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.

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, North Dakota Living

Multiple Modes of Mobility

I love mobility. I love transportation. I love travel. I just love getting from here to there, and back again.

I think I just love seeing everything I can possibly see.

I’ve loved it since the moment I got my license when I was 14. I’ve loved it since I learned to combine wheat and barley fields when I was 12. (Driving around in circles counts as mobility, right? In fact, I also ran cross country and track for ten years. People used to ask why I liked to “run around in circles so much?” I guess I’ve always had a thing for transporting myself in circles.) I’ve loved it since my brother and I used to push our plastic purple and red Hot Wheels trikes to the top of the cemetery hill and fly down to our driveway so fast our feet couldn’t stay on the pedals.

I’ve loved it since I realized there’s so much of the world to see and only one short life to see it.

And I think I love almost every kind of mode there is to accomplish all the seeing:

A walk down our gravel road on a cool summer evening…

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A bike ride in the North Dakota Badlands right at the set of an autumn sun…

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A road trip across the Middle of Nowhere, Montana, in a Buick that’s going to break down in about 150 miles…

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Which, after the Buick is properly checked out by a mechanic, who tells us to only drive it back to North Dakota at our own risk, which of course we do, turns into a hike in one of our nation’s most beautiful national parks…

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A jetski ride across a Minnesota lake…

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Or better yet, a free kayak ride from Auntie…

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Being on a farm, we get to vary our transportation modes a bit more…

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And just for the heck of it, why not drive a short bus around the state of North Dakota every once in a while?

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And why not ride around in a oil-can cow train, just to see the sights of the pumpkin patch on a bright autumn afternoon? (If it didn’t attract so much hostile attention from other adults, I would have been seated in an oil-can cow, too, right next to my niece and nephew. I resigned myself to taking a picture instead, sighing a little to myself. Kids are so lucky.)

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I don’t think I could pick a favorite mode of transportation. The joys of mobility and seeing all the sights there are to see are too… joyful. But if I had to pick one, I think I might have a new favorite: flying. My brother Danny earned his pilot’s license a couple years ago, and I’ve become spoiled with this new way to travel from town to town around the Midwest. Besides the convenience of cutting hours off of travel time, flying is one of the few transportations where you just have to look out the window. I usually have a book in hand when I travel, because one of my other great joys in life besides traveling is reading, but flying doesn’t allow such a distraction. Looking at the tiny cars and houses and oil flares below is too fascinating.

All of the phrases about “a bird’s-eye view”, and “as the crow flies,” and “on eagles’ wings,” aren’t false advertising. Flying in a small plane is a luxury that if I could, I would bestow upon all of you, so that you could see little farms and checkerboard fields like this:

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The checkerboard will be even prettier in a couple months when the wheat fields are gold and the canola fields are yellow and the flax fields are purple.

And you could see neat-o controlled burns like this:

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And you could see the lights of a hundred flares lighting up the sky at night, looking like little outlaw campfires from the seat of the plane.

But my camera died before I could take a picture of that.

Thanks, Danny, for the ride last week.

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Luckily, I don’t have to pick one favorite mode of mobility. Flying, and biking, and hiking, and driving tractors and combines and four-wheelers, and gliding across the water in a kayak, and even cruising down a two-lane highway in a Buick with a transmission valve going out, are some of my favorite things. They are the stuff that memories are made of. And I can do them all, as long as I have life in my lungs and legs and sometimes, a few dollars for gas.

And maybe, this year at the pumpkin patch, I’ll just say to heck with it and take a ride next to my niece and nephew in that oil-can cow.

Musings, North Dakota Living

Lucy the Terrible

I moved to the oil field and decided I needed a guard dog. Not only would the extra protection be nice, but I could use a companion, someone to run with, someone to listen to my problems, someone who would always be there for me. Living on a farm makes having an animal quite easy, so the living arrangements wouldn’t be a problem.

