Dear New Year

Listen to the podcast where Chad and Jessie sit down to talk about highlights of the year at the ranch and why margaritas and cookies should be included in more New Year’s resolutions. Listen here or on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Yesterday I watched my young daughters and their cousins fly down a slippery hill on a little orange sled, negotiating time after time who rides with whom next. Who sits in the back to hold on and who gets the front to take in the view and the likelihood of snow on their cheeks. We were experiencing a regular heat wave here. Thirty-seven above zero was a 50-some degree temperature shift toward a warmer winter day, and even though we could only find one sled buried under the giant drifts, we took it and we went to play.

Because the weather had been so cold, so well below zero for weeks, the snow piled so high that we haven’t been able to play in it. And around here, besides filling the creeks in the spring, that’s the best thing about snow.

We got a blizzard for Christmas, and a broken tractor, and a couple chances to get stuck in our yards and dig each other out. But the New Year forecast doesn’t look as brutal and so that’s the weather report in the quiet of the morning, from a mom sitting under the glow of our Christmas tree lights in that timeless, wonky, magic space between Christmas and the New Year, the dishwasher humming before sleepy kids wake up, reminding me that it’s all a little bit of a mess around here, there’s always something to be done. And we’re lucky for it. And also we’re tired. And overwhelmed sometimes. And grateful. And worried and wondering if we’re doing any of it right while simultaneously holding our ground on what we fiercely believe.

At the turn of the New Year I always feel compelled to reflect, as it seems we all do, on time and how it’s changed us, our family, and the promises I intend to make from here on out. But the further I get into this life the more I realize there are things that are so fundamentally out of our control, that maybe the ultimate gift we can promise to give to ourselves and those around us is a bit of grace.

Dear New Year,

I promise to do the best that I can most days, and other days, when I am not at my best, I promise to sleep on it and try again and be OK with that.

New Year, I won’t ever stop declaring it. If it’s wonderful, I’m saying it out loud so that I hear it, and you hear it and they hear it. We need more talk about the good things. But if it’s bad, if it’s bad in the ways that truly matter, I’m declaring it, too. I’m going to be better about that one, because I’ve learned this year that’s just as important. Because in the saying it out loud we give ourselves a chance to grieve, or to hope, or to find solutions, or to be there for one another.

New Year, I am going to continue eat the cookies. And order the steak. And pour the margarita when the occasion calls for it. Life’s too short. But I’m also going to continue to walk to the top of the hills to take in the view, and I’m taking the kids with me.

Because as I watch them dig tunnels through snow banks, declare themselves queens of the snow drift mountains, as they negotiate flying down the hills holding on to one another, I promise, New Year, if there’s fun to be found, if there’s beauty, I’m gonna be out there looking for it. That’s the most important one to me, it always has been, but more so now that these kids are watching.

Dear New Year, I look forward to the memories.

The perks of being a ranch kid…

Happy Day After Thanksgiving! This week’s column is an update on shipping day and on the podcast Chad and I catch up after a really busy couple weeks and talk about all things, including the significance this time of the year has for our family. We talk a bit about our rocky road to parenthood as well as how scary it can be to face taking over a ranch operation before you feel fully ready. Also, call us if you need a kitten or some tips on how to survive a 7 year old birthday sleepover party!

Listen to the podcast here, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google.


The perks of being a ranch kid

“Aren’t you glad you kept them home from school?” My dad said to me, standing in his work boots and Carhart jacket, looking a little out of place in the middle of the blinking lights and pings of the pizza place arcade.

He had just bought us all supper and he was sort of beaming watching all four of his small granddaughters take their best shot at skee ball and whack- a-mole and I just couldn’t help but declare, out loud to him and my aunt, that this had been a great day. And they whole-heartedly agreed, our bellies full of carbs and cheese and ice cream, all of us smelling, and looking, a bit like sale barn.

We started the day in the chill of a barely above zero morning watching the guys sort the calves from the cows in the pen. I’d been gone for two days before, across the state singing for my supper and was feeling the repercussions of messing with the weekday schedule and questioning my career path. The evening prior I was still sixty miles from home and my friend called to let me know my six-year-old was at gymnastics in town and was wondering why I didn’t pack her leotard. And then I had to explain that I didn’t pack her leotard because my darling dear daughter was supposed to be on the bus heading home where her dad was in the tractor moving corrals and watching for her. It’s moments like these when the thirty-mile drive to civilization to retrieve a confused kid seems vast and crazy. And it’s moments like these I thank God for friends who have made the same mistakes and help without judgment, and a sister in town for groceries who can pick up the confused kid on her way home.

