Musings, North Dakota Living, Teaching

Teaching, Farming, Exasperating

Tomorrow night, the windchill might get to 50 below. I do love winter, but when I hear things like that, I still sigh a little bit as I see a picture on the wall of us all smiling on a beautiful harvest evening. Now that I live on our farm full time, I’ve gotten to know it more completely in all four seasons, from the 50 below, to a beautiful 82 above and beyond. I’ve also had a chance to see it become ingrained into parts of my life that weren’t touched by farming before. When I used to come here, it was just for our farm and for farm-y things like horseback riding, harvest, and hunting. When I left, I went to other cities in North Dakota or Minnesota to go to school or teach school and wear non-farm-y clothes and do non-farm-y things.

Putting farming and teaching together has made some days a bit more of a juggle. My first year teaching here, harvest started one day before school did, which is pretty late for our part of the country. I usually operate a combine for my dad or brother during harvest. It’s a pretty nice job, really: I sit in my air-conditioned cab with the FM radio while I watch my brother and dad outside in the chaff, driving trucks, sweating like crazy and itching in the barley dust. Every evening, my mother brings harvest meals out to the field, and they are glorious. I mean, these are some of the best meals any of us have ever had: meatballs and mashed potatoes, French dip sandwiches, lasagna with garlic bread, homemade pizza, cold lemonade, fresh brownies. And everything during harvest tastes SO AMAZING. We are all excited for a good meal and a little desperate for my mother’s smile and cheerful conversation after hours alone in our separate cabs.

Grandpa Wayne shutting  'er down for supper
Grandpa Wayne shutting ‘er down for supper
An oldie but a goodie: The harvest crew, minus a few
An oldie but a goodie: Harvest crew, minus a few

However, this particular harvest of 2011, there were two problems. 1) My mother was already back at her school counseling job in Bismarck, and 2) I was at my own local teaching job until close to 5 every afternoon, so the bulk of the combining hours would be drawing to a close by the time I got out there. My usual role as a combine operator was not much of an option. We still had a harvest crew: My dad, Grandpa Wayne, my farming brother Danny, my college brother Tommy who hadn’t started school yet, my dad’s hired man, and our cousin. I bravely decided to take on my mother’s role as the “meal wagon.” It was no easy task. If i didn’t appreciate my mom before, I sure appreciated her now.

Oh, there was a third problem. Did I mention we were temporarily living in tiny, cheap – and I mean cheap – trailers while we waited for construction to be completed on our farmhouse? My two brothers and I were crammed into one and my father and grandfather were yards away in the other. The walls were so thin, we could hear each other walking – from next door.

My schedule for the first several weeks of school that fall went something like this: 6:30 a.m.: Wake up for school. Make coffee in the bathroom because kitchen outlets don’t work. Watch everyone else leave for harvest and be really jealous. 7:30 a.m.: Sit in oil field traffic on my way to school. 8:05 a.m. Start day of shaping young American minds. 4:45 p.m. Sit in oil field traffic on my way home. 5:15 p.m. Start supper. Curse at the tiny sink and the tiny, crooked oven. 6:30 p.m. Leave for field in rickety suburban with my coolers of food and jug of lemonade, leaving behind piles of dirty pots and pans in the tiny sink and stacked on the tiny, crooked oven. 7:30 p.m. Smile as the harvest crew thanks me over and over for my meal efforts. Watch them walk back to their combines and be really jealous.

Tommy and I combining in happier, teaching-free days
Tommy and I combining in happier, teaching-free days

9:15 p.m. Back at the trailer. Finally finish washing piles of pots and pans in the tiny sink. Stare at schoolwork. Look outside at the sunset. Jump at the chance to help move harvest vehicles rather than do any schoolwork. 10:30 p.m. Fall into bed, exhausted. Have nightmares about what to make for dinner the next day in the tiny, crooked oven.

Every Friday at 4:30 p.m.: Finally climb back into my combine cab and bask in it until the weekend harvesting is over and I’m back to the school books.

I will say, that harvest of 2011 was pretty unique. We had never had a harvest like that before, and we will probably never have one like that again. Since then, farming still touches my teaching days now and then. Sometimes, I am asked to haul trailers of various shapes and sizes for my dad, so I drive them to school – and park a little farther away. Sometimes, I drive the rickety suburban to school so I can pick up some tractor part or trailer of various shape or size (it’s truly amazing how many trailers there are floating around our farm) while I’m in town. My few students who have spotted me in the rickety suburban found that very funny.

One time last year, I somehow found myself driving a dusty old grain truck home in my high heels with my lunchbox and stack of school books next to me. Mind you, this grain truck has shoddy brakes and questionable turn signals. I downshifted grinding, groaning gears with my cute high heels – and held my breath – for every turn. When I got to my yard, some strange construction equipment blocked my approach, so I parked the truck where I could and trudged through shin-deep mud, the result of a winter thaw. My thoughts toward my practical farmer father were not particularly warm enough to thaw anything at that moment, but I got over it. I also got smarter: I wear boots to school now and pack my high heels in my school bag instead, anytime from November until April or whenever the snow melts. Or anytime there’s even the slightest possibility that I might be driving a grain truck. Then again, I usually can’t predict such things. Ah, the combination of teaching and farming… Exasperating? At times. Worth it? No question about it.

