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.