What a cowgirl carries

What a Cowgirl Carries
Forum Communications

Listen to this week’s column and Jessie’s conversation with her little sister in this week’s Meanwhile Podcast.

There’s something about the view between a horse’s ears that makes a woman forget that she can’t stay up there forever. It’s the same way she feels watching a man catch a horse. It’s the quiet and gentle approach, the calm way he whispers and coaxes. It reminds her of the good ones.

And it’s how he wears his hat, how his shirt’s tucked in and the way he sits so sure up there next to her riding along.

The way the breeze moves through that horse’s mane before brushing her cheek and the sinking sunlight hitting him just right.

How the grass sparkles under the glow of it.

All of those things that make her happy to be alive out here are wrapped up in the way the air cools her skin in the low draws, and the creak of the leather on her saddle and the scent of the plum blossoms in the brush.

Ask her, she knows. No living thing is only softness, even though spring out here tries hard to convince us. There are thorns and snags among the fragile pieces of it all. There has to be or how would a thing like a raspberry or a rose survive here in the heat and the teeth and the pounding hooves and bending wind? You can be pretty and sharp. You can be strong and soft. You can be remarkable and fleeting.

You can be terrified and brave.

You wrap all of that up and you get a cowgirl. Some of them carry ropes. Some carry square bales and feed buckets and scoop shovels and fencing pliers. Some carry babies, on their hips or in their bellies, Earth-side or in heaven. In a quiet prayer.

And then some of them come carrying casserole dishes and plates of cookies and pies to feed you after the work is through and they wash up their hands and change their shirts because they were working right alongside you after the cooking was done. And some carry the weight of expectations wherever they go, but then some women dropped those in the crick years ago. Some carry burdens of past generations and some carry hope so high that it lights up their eyes and escapes with the loose hair flying out from under her hat.

And all carry with her the lessons learned from the buttes and the big sky. The cattle and the wild roses. The dirt and the river. The women who have cared for her. The men.

And the horses.

The horses. That’s where we started.

Up there, she feels stronger and as capable as anyone. A bit more free. The horse separates her from the rest of them, puts her shoulder to shoulder. He’s the great equalizer carrying her along, not only because she might have bought and paid for him, or maybe he was a gift, but always because she learned how to be up there properly as all of the things we know she is — confident and patient and soft and tough and kind and fierce and brave and humble and beautiful and practical and wild and collected….

And he carries her along because she made all this known, through mistakes and broken things and good days and ones that begged her to quit. And it’s not that she has something to prove, but the good ones, they prove that it can be done. It can all be done, but not without sacrifice. Not without strength. Not without fear. Not without knowing it might work out or it might not but if it’s worth being done, then it’s worth the try. It’s always worth a try.

And so she rides horses because sometimes she forgets who she really is at the bones of it all and that horse, he reminds her. And if you love her, if you’re a good one, she’ll make you happy to be alive out there in the cool low draws and the creak of the leather on her saddle and the scent of the plum blossoms in the brush next to her riding along.

Lessons in life and heartbreak on the ranch

I started this piece last week as an introduction and recap of the latest spring storm. Since then we’ve been on the warm up, watching the snow drifts turn the ground to mud and exposing some green grass. And we’ve added another bottle baby, a twin, to our mix, putting us up to a total of 4, one for each little girl to feed if we can all get out there together. It looks like this week we’ll see 70 degree temperatures for a few days, and everyone’s spirits are lifted by that. Uncle Wade headed back to Texas and the girls are in their final month of school for the year and we have summer on our minds. I’m headed off to visit a few schools this week with the book “Prairie Princess” so I’ll be seeing some of the state thaw out and green up before my eyes and whenever I get a chance I’ll be on those hilltops, checking again, for crocuses, and probably collecting a few ticks.

Lessons in heartbreak on the ranch
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As I write this, the sun is shining after another really tough weekend of weather. As you read, we are likely getting more of the forecast moisture, but by now we’re all familiar with the storm that rolled into western North Dakota that started with rain, turned to ice and then into over a foot of more snow blowing sideways in up to 65 mph gusts throughout last Saturday and into Sunday afternoon.

This one was just as hard or harder on our herd because, No. 1, wet and freezing weather is tough on livestock, especially newborn calves. No. 2, we are full-on calving now, and No. 3, we lost power on Saturday, April 23, around 3:30 p.m. and didn’t get it back until around 6:30 p.m. on Sunday. As I write this, some in our county are still waiting for the lights to come back on. And it all felt a little spooky, honestly.