I bring this up because it sent me reeling a bit. I have a crazy schedule and a set of unconventional jobs, so when something slips with the kids, I find it fair game to beat myself up about it. I wonder if I chose a more 9 to 5 route if it would make me better at schedule keeping. Or if I could have found a way to stay home with them full time if the laundry wouldn’t pile up so high and our meals would be planned out and I would be a better, less distracted mom. I was putting Edie to bed that night trying to sort out how I was going to get the girls to school and be back in time to help get the calves on the truck and make sure the soup was set up and ready for lunch when I was reminded, out of the darkness, that I was in charge here.

And the kids could stay home from school on shipping day.

Of course they could! It’s, as my aunt pointed out, “the perk of a ranch kid’s job.” And to prioritize our children’s involvement in the process of what puts groceries in our cupboards is arguably one of the most important jobs of a rancher. They’re never too young. That’s why we’re here.

Not that it’s easier. Because a six and four year old were no help at all in the snow and the chill of the morning sort, but they felt a bit a part of it anyway, even if that part was throwing snow in the air and kicking frost off the fence rails. But if you thought they weren’t helpful there, they really weren’t in the sale barn, strutting in with their purple boots and pink backpack full of coloring projects and plastic ponies, my little sister and her two young daughters right behind us.

But the moment we stepped into that sale barn, the scent hit our nostrils and we were transported back to when we were the kids, getting to pick out an orange pop and a candy bar from the café before finding our place on the sale barn bench. So, first things first, the only place in the world a can of pop still costs $1 and we were all sorts of nostalgic.

And also? We were a spectacle, the four little girls and my sister and me. Add to the crew my dad, husband, my aunt and uncle and our calves had a regular cheering committee in Dickinson that day. When those calves hit the ring and the auctioneer pointed us out, I turned around to my daughters and squealed with nervous excitement “our calves! There’s our calves! Then I hit my sister’s leg and turned around to face the music with a weird and nervous smile while taking pictures.

In case you are wondering, this is not sale-barn protocol.

You’re just supposed to nod. That’s it.

But you know what is sale-barn-protocol? Rounding up the kids and their plastic ponies from the far corner of the bench seats where they were using up a little too much of a stranger’s personal space for their make-shift-pasture and heading out for pizza and ice cream to celebrate, smelling like sales barn and smiling, reveling in the perks of the job.

Bow hunting, Barbie dolls and tuning tiny guitars

So the snow has melted, and Halloween has come and gone and I am behind on everything. We’re trying out some real equipment to make the podcast sound better, so we’ll be recording an update tonight. In the meantime, here’s what we did last weekend for Halloween. . And don’t think for a second Chad put his costume together any sooner than 15 minutes before Trunk or Treat. We had some beautiful weather, no snowsuits necessary. I love Halloween

Next up is planning the girls’ birthday parties and selling calves. It’s a busy time of year around here, one that marks milestones and lots of reason for celebration. And now, this week’s column, which is sorta old news by now. We’ll catch up tomorrow on the podcast!

Bow hunting, Barbie dolls and tuning tiny guitars

As October winds down and November comes in like a yeti, so we welcome bow hunting season at the ranch. My husband has been into archery since he was a little kid and has had our daughters practicing shooting their little recurve bows at a target set against the backdrop of the trees surrounding our house for the past year or so. He takes them out there, their arrows packed in the small, homemade leather quivers their grandpa Scofield made them, and I watch my husband patiently go through the process of safety and form and encouragement. Each arrow that actually manages to stick in the target they declare a “Bullseye!” and he never corrects them. I imagine every arrow counts to him as much as it counts to them, a real-time demonstration of skill and passion passed down to a new generation.

Last weekend a couple of our good friends from college headed west with their bows and camo and coolers and groceries to the ranch. It’s become one of our favorite times of the year, having this kind of company, the kind that has known us for years, at our best and at our worst. The kind who are smack dab in the middle of the same parenting phase we are in, and so maybe I don’t have to vacuum every corner of the house or worry about a meal plan because they always have it covered with homemade lasagna and soups, wild game and donuts, drinks and the occasional can of sauerkraut, plum jelly or jerky left behind. They even do the dishes. And let me tell you, three big, burly, camo-clad men making short work of the after-supper clean-up is quite the stereotype blasting site to behold in my kitchen. Glass of wine while they finish up here? Don’t mind if I do.

