How old stories help us hold on

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Coming Home: How old stories help us hold on

One of the best parts about sharing stories every week is that sometimes it compels others to share their stories, too, reminding me how closely strangers can be connected.

For the past few months I’ve been traveling on behalf of my new book, telling stories about crocus picking, old pickup driving and growing up on the back of my old mare.

Inevitably then, after the show, I get to hear a few of your own memories, the ones sparked by my recollection of sliding down the gumbo hill in the pouring rain in my pajamas, because—aw, you have a gumbo story of your own? One that started out with a pretty pink jacket bought to impress his family and ended with you and that pink jacket planted in the sticky mud after a too-close-for-comfort call with a rattlesnake den.

Yes, your boyfriend might have saved you from a nasty bite, but you never got over the ruined jacket.

I’ve never really thought about it before, but this is how I acquired a reverence for storytelling. It was all those afternoon coffee breaks I’d sit in as a kid, the ones where the neighbors would take their hats off after branding or a day spent fixing a stubborn part on the tractor again, and the recount of the things that went wrong during the day would spark a story about another time, a few years back, when a new spring opened up on the flat over the winter and he was loping along across that stretch and the ground just disappeared beneath that horse …

And that would remind my neighbor of a time they ran the outfitting business, and they were taking some guests on a ride through a narrow trail of the badlands and down slid their best horse with a dude on his back. It’s a story we all might have heard before, the ground becoming a little steeper with each re-telling, all the could-have-beens recounted over and over as they rehashed their gratitude that it all turned out OK in the end.

Good grief.

Thank God.

Can you imagine?

Last week I got a letter in the mail from a woman who used to help out a family friend who ran trail rides in the badlands for years. This is the ranch where our old Stormy spent years working as a trail horse, and after reading about how we recently lost him to the years, this woman felt compelled to write me to share with me her own memories of that spotted gelding. Included among her recollections was a photo of Stormy in his younger days, taking that cowboy through the sagebrush badlands. I put my hand to my mouth, surprised by the tears that caught in my throat as I folded up that letter, remembering that Stormy was someone else’s coffee-break story once.

Reminded, in a world that spins too quickly, stories are the only way we can really hold on.

Keep telling them.

On the backs of old horses

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Somewhere in time’s own space
There must be some sweet pastured place
Where creeks sing on and tall trees grow
Some paradise where horses go,
For by the love that guides my pen
I know great horses live again.
~Stanley Harrison

Life lessons learned on the backs of old horses
by Jessie Veeder
1-15-17
Forum Communications
http://www.inforum.com 

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Every farm or ranch needs an old horse, an animal with a long story of seeing it all so that he can be trusted with the smallest rider or the most inexperienced visitor who wants to see the place on horseback, a request that can be sort of nerve-wracking if you don’t have a trustworthy grandpa or gramma in the pen.

Because an old horse can make up in experience what your rider lacks. He won’t shy from that weird-shaped rock on the hill because he’s seen it a thousand times.

He won’t be spooked by a pheasant flying out of the brush because he’s too focused on stealing snips of sweet clover while he walks.

He won’t buck because he’s learned it doesn’t pay, and he won’t run off because he knows better and, frankly, he’s too tired for running.

Never been on the back of a horse?

An old horse will make you feel comfortable, anticipating the trail, avoiding the holes, calmly swishing the flies with his tail and generally ignoring the fact that your nerves are making you squeeze your legs too tight around him, your reins are too loose and dragging and you’re leaning a little too far to the left. There’s really nothing stopping him from walking back to the barn if he wanted.

But he won’t.

Because old horses know the right times to get away with bad behavior (tip: always lean forward when he takes you through the trees.)

I learned to ride on the back of an old red mare named Rindy. She was perfect for me in all the ways she was imperfect; her lack of withers and round belly made me pay attention to the cinch, her rough gait made me focus on my seat and her cowiness taught me to be cowy too.

And just when I thought things were going along smoothly, that old mare would throw in a little surprise, teaching me that paying attention is the first rule of horsemanship.

Anyway, Rindy has been gone for years, replaced by an old rodeo horse named Annie before Dad traded one of his colts for an old mule and a speckled trail horse named Stormy a few years before I moved back to the ranch.

