Musings, North Dakota Living, Teaching

Snow Day with Capital Letters

A Snow Day. I cannot believe it. I’m so in awe, that I’m honoring the Snow Day by capitalizing it. (That is how an English teacher uses the tricks of the language to show appreciation. Or proves herself to be a giant dork.)

Our frosty farm, location of my Snow Day
Our frosty farm, location of my Snow Day

This morning when I saw the voicemail on my phone from the familiar 444 school-alert number, my heart skipped a beat. But for all the times the voicemail notifications from the 444 number have appeared before 7 a.m., my hopes for a Snow Day never come true. So I listened to the voicemail eagerly, hoping at least for a late start that would allow me to sit and drink coffee at my kitchen table, a nonexistent treat during the work week.

It was even better than I had hoped: a real live Snow Day! I know that we will have to make it up sooner or later, probably at the end of the school year, but whatever. For now, it feels glorious. It’s like a present when it’s not even your birthday. It’s like a second Christmas. It’s like receiving a package in a snow-covered mailbox.

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It’s like a warm summer morni– No. Too far.

I will say that Snow Days as an adult are a little different than they were growing up. Snows Days now come a little less freely, a little more burdened with grown-up responsibilities. I am not complaining, mind you. It’s just that now, Snow Days are a chance to catch up on chores and duties (yuck) that otherwise I wouldn’t have time to do. So, this morning after listening to the voicemail, I thought about basking in Snow-Day-ness by lying in my bed for another couple hours, then drinking coffee at my kitchen table for another couple hours, then immersing myself in my guilty pleasure, Pinterest, for another couple hours, then perhaps painting my nails a bright coral, and then… Well you get the picture. But an image popped into my mind: a stack of 16 research papers at school, sitting untouched, the only 16 remaining ungraded papers of the 60-some I collected a week ago. And a whole day of free time to work on them. Yuck again. But the image wouldn’t go away. So recklessly, I bundled up, went out into the snow to feed my dogs, and started my sturdy little Ford Escape to make the 13-mile trip to town to collect my grown-up responsibility.

No blizzard can keep an English teacher away from her true love, a stack of research papers.

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Actually, that is not true. Grading research papers is not enjoyable. Of all my English teaching duties, it is my least favorite. But it’s also a duty I feel compelled to do, so every winter I spend a unit teaching freshmen the ins and outs of navigating the library and using MLA style and citing sources properly. It’s usually quite a mess, but if my students even come out of the unit with a somewhat-readable paper and an understanding of the word “plagiarism,” I feel I’ve accomplished something.

This morning, my motivation for driving to town in a blizzard was not so much for my students’ greater development in the world of research; but selfishly, the thought of getting the weight of the remaining ungraded research papers off my mind was just too irresistible to ignore. So to town I went. It really wasn’t that bad despite the hours of freezing rain we got overnight followed by hours of blustery snow this morning. I had to go 25 to 30 mph, but there were few vehicles on the road and even fewer trucks, a major relief. Of course, there is always the one idiot. Or two. On my way to town, I was passed by a pickup going about 50 on glare ice. Not smart. When I got to town 5 minutes later, he was only two vehicles ahead of me. Worth it? I think not. On the way home, I was passed by another pickup on glare ice. A few miles later, of course, he was backing out of the ditch. What is it with these guys?

I made it safely there and back, though, mission accomplished and research papers on the seat next to me. Once I got near our farm, our own road was nice and quiet, and the ice and snow stuck to the tree branches was so pretty I had to delay grading for a few minutes to take some pictures. It might be almost spring, but I still love winter storms. This one is even more bearable because we know that spring weather is indeed lurking somewhere around the corner, even a distant corner, and we won’t have many more of these blustery scenes until next winter.

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Now, several hours later, I’m safely in my house, drinking coffee in my kitchen, watching the wind blow and the snow pile up outside. My remaining research papers are graded. I have to admit, this Snow Day couldn’t have come at a better time, considering the grading and lesson plans that have been building up and the lack of time to get them done. It might not be the laziest Snow Day I’ve ever had, but I’ll take it. It’s a Snow Day, and that deserves some capital letters. Congratulations to the rest of you who were lucky enough to get one, too!

