Drive Careful, Watch for Deer and other things we say here…

Drive carefully. Watch for deer. How was the drive? Is it icy? Blowing snow?

Leave early. Drive slowly. Check the weather. Call me when you get there. Call me when you leave. I’ll wait up for you. I’ll leave the light on.

In rural North Dakota, especially in the icy and volatile tundra that is the 17 months of winter, I grew up hearing these statements as a sort of language of love. Because to get to most anywhere we need to go, we have to consider the roads.

A 30-mile drive to school, work, groceries and the nearest gas station. A 90-mile drive to a big-box store or an airport. A 140-mile drive to a specialty doctor or to have a baby near a NICU, to get your wisdom teeth removed, a treatment for your cancer or, sometimes, before Amazon delivered the world to your door, just to find the right size of envelope or diapers.

How are the roads?

My little sister just texted me that question as I arrived in town and she’s making plans to bring her girls to gymnastics later this afternoon. It rained all day yesterday, right on top of the ice and snow, and then, just to be dramatic, the wind blew all night at 40 mph.

The fact that the roads between the ranch and town were just fine was some sort of weather phenomenon, ruining any excuse I might have been able to scrounge up for why I barely got Edie to kindergarten in time. And why I forgot my workbag with my computer in it and basically everything I needed for a long day in town. It wasn’t the roads. It’s just me. It’s just me in the middle of winter — frazzled, pale and distracted, trying to get two tired little children up out of their beds when it’s still dark outside.

Because what I think we’re really meant to be doing this time of year is eating a bottomless serving of straight-up carbs and hibernating. My word, it’s hard to fight nature these days. (I yawn for the 50th time in 10 minutes).

For the last three weeks, I’ve been back and forth from the ranch and across the state on these January roads, bringing my children’s book to libraries, schools and stores along the way. I’ve driven in blinding snow and clear skies, in the dark of the early morning and the quiet of late nights, on patchy ice, highways wet with cold rain, by snowdrifts and through snowdrifts, into the sun and away from it, past big trucks stuck in ditches and moms like me pulled over in SUVs, and snowplows, and semis hauling cattle and giant wind turbine blades and crosses along highways and interstates, lit up with solar lights or decorated with flags and flowers or a high school jersey reminding us that, when we’re moving this fast — blur-shaped people on wheels at 80 mph, trying to keep a schedule, to get there on time, to get home for supper or homework or bedtime — it only takes a split second for the whole plan to change.

And that’s why we ask. That’s why we wait up. That’s why we tell you to watch for the deer or the moose or the ice or the snow or the wind or the rain. That’s why we tell you to drive safe. Please. Drive safe. Because it’s the only way to feel we have a semblance of control of these miles we need to trek on stretches of highways, interstates and back roads that are equal parts freedom and fear.

The moving, it’s always been hazardous for humans. It’s not new to these times we’re living in, the walking or riding across uncharted landscapes or well-worn trails. Handcarved boats with handsewn sails taking us out to a sea that angers easily or a river that goes from calm to raging just around the bend. If only all these years of evolution could protect us now from those unexpected waves. Sometimes we start to believe it can. So just in case, we say:

Drive safely.

Travel safe.

Sunday Column: School bus stop ahead

School Bus Stop Ahead

When you grow up alongside a gravel road, there are so many miles between where you are and where you’re going.

Many of those miles in my childhood were spent sitting next to my best friend on a dusty seat in yellow school bus #12.

This week’s column is about a man who spent the majority of his life behind the wheel of that bus, picking up country kids on time and at 7 am from farmyards and small houses along those gravel roads and bringing them safely to school, in the heat of late summer, through plenty of blizzards and then splashing along the melt and mud of spring when school was out.

The kids on George’s bus didn’t mis-behave much. And if we did, he didn’t yell.

He just tapped on the breaks so that those of us who were standing up got a little warning jolt.

That’s all we needed. A little warning jolt.

I guess that’s what George’s recent death was to me. George, a legendary character on this changing landscape, a man who drove bus for my dad and both of my sisters, my cousins and neighbors, the kind of man they don’t make anymore, left us here to navigate these roads and get to school on time without him.

