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!

Where everybody knows your name (or the name of someone you might be related to)

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For those of you who grew up or continue to grow up in a small town…

Coming Home: In a state that’s a big small town, there’s always a seat at the table
by Jessie Veeder
Forum Communication

The white noise of conversation and laughter filled the bar like the scent of the burgers frying on the grill in the back. The three of us stepped inside from the sunny early evening, our eyes adjusting to the dim light, scanning the room for an open table to grab a drink and a bite to eat.

When my quick scan revealed there wasn’t an empty table in the place, I figured we would just turn around, head out the door and find a restaurant without a wait.

But we were there with Merrill, a radio personality, musician and host of the event that evening, and it appeared that he saw the room a bit differently than we did. Like, there may not have been an empty table, but there certainly were empty chairs. And as Dad and I started heading for the door, we noticed Merrill talking and shaking hands with a couple at a table with three empty seats.

“They said we could join them,” he declared as he waved us over and started adjusting chairs. And then he informed the waitress of his plan.

“Well, if it’s OK with them,” she said, a little concerned.

Which I thought was weird. Because Merrill, being the friendly, recognizable personality he is, well, I just figured he knew this couple. It’s North Dakota after all.

We’re like one big small town, a statement that doesn’t make sense at all unless, well, you live in North Dakota.

By my not-scientific-at-all-estimation, if you’ve lived in this state for longer than 10 years, the chance of running into someone you know at a restaurant in any given community from east to west is a good 60 percent.

And if you don’t know anybody in that restaurant, strike up a conversation and the likelihood of the two of you finding a friend or relative in common is like 90 percent.

Which was the case with this couple, who had never seen Merrill before in their lives but were friendly enough to let three strangers infringe on their date. We didn’t have to go too far past our initial introductions to find places and people in common.

Small talk revealed that they were both retired and living in Bowman. (My old boss is from Bowman. Do you know the family? Yes. Yes.)

And the woman, who had seen me perform in Hettinger a few years back, had ties to the Killdeer area. (Oh, we’re just north of there. Yes, we know so and so. Relatives of ours.)

And from there we fell into an easy banter of stories that somehow always seems to have me recounting the tale of the raccoon that snuck into Mom and Dad’s house through the screen door every evening to rearrange the rocks on the decorative bird bath and the more recent revelation about another raccoon that climbs up on my deck every night to poop on my rug.

Then over burgers and fries we learned that they like to go to the car show in Medora every year, which revealed that he’s spent his life tinkering and repairing old cars. Which reminded me of my brother-in-law, who had just recently given up on an old Volkswagen Bus that was just never going to run right. Which reminded him of a story about the time he bought an old VW Beatle that once broke down and left him stranded on such a windy North Dakota day that he just opened both doors to that little car and let the wind push him home.

Which reminded Merrill about the road trip he took with his friends, all crammed in a VW Bug to Mexico and back years ago.

“I had a girlfriend when we started the trip. She wasn’t my girlfriend when we got home,” he said. “Never talked to any of them again actually.”

And our laughter and conversation became part of the buzz of strangers and friends telling stories in the dim light of a bar on Saturday evening in small town North Dakota.

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A concert in the badlands (and a chance to win free tickets) 

Ever wanted to take a trip to western North Dakota?

Well then it seems it’s time to visit the beautiful Medora in the badlands of my home state on July 18th. I’ll be performing on the Burning Hills Amphitheater, a stage dedicated to a nightly outdoor musical every summer night set against the backdrop of the painted buttes.

Medora was one of my first stages and the first place I performed an original song, so this concert, in conjunction with the release of my new album, Northern Lights, is extra special to me.

Know what else is cool? If you comment on Medora’s Facebook link with your favorite Jessie Veeder song, you’ll be entered for a chance to win free tickets!

This week’s column is about what it meant to me to be given a chance to sing on this bustling little tourist town in the badlands when I was just a 12 year old ranch kid.

Coming Home: Medora concert a return to where it all started
By Jessie Veeder
Forum Communications

Buy your tickets today!

I hope to see you there. I can’t wait for you to hear the new songs!

Badlands Skies.

It’s Friday and it seems I have run out of words for the week, but that’s ok.  I want to show you something that I don’t think I need many words for.