On Saturday afternoon, right before we lost power, the guys pulled four soaked, shaking and newborn calves in from the storm to try to save them and our entryway turned into a bovine nursery, complete with all four little girls helping to dry them, warm them and get them to eat if we could.

My sister, Alex, sat with the newest calf on her lap, scrubbing him with towels, drying him and asking him to hang in there. But after our last-ditch effort of pumping him full of electrolytes, he didn’t make it another 20 minutes. The girls were heartbroken and so we sat on the steps together, working it out with them, wiping little tears, worried that he might not be the only one in our entryway with such a fate.

My sister and I hang on to memories like this one of being kids during calving season. The excitement of bringing the calves inside always held with it a bit of anxiety knowing that they were there with us because something wasn’t going right. So that’s the lesson I tried to give the girls, that nature can be cruel, and we’re here to be caretakers, doing the best we can. But sometimes there’s nothing more we can do.

And so we move on to the next thing we can do. I don’t think they’re too young right now to learn about life and death and how to care for helpless things. It’s not too early to learn how fragile it all can be and what a big job it is to be responsible for these animals.

I don’t want to be dramatic, but my sister and I cried a bit about that calf, too. We were hoping for a victory, but it was a tough day to be born. So we focused our attention on tiny No. 4, the one the girls named Strawberry, who wouldn’t stand up or take a drink. The next morning, after a fair amount of patience, I finally got her to drink an entire bottle. This morning, she was bawling for it and I got my victory there. Funny how you can be so proud of a calf. And so the guys loaded all three of those baby bovines into the back seat of the pickup to graduate them to the barn — and that right there is why everything we own out here is covered in poop and slobber in the spring.

This week, the guys are counting the calves and keeping close watch, making sure they all get paired up with the cows who get mixed up during stressful times like this. When we woke up on Sunday morning, all four of my family members tucked in our big bed to stay warm, we were a little unsure of what we’d find down in the trees where the cattle hung out for protection on layer upon layer of hay. But these cattle are tough, and so are their babies, and as soon as the sun started to peek out from behind the clouds, there were calves running and bucking and perking right up. I couldn’t believe it.

Baby Calf Kevin tucked in safe and sound

Nature is cruel, but instinct and being bred for hardiness plays a part in the equation, and those two things didn’t disappoint us in our herd. Neither did the natural protection of the trees and valleys and all of the family around us helping take care.

Fresh new baby on greening grass

This one will be in the record books. Some neighbors in other corners of the county were literally digging cows and calves out of snowbanks where they were stuck standing. And there’s so much to reflect on, and so many lessons my husband and I have learned about how we could be better prepared for next time. And so we put that in our pockets and in our plans and keep digging out, more thankful for the sunshine than ever.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Under these snowbanks is green grass, and this, I think, has become a metaphor for almost every hard time in my life. The rainbow after the rain. I believe it always comes, sometimes naturally and in its own time. Sometimes you have to just buy yourself an ice cream cone and make that count. Either way, I hope you’re all finding your silver lining. Stay warm out there. Chin up. If you need us, we’ll be mixing giant calf bottles and heading to the barn…

Listen to this week’s column with commentary in my first attempt at a podcast

Ok folks, I’m trying something new. I’ve decided to record each week’s column with a bit of commentary in a weekly podcast format. This first attempt is a bit rough as I just wanted to see what it was all about, but I think it could be a nice option for readers to be listeners. My plan is to incorporate more discussion on each week’s topic and to hopefully include some of my family, friends and maybe you in the conversation. Oh, and there will be music too.

Hang with me as I work through this, but I think it’s going to be fun!
Click here to listen on Spotify
Or search “Meanwhile, back at the ranch” on Apple Podcasts

The Sweet Spot of Summer Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

Jessie sits down with her little sister Alex and gets interrupted a thousand times by the kids, sidetracking the conversation and giving you a glimpse into the real life of juggling motherhood and work on the ranch. Really. And in the column, well, there's just lots of nostalgia for the fleeting summer and fleeting childhood. essie also reads her column of the same name and shares a song. Read Jessie's column in Forum Communication's newspapers across the region or on her website at http://www.veederranch.com Find Jessie's books and music at http://www.jessieveedermusic.com Share, subscribe and share your stories by emailing jessieveedermusic@gmail.com — Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/veederranch/support
  1. The Sweet Spot of Summer
  2. A Sentimental Branding Day Roaster
  3. A spare toilet in a plastic world
  4. What a Cowgirl Carries
  5. Notes on a Rural Summer

