You either keep driving or you pull over…

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I started traveling as a touring musician up and down the middle of America when I was barely 19. I took the interstate exits to highways that ran through small towns held up by community colleges and cafes, Main Street bars and churches with steeples, grain elevators and railroads and the promise of spring.

I came with my guitar and my white Chevy car pushing 200,000 miles with a bashed-in trunk from the icy North Dakota streets that render brakes worthless. That trunk, even after it was fixed, would stick sometimes, so I would have to pull down the seat to access my suitcase full of CDs and T-shirts, my set list and microphone and sound system. I played the part of struggling folk singer well, looking up the closest Super 8s and sustaining on fast food and gas station snacks, wondering what it would be like if I upgraded to a band with a van.

I decided I liked the solitude of the gig, but it would be nice to have backup. A stronger set of arms to help me with the trunk would have been nice. Or a navigator I could blame when I took the wrong turn through Green Bay that sent me in circles, throwing me off by an hour or two and landing me right in the middle of a blizzard heading west of Bismarck toward home on Interstate 94, white-knuckled on the wheel in the dark pushing midnight.

This predates the GPS everyone has on their phones now, but I did have a cellphone. And it’s times like these that a 19-year-old girl calls her dad, as if he has the power to stop the wind whipping blinding snow across a road you can’t see that’s supposed to get you home tonight.

“What should I do?” I asked him, crying in frustration, thinking maybe 90 miles from the ranch was close enough for him to come get me.

I remember now how independent the wide open road made me feel. I was comfortable there, driving early mornings and through the dead of the night. I navigated four-lane traffic and toll booths with much less confidence, but the highways and cheap hotel rooms seemed to be my element, just waiting there for me to find a story…

But that blizzard quickly humbled me up. Exhausted from 15 hours in the car, I felt helpless, wishing someone could come take the burden of the weather off my shoulders and onto their own.

“Well, there’s not much I can tell you, Jess,” my dad’s voice echoed on the other end of the line. “You either keep driving or you pull over. It’s your call.”

And that was that. There would be no rescuing that night.

So I inched my way off the interstate to the exit to Mott and pulled over to sleep the storm off in the car, waking up every 20 minutes or so, as you do when you’re a young woman alone with nothing but the radio, the car heater on high, three granola bars and the whipping wind to get you through the night.

I supposed then that this is what it means to be grown-up — paying the price for your idiot mistakes or decisions that didn’t turn out as you planned. With all the miles under those tires that needed to be changed, it hadn’t really occurred to me until that moment that the path I was carving for myself was mine alone to drive through.

I had officially left the nest for Super 8s and coffee shops and a car that would perpetually need repairs, or at least a new set of windshield wipers every once in a while.

“You either drive or pull over. It’s your call.”

But how do you know what to choose? I’ve asked myself that 1,000 times since my dad spoke those words, standing at the back window on the ranch, brow furrowed, worrying, watching the snow blow.

All these years later I haven’t come up with an answer except either one of them is a decision and it’s best for everyone if you make one at some point. It’s hell to go in circles — I learned that back in Green Bay…

The perspective from a distance

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We’re spending the week in vacation mode.

Vacation mode meaning heading east to the lake in Minnesota to spend time with family at my grandparent’s lake cabin, per tradition.

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And then coming home to cut some hay and meet some deadlines before heading back out the big lake tomorrow to spend time on the pontoon or roasting s’mores with the other side of the family.

When we’re at the lake in Minnesota we do this thing where we load up the crew on the pontoon, drinks and snacks and towels and caps and everything else we could have forgotten, and we drive that boat around the shore, slowly, so we can take a look at the beautiful houses that have been built in place of the small cabins that once stood there back when my grandparents first bought their place.

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We comment on the lawns and the landscaping, the docks and the red shutters. We like the cedar siding on that one, and the cottage feeling of the other. We wonder where the NFL football player’s house is. We wonder how much the inflatable trampoline costs. We like that patio set and the adorable kids playing catch in the front yard.

We wonder who lives there. And secretly, I think we all wonder, what that would be like.

It sounds sort of strange, a literal boatload of family tooling by people’s houses on the lake. But we’re not the only ones who do it. It’s like a parade of homes, only we’re the parade.

We wave.

They wave back.

We’re at a safe distance that way. We can imagine and talk and wonder while we make our rounds and come up, always sooner than expected, as the sun starts to sink, on the blue house with the sailboat in the water out front, the familiar trees where the hammock used to swing, grandma’s flowers, the American flags stuck in the grass by the rocky shore, and feel the warm flood of familiarity fill us up with the good memories we’ve had there year after year together.

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It happens to me every time we leave on that pontoon, sitting shoulder to shoulder, talking and laughing with my aunts and uncles, sisters, parents, grandparents, looking briefly into other people’s lives, wondering, wishing perhaps that we could afford that big boat or that beautiful deck, contemplating who we would be there before pulling slowly into the dock on that one house out of a hundred that we know so well.