George. What a guy, that George.

Coming Home: Bus driver taught lessons that stick with us as adults
by Jessie Veeder
Fargo Forum



Momentum. Forward motion. Moving.

I have been thinking about the act quite a bit lately as I have been guiding my car through back roads and highways, my feet along cattle trails and off to cut my own path.  The act of moving forward, in any capacity, whether it’s walking, riding or driving, is what I envision the stream of consciousness to look like: sweaty, breathing, flushed, meandering or running in a straight line following a bird, a path, a rainbow or nothing in particular.

Because there is something about covering ground that propels not only your body, but your mind. It frees it up a bit, opens it. And even when there is somewhere else to be, a dot at the end of the map, a destination, there is something about the space between point A and point B that takes on a life of its own entirely–the space where you can’t go anywhere but forward. Where time ticks away with the miles.

I drove across the state on Tuesday. 350 or so miles from the northeast corner to west. It was a beautiful day, the sun was shining and the wind was blowing across the flat landscape. The road I was following was completely unfamiliar to me as I headed in the direction of home. I had my radio blaring familiar music, music that I could sing along with and softly  I mumbled through words I have forgotten only to crescendo as I was reminded of the ones I always knew. I rolled down the windows. I sipped coffee. I adjusted and readjusted my visor and my sunglasses. I put a stick of gum in my mouth.

My mind wandered and I found myself back on all of the unfamiliar roads I have traveled during the time I was on the road with work and music. In pieces those moments flashed in and out of my memory–the toll booths on my way from Fargo to Chicago in the early daylight hours, my eyes heavy from the unexpected miles.  The long stretches of yellow lines on the interstate in Kansas. The blacktop backroads on my way to a small Wisconsin college town. The bridges that confused me in Green Bay. The antelope infested stretch in South Dakota. The mountains that unexpectedly jutted out as I hit Boise. The white-out road that welcomed me home to North Dakota and forced me to spend one spring night in my car along the interstate.

While I remembered parts of my life that weren’t significant enough to make it out of my mouth and into stories to friends and family, the miles carried me forward and turned me onto a highway I have taken home hundreds of times. And while I sped between its straight lines it was as if someone was playing DJ and handpicking the soundtrack that came through the car speakers and into my conscious to help me replay the events I moved away from and back into during the time I spent on the pavement that stretched out in front of me. Pavement I haven’t been on for years. The songs and the road and the setting sun bounced off of my aviator glasses as I thought of beer, coffeehouse gigs, sidewalks in my college town, movie theatre trips to pass the time, crying from pure loneliness, a future naively hopeful and wanting so bad to be somewhere else.

My tires hummed along as I watched the sun dip down a little further, changing from gold to pink to red and I thought about the idea of wishing to be gone. How I used to exist in that thought, in that wish, so passionately. Driving toward the horizon I suddenly felt a little uneasy, like I needed to begin constructing plans for what was next. That I couldn’t just move through the miles thinking about what could have been, but concentrate on what is now and what could be so great.

I started constructing plans for what was next. Ideas passed through my mind like a slide show, progressing with each mile marker, playing themselves out as the sky turned from red to black and headlights flashed in my eyes. But by the time the landscape started to roll a bit, after I crossed the big lake and the road began to wind the unease calmed and I settled into my thoughts, sorted them out in my head, planted some and let others fly away when I flung open the doors of my car to breathe in the familiar air of the ranch–wet grass and dirt and horse hair.

When my husband and I moved to the ranch when we were first married, we weren’t ready to be here. We weren’t ready to plant our lives. We had more to see, more to do and be. We didn’t understand yet that we did not have to hang up our wings to exist on this landscape.

And the best thing we could do for ourselves make the decision to leave. Because time was always something we understood. Time and the knowledge that only we have the power to change the way we feel, the way we live.

So we left. That dream we had since we were twelve or thirteen was staring us in the face, but our  arms weren’t open, so we left it there, alone.

To know that you can always move, to know that you have an option of a road, an option of your feet to take you where you don’t even know you need to go is one of the greatest freedoms.  That is what my husband taught me.