A spring blizzard at the height of calving…

I wrote this column last week as a big April snow storm was brewing and preparing to dump almost 20 inches of snow on the hills and valleys of the ranch. Today was the first trip I took to town since Tuesday. The moisture was much needed, but this storm was one for the record books bringing with it whipping winds, blinding snow and drifts up to10 feet tall in some places. We had just begun to calve, with three on the ground and one that we know of born in the blizzard. The guys took both tractors out to check and bring hay for feed and bedding during the storm, a task that wouldn’t have been possible without the adequate equipment. This little calf was lucky dad caught him being born as there was nothing the momma could do to dry him off. So I made a spot in our entryway for the calf to spend the night and the girls scrubbed him down with dry towels, wrapped him up and named him Kevin. Luckily we were able to bring him back to his mom the next morning and all looks well.

Easter Sunday was quiet and we entertained the family living here on the ranch with caramel rolls and ham and roast and beans and a bunny cake, keeping close to home as more snow fell and more momma cows threatened to give birth.

We’re in the full swing of calving as of last night. Three more born in the trees on the hay, surrounded by cliffs of snow. What a difference that extra time made for us, as some of our neighbors had a completely different storm experience, working tirelessly to save calf after calf dropped in a storm like we haven’t seen for years.

And today the sun is shining and we made it to school, although we were a little late of course. It looks like it might storm again at the end of the week and this is ranching in North Dakota. This is spring…

A spring storm during the height of calving season
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As I type this column, the snow is whipping sideways outside of the windows and across the Plains. It’s mid-April and we’ve just started calving, three calves on the ground and the rest safe and sound in their mommas’ bellies as we feed extra hay in a low and protected spot on the ranch, waiting, watching and wondering how it will all shake out, this wild weather they’re predicting for us.

By the time you read this, we will know how we all fared. We need the moisture desperately, but this is not the ideal time to be born.

A drought is ended by a calf-killing blizzard. It sounds rough, harsh, but this is the part of agriculture, of ranching, of cowboying that isn’t glamorous. They don’t put the cowboy in a Scotch cap and Carhartts digging a half-frozen newborn calf out of a snowbank on the postcards they sell you in the gift shop in Montana. It doesn’t make a beautiful oil painting, but so often out here there’s more to the drama than the lovely sunset.

Without rain, we have no grass. Without grass, we sell the whole herd. Without the herd, the story changes. Dramatically. That doesn’t make a good inspirational quote.

But it’s reality. This spring storm during the height of calving is the definition of gratefulness and fear walking hand in hand with us as we take another loop around the pasture in the feed pickup, unroll another bale, make sure we have the entryway and barn and milk replacer and extra fuel and tractor ready to help fend off the worst of it the best we can.

It’s the story my dad holds like a lump in his throat, the hot summer of scours that took nearly 90% of their calf crop. His father was fresh from a battle with cancer, feeble and shell-shocked, and my parents, they were hanging on to a dream that was literally dying right before their eyes.

In a particularly desperate moment, one where my dad, as a young man, helped his father work on another unresponsive calf, he offered that it might be time to give up. And his dad looked him in the face right then and said plain and stern, unflinching against the despair, “You CAN’T. You CAN’T just give up.”

My dad tells it, still humbled after all these years, and that lump appears in my throat, too. Maybe we were born with it there, waiting to remind us of the weight of the responsibility that grazes on our summer pastures, bunches up together in fence corners against the wind, rides her pony out in the round pen and runs wide open down the scoria road. Maybe we were all born with it there to remind us how fragile it is really, how small we can become in the scheme of it.

My parents, not yet in the middle of their 30s, packed up the little they had in that old trailer house and their two young daughters and left the ranch that summer, not knowing if or how they might ever return, how they might ever make it work. I was just about to turn 2 years old.

That lump, it’s in every rancher and farmer’s throat, or it’s a tightening in her chest, or the thing that wakes him in the early hours of the morning before the birds and the sun. The bad winter. The drought years. The hailstorm that wiped them out. The scours. The day he had to sell it all. The calf-killing storm.