I even painted my nails.

Note to self: I might have to come back and read this happy post later this spring when we add on that extra day on the end of the school year!

The corner of Snow Day and Utter Bliss
The corner of Snow Day and Happiness
Musings, North Dakota Living

Grandma Extraordinaire

This week in Boomtown Diaries, I’m turning my focus away from the oil field, from teaching, from farming, from life in western North Dakota and am writing a few words instead regarding a very special lady. This Saturday, March 2, this very special lady turns 81. She is my Grandma Marilyn: Grandma extraordinaire, baker of beautiful cakes, sewer of baby blankets, coupon saver, North Dakota farm wife, and defender and protector of grandkids.

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When you think of an ideal grandma, you might as well picture mine. When I was little, I used to spend days or weeks on her farm in northeast North Dakota. My grandma and I would walk the gravel road with the dogs, catch kittens in the old red barn, smell lilacs, swing on the stained wood garden swing, and take trips into town for donuts and milk. I would cry every time I left her to go back to my parents. (Although to be fair, I usually cried when I left my parents too. What can I say; I’ve always been a softy.)

When I was in 6th grade, she and my Grandpa Wayne retired from farming and moved to Bismarck permanently to be closer to their eight grandkids. It was a dream come true. Now my ideal grandma lived right across the cemetery from us, only a bike ride away. My parents made me mad? I would go to Grandma’s. I was craving homemade cake frosting? I would go to Grandma’s. I was home sick from school? Those were the best days! I would go to Grandma’s, and she would lavish me with attention, love, and cups of Sprite while we watched Price is Right together. I admit, I may have faked illness a time or two.

Before I knew Grandma Marilyn as my grandma, she was a fiery North Dakota farm wife for much of her life. She grew up in the Great Depression, was Valedictorian of her class in the small town of Michigan, received a teaching certificate from Mayville State, and taught in a one-room prairie schoolhouse before marrying my Grandpa Wayne. They had been in high school together but didn’t become a couple until after she scared off a pretty blonde he was with at a dance. Well, my grandpa says she was pretty. My grandma says she wasn’t. They lived on an Army base in Utah for a while and then in an apartment over a shop in town while my grandpa drove a truck for Sweetheart Bread, worked as a farm hand, and finally, purchased his own farm outside of Michigan when my mother was little.

Although they don’t farm anymore, my grandparents are true North Dakota pioneers. They have strong Norwegian roots, a rich history of scratching out a living from the eastern North Dakota soil, and some pretty entertaining stories of my grandma working as my grandpa’s farm hand, usually as a grain truck driver. My grandma also makes some mean lefse and krumkake in case you were wondering. She makes mean lots of things, actually. One mystery I’ve never figured out is why her smushed-up eggs taste so much better than mine do, and even her toast. What the heck?

I could never fit enough stories into one blog post to describe my Grandma Marilyn. It would take a whole book. Fast forward to her 81st year, and you have one award-winning grandma. At least, if there were Grandma Awards, she would get one. She shows up to everything even remotely involving her grandkids. She would show up at my high school and college cross country meets where it was sleeting so hard it was blowing sideways, just to watch a race that lasted for less than 20 minutes. In fact, she has shown up at every track meet, baseball game, basketball game, football game, soccer game (you get the picture) plus every piano recital, spelling bee and music festival in which my brothers, cousins and I have performed. On weeks of regional basketball tournaments, she usually doesn’t sleep. She is either too nervous thinking about the game the next day, or too excited thinking about the game the night before. Last fall, she and my grandpa showed up at a crowded bar to watch Danny and I play a Halloween show with our bluegrass band The Dwaylors. She chose a seat at a small table on the edge of the dance floor. When a tall young man dressed as a cowboy got in her way, she tapped him neatly on the shoulder and politely demanded that he move out of the way so she could see her grandkids. He moved. The best part was, within a few minutes, he became her personal bouncer and was clearing out all the other costume-wearing Halloween revelers who blocked her view of the stage.

Grandma at the Halloween show. That is actually not a creepy old man on the left - it is our cousin Adam in a mask!
Grandma at the Halloween show. That is actually not a creepy old man on the left – it is our cousin Adam in a mask!

