Musings, North Dakota Living

Next Year Country

Mother Nature is a beautiful woman.

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But sometimes, she can get pretty darn ornery.

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On Saturday, she sent some brutal winds to knock over farm equipment and basketball hoops, and she sent a sky full of ice down to pummel 1100 acres of some of the most beautiful crops this family of farmers has ever seen. It’s sad to watch months of growing go to waste in one short stormy hour. It’s sad to watch once luscious crops, waving in the breeze only that morning, lying crushed on the ground.

Next year will be better.

Because like one of our neighbors said, this is “Next Year Country.”

Next year, the rain will come.

Next year, the hail won’t.

Next year, the prices will be sky high.

Next year, we’ll have our best crops yet.

Because if there’s one thing  we’re good at around here, it’s looking forward to making things better, now and in the future.

Especially when this year didn’t quite turn out as planned.

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Musings, North Dakota Living

International Harvester

I’ve been away for a little while. I’ve been in North Carolina meeting my nephew, Minnesota floating on a lake, the capital city taking care of important business (and shopping) matters.

I’m back at the farm now with the boys, preparing for harvest. A lot of preparation is needed for something like harvest: Change the oil on all the combines, set the sieves, fill up gas tanks, clean out cabs and truck beds, learn how to operate the new grain cart, stock the fridge with sandwich meat, watch the sky for dry weather, and the list goes on. Today, we moved combines, headers and trucks 20 miles to our furthest northwest field, with hopes set high to start tomorrow.

Let me tell you, things are not the same as they used to be.

When we used to move our harvest equipment, we used to make full use of highways, gravel roads, and whatever was the most convenient to move combines with 30-foot-wide headers attached, no problem. We might be passed by a pickup or two or the occasional semi, or we might meet nothing at all. We drove through town, we had entire highway lanes to ourselves, and we never used pilot cars. Western North Dakota was a whole lot of wide open space.

That was back then.

This is now. The oil field has made 20 miles seem a whooooole lot longer. And I’m telling you, it is not a job for the faint of heart. Today, I moved a combine that didn’t even have a header attached, and it was still quite a thrill. If you want to see angry men, just take up an entire lane of an oil field highway and force dozens of semis and pickups to drive 19 miles an hour behind you, unable to pass because of steady oncoming traffic. You will get middle fingers. You will get honks and glares. (You will also generally ignore them because your machine is bigger than their machine, and there is nothing you can do about the 19 mph.) However, you can’t ignore all of them, and some can get pretty ornery. Last year, one of us overheard someone at a convenience store say confidently, “Farmers and their equipment just don’t belong in oil field traffic.”

Hey. We were here first, buddy.

Anyway, this all reminds me of country singer Craig Morgan’s song from a few years back, “International Harvester.” My dad and I used to laugh about it and watch the video on Youtube. Some of the lyrics go like this:

“Three miles of cars laying on their horns,
Falling on deaf ears of corn,
Lined up behind me like a big parade
Of late-to-work, road-raged jerks,
Shouting obscene words, flipping me the bird.”

Or this:

“Well I know you got your own deadlines,
But cussin’ me ain’t saving no time;
This big-wheeled wide load ain’t going any faster
So just smile and wave and tip your hat
To the man [or GIRL] up on the tractor.”

The song is a little obnoxious, but we can relate. For one thing, we also drive Case IH (International Harvester) combines. The video even features the same model of combine that we ran for years, which I first learned to operate at age 12. We’ve upgraded since then, so the  difference between our operation and the song is that we go a little faster these days. But not much. The only other big difference is instead of three miles of cars following me, it’s three miles of scoria-colored tanker semis and jacked-up pickups.

It’s just one more adjustment we have to make as we welcome the chaos of progress. But someone has to feed America, so we’re going to keep pluggin’ along in the Case International Harvesters, and hopefully for the sake of safety, we can all share the roads.

Here’s the video. See you out there.

Musings, North Dakota Living

A Good Day’s Work

After spending three weeks in Minnesota on vacation, I came back to our farm two days ago, our farm in the middle of the oil field that has been waiting patiently for me to come back home to western North Dakota. When I turned my little SUV north onto Highway 85, I was met with the familiar line of scoria-covered oil trucks that I really didn’t miss while I was gone, but it was good to be home for the first time in almost a month.

I’m a teacher, so the summers are a blessed offering of time to get things accomplished, a luxury that doesn’t seem to exist during a school year. When I arrived at the house, I spent the large part of the day paying bills, making phone calls, planning a friend’s baby shower, organizing the fridge, and other tasks that stare a person in the face after an extended leave of absence.