And while I’m completely aware weekends of hunting house guests could go the way of the dogs, for me their visits have come to feel like a little vacation in my own home and a nice reminder of the true gift we have here at the ranch. Because these men are so grateful for the opportunity it’s fun to see our place through their eyes, even more so now that our kids are getting older, because they’ve started to include them in the action and take them along. It’s a dream these dads have had for years watching their little bald burrito babies turn slowly into tiny people curious and vocal and wanting to learn, to be like dad.

So they spent a lot of time out at that target against the trees, everyone practicing patience and celebrating each shot, bullseye or not. And I know that we don’t always consciously do this, but I imagine when we’re teaching our children about the things that we know and love, it’s with the hope that it might enrich their lives in some way, or at least give them an option to be intrigued or infatuated, or completely disinterested, if that’s the case.

When the dust settled on the hunting weekend and our guests had packed up and left us with a couple jars of sauerkraut and a plan to be back, our daughters settled into what I thought might be a lazy Sunday afternoon after a few days of fresh air and late bedtimes. But it wasn’t long before my oldest was pulling out every craft supply in the house with a mission of creating Barbie dresses out of socks and no matter how many times I suggested that I could just grab my hot glue gun, the girl insisted this was a project that required sewing.

Now, weren’t we just speaking of skills that have been passed down from generation to generation? Yeah. Sewing wasn’t one of those skills for me, (just ask my Home Ec teacher). But before I could come up with an alternative project I walked into the kitchen to find her camo-clad dad at the counter with the sewing kit making Edie’s Barbie Christmas Sock Dress Vision a reality.

The man’s versatile, you have to give him that, and holds pretty true to that ‘ol Jack of All Trades adage. We’re lucky girls. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go tune some tiny guitars. Because if winter is coming this early, they may be interested in learning a couple indoor activities to get

The Layers of Fall

We don’t give this time of the year much recognition because we’re all scrambling to get work done before winter comes, so on the podcast I sit down to recognize it and talk it out with my husband. The conversation turns to fall work and food, naturally, because we’re up north and we’re getting cold and we’re starving for carbs and cream. Hear why I thinks Chad would be a good contestant on reality game shows and learn why my all time favorite meal was after I jumped out of a plane over the beach

There’s a moment between summer and late fall at the ranch that’s so good at being glorious that it actually makes us all believe we could last forever under a sky that’s bright blue and crisp and warm and just the right amount of breezy all at the same time.

Up here we’re easily swayed to forget about the drama that is our seasons. I imagine it’s a coping mechanism we develop that gets us crazy stoic people through -20 degree temperature snaps.

It’s forgetting that gets us through, but it’s remembering too. The combination is an art form.

Because at -20 degrees we remember that one-day it will be sunny and 75.

And when it’s sunny, 100 degrees and 100% humidity and there’s not a lake in sight, we remember the -20 degrees and somehow find a way to be grateful for it all.

Yes we keep taking off layers and putting them on again until we make ourselves the perfect temperature.

Funny then how we’re not really good at giving the in-between moments the credit they’re due around here. We usually grab them up and soak them in just enough to get some work done on a horse, paint the house, wash the car or get the yard cleaned up for winter.

Because we’re taught up here to use those perfect moments to prepare us for the not so perfect ones that are coming.

That’s why fall, though a romantic season for some, gives me a little lump in my throat that tastes a lot like mild panic.

Because while the pumpkins are nice and the apple cider tastes good enough, I can’t help but think that autumn is like the nice friend who slowly walks over to your lunch table with the news that your boyfriend doesn’t want to go out with you anymore.

And my boyfriend is summer. And when he’s gone, I’m stuck with the long and drawn out void that is winter promising Christmas, a hint of a sledding party and a couple shots of schnapps to get me through the break-up.

Hear what I’m saying?

But the change is beautiful. I can’t help but marvel at it no matter its underlying plot to dry up the leaves and strip them from their branches and jump start my craving for carbohydrates and heavy whipping cream in everything.

So I always decide to give it the credit it’s due when it starts to show off in full form, taking a break for the office and house work to marvel at the leaves, collect some acorns and walk the trails the cattle and deer cut through the trees during the heat of summer.

I will never call this moment a season, it’s too fleeting and foreboding for that, but I will reach out and touch those golden leaves and call it a sort of magic.