Grandma Marilyn is more than just our #1 Fan.  Anytime my brothers, cousins or I need someone to have our backs, we have Grandma. If a ref calls a foul against one of my brothers, he is crooked. If a boyfriend or girlfriend breaks one of our hearts, he or she has no brains. If we aren’t named Valedictorians, the books are probably rigged.

But who doesn’t need at least one never-wavering supporter in life? Shouldn’t we all have someone who knows we can do no wrong, who has our backs no matter what and is always smiling and holding a plate of cookies? I know that the eight of us grandkids would consider ourselves the luckiest grandkids alive.

In her 81st year, I hope this very special lady, North Dakota pioneer and Grandma Extraordinaire, finds just a piece of the love and happiness that she has given all of us. And since she has, true to form, become the most devoted reader of Boomtown Diaries since blog post #1, I know she is reading this on her basement computer. So I love you, Grandma! Happy birthday week!

Grandma Marilyn (center) with Grandpa Wayne and some of her own biggest fans
Grandma Marilyn (center) with some of her own biggest fans
Musings, North Dakota Living, Teaching

Just Another Hat

Teachers wear many hats. We are not merely instructing children on the arts of our subject areas, children who sit in straight rows with bright, shiny faces and raise their hands and remember their pencils, and whose lives are changed dramatically by our gentle encouragement to become the best they can be. I wish teaching was like that, but that’s for the movies. Teaching is actually more like this:

“Miss D., he’s poking me!”

“Miss D., I forgot my pencil! Actually someone stole it from my locker! Oh, and they stole my notebook and textbook too! I know, it’s weird someone would want to steal a grammar textbook, but I swear that’s what happened!”

“Miss D., are you seriously giving us a writing assignment?”

“Miss D., now he’s kicking my desk!”

“Miss D., are you seriously making us read?”

“Miss D., can we not do anything today? Can we just have nap time?”

“Miss D., now he’s trying to write on my arm!”

Teachers are mediators, nurses, counselors, referees, bosses, coaches, and listening ears — never mind attempting to squeeze in time for instructing the basic use of a conjunctive adverb. Last year, at the end of a particularly frazzling period with 7th graders, one of them looked at me and commented sincerely, “Man, your job must be so easy! You don’t even have to do homework like we do!” I looked at the stack of 65 research papers sitting on my desk waiting to be graded. I looked at my unfinished lesson plans for the next day and the next week. I looked around the room at 22 7th graders bouncing up and down in their seats. I felt my head pounding. I looked at the clock. It was only 9:45 a.m. Not good.

“Yep,” I said with a sigh. “My job is so easy.” He nodded, satisfied, and gathered his things for his next class.

Yesterday, I got the chance to try on a new teaching hat: Driving a bus. This is not something I signed up for when I went into teaching. I think I envisioned all the neat rows of students with bright, shiny faces raising their hands and having more fulfilled lives because of my teaching instruction – the ones in the movies. I did not envision getting up at 5 a.m. on a Saturday to start a frosty yellow school bus and pick up a pile of speech kids who forget scripts and money and dress shirts at home.

But, when the athletic director informed me that I would be driving a bus to some of my speech meets, I swallowed my concern and nodded. I drive grain trucks and combines, I thought to myself. How hard can it be to drive a bus? I tried not to think of the fact that children whose parents love them deeply are a little more important that a heap of barley, and I tried not to think of the long train of oil trucks that usually accompany me to school in the morning, only yards behind my little SUV. Besides, this was one of the “short buses,” which is little more than a glorified 14-passenger van. Drivers don’t need a bus license for this kind of bus.

So instead of arguing, I got up yesterday morning at 5, drove to Watford, found my assigned bus in the bus lot, started it, scraped the frost off the windows (not an easy task when I am 5’1″ and the sad little ice scraper barely extends past my arm), messed around with the switches, figured out how to turn on the strobe lamp on top of the bus, turned on the heaters for the kids, and drove to the high school to pick them up. They piled on, faces excited for the first speech season of the year, and we took off.