Then, after checking off this great list of things, I finished the novel I had started on vacation. Then, I watched a couple shows I had DVR’d. Then, I sat there. I’m not a person who gets bored easily, but before my vacation I quit my bartending job and finished the curriculum units I had been hired to write for the high school. For the very first time all summer, I felt like I had nothing to do. I like having things to do. I like to feel, well, not worthless.

So when my brother the farmer mentioned to me this morning that if I was looking for some work, I could weed the rock gardens, I racked my brain for something “important” to do instead. (I don’t like weeding much.) But as I couldn’t think of anything and I couldn’t stand the thought of sitting in the house another afternoon, I grabbed my orange-and-white gardening gloves, my sunglasses, and an iPod dock and headed out into the glaring heat to pull some stubborn weeds for a few hours.

And you know what? I liked it. It felt good.

While I was sweating in the sun, struggling against the unfriendly little weeds doing their darndest to stay right where they were comfortably rooted among the rocks, I had time to reflect on many similar days growing up. In my family, summers off from school didn’t mean summers off from responsibility. We packed up every June and moved to the farm, and while we spent a lot of time doing fun things like riding horse, driving four-wheelers, and swimming in a nearby nasty little pond, our free time didn’t come free. We had to work for it.

In those days, we were paid by my Grandpa Tim or my dad, whoever was doing the “hiring” that day, our age’s worth in dollar bills for one day of work. So, if I was 11 and I spent a day hoeing tree rows, I was paid 11 dollars that day. It seemed like a heck of a deal, because sometimes, someone delivered ice cream bars while we were working, and plus we got a dollar raise every year.

I didn’t know that I was cheap labor.

But I knew that when I went back to school in the fall, I had more money and a lot more stories than most of my friends.

As we grew older and reached high school, it was time to start saving for college, so our wage situation changed. Some of us were paid hourly. I was paid a lump sum that guaranteed I would be on call all summer for odd jobs and would run a combine during harvest. My brothers and I paid for college that way: Picking rocks, hoeing long rows of evergreen trees, shoveling out grain bins, and my least favorite, “riding the rake” — which meant sitting for hours on a wooden square fastened to an old dump hay rake. This hay rake was usually pulled by my dad or one of my brothers driving a tractor. My job was to guarantee that the lever released the hay when it was supposed to. It was bumpy, it was uncomfortable on the wooden square, it was usually hot and windy, and every so often the rake would start “bucking,” so if I didn’t hang on tight, I might end up lying in a windrow wrapped in hay.

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http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Old_dump_hay_rake_in_Olomouc.jpg

Some of those jobs were just no fun. My favorite, however, was hauling grain in old dusty trucks to the old dusty elevator, because the old dusty elevator men would insist that I sit inside the air-conditioned office and sip a cold root beer from the ancient pop machine — I always tried to bring quarters — while they dumped my truck for me. (I’m thinking they didn’t have many tiny blonde girls as customers.) It was the special treatment, all right, and I liked to tell my brothers about it so they would hopefully be a little jealous.

My other favorite job was running one of the Case International 1480’s during harvest. Compared to the other farm jobs, this job was a luxury that we all fought over. That’s because there was less grain chaff and more air conditioning and music on the AM radio.

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We worked all summer this way. Sometimes we complained, but I think we all liked it. We sweated in the sunlight, we itched like the dickens when we shoveled barley, we got covered in dirt hoeing trees – but we bonded, too. I know my dad and Grandpa liked it, because not only were they getting some pretty decent labor, but it was proclaimed to help us by “building character.” If we grumbled, my Grandpa would say, “Enthusiasm makes the difference!” or “You got to have a heart like a lion!” When he pulled up in his blue pickup to hand out the slightly melted ice cream bars, he would shout, “What a good-lookin’ crew!” I think I heard that line a thousand times.

I missed my Grandpa Tim and those good days of work while I was pulling weeds today.

I’m glad there are still weeds to pull, though, because someday I will need a character building program for my own kids, and I bet my brothers will want one for their kids, too. On a farm, there are always weeds. There are always rows of trees to hoe and rocks to pick and machinery to drive. I can’t wait to send my kids to the farm to work for Grandpa Mike and Uncle Danny. They will complain about hoeing long rows of trees and I will say, “Enthusiasm makes the difference!” They will roll their eyes and complain some more, and I will smile a little and bring them ice cream bars if it’s a hot day.

And someday, they will look back and be grateful for that good day’s work.