Just stay there until school is over, please!
Just stay there until the school year is over, please!
Musings, North Dakota Living

The Irony of Empty

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “empty” as “containing nothing; not occupied or inhabited.” In 2008, National Geographic printed an article titled “The Emptied Prairie” by Charles Bowden, who discourses poetically on the fall of the wide North Dakota plains into decay, deserted by its human inhabitants. It opens: “In the early 20th century, railroads lured settlers into North Dakota with promises of homesteads. Towns were planted everywhere. Houses rose from the sweep of the plains, many, like this one, with a story no one can trace. People believed rain would follow the plow. But they were wrong.” The sub-heading reads, “North Dakota ghost towns speak of an irreversible decline.”


In the article, Bowden elaborates on the population decline that had plagued North Dakota for years, especially in its rural areas. It describes the state of the prairie, mentioning towns that “fall one by one like autumn leaves in the chill of October.” He paints a chilling and lonely picture, describing deer bones, rusting cars, and scattered remnants of human life. Of course, the photography accompanying the article just has to include a creepy picture of an abandoned doll staring through glass eyes covered with dirt and spider webs. There is nothing that speaks “despair” like a broken doll. It reminds me of Titanic documentaries I’ve seen.

The article also mentions Epping, a tiny town in western North Dakota, which then had a population of 75 according to the article. Ironically, Epping is located only about 20 miles northeast of Williston, placing it right near the hub of the Bakken oil field. Today, I bet the residents of Epping would have something different to discuss besides the emptiness of the prairie around them.

An especially interesting quote in the article reads, “That’s the rub of rural North Dakota, a sense of things ebbing, of churches being abandoned, schools shutting down, towns becoming ruins.” I look at the new students entering my high school weekly and new buildings popping up in Watford City daily, and realize just how ironic this article really is. The article does mention oil resources, but it was printed before our oil boom really took off, so author Bowden could not have realized just how wrong he was about to be. It’s not even that he was “wrong.” There are abandoned farmsteads scattered across the prairie across the Midwest – they are one of my favorite photography subjects. I’ve always been fascinated with the dreams left behind by homesteaders. It’s also true that our population was on the decline for years, especially among young people entering the work force. But I just love the irony of this article: our area of North Dakota, a state barely on the map until recently, is not exactly empty anymore.

In fact, western North Dakota has made it onto a much bigger map: the famous satellite light map. Some of you may have seen this before. It’s a pretty cool satellite illustration of urban areas at night. The area in and around North Dakota used to be quite dark, considering it was, well, rather empty. Fargo had a sort-of bright spot. Minneapolis-St. Paul was probably the closest thing to an actual bright spot. But NPR’s website recently published a piece called “A Mysterious Patch of Light Shows Up in the North Dakota Dark.” The satellite light map now shows a noticeable bright spot right in western North Dakota. Unlike other light patches, this one is made not of city lights but oil activity, particularly rigs and flares.

Look below:

Illustration by NPR/NASA
Illustration by NPR/NASA

An excerpt from the accompanying article reads, “Six years ago, this region was close to empty. The few ranchers who lived here produced wheat, alfalfa, oats, and corn. The U.S. Geological Survey knew there were oil deposits under ground, but deep down, 2 miles below the surface… There are now so many gas wells burning flares in the North Dakota night, the fracking fields can be seen from deep space.”

Here is a closer view:

Suomi NPP Satellite/NASA Earth Observatory
Suomi NPP Satellite/NASA Earth Observatory

These two articles show two very opposite sides of western North Dakota: the first, the fearful isolation of a deserted prairie, and the second, the overwhelming activity created by progress. The most ironic thing is, these articles are only a few years apart. Who would have known that “empty” could change so fast?

If I had to be honest, sometimes I kind of miss empty. I miss the dark. I miss the lonely openness. But a wise five-year-old once told me, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” So rather than throw a fit, I try to remember the good that is happening here and still appreciate the irony of “empty.”

You can find the original National Geographic article here.

And the original NPR blog here.

Musings, North Dakota Living, Teaching

I Say Creek, You Say Crick

One of my favorite things about teaching high school students from all locations is the arguments over pronunciation and word choice. Not that these arguments are limited to high schools students – just the other night at the lounge where I work, a customer made me repeat the word “bag” after I said it. (Yes, I’m from North Dakota, so a bag is a “bay-g.”) He thought it was quite entertaining.