The one that holds so much.

The best one on the lake for people like us.

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Coming Home: Searching for perspective on life from a distance
by Jessie Veeder
Forum Communications


When I lived between the sidewalks of town, one of my favorite things to do was go out for a walk in the evening as the sun was going down on the neighborhood. It didn’t matter what time of year—the crisp, still air of winter or the thick heat of the summer—I liked to follow the path of the sidewalks that stretched past the neat rows of houses, the warm glow of the kitchen lights shining brighter than the setting sun outside, projecting a slice of each family’s life out onto the street.

For a few short years of my young life, when times were tough and my parents had to move to eastern North Dakota for work, I was one of those sidewalk kids, riding my bike a few houses down the block to the neighbor girl’s house so we could pretend we were riding horses in her front yard.

But mostly I was a kid who played in the coulees in the evenings after school, one who got to ride horses in real life, who never learned to rollerblade for severe lack of pavement, whose new neighbor girl was a mile away up the hill and who pushed a lawnmower over cocklebur plants and Canadian thistle that couldn’t be tamed no matter how my mother willed it.

Those were my memories.


So it was surprising to me how much console I found in walking those neighborhood streets in my adult years spent away from the ranch.

I was thinking about this last night as I walked out in the pasture as the sun dipped below the horizon, turning the grassy pastures and the sky behind me dark green and navy blue. I climbed the hill where the two teepee rings still sit and I looked back at our house, noticing how it somehow looks nestled and perched at the same time in that small opening of oak trees.

The lights were glowing small squares of gold to the outside, while inside the baby slept in her crib, holding the satin edges of her blanket, breathing in and out behind drawn curtains.

I couldn’t see her, of course, but I knew she was there, just as I knew my husband was in the new easy chair, reclined with his arms above his head and his stocking feet kicked back, a small glass of whiskey beside him.

This has always been my favorite way to look at our house. From this distance it seems like it doesn’t contain my life at all, but a life of another woman entirely, and I’m just a passerby who can make up her story.


Because I can’t see the things undone from here—the fence that needs stain, the pile of unsorted laundry, the conversations we need to have about selling the car or cleaning the garage or juggling the bills.

From this distance I can imagine our life instead of live it, and it’s a strange but wonderful thing.

And I think that’s what I was doing all those years walking those sidewalks in my 20s, trying to imagine my life and how I was going to get to whatever came next.

I would put myself in those houses with the manicured lawns, the dad on the grill out back, the kids jumping on the trampoline. I could put myself in the kitchen that opened up to the deck and invite my neighbors over for burgers.

I could fall in love with the little boy fishing in the gutter of the street, I could name him and his siblings and make up what kind of mother I might be to him.

Because I wasn’t prepared for any of it, even when I found myself living in it, in a real job, renovating a real house, working on my own manicured lawn along those sidewalks. So I walked. For perspective.

And I still do.

Because everything’s a little easier, a little more perfect, at a safe distance.


Community in a time of change…

I interrupt the regular programming of walking the hills, chasing Little Man, scolding the pug and cooking with my husband to  talk for a moment about community. I want to talk about belonging somewhere, calling it home, embracing its flaws and standing up for a place…taking care of it.

No matter where you live in this country you’ve probably caught bits and pieces about the changes that are occurring in Western North Dakota due to new technology that allows us to extract oil from the Bakken and other large reservoirs that lay 10,000 feet below the surface of the land…the land where our roads wind, our children run, our farmers cultivate, our schools and shops sit. The land we call community. The land we call home.

For the people who exist here oil is not a new word. Neither is the Bakken. My county is celebrating its 60th year of oil discovery soon and its county seat isn’t even 100 years old. So you can imagine many long time residents of the small “boomtowns” you’re hearing about have had their hand in the industry at one point or another in their lifetime. Some have stories about finishing high school or returning home from college and working in the oil fields in the 1970s, moving up in industry, making their place, seeing it through the rough times and coming out on the other side as leaders and veterans of the industry.

Veterans of the industry like the ranchers and farmers in this area working to exist and tend to their land while the search for oil below their wheat fields and pastures carries on around them. During rough times, times when cattle prices were low, or the rain didn’t fall, some of those landowners have taken a second job driving truck or pumping for oil to make ends meet, to pay off some debt, to get their kids through college.

These people have served as members of the school board, city council, 4-H leaders and musicians in local bands. They have helped build up their main streets, keeping small businesses in business and the doors of the schools struggling with declining enrollment open. They’ve coached volleyball and cheered on their hometown football teams. They’ve helped a neighbor with his fencing, brought their kids along on cattle drives, drove the school bus to town and back every weekday, filled the collection plate at church and then helped rebuild its steeple.

These people continue this way to this day and I expect many in this generation, my generation, will be telling similar stories when it’s all said and done…stories that start with back breaking, 80 hour a week job and end in a life made.