Because I was in the badlands this week, in the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park near Medora. After my work was done,  I went out looking for landscape, for beauty and life in those rustic buttes, and found that above the vibrant green of the grass there were these colors in the sky, constantly changing, casting shadows and light that changed the way the world looked every minute.

I couldn’t take my eyes away.

Here’s to a beautiful weekend.

Peace, Love, Sunrise to Sunset,



And then we sang “Home on the Range”

Good Monday to you! It looks like the weekend brought with it some real summer weather that is likely to stick around for a while. Like 80+ weather and a few more pasty North Dakotans sporting a pink hue. The season’s in full force and I feel like soaking in the sun off of Lake Sakakawea and climbing the buttes in the evening and sitting on the deck with a burger and beans.

I do not feel like mowing the lawn again, which seems to have grown seven more feet toward that hot sun while I was away in Medora for the weekend.

But it was a great weekend of music and strolling through the streets of this historic tourist destination in the heart of the Magnificent Badlands. (I capitalize because it deserves capitalization, that’s how Magnificent it is). Singing in Medora has been one of my best gigs, and each visit I thank them over and over again for allowing me to put on my fancy boots and sing for my supper and for people from all over the country who pass through on their way to finish their life-long dream of visiting all 50 states, to spend a wholesome family weekend with their children, to bike the trails of this rugged country, or, you know, to sip wine and make requests of their local musicians…

And then take a walk around the the restaurant in an attempt to peddle my CDs as the other innocent patrons are trying to enjoy a quiet meal.

Oh, you’ve gotta have fans…super, small town, best friends, former english teacher, former agriculture teacher, mother and mother-in-law fans. They bring the party.

And I can’t over-emphasize that statement enough.

Thanks Roughriders for not kicking us out. I hope you’ll have us again.

But that’s the thing about places like Medora. It is truly an escape. A town on the edge of the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, home to the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame and one of Theodore Roosevelt’s favorite places, it is town founded on preserving the adventure and spirit of the old west.

So on a stroll along the boardwalks and through the gift shops, you will see cowboy hats, you will see boots, you may see a horse and rider and you might happen upon a jewelry store on your way to a reenactment of an old shootout (complete with historic guns, a piano, some saloon girls and volunteers from the audience who are related to you) and promptly spend all of your singing money on turquoise and silver…and then on some coffee mugs, a blanket, a scarf and a witty plaque that says something about how the woman of the house is in charge…

Yes, I bought that.

And then promptly took husband’s advice that perhaps our rapidly draining bank account is a cue to step as far away from the temptations of retail as possible and out into the wild place on the edge of town that has been preserved with the wildflowers, grasses, rivers and wildlife that were here long before the train, barbed wire fences and, you know, jewelry stores.

So we hopped into in-law’s mini-van and drove the loop through the South Unit of the park. And we were not alone as cars with license plates from California, Washington, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming drove slowly down the pavement, pulling over to catch a prairie dog squeaking at his neighbor with passion,

a lone antelope meandering through the sage brush,

a group of wild horses grazing on the flat

and of course, a herd of mighty bison rolling and panting and sunning themselves on the baked clay. 

I have lived on the north edge of these badlands nearly my entire life and am making plans to plant myself here for good, but each time I roll through what we call “the brakes” on my way home from a town somewhere or a vacation to the lakes or the mountains I always slow down.

I always hold my breath.

I always experience an overwhelming feeling of  awe and wonder, because there’s no place like this here on earth. And even though it’s right here in my backyard, I think I will always feel like a tourist.

I think I will always stop to take a photo of a bison kicking up dust, a reminder of a wilder time in our world.

I think I will always slow for that antelope and wonder if he might be headed for the river.

I think I will admire the wild horses and squint for the new colors blooming despite the rocky and hard clay of the landscape.

So as we rolled back into Medora and prepared for another evening of music, I took notice of how many songs I sing about the buttes and the wind out here. I recognized all of the cowboys that make their way through the lyrics, all of the old boots and saddles and guitars they carry with them.

I realized that the music, my music, paints for me a picture of this world I have sprouted from, this landscape that people have on their bucket lists of places to exist in and stop to photograph or hike to the top of.