Stormy became the grampa out here, deserving of every extra nibble of grain he ever received.

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He was the first horse I put all my nieces and nephews on when their legs were barely long enough to straddle the saddle.

Stormy was responsible for the truest faces of pure joy I’ve seen on any kids and that’s just one of the reasons I will forever be grateful for him.

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But that’s the thing about old horses: just when they’ve become so completely priceless and precious and irreplaceable, we start to notice the creak in their joints and the hair on their muzzle turning gray, a reminder that time doesn’t go easy on even the best things.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Stormy gave his last ride to my oldest niece this summer. We took off after supper just the two of us riding the home pasture, taking it slow, Stormy trailing a couple horse lengths behind me, the way he always has.

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It’s fitting really, because Stormy was the first horse my niece ever rode. I remember what she said before I hoisted her up on his back, her little straw hat with the pink piping sitting proudly on her head. “My tummy feels funny, like there’s flutters in there,” she declared.

Stormy taught her what nervous felt like, holding the power to turn a little girl into the cowgirl she dreamed she could be.

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And he was ready and waiting in the pasture when she was old enough and brave enough to go trotting over the hill alone, a story we revisit together often and one my niece will no doubt carry with her for her lifetime.

Because that’s what old horses give us and in return we carry their spirit in memories, stories, lessons learned and on the back of every horse we’ll ever ride again.

Rest easy, old friend. You were loved.

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How to make wild raspberry dessert

How to make wild raspberry dessert

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Step 1:
Wake up in the morning to a happy husband, a well-rested niece and a smiling baby. Snuggle the baby. Play and roll around with her on the floor. Put her in her high chair so she can feed herself blueberry puffs. Hear your husband say, “Man, it would be nice to have a blueberry muffin right now.” Remember you have blueberries in the fridge.

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Step 2:
Locate a blueberry muffin recipe with the help of your niece. Preheat the oven and read the directions while your niece mixes up the ingredients. Think that maybe bacon and eggs would go good with fresh blueberry muffins. Because you always have bacon in the house.

Step 3:
Proceed with the bacon cooking while blueberry muffins bake.

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Step 4:
Crack and fry some perfectly over easy eggs. Find a double yolker. Declare it good luck.

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Step 5:
Pour some orange juice, put the baby in her high chair, make a plate and gather around the table. Declare that Martha Stewart has nothing on you.

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Step 7:
Hear Pops say something about all the raspberries out in the pasture. Decide that they can’t all go to the birds.

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Step 6:
Put the dishes in the sink pull on your jeans and boots. Strap the baby to your chest, douse skin in bug spray and sunscreen and head out the door with your niece and the dogs. Declare it a beautiful morning. Declare that it’s sort of hot though.

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Step 7:
Peel your eyes for raspberries. Locate raspberries in the thorny brush below where the juneberries, bullberries and chokecherries grow. Watch the dogs disappear in and out of the brush patches chasing phantom rabbits and birds and taking a break from the heat. Find it funny.

(Chicken dinner for you if you can spot Dolly down there…)

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Step 8:
Send the niece in to the deep brush to get the fat berries.

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Check your back pocket for the baggie you brought along. Realize you dropped it somewhere. Take off your hat. Decide that will do.

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Step 9:
Pick a berry. Eat a berry. Put a berry in the hat. Swat a fly. Pull a thorn. Pick a berry. Eat a Berry. Put a berry in the hat.

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Step 10:
Repeat Step 9 like a hundred or so times.

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Step 11:
Check to make sure the baby strapped to your chest isn’t eating the berries too. Pick up the toy she dropped in the thick brush for the third time.

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Step 12:
Wipe the sweat. Pick a thorn out of the niece’s hand. Eat a berry. Check your stash. Wonder if that’s enough to make anything. Declare it officially hot out now. Eat a berry. Climb the hill to the teepee rings to catch some breeze.

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Step 13:
Realize the baby dropped the toy again and now it’s out in the wild pasture to be found 100 years from now, along with all Pops’ missing gloves and tools.

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Step 14:
Head back to the house, noticing the beautiful wildflowers along the way.

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Step 15:
Strip off your clothes and check for ticks. Strip off the baby’s clothes and check for ticks. Put her on the floor to play.