Numerous times over the last year and a half, I have had to practically break up fights in class over the simple matter of how one pronounces a word, or what one calls a simple object. Here is how my last one went. I was in the middle of grading while the students were working, when suddenly a freshman boy in the front of the room erupted, “YOU CAN’T CALL IT THAT! THAT IS THE DUMBEST THING I HAVE EVER HEARD!” I looked up from my grading, surprised, trying to see what was going on before I scolded him.

The girl he was sitting by answered the question for me. She tossed her hair and replied, “I can too. It’s a creek, not a crick. Isn’t that right, Miss D.?”

The kid turned on me in anger. “Miss D., tell her it is a crick and not a creek!”

I tried to diffuse the situation. “Actually, it depends on where you’re from. Some people just pronounce things like this differently. But I’m from Bismarck, and I actually say creek.”

The kid rolled his eyes and repeated, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s a crick!”

Some of my other favorite language issues that have come up recently:

  • Coyote (no e sound at the end) vs. Coyotee (long e at the end). If you pronounce the long e at the end, you are definitely not from the area.
  • Syrup (pronounced seer-up) vs. Syrup (pronounced sirr-up) vs. Syrup (pronounced surp). Since when is syrup one syllable? But for some around here, it is.
  • Crayon (pronounced cray-on) vs. Crayon (pronounced cran). Ok, so I am guilty of shortening this one to one syllable. But it just seems so much easier to color with “crans” when you are six! I guess some habits die hard.
  • Pop vs. Soda. I had to calm a Southern transplant kid down for this one too. “Pop” is North Dakota speak.
  • And my all time favorite: Slushburgers. This is a northwestern North Dakota thing. I have never been able to find any other location that uses this term, not even slightly farther east or south in North Dakota.

What is a slushburger, you may ask? You probably know it by one of its more common names: a sloppy joe or a barbeque. A gooey, amazing sandwich of beefy, tangy goodness. (Yes, I may have a thing for sloppy joes.) It wasn’t until I attended a summer baseball game in Watford City when I was in high school that I had ever seen the term “slushburger.” When I was in college, my Watford City boyfriend and I made this item for lunch one day, and we got into an argument in the grocery store over what our concoction should be called. Apparently he won, because I found our recipe a few months ago, and it was titled “Slushburgers” – in my handwriting. I did NOT remember losing that argument. (Drat.)

Then, I came to work in northwestern North Dakota, and there it was. Slushburger. Right there on the high school lunch menu. Now, when I take lunch count in the morning, I ask my homeroom kids if they want “slushburgers” or salad bar. Yes, I’ve succumbed. It’s just easier that way. It gets me out of several-minute-long arguments with all of the local kids who would be outraged at my lack of respect for the term. But I still grin a little inside when some new kid from Washington yells out, “What in God’s name is a slushburger?!”

Musings, North Dakota Living

Small Talk

We’ve all been through it. A conversation lulls; an awkward silence ensues. What do I say next? we wonder, so naturally, we fall back on the weather: “I heard there is a storm coming this weekend,” or, “Can you believe how warm it is for December?” But here in the Northern Plains during the long, cold winter months, weather is more than just small talk. We talk about the weather with a little touch of pride. Where else do grandparents drive 60 miles an hour through raging blizzards without batting an eye?

I just adore winter. Winter is awesome. I love the extremities, and North Dakota always goes all out in that regard. Right now as I write, it is -2 degrees outside. Of course, sometimes winter can be a real pain in the arse. I have been knocked out for weeks with some type of horrible flu of death/evil cold virus/muscle-weakening disease of wicked proportions. Twice last week, I rolled in to school from my 12-mile drive a half hour late, right when the first bell was ringing, because pickups were sliding all over the highways. Two nights ago, I came home from dinner in town with friends to find that I couldn’t see the edge of my highway through the angry swirling snowflakes storming across the road. I went by pure instinct, ended up on the shoulder only once and breathed a sigh of relief when I thought I saw the blurry edges of the mailbox marking the driveway.

Although it was below zero after school on Friday, I grabbed my camera and trudged through the snow to capture a few pictures before the light faded and my fingers froze off. I was supposed to be at school taking tickets for a boys basketball game, but the opposing team couldn’t make it through the blizzard and the game was postponed. So I took advantage of my rare opportunity to be home before sunset and captured just a little taste of the extremities around me.

Drivers around here lately have been seeing a lot of this:


Does this look like a desolate wasteland? Ok, yes, right now it pretty much looks like the movie Fargo. I still like it, though. And I’m not the only one.

Lucy plays in the snow:


Blackjack rolls in the snow:


Chico explores in the snow:


And Jake eats horse poop in the snow. Everyone is happy!


And the photographer? Well, a little winter exploring always puts a smile on my face. Even if it’s a bit of a frozen one.


The weather might be just small talk, but when it’s this extreme, it’s a little more than that. It’s a bonding experience with people around us going through the same thing, and with our animals out playing in the snow. If we can survive this, and if we can all make it spring together, then we can worry about what to talk about next.