I began researching guard dog breeds: German shepherds? They seemed pretty neat. Rottweilers? No, not furry enough for me. Labs? Although these have always been popular in my family, they’re not the protective type. Most of our labs would welcome robbers and riffraff with a wag of the tail and probably hold the door open for them. I was pondering this difficult decision when the answer fell into my lap one August day. My dad texted me, “Rachel, would you like a dog? A German shepherd puppy has been abandoned by your brother’s house.”

I could hardly say no. This tiny, four-month-old blob of fur had been left at Jack’s neighboring farm, which had previously been an unwanted animal drop-off site. Besides, it made my decision easy. I didn’t have to search for a dog at a shelter or buy a particular breed, and I could feel good about saving an animal and giving her a home.

Lucy, as I named her, quickly became part of my daily life. When I left her in the mornings for school, she would stare at me forlornly from the yard. When I came home, she would accompany me enthusiastically on a 30-minute walk on a dirt trail before I began cooking dinner for the boys. She was rambunctious, outgoing, and irresistible. Everyone grew to love her, including Jake, our yellow lab, and Abby, my dad’s black lab (although she took a little longer to come around).

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Lucy is cute, I will give her that. She has the right coloring for a German shepherd, her distinctive black-and-tan face made especially expressive by markings that look like raised eyebrows. As she grew, however, eventually becoming taller and lankier than our other dogs, it became clear that she was no purebred German shepherd. Part German shepherd, certainly, but her ears stayed floppy like a lab’s, her tail curled over like a husky’s, and she doesn’t have the body type. She looks like a conglomeration of different breeds.

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Even more, it became quite clear that she is no guard dog. If I ever go out into the yard at night, Lucy is the opposite of helpful — she actually scares me more, jumping at every tiny sound and staring intently into the dark before bolting back into the garage to hide in the corner. Very reassuring when you are outside in the dark with the wind blowing eerily in the trees. I once found myself hiding in a locked house with a shotgun, and I blame the incident entirely on Lucy.

So what is Lucy good at? They say certain breeds are happiest when they have a “job,” a dog career of sorts, whether it’s hunting, herding, guarding, guiding, or policing. She’s no cattle dog: We have no cattle anymore. She’s no guard dog: That’s been proven. She loves to chase up birds, but she’s no hunter: She won’t listen. In fact, Lucy is just plain naughty. She chews up boots, eats rotten grain, drags the little barn cat Saul around the yard, visits the neighbors miles away, leaves dead birds at the bottom of my stairs, poops in the garage on a regular basis (even when the garage door is wide open), barks nonstop at the horses every morning, and wrestles the other dogs relentlessly. My family loves to tease me about how terrible she is, and I have to admit that it’s somewhat true. She’s been trained; she knows how to sit and lie down and stay and come, but life is just too interesting for her to care much about all that boring stuff. Lucy the German Shepherd conglomeration mix is probably better labeled as Lucy, the Terrible.

I love her anyway, of course.

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But at last, this spring, Lucy has found a job. She has actually turned out to be somewhat useful.

Another one of our ill-behaved animals, Chico, a 12-year-old Morgan horse, has figured out how to get out of the small pasture east of our farmyard. We don’t know how. The fence isn’t down. The other horses stay put. Two weeks ago, for example, I was pulling out of the yard to go to school, when I noticed him standing in the yard nonchalantly, trying to blend in as if nothing was out of order. (I did the logical thing: Called my brother to go put him back.)

This is where Lucy comes in. Ever since we brought the horses to winter in our yard pasture, her obsession with them has been almost unhealthy. She cannot leave them alone. Every morning, she barks at them for long periods of time. Some mornings, she herds them into a group or chases an individual horse just for fun. I shake my head every time I notice it. She’s going to get herself killed someday, I think. But through this obsession, she has become Chico’s personal sentinel. It’s wonderful. He gets out; she barks like crazy and keeps him at the fence. He gets out; she chases him across the yard to where he is supposed to be. The other day, Danny was trying to get him back into the gate. Chico wouldn’t budge. Danny called Lucy. Chico took one look at her flying across the yard full of fury and decided he would be better off in the pasture after all.