But agriculturalists, we don’t hold the patent on hard times. And the weather, no matter how extreme, it’s never unexpected. We’re never surprised, we know how to batten down the hatches. And we know the stakes.

We keep them tucked up under our hats or in the pocket of our shirt, the one under the jacket and the wool vest and the winter coat, the one closest to the hearts that we carry out into the blinding, whipping wind, knowing when we get through this, the white will make the grass grow greener and that will be something to put on a postcard. That is your inspirational quote.

Fall work and the promise of rain

On Saturday, it rained.

It rained and it soaked the earth and it made mud puddles and the kids splashed in them and we all pressed our noses against the screens and windows and held our breath. Hoping it would last.

My dad was in another town, and so I expected a call or a text, wondering how much rain we had so far. I didn’t realize it until this very dry year, when the man called me every time it rained, to see how much we got. Because I have a rain gauge. And he doesn’t.

Never has.

Isn’t that crazy? A rancher in North Dakota without a rain gauge! It’s even crazier when I tell you why. Why?!

Because he’s superstitious. He figures if he buys one, it will never rain again. Kinda like the old “buy a snow blower and it won’t snow” thing.

So he’ll call his brother who’s 3 miles down the road in the summer with a big ol’ rain gauge nailed to a fence post. And then he’ll call me, who’s closer by 2 miles and has a butterfly gauge stuck in my flower pot, flapping in the breeze, and then he’ll compare the two and calculate if he can breathe a sigh of relief or keep worrying.

It seems this inch of rain let him breathe a bit. And I think he needs to thank my husband for the wet forecast, because he started a deck project with a deadline a few days ago, which pretty much guarantees a weather delay.

But we’ll take it, just like we took the rain on Saturday with homemade tomato soup cooking on the stove and a plan to work calves the next morning in the mud, up on a horse as soon as the sun broke over the horizon. We put on layers, long johns and jeans and chaps and sweatshirts and neckerchiefs, gloves and earflap caps.

We could see our breath against the morning light. And as that sun burned the chill off our cheeks and the bare branches of trees that had given up their leaves, we pushed lazy cattle from one pasture, across the cover crop and into the corrals where we sorted and checked and counted and stripped off those carefully plotted layers the way North Dakotans do in the transition of seasons.

This kind of fall work takes a village, and we have a good little group. Two young cowboys from down the road show up with horses, one of our best friends from high school who wouldn’t miss the chance to ride these hills, and my husband and my dad and me. And my little sister, who brings the kids to watch and climb on fences and old haying equipment and helps her tiny daughter push calves through with the pink sorting stick.

And my mom who puts the soup on, makes the Scotcharoos and lays the sandwiches out for the crew so I can stay to help in the corrals a bit longer. Nothing tastes better than warm lunch after work like this. And I like having them all in the house to feed them as a thank you for the help.

This kind of work is good for the soul I think. Hands busy, heart pumping, air in your lungs. It’s precisely why people remain in this lifestyle no matter the practicality of it really.

Despite the lack of vacation days and stability. It’s because the back of a horse in the hills becomes your office space and your church and your therapy and your living and your family and your friendships and it’s all wrapped up out here in the least complicated way so that even when it’s hard, it is worth it.

It’s almost always hard.

But then, if you’re patient enough with the promise, it will rain…

Why I’m moving to the suburbs

And now a true story about what it’s like being me trying to be a ranch hand and a housewife and why I may need to start shopping for khakis and a house in the suburbs.

The scene: Going with my dad on a ride to gather cows. We are in a hurry because every day it gets darker a little earlier. It was 7:30. It gets dark at 8:30… or something like that.

And now me explaining myself: I’ve never been able to keep up with my dad on a horse, and I’m afraid no matter how much help I think I am, I’m quite certain he would be better off without me.

I mean, I could be riding a racehorse. You know, one of those fast buggers that wins the races that racehorses win. It could have countless trophies, made jockeys famous and fans from around the world could be chanting his name. And that horse would take one look at me and decide that running isn’t his thing today.

And neither is trotting for that matter.

Nope. Not until we’re pointing toward the barn anyway. Or cutting a path through the thick trees. Yeah, in the trees he’d find a quick pace.

But Dad? Dad could ride a horse that was halfway to the light at the end of the tunnel and that horse would turn right around to give him his last breath.

So this is what I deal with when we’re in a hurry: Kicking and pushing and working to find a pace on a lazy horse to keep up with Dad as he heads toward the trees, providing me with directions that I cannot hear because he is facing the hills and I am three horse lengths behind him.