Step 16:
Rinse the berries.

Step 17:
Eat a few more

Step 18:
Look up some recipes online for raspberry dessert, trying for the perfect concoction that doesn’t interfere with the integrity of the raspberry.

Step 19:
Eat a couple more raspberries.

Step 20:
Deny every suggested recipe found…

Step 20:
Decide that there is no dessert you can make that tastes as good as a wild raspberry itself.

Step 21:
Eat more raspberries

Step 22:
Have lunch. Put the baby down for a nap. Putz around the house. Wait for Husband to get home..

Step 23:
Give the baby a bath. Put her in her robe. Decide she looks like an adorable old man. Feed her something yummy. Rock her to sleep.

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Step 24:
Grill brats. Eat on the deck.

Step 25:
Leave the dishes for the husband.

Step 26:
Go Riding

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Step 27:
Declare it a beautiful night.

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Step 28:
Listen to your niece tell you stories and wonder where the time went and when she grew up so quickly.

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Step 29:
Head back to the barn. Let the horses out. Walk to the house. Strip down. Check for ticks.

Step 26:
Eat some raspberries.

Step 27:
Declare it a good day.

Step 28:
Sleep tight. Good night.

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An old story

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Pops turned 60 on Tuesday.

A few weeks ago we had a big birthday party for him, complete with noodle salads and dessert, music on the porch, BYOB and a big board of embarrassing photos his sister drug out of the archives and presented.

My Aunt K. is the family historian. And now that she’s newly retired, she has the time to dedicated to embarrassing her brother just like in the olden days.

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Anyway, this week his brother is up from Texas and they are fixing fences, riding through cows and catching up.

I love it when family comes to the ranch. I especially love it when we’re around the supper table or chatting over drinks on the deck and old stories come up about the time when they were kids and their dad had a load of bulls on the truck in a cattle rack and forgot to latch the dump chain, successfully delivering the entire load of Charolais bulls on their butts in the yard.

“It was a pile of white bovine flesh,”* said Uncle W.

“And dad got out of the truck and started swearing and kicking at the chickens,” said Pops.

“And mom probly saw the whole thing from the kitchen window, but there was a back door on that house and she probly hightailed it outside to the garden…”

And there’s a million more where that came from.

But here’s one that Aunt K. told the night of the party about my dad as a little boy. I can’t remember how old now, but I imagine him seven or so, brown hair, brown skin, chubby cheeks and husky jeans.

He was riding in the car on the highway with his dad and spotted a road kill raccoon likely on its way to resembling a furry pancake due to its high traffic position on the road.

And he made his dad pull over so that the little seven-year-old version of my dad could scoop up that poor flattened soul and put it in a plastic bag.

“I know that animals get hit out here,” he explained to his father. “But it just isn’t right to let people keep running over him like that.”

And so his dad drove the tiny savior and the poor varmint his son scraped up back to the ranch where he received a proper burial.

And if that story doesn’t sum up what type of man he is, well then, I don’t know what else to tell you about the guy.

Except happy 60th dad. We love you.

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*the Bulls were fine 🙂 

Sunday Column: The boy on the hill

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Longtime blog readers might remember this story. I stumbled across it in the archives last week while I was revisiting some of my writing as I contemplate putting together a book.

Yes.  A book. Because I’m not sleeping anyway, so I might as well start another project.

Anyway, in those archives there’s lots about the weather and family and what the landscape looks like as it goes on changing every day.

And then there are little snippets of conversations, glimpses into our lives, past and present. These are my favorites.

Sunday Column: Family lore lingers around Sunday dinner table
by Jessie Veeder
3-20-16
Forum Communications
http://www.inforum.com

Most Sundays we get together with Mom and Dad for dinner. After a week of work and crazy schedules, one of us decides that someone should cook a decent meal, pour some wine and make us all sit down.

Recently, Dad shared a story about his childhood that I’m sure I’ve heard dozens of times before. But it doesn’t matter.

I want to exist in this 10-minute vignette of my father that somehow sums up everything he became here on this landscape.