If only she would spend as much time guarding me as she does keeping Chico in line.

Chico, of course, doesn’t appreciate Lucy at all. But she’s turned out to be quite useful in this one regard. I can finally say, Lucy the Terrible may actually not be so terrible.

On a side note: Does anyone have a guard dog for sale?

Lucy the Terrible keeping a close eye on Chico.
Lucy the Terrible keeping an eye on Chico.
Musings, North Dakota Living

Oil Field Dating Service

This morning, I had a rather unusual commute to work. I was only a few miles away from home around 7:45 a.m., waiting to make a right turn onto Highway 85. The long line of semis and pickups with a car or two sprinkled in trickled by slowly in the early morning light, cautious on the layer of ice from last night’s snowfall. I sipped the coffee from my travel mug and vaguely noticed a large cherry red pickup with dark tinted windows suddenly make a sharp left onto my road. I perked up a little more when it pulled up next to me. A young man got out and swaggered confidently toward my vehicle. I assumed he was asking for directions, but I didn’t like the looks of him much, so I rolled down my window only a crack, ready to throw my coffee in his face and barrel through the ditch in my little Ford Escape if necessary.

It turns out he was not asking for directions. Ohhh, no. Our conversation  went something like this:

Him: “Hello, miss? May I have your number?”

Me: “Excuse me?”

Him: “I said, may I have your number?”

Me: Stunned silence. Isn’t it too early in the morning for this kind of thing?

Him: “My friends said they would give me 100 dollars if you gave me your number.”

Me: Stunned silence with raised eyebrows. “Uh…” I am not very often speechless.

Him [starting to sound more desperate]: “You can have half of it! I will give you 50 bucks right here for your number!”

Me [inching my car forward]: “Fifty bucks?” [Sadly, I considered the money for a moment, then thought better of it.] “I don’t think I believe you. Actually, I have to go to work.” [Inching my car forward some more, wishing there were a gap in the traffic line.]

Him: “Miss, please — it’s fifty bucks! Aw, c’mon, please!”

At this point, I would have loved to make a dramatic exit by pealing out onto the highway in a squeal of tires on pavement. Unfortunately, the steady line of trucks still trickled by, not allowing me an exit of any sort, dramatic or not. I think I said something like, “I’m very flattered, but I really have to go to work!” I attempted a smile to make my harsh rejection a little easier. “It was a nice try though!” I added as an afterthought. I rolled up my window in what I hoped was a firm gesture.

He made his way back to his red pickup where I am sure his friends were laughing uproariously, his swagger a little less confident.

I got different reactions to this story from the people I told. Some thought I should have taken the money. Some thought I should have given him a fake number. Some agreed that I did the only thing I could have done: leave. My brother, however, pointed out that his approach was all wrong. “He made a mistake,” he commented. “He SHOULD have said, ‘My friends offered me a hundred dollars to ask for your number, but I don’t care about the money. In fact, I will give you the hundred dollars because all I really want is your number.'” It’s true; that would have been a much smoother attempt. Should I be insulted that he offered me money in the first place, or that he only offered me HALF of the money?

Jokes aside, this incident made me think a little. We have some serious issues in the oil field: housing, traffic, infrastructure needs, you name it. Dating is a whole new ball game, and while it may not seem so serious as these other issues, doesn’t everyone need just a little affection from the opposite gender now and then? But there is a problem: men outnumber women here by A LOT. The few available girls that are not married are either 1. dating someone or 2. tired enough of the obnoxious male attention to be a bit cold and standoffish to the males providing the attention. (For some additional background, see my previous post titled “There Are Plenty of Fish in the Sea, but Mostly Sharks Where I Live.”)