That is what we taught each other.

That we can always move. That we have hands to hold and feet and roads that are there to lead us anywhere we want to go.

And those hands, those feet, that longing to fly, those same roads brought us back here. When we were ready. When we understood that sometimes freedom isn’t always about leaving…

sometimes freedom is choosing to stay.

That’s what bikes are for.

All this talk about roads got me thinking about my bike, which has been leaning up against the shop all summer after being taken out of hiding in the shed in Dickinson earlier this summer. It has been sitting there, with slightly flat tires, so sad looking, pouting, asking me to come out and ride. I turn my head in guilt when I walk outside…try not to look it in the eye. There has been so much to do this summer, like packing, unpacking, packing, unpacking and then, of course, frolicking around the ranch on horseback and on foot. I actually kind of forgot about my bike.

Which is really sad considering how much I used to absolutely live on the thing. I am sure most everyone can remember their first bike as a right of passage. A gift. One more step to freedom because, not only could you get from point A to point B a little bit faster, you could now officially leave your little sister/brother in the dust and set off into new, undiscoverable horizons (or at least to the end of the block and back).

And isn’t it a shame how quickly we forget the initial absolute thrill of the bicycle as soon as we get behind the wheel of our first car? After we have gone through all of the phases of the bike: riding in the seat behind our mother, the training wheels on, the training wheels off, the streamers on the handle bars, the basket on the front (although, I never had any of these features…my first bike was blue and I’m sure it was made for a boy). Then we learned to ride with only one hand, then with no hands, and then, wow, we could coast along with no hands and no feet. And that was amazing, really. I mean we mastered the thing, so we put a clothespin and card in the spoke to fool anyone in a mile radius I’m sure, that we were not on a boring bike, but riding a so much way cooler moped.

By that time, then, we were probably already practicing for our first drivers test, parallel parking between the lawn mower and a bag of grass seed, learning to work a clutch and a stick shift and use our blinkers and giving our parents mini-heart attacks. And I am sure all of you passed the test on the first attempt and were on to the next phase of your young adulthood. I may or may not have had to take my test a couple times…

It’s a natural transition I suppose, so I thank the Lord in heaven that He finally had mercy and allowed me to pass my drivers test or it would have been a lonely and tiring high school career. Because having to ride my bike thirty miles to town and then back again would have made an awful discouraging dent in my social life.

Which reminds me of what I was going to say about life on a bike out here as a kid in the middle of nowhere. See, it was quite a bit different than the bike experience of the town kids. They actually used their piece of glorious metal on two wheels to get somewhere–like the pool, school, the video store, anywhere you get ice cream or candy or to set up their lemonade stand and make millions.

Our lemonade stands didn’t fare so well out here along the open highway. We made some money, but now I am sure our parents called the nearest neighbor and had them “randomly” drive by, only stop and pay $10 for a styrofoam cup of weak lemonade. Hey, we were just happy to have a customer that wasn’t related to us.

Anyway, my best friend and I were the only kids for miles on bikes and we used our cruisers to meet half way between our houses, which were about a mile apart. This half-way agreement actually never really worked out for me because there happened to be a huge, steep, daunting hill coming out of our yard, so I spent the majority of the time pushing my way up. But she would wait for me at the top and we would hit the highway, weaving in and out of the yellow, dotted line, gossiping about our little sisters, complaining about our parents and making plans for our next project while we cruised back and forth between the boundaries of the two cattle guards. And sometimes we would stop at her house to get a popsicle and jump on the trampoline and sometimes we would make our way down the big hill to my house to have a glass of water and venture off into the trees to gather juneberries and wood ticks.

But most of the time we would just ride out there on the open prairie as the wind played with our fluffy, youthful hair, tied back loosely in hasty ponytails. We would stand and pedal hard up the steep hills, breathing heavily and then squeal and throw our heads back as we flew down to the bottom. Without a care. From a birds eye view I was sure we looked like we were flying as we were gliding gracefully on that ribbon of blacktop. We sure felt like it.