I yell, “What?”

And he says something about following a cow through the trail in the trees.

So I do.

Only there isn’t a trail.

So me and my suddenly lightning-fast horse make our own trail through the brush so thick that I lose sight of the cow I’m supposed to be following (and all forms of life and light for that matter).

I hear Dad hollering from what seems like 20 miles away and wonder how he got that far in what I thought has only been 30 seconds (I’m not sure though because I lose all sense of time because I’m focusing on trying to keep both my eyeballs as we duck and weave and through the thick brush).

“Jessss!!!” Dad’s voice echoes through the trees. “Wheeereee youuuuu attt?”

“Uhhhh…” I spit the leaves from my mouth. “Just, uh, cutting a trail here…”

…and bringing with me some souvenirs: sticks in my shirt, leaves down my pants, acorns in my pockets and twigs jammed nicely in the puffs of my ponytail as I emerge on the other side of the brush alone and searching for any sign of the cow I was supposed to keep an eye on.

Ah, never mind, looks like Dad has her through the gate.

I cuss.

I kick my horse to catch up while I work on ridding myself of the vegetation I acquired on my “Blair Witch” journey through the coulee.

I catch up just in time to follow him to the top of a hill, down through another coulee, along the road and into the barnyard where we load up the horses and I wait to make sure Dad’s tractor starts so he can get home and get a bale of hay.

It does not start.

So I drive him and the horses home.

Slowly.

Because I have precious cargo.

And because apparently I like to torture this man who is trying to beat the sun.

And the other man in my life, the one I married, was still at work when I got in from “helping.” So I decided to make him a casserole, only to be asked, three bites into his meal, what I put in this thing.

“Cheese, noodles, hamburger… the regular… why?”

He gets up from his chair, pulls something from his mouth, looks and me and says:

“Because I just bit into a stick.”

If you know of any nice places in the suburbs, give me a call. I’ll be shopping for khakis and looking for a new job.

What the cat misses out on

What the cat misses out on
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When I was a young girl growing up in the ’90s, living in the angst of the transition from not quite a child anymore and clearly not a grown woman, I have a distinct memory of looking at my family’s house cat, curled up on the throw blanket draped across the couch, and wishing I could be her.

I did the same with Dad’s cow dog, staring up at me in the garage, waiting for a scratch in the middle of my brooding over some fight with a friend, or the way my outdated clothes fit my body now, or how my hair fuzzed, not even close to the way it lay smooth on the girls in those magazines.

To be a cat, I thought, would be far less complicated. I didn’t want these feelings, the ones that were creeping over me, reminding me that the world was getting bigger, the expectations of me were quietly changing and I was starting to see it now, not certain I was ready.

To just know, like a cat, what you were supposed to do — eat and sleep and poop and curl up and meow at the door to be let out and then meow to be let in again — seemed like a less problematic existence. Even if you got left out too long in the rain, or you discovered your food dish to only be half full, not to the brim the way you prefer. Even if you didn’t have a human at all, or a bowl or a dish… a cat just needed to be a cat, and she knew how to do it.

I wasn’t so sure about the whole human thing.

Because a cat didn’t have to have the right jeans or haircut to find an acceptable place in the social circle, a dog didn’t have to pretend to understand algebra or have fights with her mother that ended in slammed doors and misunderstandings. A cat didn’t feel compelled to write sad songs on the pink carpet on the floor of her room, simultaneously hoping no one ever heard them and also that everyone would…

I’m all grown up now and when I turn on the news or listen to those sad songs or disagree with my husband, or hear a story about how we’re screwing this up, I think, in the next life, I might come back as a house cat.

Because sometimes, it seems, there is not one thing that we humans haven’t made more complicated.

Last week I sat on the back of my horse and in the crisp fall air, against the relentless wind and a sky that would eventually snow on us, I helped move our cattle home from spread-out pastures.

The notice was short for me to successfully manage all the things I thought I should be doing, but I had enough free will to chose what mattered to me that day, so I rode behind a string of black cattle, my now well broken-in body finding a familiar comfort there, free for the day from worrying about how my hair fell or what the polls or the numbers or the doctors say.

Because the job was to gather and trail and round up and sort and check and doctor and laugh and count and holler and wipe our noses on our hankies and say our toes were cold when we finished the task and went in for chili and coffee and cornbread.