The men at my second job at a local hotel lounge have shared plenty of these woes with me, and I feel for them. Just last night, a middle-aged man lamented, “It’s not easy being a single guy in the oil field.” Another one, this one a bit younger, said to me, “You’re a nice gal. But I bet you’re married or got a boyfriend or something, don’t you?” A man next to him added ruefully, “There aren’t ANY single girls around here!” I found myself wanting to help these poor lonely souls, but what can we do? Should we start a mail order bride service? Lure fellow females here by some other method? Last year, a man even planned to have a “Party in the Patch,” a singles dance in Williston to attract dateable girls to the area. To my knowledge, the party never happened, but I think it illustrates a pretty desperate need for better balance of gender. (Read the article here.)

These ideas are extreme, but there just might be another, simpler way. A few months back, my friend A, another teacher, thought of an excellent plan: An Oil Field Dating Service. I think this could be a new calling for us. “Just think,” she said, “how much better off some of these men would be if they even just knew how to ask a woman out!” She wasn’t thinking along the lines of a matchmaking service, but more of an… etiquette workshop of sorts. Lessons on making a first impression on a woman. How to be a gentleman. How to woo the few available ladies here with your charm and wit. How to show manners and therefore have the upper hand over all your rivals.

It’s not a bad idea. I think we could do some good here. Maybe even charge a fee and make a little extra cash, without having to give out our phone numbers on random highways. I have heard a colorful array of pickup line since moving here, and I’m sure other females in the area would concur. Some situations are humorous, others not so much. But what if we could give these men a few tips from a local woman’s point of view? Here’s a start: Don’t offer money for phone numbers in the middle of a highway.

Just don’t.

Ok, I should put in a disclaimer: I think there are plenty of courteous, well-meaning men here. Just a couple weeks ago during my hotel shift, a man in his mid-30s observed as two other, rather forward men made an uncouth comment or two in my direction. It didn’t bother me, but apparently it bothered the observer. After they left, he stood up, quite tipsy, and threw down his napkin, proclaiming gallanty, “I just want you to know that although I think you are beautiful, I’m just going to leave it at that! I’m not coming on to you, and I would never say those things to you!” He left, head held high, stumbling just  slightly to his hotel room. I had to smile to myself a little at that one. But his manners actually DID impress me more than the other two men next to him. Maybe this guy could be a coach at our Dating Service once he sobers up.

Yes, times are tough in the oil field. Women are scarce. Men are lonely. Both are working hard to make a living, but humans need a little more than just survival. Hopefully as our boomtown continues to adapt to the growing pains, the lopsided numbers will even out a bit and love will flare up all over the oil field (pardon the pun — I admit, it was bad).

In the meantime, I’ll be working with my partner A on our Oil Field Dating Service so we can provide a valuable service helping our community… one unfortunate pickup line at a time.

Musings, North Dakota Living

One of Our Own

I wrote last time about the dangers of driving on our roads. A few days later, in a sad irony, those very roads took one of our own. It’s different then. When I see in the newspaper every week the accidents and deaths on the oil field highways, I feel sympathy, but a distant sympathy. I don’t know them. They don’t know me. They usually hail from states like Arkansas and Washington and Wyoming. I feel bad for their families for a fleeting moment, and then I move on to the next story. It’s hard not to become a little numb to all the accidents when they happen so often.

This time, it’s different. This time, it hits close to home.