And, no, we didn’t really go anywhere. We didn’t have change jingling in our pockets to buy some tootsie rolls or a backpack with a towel and sunscreen so we could make a stop at a pool. Our adventure wasn’t interrupted by these things, which gave us time to think about really important stuff–like inventing a bug shield to protect our faces from the critters that slammed into our eyes and got in our teeth when zooming through the tall grass at astronomical speeds. I think we actually executed this invention with a little sister’s bike helmet and a ketchup bottle. Screw the lemonade stand, there was our millions right there.

Yes, we had no one out there, but the black top and gravel roads and an occasional little sister yelling “wait for me” in our dust. And those were my glory days really. That was true freedom.

So last night the pink road and my relatively new, pink big girl bike got together and called my name loud enough that I finally obliged and husband and I hit the trail. I excitedly climbed on the first bike I have owned in my adult life (which I  purchased when we lived in town with every intent to ride it to work or the store–you know, to get me somewhere) and I made my wobbly way up the hill and out of the yard. Husband cruised up ahead, cruising in and out of the ditches and practicing his wheelies. I worked to balance my camera and take some action shots and discovered that the phrase “it comes back to you, just like riding a bike” is true to an extent, but may require more practice as I slammed on the breaks and nearly launched myself over the handlebars and into the hard gumbo of the road ditch.

Maybe I should just concentrate.

And after a few test runs with the brakes and switching gears, soon I was twelve again, and so was my husband. We quickly veered off of the main road and up the prairie trail, past where I jumped off of my horse and broke my arm, past the hay yard, up through the alfalfa field, past the swather and the perfectly constructed hay bales. We flew down through the coolies and panted and stood up in the pedals as we pushed our bodies up the hills and along the fence lines. We gasped for air, nervously flung our hands to the sky and threw our heads back as we sped through the clover and over the bumps in the now nonexistent trail. I screeched with sheer joy as I caught air over a cow pie and nearly  crashed to the ground. He chuckled as the dogs ran too close ahead and almost caught a tire in their tails. And the horses, not accustomed to this type of activity, spooked and went running and bucking across the pasture, only to return again and again to see really, what these people were up to.

What were we up to anyway? We weren’t going anywhere. We weren’t checking the time or taking our heart rate or working on building our muscles. We weren’t being careful or quiet or slow to take in nature, stopping to smell the flowers or to enjoy the breathtaking scenery. We were obnoxious really, screaming and laughing and laying down grass and pushing up dirt with our tires. We were hot and sweaty and itchy from the weeds scraping up against our bare legs. We were sucking in air as we bounced out of control out of the yard and over the horizon.

Because in that moment, the last fifteen years never happened and we were kids again for a bit, blissfully happy and youthful on our bikes, re-living our glory days and going nowhere, but going fast.

And we were free….

because that’s what bikes are for.

The pink road

There is a pink road that leads me to our house in the hills. I guess I always call it pink, but for those of you who are picky about color choices, you could refer to it as a salmon or a coral I suppose. Anyway, this pink road, or red road, or coral road is surfaced with a rock the locals call scoria. Scoria, or what the smarty pants geologists label clinker, is a form of natural brick formed in the landscape by strips of once burning lignite coal. (And that’s probably the only scientific fact you will hear from this woman for a long time, thank you very much Google).

Anyway, I always thought it was stunning–the vibrant road that winds its way through a landscape that changes from green, to yellow, to gold, to brown, to gray, to white and then back again.  And just like the landscape changes, so does the road it seems. In the spring it is at its best, perhaps because we missed it so much, buried under all of that snow for months. It slowly appears a vibrant, soaked deep maroon color digging its way out of the banks, emerging from under ice and puddles of mud. I splash around in it and, with windows rolled down, I zoom out of the yard and over the hills and off somewhere. As the sun warms up the world and the season changes to summer, the once soaked and cold road becomes hot under the rays and turns from deep red to a hazy pink as the rocks break up under the weight of our tires and our feet and the hooves of wild beasts. I drive slowly out of the yard, trying not to disturb it as a tail of dust stretches out behind me.

