7 billion hours until chokecherry jelly time

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7 billion hours until chokecherry jelly time
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Do you know how many chokecherries it takes to make six jars of jelly? Seven billion.

Do you know how many hours it takes to accomplish this task? About the same, give or take.

Depending on whether you decide to bring most of the small children on the ranch with you when you pick them. Which I did.

And a grandpa, too.

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And when you take small children with you to pick chokecherries on a warm (OK, hot) August afternoon up in the fields where the cows haven’t had a chance to graze yet, you lose those small children in the tall grass.

That’s an actual thing.

You think they’re following you to the low hanging branches, but then you turn around and they’re gone. Don’t worry — you can still hear them, which is helpful for the rescue.

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I have so many memories of chokecherry-picking throughout the years growing up out here in western North Dakota, monitoring the blossoms in the spring, hoping a late frost didn’t kill our chances at jelly.

We would stand in the bed of the pickup backed up to the tall bushes to reach the clusters of ripe berries on the top, or I would scour the scoria road ditches with my best friend, trying to meet our goal of a full feed bucket. I can feel the horseflies biting my arms, the grass itching my legs and the sun scorching my shoulders just thinking about it.

Last week was my first time making those sort of rustic memories with my daughters and niece in tow. And given the amount of time they spent lost and tripped up in the tall grass, I think I accomplished making them appropriately itchy.

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The oldest two bounced back up pretty well, though, and with a lot of praise and Papa Gene basically bending entire bushes down to meet them, they kept to the task.

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My 2-year-old? Well, it was over for her as soon as that grass touched her armpits, and so she spent the next 45 minutes in the side-by-side yelling various versions of “Are you done yet!?” into the sky and bushes during breaks between singing at the top of her lungs and trying to figure out how to get the thing started.

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We called it quits when both my girls were whining enough to scare the horseflies away, but I think my little niece and Papa Gene would have stayed out there until every branch was bare.

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Did I tell you about the time we thought we lost my dad entirely picking chokecherries a couple years back? Sent out a search party and found him basically in the next county, because apparently the berries keep getting better one bush over…

Anyway, so that’s the first step. The next? Put the 2-year-old down for a nap while I try to convince the 4-year-old that sorting the sticks, leaves and bugs out of the berry stash is a fun game. And she believed me, but only for like 15 minutes.

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Then she needed to go put on some lipstick or change her princess ball gown or something, leaving me alone with the task of sorting, washing, boiling, straining and juicing these berries — all while breaking up sister fights, finding snacks — and, oh shoot, it’s suppertime.

Do you know what you shouldn’t do? Work on a chokecherry jelly project while also trying to make pork loin and rice. To my credit, I thought I started this project with plenty of time in between. But it’s been years since I tried to be this domestic. Like, before I had children.

And it turns out time moves a bit differently when you have small children in the house and I didn’t recall that it takes 7 billion hours and about the same amount of kitchen utensils to make six small jars of jelly.

And so this is your reminder, in case you were thinking about taking on the chore, to make sure you clear your schedule. And all of the surfaces in your kitchen. And when you spread it on your toast or pancakes, you better not spill a drop…

Maybe next time I’ll try making wine.

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A man needs a haircut

A man needs a haircut

My Grandma Edie used to give the neighborhood men haircuts. In the middle of her tiny kitchen at the end of a scoria road in the most rural of North Dakota places, she became a sort of pop-up barbershop to her brothers, cousins, neighbors and, in the old days, her husband and sons.

The phone on the wall would ring and she would pull a kitchen chair out to the middle of the linoleum floor and set her clippers and scissors out on her old kitchen table, the one she just cleared of supper.

Or maybe, if it was a summer evening, she would pull that chair out on the deck or the stoop and wait for the pickup to kick up dust on the road to unload a scruffy-looking man who was just on the other end of the telephone line.

Gramma giving Grampa Pete a haircut in her kitchen

I wasn’t there for all those haircuts, of course, but I was there when I was 7 or 8 or 9 and she was still alive and laughing, and I remember.

I remember the way she draped and fastened an old peach bath towel around the wide shoulders and snapshirt of our neighbor, Dean. His hair was thick and sprinkled with salt and pepper, and maybe, this was the only time I saw him with his hat off. And so I noticed that his forehead was white and smooth, just like his teeth, pushing up his tan and weathered cheeks in a story with a punchline and his big, deep laugh.

