s been our fault, this drought?

Anyway, it seems the sky has had enough of its silent treatment and just as I got to the gate a half a mile from home, it opened up and started to really pour and so I pulled up my hood and hoofed it toward home, turning my stroll into a jog into a full-on run when the thunder clapped again and the rain turned to little pieces of hail.

My kids were standing in the doorframe watching the drowned rat that was their mother struggle and puff her way back to the front door, laughing and thinking, well, maybe I was right to ignore it, to have low expectations so I wasn’t disappointed.

That evening a double rainbow appeared right outside our house looking to have sprung up right at our kids’ playground set. I called the girls out of the bath and they left little footprint puddles on their way to patio doors where we all stood with our noses touching the screen, breathing in the scent of the rain and counting the colors.

Now girls, this is what spring is supposed to do. Bring it on. Let the heavens pour down and wash that winter away. Wash it clean and squeaky. We’ve been dusty then frozen then thirsty and our hair needs washing…the worms need air…the lilacs need watering…The horses need waking up.

Rain sky. Cry it out. Turn the brown to neon green and make the flowers hunch over under the weight of your drops.

I don’t mind. Really. I will stand in it, I will run in it all day if it means it will fill the dams and grow the grass.

I’ll splash in your puddles, let it soak in my skin, slide down the clay buttes, jump over the rushing streams. Because I forgot what this feels like, being soaked to the core and warm in spite of it.

I forgot what it looks like when the lighting breaks apart the sky. I forgot how the thunder shakes the foundation of this house, how it startles me from sleep and fills my heart with a rush of loneliness, a reminder that the night carries on while I’m sleeping.

I forgot how clean it smells, how green the grass can be, how many colors are in that rainbow.

So go on. Rain. Rain all you want.

Rain forever on this hard ground and turn this pink scoria road bright red, his brown ground green. Let your drops encourage the fragile stuff, the quiet beauty that has been sleeping for so long to wake up and show her face now. It’s time.

I’ll be there waiting to gasp over it, to gush and smile and stick my face up to catch the drops on my tongue, and return home flushed and soaked and tracking mud into my house where the soup is on.

Rain. Rain. Rain. You fill up the buckets and gauges and puddles and tap at my windows… and promise me a greener summer.

Spring cleaning gives time to reflect

My sister’s husband is working on building a chicken coop today and so my niece, Ada, spent our ride to town telling me how many chickens she’s going to get.

Sounds like hundreds. And I’m thrilled for them. Because it means that I don’t have to get chickens ever in my life. It’s kinda like the boat thing, you know, the only thing better than having a boat is having a best friend with a boat. That’s what I think about chickens. Eggs for days and no poop to scoop. I’ll save us all the cartons.

Building something like a chicken coop is a typical spring task at the ranch. The sun warms the ground and we’re ready to head outside to thaw out all of those ideas we conjured up while eating carbs and pulling our beanies down over our ears. But it also means cleaning. Oh, the cleaning. I’m always amazed by the amount of mud, random screws, mismatched gloves, beanies, boots, neckerchiefs, and, because my husband’s a carpenter, random electrical wires, plumbing parts, tools and hardware store receipts that accumulate in our entryway over the winter. I spent all morning Sunday trying to arrange it all so I could mop. And by the time I got to the mopping part, the kids had come in and out of that door 37 times, dragging more mud and dolls and winter clothes and random twigs with them.

My daughters were busy driving their kids to Hawaii in the little hand-me-down electric car that always gets stuck in the scoria halfway up the driveway. And the disagreement about who’s turn it is to push and whose turn it is to drive derails the game for a spell, although it does make it a bit more realistic. Adulting comes with all sorts of obstacles and predicaments. Like making the choice between spring cleaning and pouring a Sunday margarita….

Most of the time, I chose both. I’ve always been good at multitasking.

Anyway, the mess here is endless, between the ranch and the garage and the house and the yard, I’m fully committed to the idea that I’ll never catch up. And I know I’m not alone in it overwhelming me sometimes. If I dedicated every minute of my waking life to trying to control it, I still don’t believe I’d fully dig us out. Because, we just go on living, don’t we? Do the dishes and your husband comes in to make a sandwich. Clear the kitchen table of Play Dough to turn around to the kids making Barbie Doll phones out of tin foil and puffy paint. Get to the bottom of the laundry hamper and you’re still wearing clothes, aren’t you? Fix the fence and watch a bull jump right through it. Living’s messy. It requires lots of chores…

Last weekend my husband was also committed to clearing some clutter, so we were, as we usually are on the weekends, busy bopping around the place to see what tasks we can get checked off the list. This leaves the kids within earshot, but to their own devices, with a few tattle tale moments, skinned knees or request to help push the blue car out of the ditch sprinkled in. I stood in the driveway procrastinating sorting 1,000 gloves and watched as my daughters pretended to be mothers riding their bikes and changing diapers and, as I said, making plans to head to Hawaii.

And then I had a flashback of when they were smaller, just a few short years ago, at age 1 and 3, then 2 and 4, when my children required so much more out of me in the entertainment department—to peek-a-boo, to pour the paint, to rattle the rattle or build the blocks.

Now look at them, they’re in the sweet spot of sisterhood and childhood and play, immersed together in a world of their own creation. Rosie stopped her bike/car and her eyes caught mine, “Mooommmmaaa, you can go now! You don’t need to watch…”

And so this is the phase we’re in. Maybe I’ll get a duck or something and add it to my sister’s coop. It seems, with my kids in Hawaii, I might need something new to fuss over this summer, because I’m already sick of cleaning…