Snowed in

Happy winter! It’s official now, on December 22nd. I’m writing this in the middle of another no-school, all the roads are closed, the wind is whipping 40 MPH snow day.

And I wrote the column during the last snow day. December has had it’s way with us. So Chad and I had plenty of time between tractor thawing and snow blowing to sit down and visit a bit about windchill and frozen equipment, digging out and and staying home, Christmas traditions and finding gratitude where you can. Even Edie pops in for a snow day report. Then stick around to hear both she and little sister Rosie sing their favorite Christmas song this year. 

Merry Christmas. Thank you for following along this year and sharing your stories with us. Sending you love, gratitude for the year behind us and hope for the year ahead.

Listen to the podcast here or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

The magic season

Oh wow it’s magical around here. Two young kids waking up each morning smack dab in the middle of the Christmas season to see what shenanigans the little felt elf got into this time will make it that way. So will 4 to 8 inches of heavy snow and a promise of at least 40 mph gusts to make it nice and blinding, just like the North Pole.

Yes, we’re smack dab in the middle of the Christmas countdown. As I write this almost every road in the state is closed and so we’re in a good ‘ol fashioned snow day, except with laptops and virtual learning. And depending on your experience with Google classroom, the whole magic of the snow day experience can go either way.

And so can waking up at 3 am realizing that you forgot to move that enchanting felt elf. In which case you can either embrace that you are the magic or you can use your favorite cuss words as you squinty slipper shuffle down the steps to move the elf from the bathroom perch to the fridge between the ketchup and the soy sauce, wrapped up in an old dish towel for dramatic effect.

I’d say the magic is in remembering to move it at all. Bonus for a clever idea.

It’s worth it in the morning though. My kids are in that special spot of childhood where they still believe, and finding their elf in a toilet paper hammock is about as thrilling as it gets. Although the concept of Jesus and Santa both watching you gets a bit confusing for the five-year-old, especially when the felt elf becomes a part of the felt nativity scene. (Hey, I’m running out of ideas here.)

But it’s not just the Christmas season and the elf-drawing-faces-on-our-bananas- with-a-Sharpie that’s bringing this magic, it’s the kids themselves. They just have it beaming out of their curious eyes, skipping with them to meet their friends at school and almost knocking the Christmas tree over with each of the thousands of cartwheels they’re throwing in the living room.

The lineup of performances and celebration helps too. Last week my girls ran a regular rock star schedule and I happily (and with a supply of Motrin and coffee) played the role of their tour bus driver, stylist, caterer, and personal assistant. We had a first grade Christmas program on Tuesday, a pre-school Christmas Caroling experience on Friday morning and a dress rehearsal for a cheer performance on Friday afternoon. They gave it their all in their cheer recital Saturday afternoon and then we hosted Rosie’s five-year-old swimming birthday party on Saturday night. Then we wrapped it all up with my personal favorite, the Church nativity play on Sunday morning. The girls dressed as angels and they both had lines that we’ve been practicing all month. And we got to dress in our best and watch as Edie the Angel inched all the wise men and poor little Joseph out of the way so she could do the actions to the song front and center like she was born to do.

Man, wasn’t it just yesterday that she was baby Jesus who had a blowout mid-manger scene?

Maybe we all secretly wished for this snow day to slow it down for a minute so that we might sit on our cozy chair, our kids still in their jammies and watch a Christmas movie while procrastinating trying to figure out how to log-in to their Chrome books.

I’m rambling a little I know. I sat down this morning with the idea that I would write down a few lessons I’ve learned from this season of the year and of this middle-aged-mid-parenting life. But all I want to do is write down these little things I don’t want to fade from my memory: my daughters’ red tights and sparkly holiday shoes. Their morning bed head and crumpled Christmas PJs. The mess of graham cracker gingerbread houses and h alf-drunk holiday cups of hot chocolate taking over my kitchen table and singing Edie’s favorite Christmas song at the top of our lungs on the car ride to school. And even that silly elf that wakes me up and reminds me that these are the days. These are the exhausting, adorable, hilarious, snuggle-clad, sugar cookie filled days, frosted in sketchy weather with holiday sprinkles on top.

In case you forgot to remember. In case you’ve never forgotten.

Anyway, I got a little off task here, but here’s one lesson I really wanted to pass along: Tie the tree to the wall. Fishing string works great. Do it even if no one’s doing cartwheels in your living room. Trust me.

And whatever phase you’re in this Christmas, may you do your best to find peace where you are, even if it’s 3 am and you’re barely awake dressing a felt elf in Barbie clothes…

The parenthood juggle is real

In this week’s podcast, Chad and I sit down to pontificate on what we’re feeling here. Is it stress, the season change, or just trying to get the kids out the door on time for school? Plus, my current book choice and my fear of heights prompts Chad to give a bit of insight on what it was like working as derrick hand at the height of the oil boom, which then gets us talking about how far our community’s come. If you want a linear and precise hour of conversation, this isn’t it, but then, isn’t that life. Maybe you can relate. Listen here or on Spotify or Apple Podcasts

We have to wake up early to make it to town before 8:20 am when they lock the doors of the elementary school, forcing you and your child to make the walk of shame to the front office and sign in as a tardy kid. We have to wake up early because, after pulling them out from under the covers, it takes my children at least an hour of coaxing and back rubbing and sweet talking turned to hollaring “open your eyeballs!” for my dear darling daughters to be convinced that it’s time to start another day.