Summer days spent on the back of a horse or in the hayfield turn a man like that into a sort of windswept patchwork quilt. I noticed that then, at 7 or 8 or 9, and then I noticed that man, without his hat, half a head of hair on the kitchen floor, defenseless under my grandmother’s clipper and peach towel, the way I’d never seen a man out here before.

But a man needs a haircut, even when there’s calves to check or fences to fix. And maybe they didn’t want to make the long trip to town, maybe they didn’t have time, or the money, or they had a wedding the next day and time got away from them, and so they called my grandma down the road. She did a fine job. They had coffee or sun tea and a good visit.

I gave my first haircut at the ranch the summer we first moved back. I took the dog clipper to my husband’s mane in that very same kitchen where my grandma set up shop. I clipped a towel around his shoulders and watched his hair fall to the same linoleum floor, freeing his neck up of the curls that formed in the sweat of the August heat.

I did a terrible job, but my husband stood up, put his hat back on and thanked me as he headed out the door to fix a broken tractor.null

This spring, my dad came in from checking the cows and was desperate to tame the scruff of his wild white hair. It had been years, but I dug out those dog clippers again and shaved it all off in the kitchen, just as my little sister walked in to gasp loud enough to cause concern. “It’s just hair,” he said, and he was glad it was gone, grateful for his hat to fit right again as he headed back out to fix a fence.

The next day, I sat my husband down on the deck, poured myself a drink and spent the next hour trimming, shaving, clipping and obsessing over the shape of his hair with his beard trimmer and my daughters’ safety scissors.

The white of his forehead and salt and pepper in his hair reminded me of Dean, and I decided that if I was going to provide this service, I might as well learn how to be good at it. Because not only did it make the men in my life feel a bit lighter, it made me feel glad for another way to take care of them.

So I ordered myself some professional scissors and my sister’s sending her husband over here next week. If you need me, I guess it’s official: I give the neighborhood men haircuts.

A piece of the sky

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A piece of the sky
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I spot a feather lying in the tall brown grass on my nightly walk to the east pasture. It’s from the wing of a hawk that has come back home for the spring, and I imagine it twirling and fluttering down from above to land softly on earth, a little piece of the sky landing right in my path.

I bend over to pick it up and put it in my ponytail for safekeeping, the same way I’ve done since I was a kid following my dad around the ranch, chasing cows on horseback or in his footprints on a hunt. It didn’t matter what we were doing, he would always stop in his tracks, get off his horse or bend down and pick up that feather to give to me.

This afternoon, I took my young daughters out to fly the kites I bought them for Easter. It was sunny and the wind seemed right, but it was pretty cold and I didn’t really have time for it. I should have been prepping for a conference call or making them lunch, multitasking my way to the end of another day.

Instead, I took to a pretty unmanageable task: a 4-year-old, a 2-year-old, a puppy, two kites and one mom hauling them all up a steep bank of a slippery hill to get the right wind. Because I was in it now, committed to getting those kites up, a small accomplishment turned big when that butterfly caught the air just right and started dancing against the sky.

The girls squealed with amusement and started jumping up to try to catch it, clumsy little ranch kids dressed in snowsuits in April. And for 30 seconds I felt so proud, before that kite did a nosedive back to earth, little Rosie needed to go potty and Edie got distracted by an old anthill.

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My dad told me his mom used to love to fly kites. She used to make them, box kites out of newspaper with tissue tails, and she would take her kids out on the right day in March to fly them.

Until today, I’d never flown a kite myself, not that I can recall anyway. Until today, I didn’t know that story about my grandma and her kites.

And I don’t know quite what I’m saying here except there are things we do just because we do them, like rolling all the windows down on the car on a hot day to let the air whip through our hair and dry the sweat on our sticky skin, even though the air conditioning’s on and it doesn’t really make sense except it makes us feel something.

I don’t know when my dad’s feather picking went from something he did once to a ritual, but 30-some years later here I am, a grown woman walking home with a feather in her hair. And I used to think that if I collected enough of them, I could build myself a pair of wings and fly away.

I know better than that now. We have to leave the flying to the birds, and focus on the task of being human.

But every time I see a feather, I pick it up. And if I told you now that I do it for my daughters, I’d be lying. I pick up those feathers for me. It’s what I do.