My brothers and I during harvest 2002, building character
My brothers and I building character during harvest 2002
Musings, North Dakota Living

What America is Made Of

You may remember a popular old nursery rhyme about what little girls and little boys are made of. Little girls, of course, are made of sugar and spice and everything nice. I can attest to this because I was once a sweet little girl. (I’m not sure what happened — the spice is still there, but the sugar seems to be running low.) Little boys, according to the rhyme, are made of slugs and snails and puppy-dog tails. Also, Barbie dolls. Broken ones. And I’m not trying to be gender neutral: On a few occasions my brothers dismembered my Ken dolls and/or set them on fire.

Maybe that’s what happened to the sugar.

Anyway, this Fourth of July week got me thinking: What is America made of?

If you asked this question, you would get a smattering of answers. Some might have less-than-glowing words for the U.S. in its current state of debt, questionable foreign policy and bipartisan craziness. Some might supply vague and generic answers, abstract words that in many ways have become watered-down, have lost their power and meaning. Freedom. Democracy. Rights of man. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness. Those things are important, no doubt, and we owe immense gratitude to the servicemen who have retained them for the rest of us, but sometimes American culture and politics and history books cycle the words around and around, and we lose complete sight of what they mean.

Therefore, I thought some concrete objects might help. Those old nursery rhymes were good that way. If girls are made of sugar and spice and boys are made of slugs and snails and Barbie dolls, then we need concrete objects for America, too.

America is not perfect, but it’s her birthday this week, after all.

This is what I think America is made of:

It’s a sunset over a Midwest lake.

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It’s a four-legged resident of the Midwest plains.

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It’s the relics of the past that America was built on.

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And it’s the symbols of progress, and you wonder if you always have to take the bad with the good, or if there are better ways to do things.

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There are always better ways to do things.

It’s the water towers proudly proclaiming the names of the towns they belong to.

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It’s the roads that lead to nowhere, which really lead to somewhere if you don’t mind getting lost.

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And it’s the dogs that accompany you along the way.

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It’s adorable sundresses on those little girls that are made of sugar and spice.

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And inflatable hot dogs. (Sometimes, America does make me shake my head a little.)

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But the kids have fun, anyway.

It’s an outdoor concert on a hot July night.

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And if you’re lucky, it’s a Guster concert. (Seriously, check them out: Your life will be better for it.)

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And when the outdoor concert is in the outfield of a minor league baseball stadium, and it’s America’s birthday week, and you can sit on blankets in the grass and buy brats and beer and mini donuts,  all those things make it feel even more like America at its best.

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I could keep going, because America is made of a lot of things, both good and bad. But most of all, it’s made of its people: the rich, the poor, the old and young, the teachers and lawyers and coal miners and farmers and cashiers and biologists, and most importantly, the children. That’s what matters; that’s what our countrymen have been fighting for all these centuries.

That’s what America is made of.

How To's, Musings

How to: Guacamole

Although an extensive list, some of my very most favorite things about summer include:

1. Time to travel far and wide

2. Time to explore close to home

3. Time for “summer tasties.” Aka GOOD FOOD. My favorite any time of the year, of course, but something special in the summer.

I talk about the first two quite a bit in Boomtown Diaries, so this time, I need to give just a little shout-out to the third one. In the summer, the produce aisles are bursting with color, the farmer’s markets are bursting with home-grown goods, and the smell of anything on the grill tantalizes everyone’s senses for miles around. Since the last day of school (aka, my last day of packed lunches and cafeteria food), I haven’t held back on all those promises I made to myself of summer tasties, all throughout the long winter months.

Let me give you a sampling of just one amazing weekend full of summer tasties.

It started when I collected my Bountiful Basket:

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This was like Christmas. I paid a reasonable price a few days in advance and on the designated Saturday, went to collect my basket. It was a beautiful sight. For days I ate fresh apple slices, nectarines, butter lettuce, peppers, and cucumbers, and drank lemon-lime-cucumber water, which apparently is bursting with health benefits.

I didn’t eat the brussel sprouts, though. Some habits die hard.

I had also never done much with avocados, but when I found them in my basket I decided I was craving homemade guacamole, so I did a little research online and whipped up my own version of various recipes I found, taking out things I didn’t like and adding a couple others. It turned out pretty good, if I do say so myself. See the recipe below.

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That same weekend, I hopped over to a nearby boomtown which every Saturday night from Memorial Day to Labor Day grills “hamburgers in the park” for anyone who wants to stop by and fork over a couple bucks to the local Lions Club. Why are these hamburgers so good? I don’t know. But they are. I’ve been trying to get my hands on them every summer Saturday since the days I was ten years old. Growing up, we played a game of whiffle ball every Saturday after eating hamburgers. These days, the whiffle ball gang is scattered far and wide, but the hamburgers are still tasty.