On March 23, a sunny Saturday morning, my cousin Rory was killed in an accident with a semi on a major highway only miles from our farm. Rory was 30 years old, a young 30. Sometimes he seemed more like 22 or 23. He had lived in the oil field for the past two years, originally hailing from Reno, Nevada, but always connected to western North Dakota and especially his Grandpa Tom, an Irish farmer who was a lifelong native of the area. Rory came here to stay in 2011, the same year I did, and quickly made a name for himself with his love for action and persistence to engage anyone and everyone around him in a debate. Locals began to recognize his boisterous laugh and crooked hat. He lived in his little four-room cabin in the bottom of a tree-filled break, drove around a dusty Dodge Neon or one of two old pickups — depending on the day — and took his dog Holiday with him wherever he went. Rory was especially close to two of my brothers. I have to admit, Rory wasn’t always on my good side. He liked to push my buttons and more often than not, I allowed him to, but in the end Rory was a loyal cousin and friend. We had a couple good conversations that last week when he came in visit during my shift at the hotel, the last time I talked to him before his accident. Of course, he didn’t leave that night without one last debate between us: this one over the pronunciation of Phuket, Thailand. (Our debates, as you can see, often involved matters of little to no real importance.) I don’t think we ever figured out who was right… Oh well.

I wish I could write everything I want to write about Rory. I spoke some words about our friend-foe relationship at his family service, and I think that’s where those words will have to stay. For now, I have had my fill of memories and sad farewells. But I don’t feel I could continue to write a cheeky blog about the oil field without recognizing some of the harsh realities, the losses that we experience in the untamed face of progress. The oil field is bringing our area a lot of possibilities and exciting opportunities. But sometimes… sometimes it takes just a little too much in return.

Rory is lying at rest next to his Grandpa Tom in a small western North Dakota cemetery, only yards away from my own Grandpa Tim and Grandma Marjorie. They lie there under granite headstones, memories of the past homesteading days and casualties of the current energy-producing madhouse. They lie there as reminders to give what we can, remember those who have gone before us and most importantly, appreciate the ones still left around us.

Because sometimes, we don’t think about those things enough until it’s one of our own who reminds us.

When my Grandma Tim died in 2005, I wrote a poem that was inspired by his life in western North Dakota and, more specifically, the small cemetery where he is buried. I thought it was fitting for Rory too, so I’m sharing it below.

Prairie Winds 

The meadowlark is singing, singing sweetly sad its song
Its melody is simple, caring not for right or wrong
How can it know of mortal pain
When singing sweet its song?

The prairie wind is blowing, breezing softly by the bales
The grasses dip their heads before its never-ending gales
What does it care for life or death?
Its forces never fail.

The endless sky is stretching, sunlight sinking to the west
It glows upon a graveyard where beloved lie at rest
It shines there but a moment
And it gathers to the west

A man is but a memory, a twinkling of the eye
His time is like the prairie wind, a softly fading sigh
Only he can sing his song before he passes by
And goes to meet his Maker in the endless prairie sky.

Rest in Peace, Rory. Here’s one last North Dakota sunset for ya.

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Musings, North Dakota Living

Rules of the Road, Oil Field Edition

Lately, our highways in the oil field have been getting more media coverage with the increase in accidents, traffic congestion and difficulty of travel in winter weather. This topic is nothing new, but I thought I would throw together a little list of “Rules of the Road: Oil Field Edition.” Young drivers in our state have to study the Rules of the Road handbook when they prepare to take a permit test. Maybe drivers should have to study a new set of rules when they move to the oil field. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared. Drive here for long, and you will probably end up with a handful of crazy stories and close calls.

Just one of many oil field accidents
Just one of many oil field accidents

For example, I mentioned the pickups passing me on glare ice in my last post. Another case in point: A few Saturdays ago, I drove my little bus crammed full of speech kids to Mott, ND; and somewhere around the first crack of daylight and my 15th yawn, I watched a pickup in front of me attempt to pass a semi uphill and in fog so thick you could cut it with a knife. Of course, a pair of headlights came straight at him out of the fog, and he was forced to take the ditch. Thank goodness the oncoming vehicle didn’t take the same ditch at the same time, or they would have collided right to the left of us.

