Veeder: From the top of the hill
Columnist Jessie Veeder shares her reflections on the passage of time during a recent stroll of her farmstead.
WATFORD CITY, N.D. — Sometimes, when the day is coming to a slow close and my head is spinning — with worry and lists, schedules and as the dishes sit waiting on the table, the kids playing in the yard, desperately needing a bath — I slip on my boots and head out the door.
I’m usually not gone long, and my husband has grown accustomed to this behavior, understanding it’s not a storm out, or a give up, or a frustrated stomp, but a ritual that I need to put a flush in my cheeks and make sure I’m still alive out here where the trucks kick up dust on the pink road and the barn cats quietly wait in the rafters of the old buildings for a mouse to scatter by.
I tell him I need to go walking and he knows which trail I’ll take, down through the barnyard, past the water tank and up the face of the gumbo hill, the one that lets you look back at the corrals where the yard light glows, the one that gives you the perfect view of the barn’s silhouette, tall and dark against a sky that is putting on its last show of the night as it runs out of light.
It’s a ritual that needs timing, because that sun, once it decides, goes quickly to the other side of the world.
Sometimes if I get out early enough, I head a little further east to check out how the light hits the buttes in my favorite pasture, making the hills look gold, purple and so far away. Sometimes I just keep walking until dark. Sometimes the evening finds me sitting on a rock or pacing in the middle of the ancient teepee rings that still leave their mark on the flat spot on the hill. I like to stand there and imagine a world with no buildings and no lights on the horizon. I examine the fire ring, close my eyes and think about sleeping under the leather of a teepee, covered in the skins of the animals, under a sky that promised rain and wind and snow and a sunrise every morning.
The same sky that promises me these things, but cannot promise anything else.
I think of these people, the ones who arranged these rocks, hunted these coulees, and watched the horizons and I am humbled by the mystery of the ticking thing we call time.
And I wonder what they called it.
Because I take to those hills and look back at my home — the sections of our fences that have been washed away by the melting snow, the old barn that needs to be torn down, the threshing machine looking ancient and ominous in the shade of the hill — I’m reminded that time takes its toll on this land the same way it puts lines around the corners of my eyes, and there is not one thing man can make to stop it.
This understanding is neither comforting nor nostalgic. It just is. Time builds roads and oil wells, new houses and fences and bigger power lines stretching across a landscape. Time grows the trees, erodes the creek banks, crumbles the hills with the weight of the snow, puts blooms on the flowers and withers them away just the same.
I climb that hill, look back at that farmstead and remember those kids we used to be, running through the haystacks and searching the barn for lost kittens. I climb to that hill and I remember my grandmother in her shorts and tank top, exposing her brown skin while she worked in the garden. I remember my first ride on a horse by myself, getting bucked off near the old shop, hunting for Easter eggs with the neighbor girls in the gumbo hills behind my grandmother’s house, branding cattle in the round pen.
From the top of the hill, I could still be ten years old and my grandmother could be digging up potatoes. From the top of the hill, my cousins could be hiding in the hay bales and my dad could be waiting on the side of the barn to jump out and scare them, sending them running and laughing and screaming. From the top of the hill, the neighbor girls could be pulling up in their dad’s pickup, dressed in pastels and rain boots, ready to hunt for eggs. From the top of the hill, you don’t notice all the work that needs to be done on the fences, the water tanks, roof of the shop and the crumbling barn.
From the top of the hill, that yard light is still glowing the same color it was when I would come in from an evening chasing cattle with my dad or catching frogs with my cousins to a yard filled with the smell of my grandmother’s cooking.
From the top of the hill, the only thing certain to change is the sky and everything else is forever.
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Greetings from the ranch in western North Dakota and thank you so much for reading. If you're interested in more stories and reflections on rural living, its characters, heartbreaks, triumphs, absurdity and what it means to live, love and parent in the middle of nowhere, check out more of my Coming Home columns below. As always, I love to hear from you! Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.