So I sang with my eyes closed and then opened them to see the guests flushed from their hikes, re-hashing the day, cutting into their steaks or walleye and talking about that bison that crossed their trail, that trail ride on the back of a horse, the cliffs that have sluffed off of the buttes due to the wet seasons, the family photos they took and the muscles they got re-aquainted with out here…

And I sang more songs about cowboys and horses and standing in the prairie wind and falling in love out here and being pushed to leave but pulled to stay. Songs about eagles and dancing in the meadow and the cold North Dakota winters and at least one song about my dogs and mail order brides and a woman who took a moment to step off the road in an attempt to find herself.

And then we sang Home on the Range.

Right back where I started from…

Have you ever found yourself in a moment, deep in it, smiling, laughing, crying soulful tears and suddenly everything around you slows down. The people are illuminated in theater-like lighting, the objects at your hands and feet seem to be placed there to create a scene, the conversation is flowing, witty and real, the atmosphere is filled with air the perfect temperature and scents that remind you a place you have been before, or a place you have always wanted to be.

So you pause to take a breath from the laughter or the tears of joy to really look around , to notice that your heart is completely full and you find yourself asking, “Could this really be my life?”

I have had a few moments like these. I have found my feet on stages singing to the best crowds and on hilltops on the back of the best horse and deep in the snow covered mountains, stars above soaking my life-weary body in a hot spring

And in all of these situations I have been struck to find that for a few minutes, this world was indeed, picture perfect.

It happens sometimes.

It happened to me this weekend.

See, every Saturday for the month of December I have been scheduled to bring myself and my guitar (and my pops if he wants) to sing my songs in a lovely restaurant in the small tourist town of Medora, in the middle of the beautiful North Dakota Badlands.

This is a gig I have had before. In fact, if I remember correctly, this was one of my first gigs ever as a singer/songwriter at around 13 or 14 years old. Before the debut of my guitar and the songs I penned on my own, I had been singing alongside my father at fairs and festivals around the state for a few years. I was the melody to his harmony, a voice to the lyrics of other people’s songs, a little girl in wranglers, hat and a shirt buttoned up to the very top. A very serious, nervous, unwavering steadfast, not quite cute, more like nerdy, young, folk singer.

Cue photo montage for evidence…

I came by it honestly...

...being groomed with performances at family holiday gatherings...

...and at church, where I learned that the higher the hair, the closer you are to God. A motto I continue to live by...

...and in the summer festival sun. You can tell it's summer by the fruit on my shirt. I like to dress for the seasons...

...yes, my wardrobe tells so much about me, like "I like horses, and vests, 'cause I have horses on my vest"...

And between my performances I was in my room writing bad poetry and teaching myself to play the guitar–because I had a vision of myself as a songwriter. And I was serious about it. Yeah, I was goofy  and free in other parts of my life, (like my dance performances, love for pet reptiles and wardrobe choices) but when it came to songwriting I was steadfast.

I kept my songs on a shelf in my room and the voice that was singing them between the four walls. I made sure the chords that I strummed from my guitar did not leave the doors of our little house in the countryside. I was determined to keep everything I created wrapped up tight until…well I didn’t know when. I wasn’t sure. I guess until I was ready…but I was unsure I would ever be ready.

Until one day my pops came into my room while I was strumming and singing my heart out to no one but myself, safe from the judgment of a world that existed down the pink road and at the end of the blacktop.  He came into my room and told me we had a gig.

In Medora.

Oh this was big time for me. Because Medora was my humble state’s big tourist destination. They boast a music and dance production in a big outdoor amphitheater in the badlands every summer night. People visited Medora to have a taste of the western North Dakota ranching life, to learn about Teddy Roosevelt, to hike the hills and buy cowboy hats and eat hamburgers and, most of all, be entertained.

And they wanted us.

Yup. We had a gig.

In Medora.

And pops thought it was time for me to play my own guitar.

And sing my own songs.

Oh Lord.

Because here’s the thing. If you’ve ever been a writer, or have ever written a love letter or a poem or paper for a class. If you have ever taken something from your head and heart that you have thought out, suffered over it, and proceeded to put down on paper, making it a permanent fixture in this world. Something that has the potential to expose the inner most workings of you and your philosophies and then thrust it out there in a world that is so full of cruelty and scrutiny, you can understand why, in the basement of the very restaurant in which I played last weekend, in the middle of a tourist town in the heart of the badlands, I, at 13 or 14 years old, I had a complete and utter mental breakdown.