I enjoyed my first “hamburger in the park” of the summer on the same Saturday I picked up my bountiful basket. Double the bliss.

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The next day, we put some of the peppers from my basket to use and grilled some pretty amazing steak kebabs.

They were also somewhere on the scale from Christmas to heaven.

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(Saul was also very interested in these kebabs.)

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And to top it all off, I had found a Coke in a little boomtown convenience store that was from Mexico. For those of you who don’t know, Coke from many countries south of the American border tastes much better than American Coke. My brother Joey, who once brought me a Coke from Guatemala, says it’s made with real sugar unlike our American version, which is made with high fructose corn syrup. I admit, both the Guatemala Coke and the Mexico Coke have proved their superiority in my book.

Plus, why does it taste better from a glass bottle?

It’s just one of those little mysteries of life.

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Mysteries like:

Why are hamburgers grilled in the boomtown park by the Lions Club the tastiest of all?

Why did I feel an almost-spiritual connection to that beautiful, colorful bountiful basket? Can fresh fruits and vegetables speak to the soul?

Why did I use the word “bursting” three times in this blog post?

Why haven’t I made steak kebabs every day of my life?

Maybe these aren’t deep life mysteries. Maybe they are just more evidence of the fact that summer, including all of its “tasties”, basically kicks butt. Maybe summer makes everything crisper, fresher, crunchier, more tender, and more refreshing.

Here is one recipe for a delicious summer treat.

GUACAMOLE

Ingredients:

2 avocados, peeled, pitted and mashed
Juice of 1 lime
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp minced garlic
1/2 red onion, diced
2 T chopped cilantro (I used fresh)
1 diced tomato (I actually used 2 roma tomatoes since they are a bit smaller)
1-2 diced jalapeño peppers (skip if you don’t like much spice)
A pinch or dash of cayenne pepper

Directions:

Mash together the lime juice and salt with the mashed avocados. Mix in the rest of the ingredients. Add or remove ingredients to taste. Refrigerate and SERVE!

A summer tasty. Delicious.

Musings, North Dakota Living, Travel & Adventure

Just Like Lewis, Clark and Teddy

A recent publication in the Bismarck Tribune stated that according to Continental Resources, Inc., the Bakken and Three Forks formations together contain an estimated 7.38 billion barrels of recoverable oil. This new estimate is double the estimate from 2008 and 50 times higher than the estimate in the 90s.

No wonder I sometimes feel like I can’t see western North Dakota through the trucks, flares, wells, drills, and hastily-constructed buildings. And trucks.

There is a place where western North Dakota still shines through, however, untouched by oil and its progress. This place is one of my favorites in the world, and I go there when I need an escape. I just escaped there a few days ago. This place is the North Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, located only about 25 miles southeast of our farm. It’s similar to its more popular counterpart, the South Unit containing Medora, Painted Canyon, and other more well-known attractions, but the North Unit is more isolated and less traveled, so of course I like it just a little better.

If you haven’t been there, you need to go.

You need to go hike a few miles of the Maah Daah Hey trail, bike the roads, camp in the grove of trees next to the river, canoe the Little Missouri, see the bison, or just enjoy the views free of trucks, flares, wells, and drills. The North Unit is North Dakota at its best and most beautiful.

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I think one reason I love it so much is my secret wish to be the early explorers, Lewis and Clark, seeing landscape after landscape in untouched beauty and solitude. Wouldn’t it be amazing to canoe down open rivers and hike over wild mountains only guessing at what might lie over the next hill? What did America look like back then? Or to be Teddy Roosevelt, ranching in the badlands, escaping Eastern urban and political life — he knew western North Dakota at its freshest and wildest, too.

Going to the North Unit is kind of like that. Ok, not quite, because there is a paved road and little parking spots for your pickups and campers, but it’s still open and undeveloped and, most importantly, untouched by progress like the oil field.

When I went a few days ago, the North Unit didn’t disappoint. Four of us canoed several miles down the Little Missouri River on a breezy, sunny evening. This is something you can only do in late spring and early summer, because after a few weeks of dry summer heat, it will be a winding snake of mud and sandbars without enough water to carry a canoe. But right now, after all the spring rains, the Little Missouri is flowing along at a brisk pace, just perfect for canoe trips.

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And it was a perfect canoe trip.

We had excellent views…

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Good company…

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The sun and the breeze were just right…

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We saw wildlife…

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And the turkey vultures even kept their distance this time. Thank goodness because they still give me the willies after my last experience

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Sometimes, I just had to stop paddling and take it all in…

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Ok, this actually happened quite a bit, because my canoe partner was a better paddler than me, and I admit I may have slacked here and there.