And the thing is, it went just fine. The fog was a bit thick; the traffic was moderately heavy; it was early in the morning. But otherwise, I created a few rules in my mind and stuck to them:

  • Hug the white line
  • Keep distance from the oil trucks
  • Don’t let the kids know I’ve never done this before
  • Stop at railroad crossings (I only had to do this twice)
  • Avoid giving obscene gestures to jerks while driving a vehicle plastered with our school name on the side

I didn’t mind trying on another hat, in the end. It was a good day. I had to endure a few comments, of course. When I parked the bus at our destination, the driver in the bus next to me looked at me in amazement. He leaned out his window. “You’re the tiniest bus driver I’ve ever seen!” he yelled with a grin on his face. My friend Allie also about died laughing when she saw me climb into the bus at the end of the speech meet. She’s an English teacher and spent a few years in a Class B school, so if anyone understands what it’s like to get roped into things, she does. “Be good to her!” she called to my kids before snapping a picture of me in my short bus.

The best part: God rewarded me with a sunrise in the badlands on my way there, lifting the fog just enough for me to see, and a sunset in the badlands on my way back. It was absolutely breathtaking. The other best part: My kids gathered their things when I parked at the school, thanked me sincerely for taking them, proclaimed how fun it was, and went cheerfully home to their parents. They never knew all the anxiety I suffered beforehand.

Yes, it was a good day. And what would teaching be without a few more hats?

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Musings, North Dakota Living, Teaching

Teaching, Farming, Exasperating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Irony of Empty

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

Intriguing…

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

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

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

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

Look below:

Illustration by NPR/NASA
Illustration by NPR/NASA

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

Here is a closer view:

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

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

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

You can find the original National Geographic article here.

And the original NPR blog here.

Musings, North Dakota Living, Teaching

I Say Creek, You Say Crick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musings, North Dakota Living

Small Talk

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

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

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

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

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

Lucy plays in the snow:

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Blackjack rolls in the snow:

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Chico explores in the snow:

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

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

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

Musings, North Dakota Living

My Top 7 List

The holidays are a great time to count your blessings, so I started counting. Here is my little humble list titled:

The 7 Best Things About Living in the Oil Patch in No Particular Order

(Top 10 seemed cliché)

7. The activity: Rather than a ghost town, which was the direction we were heading, we have a boomtown. Several boomtowns across this side of the state, in fact. The oil field radiates with a constant hum of activity, sometimes better described as a roar. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, North Dakota’s growth percentage is three times the national average and has increased 2.17 percent in one year alone. It’s like a swarming nest of wasps – fast-paced, exciting and dangerous.

6. The financial successes: Our oil patch is single-handedly helping out thousands of struggling individuals and families from all over the country, as I’ve mentioned before. The U.S. is staggering under recession and high unemployment, but North Dakota has 22,000 more jobs than job applicants and a 2.4 percent unemployment rate (the lowest in the nation), according to the Bismarck Tribune. Maybe our far north sliver of the U.S. is giving people a second chance. At parent-teacher conferences last October, I talked to two fathers who came here from western Montana. Both used to be loggers and had been out of work for two years or more. Maybe they’re living in campers and missing the mountains, but they’re finally making ends meet again. I love success stories, even if they’re not exactly fairy tales.

5. The increase in small business: Is there any other place with this many food trucks outside of state fair grounds? Food trucks scattered around – where it’s legal for them to park, at least – make burritos, burgers, and anything in between. Pizza Pie on the Fly in Watford City has the tastiest breadsticks with ranch on this side of the Montana state border. (I’m still waiting for a mini donut truck, though.) Independently owned hotels and laundromats appear like magic. We still have a lot of growing pains and a lot of needs yet to cover, but it’s also a place where small business owners get a chance to make it happen.

4. The music: Unfortunately, we don’t have a huge music scene here, but my brother Danny, our cousin Adam and I play occasionally in a bluegrass-folk group called the Dwaylors (a combination of our last names). With the growth and activity, we have had more opportunities to play for people, and along with that comes some pretty enthusiastic crowds. We also have jams on Wednesday nights and have played with guitar players, fiddle players, bass players, songwriters and even music producers from all over the country and from all musical genres who are happy for a chance just to play a little music.