A complete and utter breakdown regarding the reasons my mother allowed me to dress in leotards and tights until I was six years old, and why I had to be born with curly hair, and why I was the middle child and why my parents lied to me about my pet lizard’s death when I was away at bible camp and why God invented zits and why I ever sang my first notes in the first place.

And why had I agreed to this gig, because I was surely going to die out there.

But not before they all laugh at me.

And my outfit.

...convinced I still looked like this...

But the show must go on, so I wiped away tears, walked up the steps and out into the front of a quiet little restaurant lit with candles and filled with the scents of garlic and the fireplace and the dull roar of conversations of people ready to enjoy a lovely evening with this awkward adolescent with frizzy hair, a guitar and her dad.

I picked up my new green guitar, stood nervously by the man who told me I had a voice and sang the first line of the first song I ever wrote…

“I ride wild ponies through pastures I have walked before, every day of my life….”

I thought I might throw up. I thought my legs might just collapse from underneath my body and send me flying into the plate of prime rib and mashed potatoes in the table in front of me. I wished for the roof to open up and aliens to choose me to abduct and use for their experiments.

My voice wavered as I sang the second line….

“Today I feel stronger on the sleek white back of fire, why won’t my ponies ever tire…”

Knives were scraping against plates, people were laughing amongst themselves, glasses were clinking, the aroma of the soup of the evening filled my nostrils…

..the chorus…

“Do they talk when I’m away? I must know so I must stay…”

The laughing quieted down, a few heads turned toward me, chewing slowed.

I took another breath and finished my first song.

And the diners put down their forks and clapped.

They actually clapped for this girl, scared shitless behind her green guitar singing words about her ponies.  They clapped and smiled and laughed and talked amongst themselves.

So I sang another song, and then another and when it was I was all out of music and my fingers were sore, they asked me when I was playing again and where they could get my songs and when I would be back.

So I came back. I came back to sing on patios, and in the amphitheater on the stage in front of big names, in the community center to belt out Christmas songs in my belt buckle and cowboy pants pulled up to my chin.

Cue another photo montage:

I came back again and again to sing in front of people who had heard me sing the words I wrote for the very first time.

Yes, I came back and with each summer I had a few more songs, I grew a little taller, a little more confident, my voice a little stronger, until one day I packed up my guitar and my books filled with words and moved on to college and to new venues in new cities that made my heart pound and had me questioning my wardrobe choice and song selection over and over again…

…and wondering why I ever sang my first note, wrote my first word…and why my mother let me wear leotards and tights until I was six…

Why? Wwwwhhhhhyyyyy?

I meandered, taking singing jobs all over the country, recording my music, selling my music, changing my words to fit my life, my clothes to fit in, and taking it on the road. And it was exciting and nerve wracking and challenging. And I took it just far enough to be exhausted at the thought of it all….

And then last weekend I found myself behind my guitar, in my favorite boots, beside my father in his hat and harmonica holder, singing the melody to his harmony, singing words about cowboys and horses and sleeping under the stars—songs about Christmas and a life I lead as a woman who is not so scared of herself anymore to a crowd in a small restaurant, in a small town, in the middle of a landscape that has held me close and gave me something to sing about.

And through the familiar sound of glasses clinking and knives cutting steaks, the small crowd clapped and moved their heads with the beat of our guitars as the heat of the fireplace made the air between their conversations warmer. They laughed as I told stories about getting the pickup stuck and falling off of the backs of horses and crashing sleds down the hills at the ranch.  They nodded their heads as I told of the lessons I learned growing up on the ranch about feeding the animals first on Christmastime, before any gifts were open, before breakfast was served.

They sipped their wine and tasted their chowder as I sang, with my dad,  “Silent Night” the same way we have always sung it, to the crowd, to the stars, to the Christmas fireworks making sparks in the winter sky, to our family, to each other and out the door and off of the snowy buttes, the way our music was meant.

And the world spun a little slower, our guitars sounded a little sweeter, our voices more pure as we strummed into the night, our music absorbed by the walls of the historic building, our voices getting through to the people who came there that evening from small towns, from ranches deep in the hills, from cities and from down the street to hear a girl and her dad play music, not for the money, not for their supper, not for a record label or to win fans from all over the world, but to play for the sake of playing. To sing because there is nowhere else they’d rather be.

Nothing else we’d rather be doing.

Nowhere else we’d rather be.

Right in the middle of my pretty damn good life.

Right back where I started from.

Thanks Medora!
See ya again this weekend.