But whatever.

It was perfect.

I almost felt like Lewis and Clark, out there exploring the wilderness. I suppose the big difference would be that our pickup and trailer waited for us at the end of the trip. Also, I had bug spray and cold drinks in a cooler. Also, I got to go home to a soft and comfortable bed. But even if I won’t ever see my beloved landscapes quite like Lewis and Clark and Teddy Roosevelt did, it’s as close as I can get, and I’ll take it.

Seriously, you need to go there.

Musings, North Dakota Living

That’s Why I’ve Got My Dad

I have a lot of things to share this week with summer finally in swing. I have oil field stories, outdoor stories, food stories, and farm stories, and also, more North Dakota stories: My friend E., a fellow English teacher and North Dakotan who is now teaching in Asia, has a blog called A Nonstirdownable Cerebral Sphere. I love travel almost as much as I love anything, so her stories about life in Asia fascinate me. Her latest post, however, turned the focus back towards home. “North Dakota, Keep Singing,” is definitely worth a read, so check it out! (After I finished reading it, I thought, “I wish I would have written that.” That’s when I know something has really struck a chord with me!)

Today, though, I’m going to skip all my other stories — just for now — and say a few words about my dad in honor of Father’s Day.

My dad, Mike, is perhaps the most unique person I know. Most adults have one full-time job; my dad is a lawyer, farmer, basketball coach, and somehow still has time for his family. Even though he has been a successful lawyer in Bismarck for many years, he still drives around junky Buicks that have the mirrors duct-taped on and parks an assortment of farm equipment and trailers in front of our Bismarck house, to the chagrin of my mother. His greatest joy when we were growing up was lining up all six of us early on Saturday morning for a full day of chores (all of those crappy jobs “build character,” you know), then taking us to the local Sta-mart afterward to buy us slushies. After I left home, he ensured that I kept up that early morning work ethic by calling my college dorm room around 7:00 a.m. and leaving messages for me and my roommate still asleep in our bunks, just making sure we were “making hay while the sun shines.” (This happened even if we didn’t have class until 10:30). He is also a master of efficiency: He liked to save room in the cupboard by mixing Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios together, which greatly annoyed all of us. Then, he would save room in the fridge by mixing milk and chocolate milk together, which greatly annoyed all of us. That didn’t stop him. He isn’t afraid to tell us who to vote for, who to date, and what car to drive, and then he laughs when we tell him to mind his own business, although, often, we don’t. I think we can all admit that he does, in fact, seem to know quite a bit.

I’ve had the privilege of being my dad’s only daughter out of six children. I know he loves all his five sons just as much, but he also says often, “Every dad needs at least one daughter.” He used to buy me Nerf guns and plastic swords for Christmas, just like my brothers, and he showed me how to drive a combine when I was 12, just like my brothers. But he treats me “special” too: He buys me pink tool sets for Christmas, and he showed my prom date in high school the shotgun sitting inconspicuously behind the front door. I assured my worried date that my dad was joking, so he laughed, perhaps a little nervously. I think he still kept one eye on my dad during the social hour.

But if every dad needs at least one daughter, then I say that every daughter needs a dad, too, if she is fortunate enough to have a good one. I thought I would share a poem I wrote several years ago because I think it sums it up pretty well. Here it is:

Me and My Dad

A girl like me won’t ask for much
Perhaps a shoulder when I’m sad
And when I need that very thing
That’s when I need my dad.

A girl like me is pretty good
At solving problems when they’re bad
But still, the times I need advice
That’s when I call my dad.

A girl like me is on my own
Through all life’s lessons that I’ve had
But girls, they need protection too
That’s why I’ve got my dad.

A girl like me don’t need a boy
For after all, they drive you mad
But all girls need one man in life
So me, I have my dad.

He’s honest, smart, he’s strong and brave
I sure am lucky and so glad
God knew I’d need a hero here
That’s why I’ve got my Dad.

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Musings, North Dakota Living

My Home in North Dakota

I braced myself for the comment that usually comes after I say I’m a local, one of the few with roots in the area before the oil boom: “Wow, I’m sorry. What a sorry place to call home.” And it did come, sure enough. “Wow, I”m sorry,” the young man said sympathetically in the clinic waiting room while I was waiting for my weekly allergy shot.

I tried not to narrow my eyes at him. “Because I’m from here?” I was readying myself with an exposition extolling the beauty and peacefulness of North Dakota and its wide open spaces.