These incidents have got me thinking about the changes in our previously quiet little Midwest corner. It’s not simply an issue of “traffic” like they have in larger metropolitan areas; and of course, crazy drivers exist everywhere. It’s more the issue of the traffic’s makeup. It’s the thousands of semis, pickups, and more semis crammed onto two-lane highways that were not built to accommodate them. According to a recent edition of the McKenzie County Farmer, up to 12,000 vehicles a day pass through the nearby little town of Alexander. Who could have predicted such a dramatic turn? I remember once about 12 years ago, my Grandpa Tim, an old farmer from the area, commented to me, “Boy, Rachel, I sure saw a lot of traffic this morning. It’s getting crazy around here. I counted seven vehicles on the way to town!” (He lived three miles out of Alexander.) I laughed then, but part of me wonders what he would think about the current state of his hometown if he were around to see it.

Anyway, back to the driving advice. Here are just a few Rules of the Road, Oil Field Edition:

1. Avoid Left Turns Whenever Possible: Left turns are dreaded here!  You might sit for half an hour waiting for your chance to break through a traffic gap. If you are forced to make a left turn on any well-traveled highway, keep one eye on your rearview mirror, lest one of the semis barreling down upon you doesn’t notice that you have stopped to turn left. Yikes. Gives me the willies every time.

2. Know the Back Roads: You never know when you might need them. Back roads have saved me hours of waiting behind accidents and traffic jams while trying to make it to work or back to my farm. Even hearing the words “back roads” gives me warm fuzzies (kind of like the words “left turn” gives me willies: see Rule #1). Do some back roads exploring even when you don’t need to. It might save you a major headache tomorrow or next week.

3. Ignore Rock Chips As Long As Possible: Rock chips WILL happen. Currently, I have 6 or 7 cracks in my windshield. But if I rushed in to replace it, another one would most likely appear within a week or two. Truthfully, your car will mostly likely not look as pretty after some time in the oil field. Besides the rock chips in your windshield, you may have rock chips and dents on the body of the vehicle, a thick layer of mud or dust that returns the day after you get a car wash, and other unsightly oil-related things. Recently, on a new semi driver’s first day on the job, he accidentally drove his tanker through town (a big no-no and a $500 fine; they are supposed to use the truck bypass), ended up stuck in the high school school parking lot, and struck and dented one of my student’s vehicles trying to turn around. This proves your vehicle may not be safe anywhere.

Poor guy. Hope he found a new job by now.

Really, you should not bring your new shiny vehicles to the oil field if you care about the aesthetic appeal. Although I love my little gray SUV, the good news is, I have grown up in a family who has never wasted much time or concern on the outer appearance of vehicles. My dad is a pretty well-known lawyer in Bismarck and still drives around old Buicks with the mirrors duct-taped on. I wish I had pictures of the collection of vehicles he has driven around or parked in front of our house. Once, I saw a little car sputtering blue smoke in Bismarck. I chuckled, and then when I got closer, realized it was none other than my dad driving my old high school vehicle, a Plymouth Reliant. All I could do was shake my head. The old Reliant didn’t last much longer after that.

I digress, but the point is, leave your shiny vehicles at home if you want them to stay shiny.

4. Finally, Avoid Road Rage Whenever Possible: Yes, you will have bad experiences. Yes, semis will pull out in front of you; pickups will pass you only to turn a half mile later; other pickups will pass you on glare ice and uphill in the fog. It is even worse when you attempt to move farm equipment that tops out at 20 mph. Then people REALLY get mad. (I will have to write more about that later.) But as the popular slogan plastered all over the Internet these days says, just Keep Calm and Carry On. I may or may not have given in to righteous anger on the road a time or two, but it’s not worth it. All I can say is, follow a few basic guidelines to best avoid road rage: hug the white line, keep your distance, and ignore the idiots as much as you can.

So there you have it. Four basic rules, but they may save your life, your sanity, or a few minutes of your time. There probably isn’t much we can do about the traffic, but we can do our parts as drivers to make the oil field a safer place. Hopefully, the state of North Dakota will continue to pitch in throughout the duration of the oil boom in an ongoing effort to improve the quality and capacity of our highways. Meanwhile, keep up the good fight out there on the highway… and wave at me if you can see me through the rock chips.