A kind of life we are all living out here surrounded right now by oil derricks and pumping units and wheat fields and new stop lights and cattle and badlands. And I know you’re hearing about it. It’s big news in a tough economy–an oasis of jobs,  opportunity and money in what some have come to refer to as “The Wild West” or “The Black Gold Rush.” It’s a story of hope, yes, but what we really like is the drama don’t we? We like to hear about the guy who came to North Dakota on a prayer only to live in his car in the Wal-Mart parking lot while he hunted for a job that allowed him to send money home to his wife and kids, or build a house, or a booming business. We like to talk over the dinner table about how the bars are full and the lines are long at the post office, about how a new building is going up and how the new stop lights and three lane highway is not doing enough to control the traffic.

We talk about how our lives are changing. I have been trying to wrap my mind around what this means for the place I have and always will call home. But the bottom line is that without this change, I probably wouldn’t be here to contemplate it at all.

Yesterday I worked with a small group of elementary children who are full of life and love and energy and ideas…and nearly all of them have moved with their parents to this town within the last couple years. They come from all different backgrounds, from several states away. They come with ideas and insight into a world that extends outside this small and growing town where they now live.  Some of them have left the only house they have known behind, some have left pets and horses they used to ride, wide open space and friends to live in a new place, a place much different from where they came from. A place that has work, but doesn’t have an abundance of houses their parents can chose from with big back yards where they can play.

When asked where they are from they will tell you Wyoming, California, Montana or Washington.

When asked about their home, they say it is here.

Change? Compared to these children, we know nothing of it.

Because last night I returned to the ranch after dropping off the last student only to pull on my tennis shoes and drive down the road with Husband to meet up with neighbors to play a few games of volleyball. And there we were at a small, rural recreation center surrounded by some of the community members who raised funds to build the place nearly fifteen years ago. Fifteen years ago when the pace was slower, but the most important values were there.

The value of having a space to get together to play a game, to craft, to hold meetings and New Years Eve parties and baby showers. In that very gym where I skidded across the floor last night to hit a volleyball my neighbor passed to me was the very gym I served pancakes in as part of a youth group fundraiser when I was twelve years old. It was where I gathered with friends and family after a community member’s funeral. It was where I attended 4-H meetings and put on talent shows with my friends. And it’s where I’m going to craft club next Tuesday. Yes, nearly fifteen years after that talent show this is still my meeting place and I still get to call all of the teachers, ranchers, accountants, stay at home moms, business owners and yes, oil industry professionals who are running after fly volleyballs, laughing and joking and skidding across the floor, my neighbors. 

But you know what I need to remember? Those students and their families and the people who are on their way here to look for a better life?  They are my neighbors too. And they have a lot to teach us.

So if you ask me how life has changed, I might tell you about the traffic. I might tell you how there are a couple oil wells behind my house and how that was hard to get used to. I will tell you about the new business coming to the area and how we now have stop lights in town. I will tell you about the challenges. And then I will tell you about the people who are keeping their fingers on the pulse of this development and discovery. I will tell you about those who are asking the right questions about our environment and making the tough decisions about our infrastructure in order to better accommodate new students in our schools and new residents of our towns so that they feel they belong here the same way I belong.

They are on the front lines welcoming visitors to the museum, taking the time to ask questions at the grocery store, spending their retirement as County Commissioners, City Council and Chamber of Commerce members. I will tell you about the people who are not only sticking it out during these growing pains, but who are working every day to make their home a better home for the next generation.

Yes, right now our community is overwhelmed. Whether or not we saw this coming, whether or not we thought we were prepared, many days for many people it feels like the phone calls, the needs that can’t be met, the questions that don’t have answers yet, are overwhelming…and it’s tempting for many to pack up and leave a place they don’t feel they recognize anymore.

But here’s what I’m proposing to those living in the middle of the Wild West and to those in any community really:

Stand up for it. Go to meetings. Ask questions. Play Volleyball together. Exist in it. Don’t be afraid to be frustrated, but then do something. Anything. Invite a new person to your quilting club. Put on a talent show. Volunteer. Attend a basketball game. Mentor a student. Instead of complaining about the trash in the ditches, get your friends together to pick it up. Set a good example. Set your standards and then be prepared to put your muscles into it.

If it’s your community, make it your priority. Because it’s your community and it’s worth loving and fighting to take the frustrations and turn them into solutions. To turn the complaining into action. To shift from fear and uncertainty to a place of positive energy and open-mindedness.

It isn’t  easy, but those who have seen this through, those who have walked the main streets when the stores are full only to turn around to see them empty, those who built that school, owned that store, lived in that house for 50 years, they will tell you, not only is it worth the effort, it’s our responsibility.

Want to keep up with what’s happening in Western North Dakota and my hometown?
Visit: for the latest in news and progress and the North Dakota Petroleum Council for information on North Dakota’s oil industry.