But then he surprised me. “No, because I bet it’s tough to watch such a beautiful place get taken over by the oil field. I’m from a small town myself, and I have to say, I would be pretty sad to watch all this happen to my town.”

I almost got tears in my eyes. I must have been tired. “Yes,” I said finally. “It is. But you take the good with the bad. I love it here anyway.”

I just can’t help myself. I love my home in North Dakota.

Is it just because it is “home”? Maybe. It is because I’m a girl just made for wide open spaces? Maybe. Is it because of the people? Surely that has something to do with it. It’s a whole bunch of things. I’ve never been able to make myself leave for good. After college, I watched friends move to cool places like New York City and Denver and Seattle and Arizona. I thought to myself, I should do that. I should move somewhere just to prove I can.

Then I thought, nah. What if I miss the summer sunsets?

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What if I miss hunting season?

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What if I miss the winter? I mean, real winter?

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What if I miss lilacs in the spring? Do they have lilacs in Arizona?

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What if I miss our annual camping trip at Lake Sakakawea? What if I miss my nephew’s birthday? What if I miss all of the hamburgers in the park on Saturday nights? What if I miss hiking in the badlands? Then the list got too long. The truth is, I love it here too much. I love many of the places I visit, too — I love the mountains, I love the coasts, I love Europe and Canada and the Bahamas and New York City. And I’m sure most of the people living in other places could write their own blogs about their own homes, and I’m glad. We should all have a place we love so much that we don’t want to leave. Maybe it’s home; maybe it’s somewhere else, but I think humans like to connect to places.

Next fall, actually, a brother and I are planning to go overseas to work in an orphanage for a while, providing everything falls together. I will write more about it later once I know more details. I’m very excited about our adventure. But when I’m done, I’m coming back home.

This week in Boomtown Diaries, I’m going to give a shout-out to my cousin Adam, who wrote a song that explains it perfectly and which is aptly titled “My Home in North Dakota.” We play it sometimes in Dwaylors shows and Adam always gets compliments. A while back, he and his brother Nick created a music video, which now has almost 50,000 hits on Youtube. That’s because it’s awesome. Here it is:

Musings, North Dakota Living, Travel & Adventure

The Zoo, 22 Years Later

This week, I escaped the oil field and the turkey vultures and experienced something equally as wild: watching my 2-year-old niece Dahlia and 3-year-old nephew Jesse while their mother is out of the country. After being cooped up for 3 days of rain, on Thursday we piled into the car and took a trip to the Dakota Zoo in Bismarck. I hadn’t been there in years, but I remember my mother packing up anywhere from four to six of her children and taking us on trips to the zoo several times each summer. We would feed the goats, eat cotton candy, fight with each other, and ooh and ahh at the otters (my favorite) and grizzly bears. My mom must be a saint disguised as a mother. Just look what she had to put up with back in 1991:

Danny and Rachel at the Dakota Zoo, 1991
Danny and Rachel at the Dakota Zoo, 1991

I don’t know how my mother did it all those summers, to be honest. You don’t really realize how much work it is until you are the one trying to keep the little guys out of the street, out of the puddles, and away from each other’s throats. This week we were only watching two of them, and in my case, only for five days! My mother had six for, oh you know, a couple decades.

I just have to say, these little guys are lucky they’re so cute.

So on Thursday, off to the zoo we went, my brother Joey, my mom, myself, and the little guys.

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I learned a few important things while we were there.

1. BRING QUARTERS.

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(However, the quarters are not just for the little guys):

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2. Fork over the three dollars to rent a double “tiger” stroller. It’s worth it.

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3. Also fork over the buck-fifty for popcorn. It’s also worth it. But maybe buy two popcorns, because there WILL be fights over the popcorn box. Vicious fights. I didn’t even know 2-year-olds were capable of that kind of ferocity.

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In fact, I saw a very strong resemblance between the fight over the popcorn box and these two young fellas here, except the bears were probably a lot gentler:

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4. Don’t forget to ride the train! (It’s even better when you are sitting next to Grandma.)

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And finally, 5. The little girl you are with may literally shake with excitement over every “kitty-cat” and “guck” (duck) that you see, which makes the whole thing pretty darn fun.

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My trip to the zoo this week, circa 2013, was a little more work and responsibility for me than it was back in 1991. That’s ok, though. As adults, sometimes we forget how exciting it is to feed the goats, and we don’t usually shake with excitement when we see a tiger. But why not? We should probably do those things more often. These little guys reminded me.

And they also gave me a new respect for my mother, 22 years ago. Thanks, Mom 🙂

Musings, North Dakota Living, Travel & Adventure

Ticks and Turkey Vultures

There are two things my Canon camera and I can never resist when we are together.