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I love the way he tells it, sitting at the end of the table, plate pushed forward, arms folded, coffee brewing for dessert. He looks to the ceiling as if he might catch a glimpse of that little boy, 4 years old with curly black hair riding bareback on a paint pony alongside his father. He throws his head back, squeezes his eyes shut and laughs.

It’s fall or summer, he can’t remember, but I imagine the leaves were just starting to turn as the pair trotted out of the barnyard, the little boy on his father’s trail moving east toward the reservation where the cattle graze in the summer.

He’s not sure why his father took him along for an almost 7-mile one-way cross-country trip. He thinks now that it might have been a little extreme, but ask him then and it was all he wanted to do. Leave him behind? He would have tried to follow.

The pastures out east, even today, are some of the most isolated and untouched places out here. The rolling buttes rise and fall for miles between fences into creek bottoms with black mud and cattails. The oak groves, bordered by thorny bull berry brush and thistle, begin to blend into one another and look the same.

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So there he was, a little boy clinging tight to that pony as it jumped over the creek and raced up side hills to keep up. And it was at the top of one of those rocky hills that he was told to stay and wait.

“Don’t move,” his father said as he made plans to check the tricky creek bottoms for cattle. “I’ll come back for you.”

So my father waited on his pony, wind flopping his hat and moving fluffy clouds over the buttes.

Dad searches for more recollection in his coffee cup and then rests his chin on his fist. He remembers he didn’t move, he just scanned the hills and squinted into the oak trees. And while he was peering into that horizon, holding the reins of his pony, someone did come over that hill. But it wasn’t his father. It was a girl with long black hair and legs dangling on each side of her bare-backed horse.

“Can you imagine what she thought?” my father chuckles at the memory of this girl, who he recalls was a teenager, but was probably only about 10 or 11 years old.

She asked him if he was OK and if he was lost. He told her that he wasn’t supposed to leave this spot. That his dad was coming back for him.

So she stayed with that little boy with curly hair on that hilltop, likely joining him in holding her breath and scanning the horizon for any sign of a cowboy hat.

He doesn’t remember how long she sat with him. When you’re 4 years old, 10 minutes can seem like hours.

But it doesn’t matter. She stayed until that little boy had an escort through the valleys and over the creeks, back west to the barnyard and to his mother waiting with canned meat, biscuits and a report of the day’s events.

So he told his mother his adventure, and for years to come this would be one of their family’s stories shared over and over again at Sunday meals, about a little boy who found a girlfriend out east on the hilltop.

And as my father protested, they would throw back their heads, close their eyes and laugh.

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And the winner is…

Ok Ladies, today is the day I make the big announcement. Who won the FREE pair of RED ANTS PANTS?!

The anticipation is killing you I’m sure, but before I announce who won the drawing, I have to thank you for sharing your hilarious stories with me. These giveaways are my favorite because I get to hear from you, and, based on what I’ve seen here, I want all of you over for margaritas on the deck.

One of my favorites from my friend Diane:

Well I grew up in eastern North Dakota, not too many cowboys or cowgirls out there. So my senior year in the mid-60s I moved to western North Dakota and experienced cowboy boots, cowboy hats and chaps. It was like “seriously are all these people from Texas or what?” So this cowboy asked me for a date and he wanted to go riding horse all day…..Trying to be impressive of course I said yes, even though I was scared to death of horses as I had only been on a horse for a few seconds and had gotten bucked off before my hindend was even totally in the saddle. I thought I can do this, I can ride a horse, I can impress this cowboy, God forbid it can’t be that difficult. JEANS, never owned a pair or even thought about wanting any so I decided to put on my pretty polyester turquoise “stirrup” pants with my pretty turquoise angora sweater. After all I had to be impressive on this date. So bright and early in the morning I am riding off into the sun on this big “cowboy date” with my polyester stirrup pants, angora sweater and my tennis shoes. I was pretty proud of myself faking this cowgirl image all day, after all I didn’t even fall off or eat dirt. I even yelled giddy-up and whoa-Nellie a few times with sort of a half-way smile on my face. If I remember right I think the horse’s name was Lightening or something like that but Nellie sounded better, made me feel safer up there in that saddle. We rode and we rode and I bounced and I bounced and then we rode and we rode some more and I bounced and I bounced some more the whole darn day. I was lagging behind a lot and I kind of noticed that I seemed to be bouncing more than him as I could not see daylight under him at all, but I was still in the saddle so I was cowgirling up. It was starting to get dark so we headed back to the corral to end my first horseback riding date. I did not dismount that horse I actually fell off that horse onto my knees and could not get up, nothing worked it was all numb, including the hindend that bounced all day. My legs would not hold me up and my knees were like rubber and there I Iayed, my beautiful turquoise angora sweater in the dirt. Cute, real cute. I think I laughed, I probably did, I have a habit of laughing in weird embarrassing situations, it is better than crying in weird embarrassing situations. When the numbness wore off some he helped me up like a good cowboy would and I was brushing off my turquoise stirrup pants trying to be nonchalant about it all and realized the backend was about totally missing. Yupper there was not a half a spool of thread left in the backend of those polyester pants from bouncing all the darn day. Ok the laughing stopped wondering how I was going to get home without turning around. Darn I missed those pants. Now I knew why cowgirls wear jeans…….Oh and just a little FYI he did marry me later……………..

