The yard light’s back on

This week on the podcast I catch up with my husband after he returns from leaving for a 75 day hunting trip (ok, maybe is was just 5 days). A small change in the barnyard makes me reflect on how wrong they all were about the future of our home, and Chad wonders if I would wish my kind of creative drive on my children, and then asks me to explain gravity. There’s lots to unpack here, figuratively and literally…listen here or on Apple Podcast or Spotify.

There hasn’t been a yard light in the barnyard of the homestead place for ten years. It went out when we took the old house down after a fire and we didn’t get around to rewiring it. When the house went, so did we, we left the barnyard and moved up over the hill to a new house and so no one lives there full time, we just work there now—we saddle up, feed horses, bring the bulls in, ride the ponies…

When I left home at seventeen, I had this vision of all of the yard lights in my rural community going out, one by one by one behind me as I drove away and kept driving. In my lifetime, at that time, I had only seen things getting quieter out here. I saw old neighbors packing up and moving to town. I saw schools close and businesses come and go and come and go. I saw star football players heading to college and not looking back. We were told not to look back, unless it was to reflect—on a simple upbringing in a less complicated time in a place where work ethic and sacrifice are badges of honor—because it makes you employable, you know, having come from a small place, heading off to the big places. But don’t come back here. Not when you’re young. Not when there’s more opportunity, more money to be made in places where the streetlights and stoplights replaced yard lights long ago.

Last week, in the dark, I pulled my car off the highway and followed my headlights down the big hill on the gravel road, past my parents’ place and across the cattle guard. It’s at this point in my drive, if the weather’s cooled down or warmed up, depending, that I like to roll my window down to catch the scent of that little valley with the cattails and the stock tank. It smells like cool summer nights riding home from moving cows, or long walks through the draws after a day that tried to break me. It smells like plum blossoms or cattle watering, fresh cut hay or the thaw or the cold coming in, you know, like the scent of snow.

It smells like home and I try to catch it when I can, when I think of it. When I need to be reminded who I am and why I’m here.

And then up another big hill to the mailboxes and grain bins I take a right turn into my drive and then look to my left at the sky past the buttes to see what the stars are doing and then down to the barnyard and then, well look at that, the light was on.

Dad got the light back on.

It caught me so off guard, that yard light once again illuminating the scoria drive, the barn a shadow behind it, the little guest cabin that replaced the old house, waiting, now under its watch, for someone to come slip through the gate and under the covers.

And I wasn’t expecting it, but I remembered then that my dad did tell me, that the electricians were coming, that some old wiring was going to be replaced. I didn’t connect the yard light to that information I guess. But what took me most aback was my reaction to it. It stopped me in my tracks, it bubbled a lump up in my throat. Memories of pulling into my grandma’s yard as a little kid sleeping shotgun in my dad’s pickup for a weekend trip and then as a ranch kid leaving the place after a family supper or after a long ride or a late day helping or running wild past our bedtime with the cousins when my grandparents were still alive and we were all young, all of us, and we paid no mind to how anything would ever change that.

Seeing that light on made me realize that I didn’t think of its absence at all really. Not the way I thought I would. When it went out it was just gone and life carried on. We put a new yard light in over the hill and felt lucky and maybe that’s why. I didn’t have to mourn it, because the story I was told as a kid about this place, it turns out that they got it all wrong.

Because look at me, I am 39 now and driving my children home in the dark and in front of me the yard lights glow like beacons of hope for the future.

September and what keeps it precious

This week on the podcast I sit down with my little sister and talk of the weather turns to embarrassing moment confessions. The flies and the wasps and the rooster and the tomatoes and the mice are taking over the ranch and we talk about it all. Catch it here or on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

The evenings are getting cooler as the sun sets a bit more quickly and I’m canning tomatoes and chopping up peppers from the garden for salsa so we can have a piece of summer when winter hits hard.

I can preserve our garden vegetables, but haven’t yet found a way to capture the smell of the season changing and the color of the green and gold leaves against an overcast morning sky. This season is so unpredictable, sneaking up on us slowly in the middle of a hot summer day and leaving with a strong gust of wind.

But this year it seems to be settling in despite the heat. The trees that were first to display their leaves this spring are the first to display their colors this September and I’m reminded of roundup season and spitting plums at my little sister on her pony, Jerry, as we rode behind our dad to gather cattle.

Working cows in the fall has always been one of my favorite events of the season. My memories find me as a young girl bundled up in my wool cap and my dad’s old leather chaps braving the cool morning and a long ride through coulees, up hills, along fence lines and under a sky that warmed the earth a little more with each passing hour.

I would strip off my cap first, and then went my gloves and coat, piled on a rock or next to a fence post for easy retrieval when the work was done. Dressing in layers is a different level on the ranch.