The first is flowers: wildflowers, garden flowers, apple blossoms, really anything remotely related to flowers, including clover buds and even golden wheat stalks. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that the gentle lilacs rank on top of the list: a sweet but fleeting signal of spring. There has been a lavender-colored explosion around the Midwest in the last week or so, enhanced by the large amount of rainfall we have patiently suffered through. My camera and I have been itching to get out of the car every time we drive by. It’s not just the lilacs. All the little pops of color coming to life all over the countryside are too irresistible to ignore.

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Even a dandelion can be almost as pretty in the rays of a spring sunset, don’t you think?

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The second fascination my Canon camera and I have is for old abandoned buildings. I cannot leave them alone. If I don’t have time to get out and actually photograph the old farmhouses and barns I drive by, then I at least take time to imagine the stories behind them: Who lived there? How many people were crammed into how many bedrooms? What did they do? Could they afford wallpaper? What dreams did they have for their homestead, and for themselves? At what point did they close the door and never look back?

Or did they look back?

I wish the old buildings could tell their stories.

Since they can’t, my Canon and I take photographs and I let myself imagine. Who knows if I will do something with the photos someday. Maybe I will publish a book; or maybe when I’m old I will just dig them out of a box and remember the satisfaction I got from my imagination and from the wide open prairie, whispering of the pioneers who lived there, who struggled to make a living there, who built houses there, who died there.

But lest I get too poetic, I must give you all a warning about photographic urges like mine. Last week, Boyfriend and I were on a hiking date at Cross Ranch State Park next to the MIssouri River. It was a beautiful evening; the park was peaceful and hardly occupied by other humans. It would have been romantic, really, were it not for the 1500 wood ticks that we continued to pick off of each other and ourselves for the next day and a half. I’m really mad at the one that I found on my neck at 5 a.m. the next morning. Needless to say, he ruined my sleep, considering every tiny tickle I felt after that was surely another one. I rolled around in the covers for an hour, imagining ticks crawling all over my body, and finally got up at 6 to do another thorough check. I’m pretty sure I’m still feeling ghost ticks after that infestation.

So anyway, we were driving home from Cross Ranch when I saw the abandoned building. Naturally, I had to stop and hike through the prairie grass with Canon camera; Boyfriend was on the phone so he stayed in the car; I was dreaming of the building’s inhabitants and vaguely noticing a very loud rustling coming from inside the structure.

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That’s when it happened. Only feet in front of me, the hugest winged creature I have ever encountered in close proximity burst out of the house, nearly knocking me over on her way out. Surely it was a flying dinosaur! But no. A dinosaur would have been better-looking. The red, naked head and hooked beak gave her away. A turkey vulture. A black monstrosity of a bird. I thought she would fly away, but instead, she scared the bejeebers out of me by swooping back to cycle over my head. And continuing to circle more and more closely over my head. I’m pretty sure she was protecting babies in the house. Guys, she was huge.

So what did I do? I took pictures, of course. I began to envision myself lying in a field, murdered by a turkey vulture and served as dinner to her babies. I wanted evidence of the last moments of my life, cold hard proof right there on my Canon camera.

She cycled closer.

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And closer.

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And closer.

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I decided to give up the search for amazing old abandoned building pictures momentarily and hightailed it back to my car, looking back over my shoulder all the way. The Bird of Death was still following me, but veered off when I reached my vehicle and threw myself into the driver’s seat.

You know what? Boyfriend was laughing. I couldn’t believe it. Here he almost witnessed my untimely death in a North Dakota pasture, and he was laughing. So much for romance. Ticks and turkey vultures were third wheels on our date, and I can’t say I enjoyed their company much.

I have a confession though: If he was the one getting chased by a turkey vulture, I’m pretty sure I would have been laughing even harder.

And taking pictures, of course.

Musings, North Dakota Living

Blog Wars

Andy, my eldest of five brothers, has decided to start a war with me. This will not be the first. Our sibling combat throughout the years has consisted of many situations that have demanded determination, intelligence, and of course, deceit and treachery on both sides. Well, the deceit and treachery was mostly on Andy’s side.

I’m just the innocent little sister.