If you haven’t yet, visit the original post The Pants Situation (and a PANTS GIVEAWAY) and read the rest of the stories for yourself in the comments section, visit these blogs and talk amongst yourself. I mean, really, I think you will all be friends.

And I think it’s clear that we all see a need here, based on the blown out butts, inner thigh rub, butt crack, man-pants, suspender situations I’ve heard from you. So, if you don’t happen to be the winner of the pants,  you should go visit the Red Ants Pants website and see if you cant find yourself a pair. I mean, seriously, some women have been wearing these pants for years without mishap! Think of it as an investment.

Ok, I’m going to announce the winner now.

But first, another example of me in unfortunate pants.

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Now, the winner, drawn out of one of Husbands crusty old hats is… drumroll please…

Ashley M-K with
www.dairyinnovation.wordpress.com 

Ashley says this:

Gah! I would love to try these pants. I have a total lack of thigh gap. I am a very slender woman but I have thighs and without a doubt, I will wear a hole in the crotch first on all my pants. And then I keep wearing them until I blow the butt out in them. And yes, I am totally guilty of buying cheap jeans but I just can’t seem to make a pair of $60 jeans last any longer than a $15 pair. And girl, don’t even get me started on day long wedgies……

No more wedgies for you girl!

I’ll be in touch on how to redeem your new Red Ants Pants!

Thanks for the fun girls. I seriously love you and admire the work you’re doing out there!

Stay classy now!

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Boot Stories (PRIZE ALERT!)

I’m not sure if I remember my first pair of boots. I might have had a pair or two of hand-me-downs before I got to the red ropers with the scuffs on the toes. Of course, they didn’t come with the scuffs on the toes, but that’s the only way I remember them.

I was probably seven or eight when I opened the box and tried them on. Boots in our childhood were a purchase thought out carefully by my parents. They had to fit well. They had to last. They had to polish up for 4-H horse shows and they had to come off and let us loose if we got our foot hung up in the stirrup.

We didn’t go riding in lace-ups.

Sometimes I would wear those red boots to school, but mostly I would save them for riding. I was a particular child and I believed there was a particular dress code for things.

Apparently bright and buttoned up to the top was one of my rules for public appearances…

Anyway, as my feet grew, I would tuck my old boots away at the back of the closet for my little sister and dad and I would head to the store to pick out my next pair. I’m not sure why, but the memory of the boot-picking-out-process with my dad is one that stuck with me.

Maybe it was because shopping in farm and fleet stores was the only kind of shopping the two of us ever really did together, but there was something about the smell of the leather standing next to my father staring at a wall full of boots in every shape, size and color that was both comforting and confidence building.

I think it was justification that I was his helper, his right hand man, and he needed to make sure I had the right gear.

There isn’t much gear more important to a cowboy than his boots.

And the choice in boots was never made on looks alone. No. It was brand and quality of the leather. It was height of the heel and comfort of the fit. It was a toe not too pointy and a sole not too thick. It was flexibility and durability and practicality.

Luckily, back then, I was a Plain Jane sort of girl. Anything flashy or frilly was for Rodeo Queens, and, despite the pair of hand-me-down yellow western pants I got from the neighbor, I was no Rodeo Queen.