And I don’t really know why, except maybe it’s like my grandma and her kites, planted firmly in the earth, holding on tight to a little piece of the sky.

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Waiting on the sun

Waiting on the sun

Waiting on the Sun
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My husband stopped the pickup last week as another spring snowstorm came rolling over the horizon. He stopped along the road where the horses were working on an alfalfa bale that we plop down to keep them content through the last of this harsh weather.

We were on our way home, where we will be laying low for the foreseeable future, watching the news and wondering what tomorrow will bring, just like the rest of the world. But my husband stopped in his tracks and marched out in the wind and dropping temperatures while I waited, watching the clouds turn a deep, menacing blue and witnessing the most quiet and impulsive moment in the home stretch of the longest winter.

He walked past the new palomino he brought home for me last summer, and the gelding we call RB, notorious for checking pockets for treats. He breezed by the two sorrels and grabbed a tuft of burs off Mac the mini horse on his mission to say hello to the thing he’s missed most during the gray days spent shoveling snow and plowing through the ice and slush and repairing things on this ranch and in other people’s houses while waiting patiently for the meltdown…

As my husband reached his hand out to scratch the nose of his old bay horse, to wrap his arms around his neck, to smell that sweet horse smell, I found myself holding my breath.

I imagined them saying things like:

“Well hello there. Yeah, I’ve missed you buddy. Lookin’ good. You’ve wintered well.

“We’ll get out there soon, friend. Just waiting on the thaw.

“We’ll be out there soon. Just waiting on the sun.”

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It wasn’t a long moment, but after I released my breath and watched the wind blow through the bay’s mane and my husband pull down his hat and head back to the road and to life’s uncertainties, I felt like I should turn away.

Because I was watching old friends reunite after months apart. Friends who have grown up together and trusted one another that now just want to go back to the old days when the grass was green.

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And even though the calendar reads spring, a season that brings so much promise and hope, I look out my window to find snow blowing across the prairie and piling up on the buttes just like my uncertainty and worry.

Because there are things we can’t control, a fact that lately has been sticking in the back of my throat, radiating up the back of my neck and sometimes streaming down my face.

But as I watched my husband step off the road, I was reminded what we’re made of out here, and how we got that way — by letting loose some perfection, dealing with the messes, brushing off the mud and dirt, fixing things that break with other broken things and leaning in against the winter with the promise of spring.

And as the clouds rolled in to stay for a few days, there were more things to fix and more news of uncertainty coming to us through the television as the sky spit and looked like it would make good on the promise of more snow, a spring delay…

But when my husband opened the door and reached out his hand to the life we chose, it reminded me that the grass is green under all that white and brown, and we’ll be out there soon. Just waiting on the sun.

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It’s (not quite) spring, bring a shovel

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It’s Spring, Bring a Shovel
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Spring fever. There’s nobody else in the world that suffers from it more than my dad.

As soon as the sun hits that ice and snow, warming it up to see some ground exposed, he’s out of the house like a caged bird. He doesn’t know what to do with himself really, so he gets that list in his head going — all the things that need to be fixed, all the fences to check, all the tinkering to do — and then he lets it all fly out his ears as he climbs to the top of the nearest hill and plops himself down in the warmest, driest spot he can find and just lets the sun shine down on him.

That’s his thaw-out ritual. I have witnessed and I have adopted it.

But here’s the other thing about my dad in the spring: When it thaws, he forgets. He forgets that one warm day does not the summer make. He forgets that the 6 feet of snow in the coulees does not melt in a mere two hours of warm sunshine.

But he frolics anyway. And the meltdown happening at the ranch this week reminds me of an incident that happened a few years back that seems to continue on trend year after year.

It was one of the first warm days we’d had in months. There he stood, my dad, in his cap, overalls and muck boots, hammering on the tractor and shuffling around the shop. I parked my car and walked out to see what he was up to.

“Oh, had to get out here. It’s such a nice day. Feels like 60 degrees… water’s really running. Won’t get the tractor fixed today… Oh well… want to come with me to check the horses?”

“Sure. We walkin?”

“No, we’ll take the four-wheeler.”

“Really? You think it will make it?”

“Oh… we can make it… it’s a beautiful day. Beautiful. We’ll bring them some grain. Hop on.”