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3. The cool scenery: Ok, I admit I complain sometimes about I-Spy-All-the-Wells-Drills-Man-Camps-and-Especially-Trucks, but there is something impressive about it all. The landscape that I love is still there, hidden underneath, but now I can even see it eerily at night with all the flares everywhere. And the flares will never be able to extinguish the incredible sunsets. In fact, they probably only add their own colors.

2. The special treatment: Ok, I also admit I have written less-than-flattering things about some of the local oily men. And I was not exaggerating. However, I think any girl would be lying to you if they said they didn’t appreciate at least some of it. Men open doors for us, pay for our drinks, and allow us ahead of them in line at the grocery store; and when we leave town for other “normal” cities outside of the oil field, the sudden lack of overbearing male attention is, well, weird. Suddenly I’m forced to accept my general mediocrity in the outside world.

Kidding.

1. The people: I have never met so many interesting people in one place. My teaching job in the heart of the oil field can be frustrating at times, but it’s also challenging and enriching. Almost on a weekly basis, we receive new students from the West Coast, East Coast, Deep South and Midwest. Some have never moved and some have moved 12 times. Some are grumpy about living in campers, sharing bunk beds with little brothers, and some are just relieved their dads are working again. Some leave as quickly as they come. Few teaching jobs boast the opportunity for so many students from so many different places to sit and learn together in one classroom. The class dynamics are interesting. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It reminds me to appreciate my own family and our deep roots here in the Midwest.

What is your favorite part about the place you call home?

Merry Christmas!

Musings, North Dakota Living

Defending the Homeland

One thing I have noticed in the last year is the chasm between two separate attitudes regarding our physical surroundings; one, a love and appreciation for the landscape of western North Dakota, and two, dislike or even loathing of the landscape of western North Dakota.

Attitude #1. I admit, western North Dakota is not for everyone. It’s for me, though. When I was growing up, I soaked it in. I loved the rolling plains, the whispering breezes, the clouds. Every night was a different painting, equally as beautiful as the night before, whether the blazing sun dipped down in sweeps of pink and blue or great thunderheads loomed flashing on the horizon. But it’s a lonely beauty. Trees do not crowd the horizon here, which is why we are able to see every detail of every sunset. In some places, badlands jut out of the ground abruptly in baked cliffs of clay. In others, prairie grass rolls gradually down into foliage-filled breaks and coolies. Creeks are rare; lakes and ponds are rarer. It’s not quite breathtaking like the mountains in Montana, nor a lush, green, tree-filled landscape like our neighbors to the east in Minnesota. But I love it. Something about the loneliness has always spoken to me.

I think a lot of locals here feel the same sense of pride for this area. As for the badlands, for the most part both locals and visitors to the state appreciate their stark dramatic beauty.

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Attitude #2. Some do not so much agree with my loving sentiment. I have seen or heard the phrases “desolate wasteland” and “barren wasteland” used several times to describe the area. The descriptions “ugly,” “treeless,” and “no lakes,” come up now and then. One night, I asked a man named Charles where he was from.

Oklahoma.

Does he go by Chuck or Charlie?

No, only Charles. Not Chuck. Hate the name Chuck. Chuck sounds like a name for a moron. And where does a young lady such as myself hail from?

Well, I grew up here in North Dakota and spent summers in the area.

Wow, I’m sorry.

Why?

Because this place looks like a horrible, ugly, desolate wasteland.

Oh, that’s ok. As long as we’re being blunt and rude, you look like a Chuck. Did I say that out loud? (I did. I was joking, but it turns out Charles does not have a sense of humor.)

It’s true that our landscape has changed some. Some of the openness has been replaced by drills, wells, scoria roads, flares, man camps… It’s probably not enhanced by the garbage scattered everywhere. It piles up in the ditches as fast as volunteer groups can pick it up. Either way, whether it has changed or not, I can’t make people love western North Dakota any more than I could decide to not love it. That’s ok, though. People just see things differently. Maybe here, it’s more about seeing the little details in the landscape that the big, open picture as a whole.

Let me illustrate. Where some might look out of truck windows to see this:

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Some of us see things more like this:

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I love this place. I can’t help it. Pictures like these, and the ones in my mind, are all I really need to defend it.

