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Jessie Veeder, Published July 13 2012

Veeder: Out here, ‘neighbor’ has different meaning

WATFORD CITY, N.D. - When you live 30 miles from the nearest gas station, a good mile from your closest neighbor and hours from a pizza delivery service, the idea of a neighborhood takes on an entirely different meaning.

Your sidewalks are road ditches, your white picket fence is barbed wire, and sending your kids out on a bike ride means a half-mile pedal up a gravel hill to meet a friend.

Growing up out here, I took this type of isolated living for granted. The lack of concrete may have hurt my rollerblading career, but as long as someone drove me to the pool in town a couple of times in the summer, I never felt I was missing much.

I adored country living. I would climb the hills in the summer, sled down them in the winter and come home to a hot meal without pausing to think that the contents of my mother’s casserole was directly related to the stockpile of food in her pantry.

Because even though I was called upon several times to run up to the neighbor’s to borrow a cup of sugar, a couple of eggs or a can of refried beans, I never wondered how my mother always seemed to have the right things in her cupboards.

It didn’t take long after our move back to the ranch for me to realize the task of feeding yourself without a grocery store down the block is a skill that requires some polishing. For the times I started a pasta sauce without noodles or rhubarb jam without a canning jar in site, my mother’s pantry became my refuge.

And she never says a word about it as I fly into her driveway in a panic. She just sets that missing ingredient neatly on the kitchen counter knowing full well that the favor is sure to be returned.

That’s how it is out here, surrounded by alfalfa fields and cattle trails. With all of the beauty and space comes an unshakable pang of isolation. It’s there when you open your cupboards after work at 8 p.m., and it’s magnified into fear and panic at the thought of an emergency or injury back in these hills.

But the fact that we don’t have sidewalks connecting our houses becomes less important than that gravel road that brings us together for coffee or that voice on the other end of the phone you’re certain will be there no matter the hour.

When I left the ranch 11 years ago, the landscape was slowly quieting. Our neighbors down the road were getting older. Their things were being moved to town, and their yard lights were switching off one by one.

So I packed up my Chevy and prepared for the lifestyle I once knew to disappear in the dust as I went out to find myself.

I feared the fast-paced world was working to catch up with the quiet place where I grew up.

And I worried what my neighborhood might look like if I were ever given the opportunity to return.

But last Saturday my husband and I were eating breakfast in my mother’s kitchen five days after a fire threatened to burn down our home. In between sips of coffee, there was a knock on the door.

Two of my dad’s great-uncles, his cousin from a few farmsteads down and our friend from the south had come with a tractor and the intention to help with the plumbing, carry in a load of lumber, clean up and do what they could on a Saturday morning in the middle of summer in the middle of a world that I suddenly realized hadn’t changed much after all.

Because between these barbed wire fences there is an unspoken understanding that we need each other to survive, to get through the rough times and to simply keep one another company.

And as long as there are gravel roads, there will be neighbors on the other end who will be there with a cup of sugar or a shovel.

And out here, that means everything.

Jessie Veeder is a 28-year-old musician and writer. She lives near Watford City, N.D., with her husband, on the ranch where she grew up.