I hopped on and wondered how this was going to go as Dad took his four-wheeler, me and my doubts along the gravelly, mucky road and then turned, nice and easy off the path and up the melty drift that had been growing and growing all winter long at the entrance of the farmstead.

I let the warm air whip through the hairs that escaped from my beanie. My pale cheeks soaked up the sunshine. My lungs shouted “Woo-hoo!” as they remembered what fresh air above 35 degrees felt like.

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I released my white-knuckled death grip as we approached the gate to the horse pasture. Ah, it was springtime and the living was easy, and as Dad went to get the gate, I thought of all of things I was going to do under this big warm sky: plant a garden… lounge with a vodka tonic… clean up all of the things that have magically appeared as the snow disappeared (who put that kayak there?)… wear shorts… avoid washing my windows…

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Dad hopped back on and as we continued on our little journey… grill… find my floaties… eat pineapple…

“Jessie… Jess. Jessica!!!”

“Wha… what?”

“You need to get off.”

“Wha… why?”

“We’re stuck.”

And just like that, the green and blue landscape that existed in my head was replaced by reality’s sharp kick in the pants. A good mile from the house and a good half mile to our destination, there we sat in the great white north with a 600-pound four-wheeler buried to its gullets in the heavy, wet, limitless, not-so-springlike snow.

Without a shovel.

I wasn’t surprised. The man has tested the limits of his ATV before, taking the beast where no machine was meant to go: to the tops of buttes; over giant boulders; through fences; up trees; and across muddy, ravenous, woody creek beds. I know because I’ve had to help pull, cut and dig him out.

But this particular day, as I squinted my eyes against the sunshine, I just looked at Dad and laughed. And he shrugged.

We kicked the tires. We pushed a little. We dug a little. We commented about the shovel. And then we grabbed the bucket of grain and abandoned our ride to continue the task at hand.

It was a beautiful day and we didn’t mind walking…

Aw, spring. You can’t rush it, but maybe you can bring a shovel.

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To gather, and all the things that phrase means to a ranch woman

Cows by the dam

To gather, and all the things that phrase means to a ranch woman

To gather. As a ranch woman, this phrase conjures up images of roundup season, sitting on top of my horse and moving our cattle together from all corners of our pastures.

It’s the throaty hum of the animals’ voices as they call to their calves or to one another or out into the world, seemingly saying, “I’m here, I’m coming. All right already.”

It’s the creak of the old cows’ bones as we let them slowly navigate themselves toward a well-worn path they know toward home. And it’s the “heya” and the “c’mon” we let out of our lungs as we follow the small sea of black backs, the quiet counting and calculations in our heads, our warm breath cooling down in the autumn air.

It’s the swing of our leg off the saddle and the swing of the gate when they’re all in and accounted for so we can take a deep breath, put our hands on our hips and say, “Well, all right then…” and move on to the sorting.

I recently participated in a different kind of gathering down in Elko, Nev. A gathering of cowboy poets, musicians, artists and fans from across the world in an event dedicated to the stories we tell about a way of life that I would say is more rough than it is romantic, except it’s the rough parts that make it so.

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The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. That’s what they call it. And I like that they call it that, because that’s what it is.

It’s a gathering of people, ideas, stories, music, art and conversation in a small town in the dessert in the middle of winter when the cowboys and ranchers that create have time to take leave from the Plains or the mountains to connect with other artists and an audience eager to hear from them so that they might be a part of that life, too, if only for a few days under a felt hat.

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Mike, Dad and I with Cowboy poet Jake Riley

That is, if they have someone at home to feed the cattle and the kids. Which is where my husband falls in the story. Because everyone wants to be a cowboy until it’s actually time to do cowboy stuff, and so he got the less-glamorous gig of wiping toddler noses and rolling out hay bales while I was shaking hands and singing under the lights.

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And I couldn’t help but look out into the audience of hundreds of anonymous silhouettes sitting still and quiet and ready to nod along and feel overwhelmingly grateful that somebody thought the world needed an event like this. Because in the 20-some years that I’ve been writing music and performing, I’ve never found a better muse than the rural community, rugged landscape and ranch life in which I was raised.

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An American Forrest , Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and Corb Lund on stage in Elko

But in the miles I’ve traveled up and down the Midwest, I have questioned if it ever really resonates, if there is anyone else out there who thought the world needed a song with a rhythm based on hoof beats. I’ve spent a career slowly finding those people who do, and then, three airplanes later, I found myself in a land where they’ve all congregated for us, caffeinated, fed, inspired and ready to listen.