Before kids, mornings were my slow roll into creativity, the time I would take to myself to sip coffee, reflect and come up with something to ponder for publication. I never missed a deadline.

These days I’m sweating before 7 am, and it’s not because I got myself into a morning workout routine. By the time we’re all up, dressed, fed, brushed, clothed, snacked, packed and buckled into the car, I’ve played the part of lawyer, cook, zookeeper, stylist, housekeeper, secretary, barista, chauffer and, depending on what kind of morning the 4-year-old is having, therapist, all in an hour and a half’s time.

I’m sitting down now, in the calm after the storm, and I desperately want to be profound, but honestly I’m just happy I remembered I had a deadline in the first place. After ten years of submitting a weekly column, it’s only now begun to surprise me.

The juggle is real people and the only thing I’ve mastered in this working parent game is the art of doing my makeup in the visor mirror of my car between preschool drop off and my impending appearance in public. And no, I have not figured out where that weird smell is coming from in the backseat.  

Speaking of cars, here’s a thing I’ve actually done and I’m not too proud to confess. Because maybe that’s why I showed up here today, not with anything deep, but to make you feel better about yourself. I have actually driven myself home from work, the kids safe inside with my husband, turned off the ignition and fell plumb asleep at the wheel. I don’t know how long I was there, but no one knew I was there, so no one came looking.  

Last weekend my husband and I decided to paint the old shop, a project that has been on my list all year. In the time it took to coach my daughters through the difference between painting-the-shop-clothes, school clothes and cowgirl clothes my husband could have had half of it done already. I made a wager that it would take Rosie, our four-year-old, exactly two seconds before she had herself covered in red paint and wondered if we should see if grandma wanted to babysit for this part.  And while I was right about the timing of the red paint, what I didn’t account for was the amount that would end up on the dog.

But the girls were happy to help. They dug in and painted every inch of the shop they could reach before Rosie started presenting all of the reasons she should be allowed to run the spray paint gun and Edie asked to use the 24-foot ladder. My dear sister showed up with the cousins to offer up a jump on their trampoline and they were off, leaving a trail of red paint in their wake and me alone to supervise my husband on that 24 foot-ladder.

So many things are harder with kids around. I am just going to say it plain as can be here. But then I’m going to say: of course they are. They’re supposed to be. I have to remind myself of that every once in a while.

It. Is. Supposed. To. Be. Harder.

If the goal is to raise capable, compassionate people then the lessons have to be taught in the day to day. In the encouragements and the apologies and the patience shown in letting them do things like pouring their own cereal in the morning when the very adult version of you is screaming inside for all the Cocoa Pebbles now scattered across the kitchen floor. And the time it’s going to take for her to go get a broom and sweep it up and on and on because have you ever read, “If you give a moose a muffin?”

Yes, if I want to raise a kid that understands how to make an old building look like new again, I guess it’s up to us to show them that it’s work. And it’s fun. And it’s a mess. But we can do it. And there will be some fighting. And early mornings. And sometimes you will pop right out of bed and get there early and other times you’ll be the tardy kid and no one’s perfect, you just have to try your best and sometimes your best is catching a power nap in the car alone. And that’s just fine too.

Just always use your manners. Please.

Ok, how’s that for profound on a deadline?

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.

7 billion hours until chokecherry jelly time

IMG_8248

7 billion hours until chokecherry jelly time
Forum Communications

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.

IMG_8243

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.

IMG_8239

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.

IMG_8228IMG_8231

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.

IMG_8229

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.

IMG_8247

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.

IMG_8245

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.

7E30A870-994A-406C-9D6B-7F1886B35B82

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.

2C992185-2795-4D2D-974C-679465BEEB79

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

Screen Shot 2020-04-20 at 11.21.41 AM

A piece of the sky
Forum Communications

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.

IMG_4603

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.

IMG_4654

Waiting on the sun

Waiting on the sun

Waiting on the Sun
Forum Communication

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.”

ARCHIVE: Read more of Jessie Veeder’s Coming Home columns

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.

Cowboy

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.

Cowboy

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

030120.f.ff_.veedercolumn

It’s Spring, Bring a Shovel
Forum Communication

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.

Snow melt

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…

ARCHIVE: Read more of Jessie Veeder’s Coming Home columns

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.

Horses

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.

020920.f.ff_.veedercolumn

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.

IMG_2808

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.

ARCHIVE: Read more of Jessie Veeder’s Coming Home columns

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.

IMG_2788

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.

IMG_2851

Shared the stage with Brigid & Johnny Reedy

IMG_2760

This talented little ranch girl Marinna Mori

IMG_2757

With film maker Clare McKay and songwriter Anna Rose Pozzi

2634856C-4C00-4DD1-9D0F-1B07B43472C3

Ran into Cowboy Poet, songster and podcaster Andy Hedges

1C475855-4AF4-4E53-B355-B0A433647059

With the legendary Ramblin’ Jack Elliot

369221B4-2D39-4B77-AB77-017D84F88F9E

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

IMG_2739

Dad

IMG_2729

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.

IMG_2849

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…

ACB7009C-3184-453B-8C60-37FC37C53AAB

 

The Animals of Winter

Animals of winter
Like the animals of winter

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.

Horses in Snow

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.

ARCHIVE: Read more of Jessie Veeder’s Coming Home columns

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.

Screen Shot 2017-03-16 at 8.41.40 PM

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.

Winter barn

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