Moving cattle, even then, never felt like work to me—probably because I was never the one responsible for anything but following directions and watching the gate. It was during that long wait that I would make up the best songs, sing the loudest, find sticks for slingshots or the perfect feather for my hat.

Turns out these days my role working cattle hasn’t changed much. I remain the peripheral watcher, the one who makes sure the cows don’t turn back or find their way into the brush or through the wrong gate.

Recently our little ranch crew met in the morning to move cows to a different pasture. Dad, my uncle and aunt who summer up here from Texas, my little sister, my husband and I saddled horses in the crisp air of the morning and met to stretch out across the Peterson pasture and make the move through a couple gates to Hughes (every pasture has a name, these attached to the old homesteaders.)

It was pretty nice and easy because that’s the way we work cattle here. Just let them take the lead mostly, which occasionally finds you off your horse walking through the thick brush or chasing out across the pasture after a stray, or, sometimes deciding on another approach entirely because that’s the way they want to go.

With the exception of a wreck, nothing can really ruin this for me, sitting horseback on a cool morning slowly making its way into a hot afternoon.

I could walk these trails on the back of a horse forever and not get tired of them. Because each month the pastures change–a new fence wire breaks, the creek floods and flows and dries up, the ground erodes and the cows cut new trails, reminding me that the landscape is a moving, breathing creature.

And I am the most alive when I’m out here, and what makes it even sweeter is that I know the rest of the crew, my family, feels the same way too. I listen as they make conversation about the calf crop and plans for the day. I follow behind like I always have and look around to notice the way the light bounces off of cowboy hats and trees slowly turning golden.

I wait for instruction and find my direction while my husband cuts a path through the trees to search for hidden cows and my dad lopes up to the hilltop to scan the countryside.

I move a small herd toward the gate with my sister and wake a bull from the tall grass at the edge of the pasture. Dad comes up off the hill to join me, the cattle he’s found moving briskly in front of him toward the rest of the herd. We meet up quick to wonder where uncle Wade might be and find him over the hill waiting at the gate with the rest of the cattle. We push them through to taller grass and up to water to help them settle in. We wonder if we got them all.

And that’s how it goes generally, the six of us, this time with the exception of Dad stopping to take a picture of my little sister, creating the opportunity for one squirrelly calf to cut back. He laughed as he went after her, thinking what his own dad might say about stopping for a picture.

But why not take a picture? Morning makes its way into the afternoon and if we let ourselves, we might remember that we don’t get an infinite number of fall days like this in our lifetime. Isn’t that what keeps it all so precious?

We head toward home and talk about lunch and the fencing that needs to get done. And cattle prices. And the deer population. And the weather and the changing leaves and all of the things that need discussing when you’re on the back of a horse, on the edge of a season, on a piece of earth that’s constantly changing…even though, year after year, up here… I always feel the same.

This world needs more barn dances

In this week’s podcast, my husband and I reflect on who taught us to dance, how our Dirty Dancing days are over and pontificate on the old house that used to be on the ranch, who lived there and why they left

I think what this broken old world needs is a few more barn dances.

You may have forgotten that those used to be a thing that people did.

Above the house where I grew up is an old shed. It’s sat there for nearly a hundred years now I think. It outlasted the homestead house where a family used to live and then one day moved away, leaving what seemed to be everything behind—dresses and books and filled-in calendars and ledgers and dishes in the cupboards, canned garden vegetables in the root cellar, the lilac bushes and the apple orchard and mattresses and lace curtains moving like quiet ghosts with the wind cutting through the gaps in the walls. Old houses fall apart in the most slow and lonesome way when there’s no one there to sweep the floors and wipe the windows and serve the bread.

They left the house and all those things and they left that little wooden shed my dad said used to be a granary. He remembers it and he remembers those neighbors.

They used to have dances in there my dad told me when I was poking around as a kid. It seemed impossible to me. That granary was much too small, not even close to 1,000 square feet. If you danced it would be a tight circle. Add a guitar and a fiddle and the quarters would be beyond close. Tight. Unimaginable to us these days, losing ourselves and one another in wide-open floor plans, separate rooms and all the space between. Houses are big enough now so that you never have to lay a hand on each other on your way to the kitchen sink, or sit with legs touching on the living room sofa, or fall asleep to the sound of your sister breathing in the small bed next to you. Not if you didn’t want to anyway. Not if you’re what we call “lucky” to have all that room…

Back then I imagine the landscape, and the work that needed to be done upon it, gave you all the space you needed from the next living soul. Lonesome looked a bit different back then.