Let me give you a sampling: How many of teenage Rachel’s land-line phone conversations can Andy eavesdrop on, in order to find out which boy Rachel likes? How many of Rachel’s diaries and journals can Andy read, in order to find out which boy Rachel likes? How many of Rachel’s bedroom closets can Andy hide in, in order to best hear her conversations with her closest friends, in order to find out which boy Rachel likes? (You get the picture.) Also, who has the highest GPA? Who has the highest ACT score? Can Andy and the other brothers ambush Rachel with plastic pellet guns when she is walking into the house? Can Andy make angry Rachel laugh, which makes her even angrier because she really wanted to stay angry? Who can collect the most wheat, brick and ore supplies in the game Settlers of Catan in order to win? (I have one thing to say here: Only one of us tricked our dear, sweet mother in order to win a recent game of Settlers of Catan, and it wasn’t me.)

Who is Grandma Marilyn’s favorite? (Duh.)

And now, we present Blog Wars: Who has the most enjoyable writing style, sharpest wit, and best knowledge of semicolon placement?

My opponent is good, I will give him that.

Andy has started a new blog called Tetra Dad, named for his newborn son Oliver’s heart condition, Tetralogy of Fallot. I am dying to meet little Oliver myself, but with Andy’s family being so far away (he, his wife Shawna, and their kids Clara and Oliver live in North Carolina), the blog is a good tool for Andy to share some of those moments the rest of us might otherwise miss. It is intended to share updates and information about Oliver’s condition, offer support to other parents experiencing similar situations, tell stories about life in North Carolina, and generally focus on the positive things in a stressful situation.

You can find Andy’s blog here. I also have a link to Tetra Dad in my sidebar, in case you’re ever looking for it again.

Of course, I should mention that one of the goals of Andy’s blog is to “demonstrate that” he is a “better writer than Rachel.” (That is a direct quote.) It’s on, Andy.

However, I feel like I also need to point out that he has two of the cutest kids in the world on his team. I feel this is unfair: I have two sloppy dogs on my team.

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Adorable children, Clara and Oliver
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Sloppy dogs, Lucy and Jake

See what I mean?

Someday this auntie will steal said adorable children, take pictures of said adorable children and post them, and dramatically improve the overall cuteness of Boomtown Diaries.

Blog Wars, as Andy calls it, has revealed to me that our sibling combat hasn’t gone away as we’ve gotten older; it is simply evolving with the times. Fifteen years ago, it involved stealing diaries and eavesdropping on landline conversations because none of us had cell phones. (I can’t help but think that my adolescent life would have been much simpler if I had an iPhone with a secret pass code then, like I do now. Oh, the possibilities!) Now, it’s blogging. But Andy’s challenge is a reminder to me that regardless of age, miles, and life events getting in the way, we are still siblings in the end. Plus, this morning I finally felt motivated to update my Boomtown Diaries home page and links. Nothing like a little healthy sibling combat.

Just remember one thing: Regardless of what anyone says, I’m the innocent little sister.

From left: Me, Danny, and Andy, back in the pre-blogging days
An oldie but a goodie: Me, Danny, and Andy at breakfast, back in pre-Blog War days
Musings, Teaching

Trading It In

One day in late May every spring, a teacher puts away the whiteboard markers, stacks the textbooks on the shelf, takes one last look at the empty desks, and locks the classroom door behind her.

She is trading in her teacher hat for three short months, trading it in for another hat: a second-job hat, a student hat at the local college because she needs more education credits, maybe a more-time-to-be-mom hat, or even, if she is lucky, a much-deserved relaxing hat.

She is trading in her chalk for gardening tools.

She is trading in her red grading pen for a Canon camera and her gradebooks for a passport.

She is trading in her high heels for a pair of hiking sandals and her book bag for a hiking pack.

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She is trading in her parking space at school for a boat dock.

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She is trading in school lunch chicken nuggets in the cafeteria for fresh-cut strawberries on the porch.

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She is trading in hours spent teaching other people’s children the ins and outs of grammar, literature, and respecting others, and instead, she spends those hours teaching her nephew how to ride a horse.

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She is a little sad. She is sad to say goodbye to those students, knowing she will not teach most of them again and will maybe never see some of them again. They will move on to other paths, other states, other teachers, other desks in other classrooms. She hopes she has done her job well, hopes they have learned how to write a little better and think a little more, how to treat each other nicer and see the world as a big, wide playground, a place waiting just for them.

But she is also happy.

She is happy to say that she has put her heart and soul into her students this year, even if they don’t know it. She is happy that one student found a love for reading this year, and another student figured out he is good at poetry. And she is happy that she can forget, for just a short time, about PD and PLCs and IEPs and remember, instead, how wonderful it is to sit on the porch in the sun in the middle of the day.

In what seems like a blink of an eye, she will be back in the classroom, handing out textbooks, digging out whiteboard markers, and hanging up bulletin boards.

But for now, she is taking her teacher hat and trading it in.