To gather.

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Shared the stage with Brigid & Johnny Reedy

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This talented little ranch girl Marinna Mori

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With film maker Clare McKay and songwriter Anna Rose Pozzi

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Ran into Cowboy Poet, songster and podcaster Andy Hedges

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With the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliot

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And then randomly, one of my favorites, Colter Wall was in the greenroom

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Dad

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The morning gathering of entertainers at the Western Folklife Center

I kept saying it to myself as I looked out in this community the Western Folklife Center created in Elko for people like me and people nothing like me at all.

What happens when we gather? Those differences become less important than the way a song about loss reminds us both of similar struggle.

Or the way we collectively clapped and laughed, the whole auditorium full of us, as he yodeled and kicked up his leg.

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Backstage listening to the Munsick Boys

Or the silence none of us discussed but honored as an 85-year-old legend, with a voice worn from years of songs and stories, closed his eyes and worked through another one on a stage that afternoon.

And so I couldn’t help but feel a bit like our cattle that week down in Elko, surrounded by a sea of hats and smiles, reaching out to touch one another as we drew closer to say, “I’m here! I’m coming. All right already,” taking a familiar path toward a place that feels like home.

And I’m back at the ranch now, hands on hips, ready for the sorting…

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The Animals of Winter

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Last week, I went out into the winter. I squeezed into my long underwear, pulled on layers, tied my scarf around my neck, made sure my wool cap covered my ears and zipped my coat to my chin.

The snow was fresh and the wind was blowing it in sparkly swirls around the barnyard. The hay bales were adequately frosted in neatly stacked white drifts, remnants of the small blizzard that blew through the ranch in the evening and was lingering into the late morning hours.

I stuck out my tongue to taste the snowflakes and snuggled down into the collar of my coat like a turtle as I walked toward the horses munching on hay below the barn. I wished I had their fur coats, thick and wooly and brave against the wind. I wished I had their manes, wild and tangled and smelling of dust and autumn leaves, summer heat and ice.

They keep it all in there, all of the seasons.

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They nudged and kicked at one another, digging their noses deeper in the stack of hay, remembering green grass and fields, tasting warmer weather in their snack. I lingered there with them, noticing how the ice stuck on their eyelashes and clung to the long hair on their backs.

I scratched their ears and pulled some burs out of their manes and imagined what grove of trees they picked to wait out the storm last night, standing close and breathing on one another’s back. A herd.

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I followed them out of the protection of the barnyard and into the pasture where the frozen wind found my cheeks and the dogs cut footprints in the fluffy snow in front of my steps. They played and barked and jumped and sniffed and rolled in the white stuff, like children on a snow day.

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I found the top of the hill and let myself feel the cold. I had forgotten how my cheeks can go numb, how my fingertips ache, now my eyelashes stick together at the close of a blink and how the wind finds its way through the layers of clothing and freezes my skin.

I forgot that sometimes it doesn’t matter that you took care to wear wool socks and three pairs of pants — we are never as prepared as the animals. Sometimes, the weather just wins.

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I wished I had fur on my ears, tufts on my feet, whiskers to catch the snow. I wished I had hard hooves to anchor me, my own herd to lean against, to protect me from the wind. I wished I was part of a pack, chasing and jumping and rolling through the drifts.

I might have stayed out longer if I had these things. I would have explored how the creek had froze, stuck my nose in the snow, walked along the banks of the coulee, leaned against the buttes and followed the indecisive sun.

But my scarf wasn’t thick enough, there was snow in my boots and my skin is fragile and thin. No, my body’s not wooly and my nose is not fuzzy. And my fingers? Well, if we can’t have hooves, then we at least have fingers, to knit sweaters and sew together blankets, our hands to build fires and houses to protect us, our arms to wrap around one another, our feet to propel us toward shelter or sun and our brains to invent things like warm, spicy soup and hot coffee and buttery buns.

No, we might not have fur coats, but we have opposable thumbs. I pointed my frozen feet toward the house and flung open the door, stripped off my layers and stood over the heater vent, happy for my warm house and man-made blankets.

And happier still for a promise of spring that isn’t too far away on this winter day…

Winter Horses

To be a cowboy

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To be a Cowboy
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In a few short weeks, I will pack up my guitar and head for the desert in Nevada for the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering.