And I thought, as I refilled bowls and mugs and asked around about dessert, that for a tough year I’m grateful for moments like this. It’s moments like this, perhaps the cat misses out on…

Stay safe. Stay strong. And for crying out loud, let’s take care of one another.

Jessie

The adventures of tiny ranch girls…

Kids and ponies
The adventures of tiny ranch girls
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My little sister has been living in a new house on the ranch over the hill with her family for a year now. In the fall, her family welcomed a new little girl, Emma, who is now 8 months old. Her oldest daughter, Ada, is 3.

 

This means at any given moment, you could drive into the Veeder ranch and likely see a swarm of wild blond hair, glitter, flowing dresses, skinned knees, pretty chaos running down the scoria road squealing, with my sister and me trailing behind, occasionally hollering things like “Be careful!” or “Don’t push!” or “OK, OK, let the frog go now…”

Yeah. Right now, there are four girls between us — aged 4, 3, 2 and 8 months — roaming the barnyard. Which means in addition to six cats, four dogs and 10 horses, we also now have two little ponies.

Two ponies, named (you could probably guess it) Sparkles and Tootsie.

Of course.

Along with the kittens, the backyard sprinkler and endless Popsicles, these ponies have been the center of our life at the ranch this summer. Every morning my little sister puts her roly-poly baby in her pack, grabs her 3-year-old and goes down to the barn to brush, pet, pamper and, of course, feed the ponies who could care less if there’s a little girl hanging on their necks, pulling on their tails or brushing their bellies, as long as they get treats.

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And after supper, if the weather is right and they’re all behaving well enough to brave it, I call my sister and we meet them at the barn to saddle up the ponies and teach the girls to ride.

I could weave you a magical tale right now about the bonds between little girls and horses. I have plenty of firsthand experience falling in love with horses out here myself. And yes, there have been dozens of sweet moments captured between these little girls and these mini equines — but mostly it’s a firestorm of lesson upon lesson packed into a pink, noisy, explosion at the barn.

And it sounds a lot like: “OK, don’t scream around the horses remember? No, no running behind them… calm, remember? You’ve gotta stay calm… OK, OK, that’s enough grain. Woah, enough I said!”

“Edie, don’t drop the reigns. You have to hold onto them when you get off.”

“Oh, you’re trotting! Good job, good… woah, woah, woah, you’ve gotta hang on!”

“Where’s Rosie? Rosie!? Oh Lord, is your head stuck in the gate? Wait there, what the heck girl? How in the world… Daddy! Rosie’s head’s stuck in the gate!”

“OK, it’s Ada’s turn! OK, it’s Rosie’s turn. OK, it’s Edie’s turn. Yeah, you have to take turns. Yeah, you can lead her… no she doesn’t want to run… girls, no screaming around the ponies.”

“OK, no crying either. It’s OK…”

“Rosie! Rosie, don’t climb so high on the fence. Where’s Ada? Ada, enough splashing in the water tank… Edie, Edie, slow down now. Pull back and say ‘woah!'”

And on and on like this until someone gets an owie or the adults and the ponies in the pen wear out. But the adventure doesn’t end there — anything can happen in that quarter of a mile back to our houses.

Last night? Well, it was a detour to inspect a grass snake…

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followed by heroically freeing our dog, Remi, from my little sister’s sticky fly trap…

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Yesterday, it was a ladybug and a handful of sunflowers…

And today? Well, in this magical place, with these girls running wild, anything is possible.

And my sister and I, well, we’ll be right behind them, yelling “Be careful!” and saving the frogs and salamanders from their tiny dress pockets and purses.

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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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Get the Gate

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Get the Gate
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“Get the gate.”

There are other words that conjure up anxiety for me, but none in the same way as this phrase declared from the driver’s seat of an old feed pickup or from atop a horse about to take off for a mile in the other direction and return with 100 cows that I’ve been instructed not to let miss that open gate and head for the deep and ominous patch of trees further down the fence line.

Get the gate. It seems simple enough if in your imagination you are picturing a white picket fence on neat hinges with a little latch. Easy.

We don’t have those here at the EV Ranch. No. What we do have is miles and miles of barbed wire fence line, much of it built 80 years ago, held up by old cedar and steel fence posts driven into the hard clay of the Badlands. And through the years, it’s been stretched and re-stretched, patched and stapled, trampled by wild elk and escaped by fence-crawling cattle that couldn’t be held by elephant fence so why do we even try…

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And in the corners and on the flats, in the mud puddles and next to the trees there are the gates. Gates that have also been stretched and re-stretched so tight that I swear Hulk himself would grunt when trying to release the wire loop connecting one post to the other.