Clearly…

In fact, once my feet quit growing, I wore a maroon pair of Ropers until the duct tape that I used to repair them wore off and a friend who borrowed them lost them at a rodeo.

If it weren’t for her I’d probably still be wearing them. I think she probably did me a favor there.

Anyway, I don’t have to tell you how times have change me. No. You are all well aware of my affinity for boots. We’ve talked about it before.

And while my life still calls for a plain brown riding boot with a good heel, I believe it also calls for a vintage red pointed toe with a cream lace detail top, perfect for under my wedding dress.

I also must have the the tall gray snip toe with a lace butterfly detail to show off with black pants and a flowy top. And then there’s the pale brown pair with the embroidered tops that I wear with sundresses.

Oh, and the black pair with the lizard skin inlay and the killer toe that I squeeze into a few times a week because they were a gift from my husband a few Christmases ago and I was too excited to worry about things like the correct size.

And then the chocolate brown pair with the turquoise and red detail I convinced my mom to buy that have somehow found a home in my closet…

Yes. It might be the hat that makes the man, but I think it’s the boots that make the woman.

Which brings me to the reason I brought this all up in the first place. Are you ready for it?

See, I’ve got plenty of stories I could tell that involve a great pair of boots, but I want to hear yours. And so do my good friends over at Rocky Boots.

So guess what?!

I am giving away a free pair of Rocky Boots (your choice) to one of you, my loyal, beautiful followers. 

 FREE BOOTS!!!!

If that doesn’t make your heart race like seeing a cowboy bending over a branding fire, I don’t know what will…

FREE BOOTS FROM ROCKY!!

Sorry, I don’t get to use that phrase very often. Had to do it again.

Anyway, all you have to do to get in the running for the prize is leave me a comment with a story involving your favorite pair of boots. Now ladies and gentlemen, I know you’re not all out there donning cowboy boots, so that’s not the rule.

They can be rubber boots, shit-kickers, snow boots, hunting boots, hiking boots, knee-high dancing boots or the ones that got away for all I care, just tell me why you love them or why the memory is so sweet and I will put your name in the hat for a free pair of your choice from Rocky.

Now Rocky sells outdoor, duty, work and western boots, so there’s truly something for everyone here.

Me? I’ve got my eyes on these babies.

Anyway..here’s how to enter.

  • Tell me about your favorite boots in the comments on This Blog Post Right Here
  • Or leave your story as a comment at facebook.com/veederranch
  • And since we’re having so much fun here, I’d love to see some photos! Tweet or Instagram your favorite boots shots using #rockybootstories. These entries will be counted toward the free boot drawing too!You can find me on both Instagram and Twitter as @VeederranchThen head over and show Rocky Boots some love!
  • Facebook.com/rockygear
  • Twitter: @rockygear
  • Instagram @rockyboot

    Rocky Logo_PrimaryThe drawing will be held and announced next Wednesday where I will feature some of my favorite photos and stories right here on the old bloggity blog!

    This is fun stuff folks! Can’t wait to hear (or see) where your boots have taken you!

Dancing.

Sometimes my job as a writer brings me to stories I am not looking for, but grateful to have found.

I visited a small town yesterday in the center of my state. In the middle of a freshly planted corn fields and along the railroad tracks cattle grazed, a construction crew pounded nails into a new roof on a sleepy Main Street building and a group of community members gathered in a small diner, opened especially for my visit to learn about their town.

We sat around a rectangle table on diner chairs in the back of the restaurant. The room was full of local men and women who were there to talk about dairy farming and population decreases, rural living and 4-H programs, the weather and how kids these days don’t understand that chickens don’t have nuggets.

I wrote down their names and got snippets of their stories: the retired school teacher, the cook, the woman from Wisconsin, the fifth generation dairy farmer.

I thanked them for their time as they dispersed after our visit to the t-ball game down the road, to check the cattle, to cook dinner or lead a 4-H group.

But as I was rushing toward the door, checking my watch and calculating what time I would land in bed if I left now and stopped quickly at the grocery store in the big town along the way, I heard a voice say, “And one more thing…”

I turned around to find that voice attached to a man in a clean pressed shirt and suspenders, holding his white feed store hat with green trim in front of him as he spoke. It was the man who sat across from me during our interview. The man with kind eyes and the daughter who was a dairy farmer.