Musings, North Dakota Living

Leaving the Oil Field; Taking it With Me

The title does not refer to the abundance of mud on my shoes, although I dragged plenty of that with me to the Minneapolis aiport. My most recent mode of transportation out of the oil field allowed me to travel part of my journey with some my Bakken compadres instead of leaving them in the dust. Literally. (There’s a lot of dust in the Bakken.)

This Thanksgiving, my family went to North Carolina to visit my oldest brother Andy and his wife Shawna. I flew out of Williston’s tiny Sloulin Field Aiport.

I have not flown out of Williston since the oil boom hit. Let me give you a little rundown. In the 2000 census, Williston had around 12,500 people. Now, newspapers estimate it is closer to 22,000 people, so it has almost doubled in size in the last several years; and that’s only Williston, not the rest of the Bakken. Williston’s airport is currently servicing thousands more people than it was designed for. None of this, however, crossed my mind when I got my plane ticket. I was just relieved not to have to drive hours to the next closest airport.

It turned out to be a little more of an adventure than I was anticipating. After leaving my teaching job early for my 47-mile drive to Williston, dodging daytime traffic like a MarioKart driver – which I don’t generally have to do, being hidden safely in school during the workday – I arrived at the airport a bit late only to be met with what seemed to be miles of muddy pickups parked haphazardly in every possible location. There were so many that they were spreading down the frontage roads surrounding the airport. I was beginning to contemplate the dangers of parking at Walmart a few lots away when a pickup left, opening up a spot. I zoomed in, hoping it was legal. Minor details. I gathered my belongings and trudged through the slush with my suitcase, picking up a layer of mud on the bottom of my boots along the way.

Pickups lined up at the airport. Of the hundreds of vehicles parked here during Thanksgiving break, about 75% are pickups. These three have California, Montana, and Texas plates, and next to them (not pictured) are pickups from Alabama and Wyoming – a pretty good sampling of the oil field.

When I finally got through the mad rush of getting my boarding pass and going through security, I had some time to relax before boarding the plane. It was then that my surroundings finally struck me.

I realized I wasn’t in a typical airport. First of all, instead of the usual advertisements on the wall for exotic travel locations and imported vodka, the faux wood wall panels were caked with oil-related advertisements only: fracking technology, oil field GPS services, and housing options. Second, I was sitting next to one of only two other women in the entire waiting area, and she looked like she could beat up most of the men. I liked that about her. Scattered around on every available chair were scruffy males mainly in their 20s, 30s, and 40s of various builds and ethnicities. Two were speaking a Middle Eastern language I didn’t recognize. Two others within earshot were discussing whose home state was better: Florida or Arkansas. Some were wearing baseball caps from Kansas City, California, and Colorado. A couple had jeans tucked into cowboy boots. One individual was passed out on his chair with his head slumped on his chest, looking like he was sleeping off a hangover. It was a perfect sampling of the oil field in one tiny airport sitting area.

I found myself fascinated by everyone around me. In a Thanksgiving church service last week, the pastor had encouraged us to feel gratitude for the overabundance of jobs in our area and the 2.4% unemployment rate rather than cursing the oil field and what it has done to our homes. “After all,” he had said, “people must be coming from hard times if they’re willing to live in a camper in your backyard just to make some money.” It was true, I thought. What hard times are these men coming from? What are their stories? Do they have wives back home, or aging grandmothers? Are they excited to escape the oil field for a few days? I saw several men I would like to interrogate: a few friendly-looking oil workers, a well-dressed business-looking man and one older gentleman in a neat wool suit jacket and matching driving cap who looked like a local farmer. He reminded me of my Grandpa Tim.

As I walked down the aisle toward seat 9C, I anticipated getting to know my seat partner. Then I caught a glimpse of the man in 9D. The hangover man. He had somehow moved seats but not demeanors. He was still passed out, head slumped on chest, and when I got closer I realized, reeking of alcohol. He didn’t move a muscle when I sat down.