And then a summer storm passes through, and it looks like God took his favorite, sharp red crayon and drew a nice thin line right down the middle of the neon green grass and dark blue, rolling thunderheads off in the distance. Down through the cool draws and up on top of clover covered hilltops it bends and straightens, leaps and lands and stretches its arms, like the land is the road’s personal dance floor.

And I am the charter member of its fan club.

Because you may pass by it on your way to town, or to the lake, or to your relative’s farm, and not even glance at the subtle invitation to take a little trip with it. But I have will never refuse it again.

When I was really young, like four or five, I lived with my family in Grand Forks, ND. On my favorite weekends I would be lifted into my dad’s pickup by my little armpits and I would sit proudly alongside him as we made our way across the piece of pavement that stretched a good five or six hours across the great state and out to my grandparent’s ranch–our ranch. At four or five everything seems bigger and every travel adventure seems further and longer than it is in reality. When I was certain we had been in the pickup at least fifty-six hours, it was then I would start looking for the pink road that signified our arrival. With my nose smooshed to the window, I would watch for the white line to break and open itself up to the approach that welcomed me like an old friend.

“Are we there  yet?”

“How much longer?”

“When are we going to be there?”

And when we arrived on that stream of road, even at four or five I could breathe a sigh of relief, because even then, the road meant home to me.

But it also meant so much more. It meant comfort and adventure and family and my grandmother’s arms wrapped tight in a hug.

When we moved out here permanently as a family when I was in second grade, there was no more waiting and looking and asking when were we going to get there.

We had arrived.

And the road held my hand like an old friend as I wobbled on my first ten speed bike and followed it up the hill to my best friend’s house. It soaked up the blood from skinned knees and tears from lost dogs and hurt feelings. It created space between hurtful words exchanged among three very different and very frustrated sisters. It eaves dropped on my quiet, made up songs, scuffed my new shoes and laughed as the bottle calf chased us home from the barn after a feeding. It smiled sweetly as it lead me back to my mother after a couple short stints of running away. It welcomed me off of the school bus and happily took the brunt of my skid marks as I learned to drive.

And then slowly, the road began to change, taking on an entirely different meaning as I grew from a young girl to a teenager. Without me really noticing, it began to mean more to me going out than coming in. It meant escape, freedom, independence, civilization, relief and a chance at love. It didn’t recognize me anymore as I came and went in the mist of the early morning and the shadows of late nights. I didn’t frolic as much, but instead began to sneak and sulk and stomp.  I brought strangers home and they littered its ditches and the grass grew around my bicycle as I stepped on the gas to my new life and wasn’t so quiet about kicking up its dust.

But when the time came to leave, to really leave this place for a good long time, I closed the door to my bedroom, hugged my parents goodbye,  filled my trunk with memories and followed my old friend out into the world.

From the corner of my rearview mirror, I smiled a bit as the road waved at me from the hill top, always the last to say to say goodbye.

And the first to welcome me back.

So I am thinking about the road today because I think I owe it an apology. Because I feel a bit like an old friend who hasn’t picked up the phone to say hello for ages and then suddenly stops in for dinner, without warning. I want to bring it a casserole in Lutheran Lady fashion in an attempt to make amends and let it know that I am older now. That I understand.

Because I realize, in this moment, that I have learned something from this road after all of those years of watching it dance. See, the road never cut through a hill or plowed down the trees. It moved with the curve of the land and under the rhythm of our feet and trusted that it would meet up in the right way with something–a fork, a bend, an endless horizon–in the end.

The road trusted so much in the path it was taking that it changed color and texture to blend and bend and take the heat of our tires and our words and our plans to leave. It understood that just like the landscape changes, so do the seasons of the human spirit. And even as I spit on and kicked its stones and turned my wheel off of its path, my entire life the road was just trying to tell me to follow my feet.

So I am thankful today. Thankful for the road. Because after changing my shoes a few dozen times, knocking down doors, banging my head against the wall, digging holes in the dirt, speeding lazily along the interstate and sticking out like a water tower on the horizon, in all of my despair and frustration I closed my eyes tight and saw the road, waving like it did so many years ago.

And I finally stopped stomping and looked down to find my feet dancing on pink stones.

Listen to “This Road”-Jessie Veeder Live at Outlaws

This Road

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