He had something more to tell me.

And this is what it was:

My first train ride out of here was when I was nineteen. Boy was that a ride! You hear how the train moves along the tracks, squeaking and bumping along? That’s how it was on the inside, riding along like that for days.
In those days the train came through here often to pick up passengers.
It took me to the service.
The Korean War.

I anticipated his next thought and he caught me off guard when I noticed a bit of a sparkle in his eyes. He gripped his cap a little tighter. I leaned in.

He smiled big and broad and looked young as he told me…

I was lucky. They sent me to Germany and, well, my family is German. It was my second language. So boy did I have a time! I think I wore out my first pair of boots dancing.
I was a cook see, and in the evenings I would go out and, well, the girls, they asked
you to dance. They did! 

I was a little nervous at first, being there with all their men sitting along the bar. I asked them if they were sure, if there would be trouble, but they said go ahead and dance.
They wanted to sit and drink, see. 
The girls wanted to dance!  And I was young and fit and I would dance.

I was lost there in that memory with him. I wanted to be those girls, I wanted him to show me his dance steps. I wanted to know him when his eyes were young.

Young, but not any more full of life than they were at that moment.

Oh, I just I loved it. I would dance all night. 

With that he pulled his cap down over his gray hair.  I thanked him for the story and he thanked me for the time.  He held the door open for me and walked me to my car parked next to those railroad tracks, the steel lines disappearing in the distance a constant memory of the young man who took the train out of North Dakota and came home with boots worn from dancing.

 

Winter Optimist vs. Snowshoes vs. January in ND

January. Oh January. A challenging month for even the most optimistic North Dakotan. One could easily throw in the towel around here, especially with the uncharacteristic snow accumulation we have seen already this winter, but most of us stick around.

Or go to Jamaica for a couple weeks.

Some people do this.

Wusses.

But the glass-half-full individuals, we put on another layer and say things like “Wow, that snow…hard to drive in it, but gorgeous isn’t it?”

or “Whew, it’s cold out there…great day for chicken noodle soup.”

And my favorite

“Halfway through. Once we get through January, it’s all downhill…spring’s just around the corner.”

I imagine these phrases come out of the mouths of the residents of our neighboring states (oh, and Canada) in all directions, in our typically northern accents, patting one another on the back while brushing snow out of our hair and stomping our feet on the rug, cheeks rosy from the bite of the wind.

Yes North Dakota Januarys bring out the true colors of our people:  the Jamaican cruisers, the Arizona dwellers, the optimists and the people who are not phased  who expect it and keep their mouths shut and Carharts on. There are the non-natives that are so damn cold they can’t keep the coffee coming in fast enough. There are the natives that love it because every new inch brings a new story about a neighbor they had to pull out of the ditch or the challenges of getting the cows fed or how the Schwann’s man got stuck in their yard and didn’t even offer a complimentary package of corn dogs for all the trouble you went to in digging the southerner out…twice.

But always, no matter who is residing in this, picking up their children from school, breaking ice, enjoying winter sports, there is astonishment at how it can possibly keep snowing and how it ever was summer.

Ever.

And then the stories, the comparison from winter to winter come rolling in.

“This is bad, but not as bad as the winter of ’77. Or ’96.”

“Do you remember last Christmas when we couldn’t even get our doors open?”

Or

“I heard (insert name of town forty to fifty miles away) got another 10 inches.  Can you imagine? Boy we were lucky.”

These are conversations you will hear in every diner, in every gas station while you are pumping your gas and shifting your weight back and forth against the cold, in line at the bank, by the cheese section in the grocery store, or at coffee with your neighbors.

Oh, I love it. The drama of this season.

For me, a self proclaimed winter optimist who has uttered the aforementioned phrases, I have to confess at times this season (and this month especially) make me feel a bit like a recluse. Like, all I want to do is wrap myself in a blanket and write songs about how cold I am and how much I love the warm body in bed next to me and chicken noodle soup and coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon and warm baths and my  snow suit and neckerchief.