I decided not to “accidentally” fall into his lap in an attempt to wake him up. Swallowing my disappointment a little, I flipped through my magazine instead. Halfway through the hour and a half flight, 9D jerked awake and blinked at me, bewildered. He had a flushed face rather like a rat: pointy nose, beady little eyes. “Well hey there,” he said in slurry grin. He leaned over to look at my magazine, a little too close considering the state of his breath, and I instantly felt myself groan on the inside. “Whatcha readin’? Any-shing good?” Leftover alcohol scent washed over me with every syllable. “Nope,” I replied, trying to be pleasant but mostly trying not to throw up in his lap. “Then you’re not reading the right pagshesh,” he drawled, waiting for a response. I smiled back, keeping my face neutral with great effort. I am not a cold local girl, I told myself. It didn’t work, but I lucked out. Mostly unconcerned with my lack of enthusiasm, he ordered two Blue Moons from the stewardess, put his headphones in, and began bobbing his head to his music, taking long draughts of beer between bobs. The only problem was that every time he bobbed his head, muttering lyrics to himself, a new waft of leftover boozy breath floated my way. I leaned as far into the aisle as I could without being obvious and concentrated on the guy ahead and to the left of me with nice eyes and nice arms. (Nice arms = One great benefit of hard labor jobs, of which we have plenty.)

I decided to skip the interrogation. The less 9D breathed on me, the better. As we were landing, however, I realized something: I felt a strange sense of camaraderie with these people. No, we don’t seem to have much in common, and yes, sometimes I wish they weren’t overrunning our farm; but they have stories, too. They’re coming from all over the United States and beyond to make ends meet. They’re living in junky campers and trailers, putting in long hours and days. They’re flying home to their families this holiday. What kind of stories are they telling over sweet potatoes and turkey? All the trucks on the road? The lack of girls? Frustrations with the lines at Walmart?

It takes a special person to make a life in the Bakken, after all… And survive to tell about it over Thanksgiving dinner.

Musings, North Dakota Living

My Brother, the Farmer

For all my jokes about the oil field, let me say that there are in fact some great people working here too. Teachers, pastors, electricians, farmers, mechanics, truck drivers, public employees, day care providers: hard-working, genuine men and women represent every category. My brother Danny, for example. He has decided to make his livelihood here and become a farmer, and is in the gradual process of taking over my dad’s farm. He’s one year younger than I am, and currently we’re roommates. I keep things clean; he keeps things running. I think we match up pretty well.

Danny didn’t choose the location of the farm. He didn’t choose to place it directly in the center of the Madness. But here it is, and here he is with it to make it happen. Farming fits Danny. He’s an artist, and farming is its own unique kind of art.

Three generations of farmers (Danny is on the left)

I enjoy watching Danny at work. He’s a coaxer. He coaxes little plants to grow in little pots in his kitchen, and crops to grow in big fields. He coaxes kittens out of their hiding places in the barn where they’ve been hiding, wet and shivering, from the dogs. (This particular kitten is now the white terror named Saul running around the farm.)

He coaxes melodies out of his guitar.

He coaxes tractors into reluctantly sputtering to a start, an ability that I don’t quite possess despite helping on the farm for years. He coaxes airplanes into gentle landings. If you’re scared of flying, don’t be, if Danny’s your pilot.

He coaxes art out of things where many wouldn’t see art: bison skulls and moose antlers; a foosball table, each soccer figure now its own unique character; an ordinary piece of wood that, with some careful wood-burning, becomes a beautiful mountain scene with subtle purples and blues skillfully interwoven with a paintbrush. He has taken an ugly branch-scattered backyard – if you could have even called it a backyard before – and created a well-designed fire pit behind his house, perfect for bonfires.

Danny’s fire pit, waiting for spring

Danny also coaxes smiles and stories out of people. I don’t think he asks for it. He just has an easy-going manner that makes people feel comfortable. I’ve seen him make my mom break into a laugh when she’s at her angriest. I think he’s the only one of us with the ability to do that.

Farming fits Danny.

And I’m happy to be here with him.