But my dad never did. Nope. He would just walk over there and pop that thing open like it was a toothpick connected to a string and we would move on with our lives. Which made me believe that my noodle arms and I were fully capable of opening it the next time we came across it.

But the whole “moving on with our lives” thing took a little longer with me in charge of the gates while Dad watched me flail, struggle, grunt, sweat and bleed before he opened the pickup door and put me out of my misery and I sheepishly returned to the passenger seat, my self-worth as a ranch kid sinking like my heart.

Oh, there are some gates on this place that are in dire need of work, making them easy to open. But you never really know what you’re going to get when you’re out there alone. Or worse yet, when the men in your life are watching you from the other side of the windshield.

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I’m sweating just thinking about it actually. And I’m thinking about it today because my husband and I had a recent discussion regarding the gate next to our house put there to keep the cows out.

I got it open, but couldn’t get it closed and so I accused him of stretching it too tight after I pushed and pulled and cussed the thing before finally giving up, marching to the house crafting a speech in my head about equal access, equal rights and calculating the costs of buying those fancy metal gate closers for every gate on this place. Or at least some rope.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” my darling husband calmly replied after I delivered my address. “That’s one of the easy ones.”

I guess if I want to take matters into my own hands out here, I’ve got to… well… take matters in my own hands.

If you need me, I’ll be at the fleet store loading up my cart.

Closing Gate

Shifting winds of confidence…

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Shifting winds of confidence
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Some days, if the wind is just right and I’m the proper amount of sleep-deprived, I can convince myself that I’m a rock-star cowgirl who has this work, ranching, cattle and kid-raising situation under control.

Like last weekend when I was helping sort cows into the chute for medicine, for example. I was following the cattle down the alley with a sorting stick yelling “Whoop, whoop, c’mon girls, hya, hya, hya!” feeling strong and capable. When they loaded right into the chute and I grabbed the rope to close the gate, climbed up on the fence for a head count (which we all know is the most important thing, really) and then hopped back down to do it all over again, I had a brief moment where I thought, “Well, this is the life. I can do this. I was made for this.”

But that confidence? Well, it comes in waves. Or, because we’re in North Dakota, more like gusts.

Because just as soon as the wind blows my neckerchief the right way so that I start feeling like the underdog ranch hand in a John Wayne movie finally getting the respect I deserve, the wind shifts and covers me in a nice, authentic layer of dirt and cow poop better known as a reality check.

But I’m nothing if I’m not diverse in my experiences. Sometimes, in the course of two days, I feel like I’m five different people.

Last weekend I started my morning off as snuggly-booger-wiping-Mom, moved on to pony-riding-lesson-Mom in the afternoon

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and then I loaded up my guitar to be a singer-in-the-big-town at night.

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Then I headed home in the dark so I could get up early to be pancake-making-Mom in the morning, cow-chasing-Mom in the afternoon and supper-making-dishwashing-deadline-meeting-bedtime-story-lullaby-singing-Mom in the evening.

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And maybe that’s where the whole problem lies in the first place, now that I think of it. Maybe there are just too many things weighing on my mind for me to properly and swiftly react to the angry, pregnant, half-ton cow lowering her head and running toward me in the sorting pen while my husband tries to find his voice to warn me.

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“Surely she isn’t coming for me?” I wondered to myself in the half a second I had to think about the meaning of my life. “Surely she’ll go around this rock-star cowgirl who has her life under control. Seriously, everyone underestimates my capabilities. I was born to do this. It’s in my blood. If I just wave my hands and yell ‘hya’ and…oh…my…g… RUN!”

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Yeah, some days, if the wind is just right and I’m the proper amount of sleep-deprived, I can convince myself I’m an underestimated rock-star-cowgirl-mom. And some days a 1,300-pound cow rams her giant, angry head into the bony part of my backside, sending me running for my life to the fence line and my husband into near cardiac arrest.

Because, like I said, this whole “under control” thing? Yeah, it comes in gusts.

And the sigh of relief I breathed when I reached that fence? Well, I just hope it shifted the winds and blew someone’s neckerchief the right way.

If you need me, I’ll be folding laundry and sitting on an ice pack.

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