The kind that only nature can perform, not only on those leaves, but also on the hair on a horse’s back, the fat on the calf, the trickling creek bed, the tall dry grasses, used up flowers and a woman like me.

Yes, I’m turning too. My skin is lightening. My hunger unsuppressed. My eyelids heavy when the sun sinks below the hill much earlier than my bedtime.

My pants a little tighter with the promise of colder weather.

Ok. I’ve been reminded. Summer–a month of electric thunderstorms and endless days, sunshine that heats up my skin and makes me feel young and in love with a world that can be so colorful– is over.

And so I’m thankful for the moment in these trees to be reminded that I have a little time yet, but I best be gathering those acorns.

And pulling on my layers.

What they left behind

This week’s column is a revisited story from my book, “Coming Home.” Get your copy at www.veederranch.com.

On the Podcast this week I sit down with my husband to talk about homestead houses and how history can haunt us, just like the Goat Man Chad encountered near the Lost Bridge in the badlands. Find out what word I just made up out of thin air last week, hear a story about Lutheran kids dressing up as nuns and get the scoop on the spooky relic from the old house behind my childhood home that chills me still. 
Listen here, or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

What they left behind

It’s a gloomy day, the rain is falling, the sky is gray and the trees are stripped from black branches. It’s Halloween season and all of the sudden I’m reminded of the old house that used to sit up in a grove of trees behind the yard where I grew up.

It’s not so uncommon around here for a family to purchase land from neighbors or inherit an old family homestead, so there aren’t many farmsteads around these parts that didn’t come with an old structure lingering on the property, providing ranch kids with plenty of bedtime ghost story material.

And so it went with the old house that stood tucked back on the other side of the barbed wire fence, against a slope of a hill, surrounded by oak trees and the remnants of Mrs. B’s famous garden. Her hearty lilac bushes, her grove of apple trees, her wild asparagus and rhubarb still thrive in the clearing she made in those trees all those mysterious years ago, before the family up and left, leaving that garden untended, the root cellar full and a house seemingly frozen in time.

“What happened to them?” I would contemplate with my cousins, one of our favorite subjects as our eyes grew heavy, tucked in bunk beds and sleeping bags scattered on the floor, together growing up, together trying to figure out what the passing of time really means and how a story could be left so undone.

Gramma took some old dresses, vintage black smocks with pearl buttons and lace collars from the small bedroom closet of the old house. We would pull them over our heads to perform pretend wedding ceremonies or attend fancy parties like we saw on our mothers’ soap operas, the fabric smelling like mothballs, dust and old forgotten things.

But no matter what character you were that day, you couldn’t help but think about who the real woman in those dresses once was. And who would leave them behind?

So, as it goes with kids, our curiosity outweighed our fear and we went on a mission to collect samples of this family’s life that still existed between those walls.

And while I remember kitchen utensils hanging neatly on hooks, canned beets and potatoes lined up on shelves, the table and chairs sitting in the sunlight against the window, waiting for a neighbor to stop over for coffee, I also remember bedrooms scattered with old newspapers and magazines, the dates revealing the last years of occupancy, the fashion of the season, stories of drought and cattle prices sprawled out among diary entries and old letters, a glimpse into a world that existed long before us kids sifting through the rubble in tennis shoes with neon laces.

And then I remember the dentures. Or maybe I just remember the story my oldest cousin told about the dentures. It doesn’t matter now who was actually there to witness it, it evolved to belong to everyone. An expedition to the old house, a creak of a cupboard door and the discovery of a jar full of teeth that nobody noticed before.

“The place is haunted.” That was the consensus, especially when, at the next visit, the unwelcome house guests were greeted at the door by a flurry of bats (or, more likely, a bat or two). Yes, the spirits of that mysterious couple came back to the place. How else could you explain the thriving asparagus plants? The teeth?!

And so that was our story of the old house, a strangely fantastic pillar of our childhood adventures and a structure that had to eventually be burned down due to its disintegrating floor joists and general unsafe environment.

I stood in my snowsuit and beanie and watched the flames engulf the graying wood and shoot up over the tops of the black oak trees and wondered how it all eventually came down to this; a life turned into old forgotten things, turned into ashes, turned into stories.

Maybe that’s the scariest tale of them all.

But each fall the apples in the old woman’s orchard ripen, each spring her lilacs bloom and each year their names come to our lips because of what they left behind, making me wonder if we were right about the haunting thing after all.

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…