Musings, North Dakota Living

There are Plenty of Fish in the Sea, but Mostly Sharks Where I Live

Our little corner, the very far northwest corner of the Midwest, is not a bad place to be. The economy is booming, unlike most areas of the country. Help Wanted signs are posted daily. Money is flowing; local commerce is expanding. The streets are bustling, which is saying something, since five or six years ago it looked like we were heading for Ghost Town USA. I should mention that most of the bustling is males. I wish I had statistics on the ratio of men to women here, but I bet it would be a fascinating number. I’m no statistician, and as an English teacher I know I should be looking for credible and reliable sources, but as a practiced exaggerator I’m just going to assume it’s along the lines of 287 to 1.

Girls here will generally agree that going out in public can sometimes feel like swimming in shark-infested waters. By “going out,” I mean going to the grocery store, the bar, or even walking down the street alone. My younger brother Joey was with me one late summer morning, helping me carry things into my classroom. A white pickup full of oily men parked next to the high school was hurling very inappropriate comments my direction. By the fourth or fifth time I walked by, Joey was ready to say something to them, but stopped when he saw me stomping toward the pickup. When I get mad enough, my ears turn bright red and I swear I’m seven feet tall. Let’s just say I was eight feet tall that morning, and after some choice words and index-finger-stabbing in their direction, the pickup was kind enough to leave the premises of the high school. I was just looking out for the safety of the school, I swear… but I’m still happy my administrators didn’t walk outside and hear some of my… choice words.

I can’t always blame these guys. With the lack of women, I have no doubt these men would like a little female attention. But some of the things we hear!… They are real gems. My friend A. and I came up with a short list of some of the best lines we’ve heard since living here:

  • Once, while I was walking down the main street block where one of our two grocery stores sit, a red pickup pulled up next to me. This was one of the variety that I like to call the “tool pickups,” which run rampant in the oil field. (Tool here does not refer to the hammer variety, just to be clear.) Tool pickups are any of the innumerable vehicles drawing an outrageous amount of attention to themselves: they might be jacked up, embellished with smokestacks or Cherry Bomb exhaust systems, slathered with stickers proclaiming genius things such as “Roughnecks: Rednecks, only Tougher!” or “Be a Flirt: Lift your Shirt,” or generally made to match their drivers in classiness levels. (Sorry if I offend you by mentioning you here, guy with the “Lift your Shirt” sticker, but really, you did have a toddler in your pickup.) Anyway, this jacked-up red pickup pulled up beside me. The mustached man in the driver’s seat rolled down the window, said, “Hey baby, I got a song for you,” and blasted from his sound system – wait for it – “You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals.” This is a true story.
  • A. was once approached by a young man who said nothing more than, “Do you live alone?” Thankfully, she did not tell him. We might not be friends anymore. Mainly because she would probably be kidnapped by now.
  • I once had a man sidle up to me at the local bar, slide his finger against my arm, and say in an astonishingly oily voice, “That is a lovely pumpkin colored jacket.” Once I was able to quit choking on my drink, my reply was a mumble along the lines of, “Thanks… um… I think it’s more of a mustard…”
  • Along these same lines, last fall A. had a man run his hands through her hair and say, “You have sexy Goldilocks hair.” While A. does have beautiful golden hair, I feel as though there are better approaches to complimenting women.
  • A. and I were both approached one evening and told, “I work for the New York Times. Could I interview you for the paper?” We looked him up and down. He was wearing muddy boots and canvas pants. He had tattoos covering his forearms. He had several piercings. He did not look the New York Times part. Perhaps he was just trying to fit in with the locals, but somehow we still didn’t believe him. He didn’t get his interview.

These are only a handful; there’s more. Ask me sometime. But really, do we sound like cold local girls? (Or if I can make a super lame metaphor, “cold fish”?) Possibly we do after all. But it wasn’t always that way; I used to be a bit more friendly to the males species. Trust me, a girl learns quickly when to be on the defensive. As evident in the above examples, a girl is wiser not to encourage sharks by throwing them bait in the form of smiles and winks if she wishes to enjoy the rest of her evening in relative peace. So we stick together, wading the waters, hoping to find the ones worth keeping. And there are a few of those around, if you can find them.

Just for fun, I created a poll (mostly to test out the polling feature), so choose the smoothest pickup line by voting below. Or for the girls (and guys I suppose!), feel free to comment with some of the best pickup lines you’ve heard!