It will be my second invite to this event that features cowboy singers, entertainers, makers and poets from across the country, each looking like the plains and valleys, mountains and foothills they were born to and all trying to answer and ponder the question — what does it mean to be a cowboy?

I close my eyes and I see him, my Great-Grandpa Veeder. I see him as a kid who came to settle this area with an ill father and a mother who had seven other children to care for. And so he took to it, helping to break up land, grow vegetables and raise horses for farming and threshing

I like to think that he was a man who, like the Badlands full of rocks and rattlesnakes, was not so easily tamed. And so he became the 50 mph winds, the biting, relentless horse flies, the dropping temperatures, the green grass and the rain that eventually fell with a promise that this all might work out if he was brave enough to endure it.

He couldn’t have known then that the work he was doing might someday be revered as sort of glamorous. He just took to it, like I said, and at barely 21, he bought his own place down the road and the rest is a history I walk by on my way to catch my well-broke horses or give my daughters a ride on their pony.

History like his old threshing machine that sits as a relic among the tall grasses and thorny tangle of prairie roses.

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History like that humble red barn he moved in and rebuilt with his two sons, one of them my grandpa.

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Time has passed us by enough now that we are wondering what to do with it. Should we tear it down or rebuild it? Has there ever been a truer metaphor for this generation of ranch families?

A relic that reminds us we have entered another realm entirely. A realm where steel siding and roofing and concrete would serve us much better, just like the new tractors with GPS and Bluetooth connections that we will likely never be able to afford, no matter how hard my great-grandfather, and my grandparents and my parents, worked to get us to this place where we can ponder.

Are we cowboys? Not like him. Not like Great-Grandpa Eddie.

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As a kid, I spent my winter nights sitting on the pink carpet of my room inside the walls of my parents’ house tucked in the hills and oak trees of a ranch that has now been in my family for over 100 years. Behind my guitar, with a pen in my hand, I would attempt to work out the mysteries of the place in which I was raised, and will myself to understand how I was meant to belong here.

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I wasn’t strong enough to open gates on my own. I wasn’t patient enough to break the horses my father broke. I wasn’t gritty enough or savvy enough or ballsy enough or grown-up enough to do the very thing that I wanted to do, which was to jump in and be brave.

But I love the sound a horse makes when she’s clipping the green grass from the ground. And the smell of the clover and the way a hay bale rolls out in the winter snow behind an old feed pickup and the black line of cattle following it.

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I love the creak of a saddle, the scum on an old stock tank and the bite of the wind on the hilltop and the weather that changes up here like the light and the seasons and how it feels to really be out there in it.

Knowing it. Working it. Caring so desperately about it.

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And so on that pink carpet, I wrote it all down. These cattle. These horses. This land and the big sky and this overwhelming sense that this might be our purpose, no matter how completely uncertain it is.

To be a cowboy.

See ya in Elko.

Click herefor a full line up of performances and where you can catch my dad and me performing.

 

A year of work ends at the sale barn

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We sold our calves last week.

With snow on the ground and our warm breath turned to ice in the crisp morning air, we layered up, saddled up and gathered up our herd of Black Angus and Simmental cattle and loaded up the calves to head toward the sale barn in town.

My husband pulled a trailer load out of the ranch while I served the neighbors and family who helped us some of that good ol’ spiceless North Dakota chili and watched one of the bachelors eat at least six or seven apple bars for dessert.

And when they all left, I was suddenly alone in my house for the first time in months, smelling like horsehair and plenty warm because of the long underwear and silk scarf that stayed on through lunch. And I probably should have taken the time to clean up the kitchen and do something domestic-looking after the whirlwind that fall inevitably brings to the ranch, but sale day gives me a bit of nervous energy.

 

Typically we think of it as a whole year of work riding on what the market is doing that day, but for us, even though it’s not our sole source of income, it’s so much more. It’s holding your breath to be given a sign that we are not crazy people. That there might be a future for us in this cattle business somewhere, no matter the slow, steady and cautious pace with which we are pursuing it, working to find our footing as the new generation here.

And so I decided I couldn’t stay at home cooking and cleaning, waiting to hear the numbers — I had to go watch it myself. So I grabbed my young daughters and their tiny pink cowboy hats and we headed toward Dickinson.