Maybe that’s why they turned tiny granaries into dance floors. Because wouldn’t you want to hear the slow drawl of the neighbor’s fiddle spill out of the leaky roof and into the night sky lit with stars? Wouldn’t you want to put your hand on her waist and swing her around laughing? Wouldn’t you want to sing along, to hear their voices overlap and chatter, gossiping and encouraging and entertaining to help you forget for a moment the worry of it all?

You would have wanted to then, when it was a bit quieter. When the world you knew stretched only as far as the horizon, or as far as you could afford a train ticket to take you. You see, they were islands too, in much different ways. And then, in so many of the same. Humans have always been humans, after all.

But the dancing in that tiny building, well, one hundred or so years ago, there was no other choice.

Now we have so many. So many excuses. So many oceans we’ve put between us… But last week a man in the middle of rural North Dakota, more than one hundred years from when the first barn was raised on this northern prairie landscape, called his family, his neighbors and friends, and told them to come on over to the Homeplace. Come on over to the barn. We’ll feed you. There will be music. And there will be dancing.

He’s been doing it for years, so they knew. They had it on their calendars. And his daughters and their families and he and his wife, they made the Fleischkuechle and the kuchen because that was tradition too. And me, well me and the guys were lucky enough to witness it all from the little stage in the corner of the loft of the old barn with the shined up floors where we strummed guitars and sang some songs they knew and some they didn’t and all with a beat for a good two step, or a waltz or a chance to join hands in a circle. Because I heard him say it into the microphone when he welcomed them all to that loft after a picnic supper–he didn’t want his grandchildren to grow up in a world where there were no barn dance. So he made sure, at least for his community, it was not a lost tradition.

And from my perch behind the microphone he reminded me that we may not all have big beautiful barns preserved from the cruel weather of time, but if we’re lucky, we have a spot that might work just fine enough for dancing in a circle.

Because I’m not sure, but I think it’s true, that just like old houses, people, they fall apart too, slow and lonesome if there’s no one there to sweep the floors, to brush past, to breathe the same close air, to sway side to side, and open the curtains and let the light in and serve the bread and do the things that, together, people are meant to do…

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…

Get your goat

Listen to the podcast here, where Chad and I talk growing up in the 90s and all my goat related incidents.

Did I ever tell you about the time my best friend and I went to pick up a goat in her dad’s old Lincoln? I just got my driver’s permit and off we went 20 miles on the highway to pick up a rodeo goat from our neighbor. I think I told you this, but it’s one of those core memories you get when you’re young enough that not too many scary things have happened to you yet and old enough to start putting yourself properly in harm’s way. Anyway it ended up with a blown tire and two thirteen-year-old girls in the ditch crying in the rain by the old church and it ended with our friend’s grandpa helping us change a tire and a goat standing in the backseat popping his head up between us as I drove that Lincoln back home at 30 MPH.

This is what friendship, teenage-hood and wild and free looked like in the 90s, before cell phones, affordable all-wheel-drive vehicles and hovering parents. Mostly we were left to our own devices, and mostly we were fine until the times we teetered on the edge of disaster on a back-road somewhere.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I entered my daughters in a kids’ rodeo in my hometown. I spent some of my life entered in barrel racing, pole bending and, of course, goat tying in high school rodeo back in a time where you could bring your fastest, most sound ranch horse to town in a stock trailer freshly cleared of cow poop and you wouldn’t be entirely laughed off the rodeo grounds. I wasn’t competitive really (*read, ranch horse,) but I had fun working to beat my time and with my friends on the road trips across the state where we would ride part of the way in the gooseneck of that trailer, bundled up and stretched among the horses as the highway rumbled underneath us (And that’s just one example of 90s safety standards and I’m hoping the statute of limitations protects my parents in this confession, Amen.)

The thing about the sport of rodeo is that it’s more about the practice, practice, practice than the 12-20 second race you’re running, or the 1-8 second ride. And I loved to practice, particularly goat tying (hence, the goat-getting adventure). For those of you unfamiliar with the event, in goat tying the cowgirl races her horse at its highest speed down the center of the arena where a goat is staked and waiting for her. The cowgirl dismounts the still-moving-at-a-rapid-speed horse, hits the ground running (literally and hopefully) and catches that goat, flips it over and ties three of its legs together. The girl with the fastest time wins and now that I’ve typed that all out it sounds sorta brutal. But the goats weren’t injured, switched often and were well cared for between rodeos. The girls? Well, there’s plenty of face planting and dirt eating in this sport to which I’ve contributed my fair share of statistics.