Yes, winter has typically been my creative time, not sure why, but I think it forces me to get inside my own head and listen…either that or take a nap. Cause it’s so damn quiet out here.

Anyway, I can’t remember if I told you or not, but for Christmas I received a shiny new pair of snowshoes from my in-laws. I have great in-laws.

I got snowshoes and husband got a kayak and now I am torn between wishing the summer to hurry and come back or the winter to stay…because we have toys.

We’ve never really had toys.

Anyway, since no amount of wishing will warm up this world and even though we are tempted to take a run down the nearest snow-covered hill in the new kayak, we know better. So I have so been enjoying exploring our winter wonderland in my snowshoes. Which seems like a safe winter activity. Much safer than thrusting a body attached to skis down a mountain at great speeds…or you know, doing the same in a little canoe type thing…

So the snowshoes are marvelous. I can go places on the ranch that I can’t even go in the summer because of unruly vegetation and mushy creek beds. I put those things on and I feel like Jesus, impossibly walking on the ocean’s water…only my ocean is white and cold and the waves don’t move the same way.

I attached my winter body to the fantastic contraptions for the first time last week and laughed with evil glee as my pups fell through snowbanks and frolicked and fell and tumbled headfirst into drifts while I effortlessly glided on up and over and down and around, like Jesus…wait, I think I used that already…well anyway, you get the point…

And I could go on and on, but I want to tell you a quick story about how snowshoes seem like a great idea, especially when you are on a mission to get in shape and actually be useful on the ranch. They are a wonderful invention that turns an inconvenient pile up of snow into a grand and beautifully daring adventure, and a way to get around the place to check things out, until you forget that the temperature gauge dangling outside your window does not report windchill and halfway through your trip to find the horses, which turned up a lot of footprints and turds, but no actually horses, you discover that the snot that has been plaguing your nostrils the entire trip (as snot does in cold weather) is actually not snot at all.

Because it is blood.

It is blood and it is gushing down your face and onto your scarf and staining the white snow. And just moments before you discovered this new turn of events you felt you were a bit tired, but could make it the mile back to the house with little effort. Because you are an outdoors woman. This winter is no match for you and your snow suit and your muscles.

But now there is blood.

Now there is blood and you quickly become aware that you are indeed alone out there in the wilderness. You think you might freeze to death.

Alone.

Because there is blood.

And you are cold and cannot possibly go one more step. And your feet are heavy. And you are sinking in the snow. You know you are sinking in the snow. What? Aren’t these snowshoes supposed to keep you up on this stuff? LIKE JESUS?!

Oh Martha Stewart, the house is far.

And there is blood…why…why…why?!!!!

The beautiful, snow-covered trees that you were photographing without a care in the world just moments before suddenly become obstacles  looming just to get in the way of your safety.

Those drifts so deep, your feet so heavy, the dogs no help at all…those dogs just carrying on, sniffing each other chasing birds all happy and free like there is no one bleeding out here!!!

Oh lord there is blood and the house is so far away…

…those damn horses…

…damn exercise…if you ever make it back alive you vow to stay snuggled up on the couch where normal people belong in the winter. Who do you think you are? A mountaineer?

No. You decide you are not a mountaineer. You are a pale, pasty woman with noodle arms who belongs in the house writing songs about warm blankets and soup and love, not out here like some kind of crazy adventurer…

…you put your hand to your face…

…still bleeding…still blood…still the potential to die…or faint and then freeze to death and then die….

…you trudge up the hill, you stop to make sure you’re still alive.

And you are.

You are alive and you eventually make it home, sweaty and bloody and panting with the panic of it all. You make it home and realize, to your relief,  that the funeral plans you made for yourself on the long, bloody trudge home can be written down and saved for the next near death experience…which you are certain you will never have because you are never leaving home again…

Home.

Where the horses and one mule are standing right in front of your door licking the salt off your car and laughing at you and your bloody, crusty nose.

You may have even heard one of them call you a weirdo.

Probably.

Damn horses.

This may or may not have happened to someone, somewhere.

And it may be funny or tragic, depending on the level of your optimism.

Oh January, how you taunt me.

Be careful out there.

Love,

A Winter Recluse turned Mountaineer turned Recluse again