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I wasn’t going to bring them. I mean, taking a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old to a smelly, noisy sale barn 60 miles away on a Thursday night during suppertime is really just asking for it, but I felt like we all needed to be there, this year especially.

Because, despite the smell, I love the sale barn. It reminds me of the Carhartt coveralls that I outgrew long before I was willing to hand them down, and being 8 or 9 and sitting shotgun next to my little sister, next to Dad, warming our flushed cheeks in the old Dodge pulling a load of Black Baldy calves through the breaks after an early-morning roundup.

It reminds me of patience in a time with less distraction, of a time when a can of Mountain Dew, a cheeseburger and maybe a Snickers bar at the little cafe there was a big-deal treat and took the sting out of the 45-minute wait in the pickup to unload with nothing but AM radio to cut the boredom.

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And so when I walked my girls into Stockmen’s Livestock Exchange, we wasted no time getting that pop and a burger, feeding my nostalgia while feeding them supper.

 

And when we took those steep steps up to sit on the benches in the ring, I quickly became aware that we were the kind of circus they just might appreciate around there.

“What is going on, Mommy?!” my little Rosie asked in complete wonder, pausing to watch before unloading all the tiny plastic cows, steers, horses and a Mickey Mouse onto the bench to amuse herself.

“We’re selling our calves today!” I told her proudly, which promptly set her big sister off into tears, declaring dramatically that she was going to miss them “so, so much!”

Twenty minutes and three plastic ponies flung at the buyers below us later, our load number was up and our calves began to enter the ring, just as Rosie spilled the entire contents of her pop down my husband’s back.

And just like that, the day we’d been working for all yearlong had come and gone, the scent of cattle on our clothes and plans for the year ahead drowning out the doubts as we chased our headlights and our bedtimes back home through the Badlands.

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Time to gather

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It’s fall. Shipping season.

The leaves have stripped from their branches, the horses are hairing up against the cold, the grass is golden and the cows and calves look like black dots on the hillsides.

We’re getting ready to gather.

We’re fixing up corrals and fences, hauling hay off the fields, calling in the uncles and putting on our chaps and silk scarves and wool caps, gearing up like those horses for a season as unpredictable as it is predictable.

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On this ranch, we’re in the same transition period as our neighbors and friends. This is the season. We all know it well.

But I can’t help but notice how much this shift-over is mimicking our lives right now as I sit here trying to hash out my thoughts after another visit to the bank and the insurance agent and our small business development consultant. My husband meets me in town with the feed pickup, dressed in layers because he’s been fixing on the tractor. He smells like the men I grew up with, coming inside with the cold and the scent of diesel on their jackets, noses and cheeks flushed under unshaven faces.

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He looks sort of out of place in the seat of the beige bank office in his big boots and Carhart coat. We’re talking numbers and new business plans and what it’s going to take for him to make a living building garages and decks and tiling bathrooms and kitchens and refinishing barns and haying and feeding and raising cattle, all the things he’s always known, now officially declared as the plan. As his occupation. Carpenter. Rancher.

I’m his champion in my going-to-town clothes, the same way he’s been my champion in all of the weird leaps I’ve taken as an entrepreneur with a job title too long and unconventional for a business card. Now it looks like our cards might start looking the same.

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When we first got married, I remember a moment when we were driving down the road toward home after a long trip together somewhere, and we made ourselves a promise that if we were ever in a place that we didn’t quite feel ourselves, or if we noticed the other slipping or not laughing as much as we know them to, that we would stop right there and help each other figure a way out.

I’m not sure exactly how the pact came to be, but I remember the road whizzing by outside my passenger window and I remember the lump in my throat dissolving with the breath I took after we declared it.

My husband and I talk dreams and plans for this ranch and our work almost every day. I don’t know if that’s a thing that everyone does, but we do it.

We lie in bed after the kids are finally sleeping and we hash it out, or we sit together in the noise and interruptions of our house and we make mental lists. We stand in the dark of our kitchen after I get home late and we recap and scheme.

And sometimes I don’t feel like thinking about it because it overwhelms me, but I listen.

And sometimes he is distracted by a phone call or a crying kid, but he comes back to it, to help me find my place again.

Because it’s important. Because you can’t see 10 years down the line, you can’t reach out and touch the plans, those dreams we have. And so we speak them out loud into the space between us.

Because it’s a new season and we’re getting ready to gather…