Anyway, my girls are too young to enter the goat tying portion of the rodeo, but when I lead them into that old indoor arena in my hometown, the one that served as a hockey rink in the winter, the smell of the cool dirt, concrete walls and horse sweat transported me back to my high school rodeo days when my girlfriends and I would spend countless hours practicing our goat-tying dismounts inside the dimly lit and echo-ey walls. The taste of that dirt hopped right back on my tongue and I swear I scooped some out of my waste band as I remembered us as teenagers hauling our goats to town in the early mornings to put them up in the fairground’s pens while we went to history then algebra, then choir then Earth science with the plan to practice tying those goats right after school.  But our plan to practice together comfortable and temperature controlled in a real, indoor arena honing our skills no matter the North Dakota weather didn’t come without a handful of hitches. Well, just one hitch really. One hitch a handful of times. Because I’m not sure what qualified as embarrassing in your high school experience, but getting called by name, over the intercom for the entire school to hear because “Jessie, Gwen, Nikki, please come to the office right now. Your goats have escaped and they’re loose around town. Again, Jessie, Gwen and Nikki, your goats are loose in town and you need to go get them,” could have qualified for us if we weren’t so thrilled for an excuse to leave in the middle of the school day to go do cowgirl stuff.

Did I ever tell you that story about the goats? No? Well, there it is.

My friend Gwen and I back in the day

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 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.

If you want a slice of rural America, visit a Cenex station

My niece Ada walked right up to him, a man in work coveralls, thick glasses and a Scotch cap. His face was weathered from years of living and I had my hands full of Icees and personal pan pizzas and a couple treats I let the two 4-year-olds pick out after preschool that day.

We were having a special lunch while we waited for my kindergartner to get out of school on Friday and so we chose the Cenex station because they have basically everything. And Ada broke away from my side to say hello and he reached into the inside pocket of those coveralls and handed her a million dollar bill with a laugh.

Then I had to abandon our lunch with the cashier because Rosie had to go potty really bad, like most 4-year-olds do at the most inconvenient times. When we finally sat down and got them settled in the dining area of the convenience store, I couldn’t help but think of what a slice of life this place is.

This old Cenex station used to be on the corner of Main Street in my hometown when I was growing up. A small store with a few candy bar treats, but mostly supplies and parts and sunflower seeds and a drink cooler and most everything you could grab to get you by for now on the ranch or in the field — and if not, they could order it or help fix it in the shop attached.

I remember popping in there with Dad when I was a kid, maybe getting an orange pop for the ride home. And when I finally got my driver’s license, it’s where I would gas up because I could put it on the ranch account. It’s where most kids who lived in the country gassed up and where some of them worked after school and on the weekends.

When I was a teenager, my boyfriend (who’s now my husband) took me there to get wasp spray for the wheel well of his dad’s old boat trailer after he witnessed me getting stung right in the middle of the forehead when he disturbed the nest in our attempt to escape to the lake. I don’t know why, but something about walking into that Cenex store with that giant wasp sting and that boy looking for revenge, well, it stuck with me. Must have been love. Anyway, when I look up for the memory I swear I can still smell that place, a little bit of grease mixed in with diesel exhaust, probably what that old man’s coveralls smell like.

The Cenex store is a fixture on the landscape that is rural America. As a musician, I’ve traveled enough county roads and highways to see my fair share of versions of this place, each one retrofitted to make sense to the size of the town. The fancy ones exist along the highways and interstates, but I prefer the ones tucked into the Main Streets of small towns a long way from the exit signs. There you can usually find what you need, plus a couple old timers in a booth in the back having coffee and looking up to see if the person coming through the door might be familiar. Or even better, someone they don’t know about yet.

Anyway, that old Cenex store looked nothing like this bright, shiny pizza pit stop we have now in a newer development in town, complete with a mini food court, fancy restrooms, a wall full of anything you want to drink, clothes, parts, gloves, coolers, toys, and of course, wasp spray. You name it. I picked the pepperonis off of the girls’ pepperoni pizza and watched them wiggle and giggle and use too many napkins in the booth and couldn’t help but think that this place is sort of a metaphor for my hometown turned boomtown. The idea is the same, but we can afford to have some nice things now.

And so there we sat, a mom with an SUV full of car-seats and cracker crumbs dug into the floorboards making a Friday special with a couple of Icees. And in the booth behind me two middle-aged men sat facing one another, a bible open between them, talking about Jesus and what it means to be a man. Across the room, a job interview, one man in work boots asking another about his driving record and through those sliding glass double doors (they’re automatic now) the faces come in and out, some familiar, some new, some we don’t know yet and some just passing through with million dollar bills…

An abandoned service station in small town ND.

Listen to commentary and the column on this week’s podcast

In this week’s podcast I took advantage of the rainy weather and had my husband Chad as my first guest. We visit about how things have changed in our hometown since we grew up there in the 90s. He also proves that he’s intellectual by using the word “unbeknownst.” You’ll hear Rosie in the background and also our thick ND accents take the stage before I read the column and share a song. Thanks for listening!

Listen below or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts