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Jessie Veeder, Published February 23 2013

Coming Home: Learning to fly when you prefer roots to wings

I board a small airplane in the middle of oil country. I lug my suitcase and stand in line behind a stream of young men dressed in ball caps and jeans, backpacks slung over their shoulders, callused hands frantically finding a way to link thoughts to whoever is on the other end of that iPhone.

I don’t take note that I’m outnumbered as a woman, 50 to five, on this bumpy, crowded plane out of Williston. I don’t take note because it doesn’t matter much except to wonder where all of these souls might have come from.

I know where they’re going.

In another city I might look at the young man in the seat next to me, his beard a little too long for a person his age, and I might make up his story – he’s off to backpack winter mountain trails or hunt for bears in Alaska.

But not today. Today I’m almost certain he’s heading home.

And I’m almost certain he will return.

After a couple weeks of homemade meals and a reprieve from a grueling schedule he will remember what he’s working for and find himself back on this airplane heading north, wondering about that promotion and how long he might stay.

Maybe for another year.

Maybe forever.

I imagine the same goes for most of the other 50 or so men that are watching the slushy streets and muddy back roads of oil country shrink and disappear into the clouds as they take a deep breath and settle in to their seats, shoulder to shoulder beside men with similar dreams attached to the same wings.

I close my eyes and listen to a voice behind me talk about his wife at home. I hear him worry that he might miss his connecting flight. I know it’s a nervous laugh covering up the anxiety as he explains how he’s been away for her for three months.

I press my face to the window, staring into the white of the clouds and wonder if humans were meant for flight. I wonder if perhaps we should have just taken no for an answer for once and kept our feet on the ground for crying out loud. Because the idea of being up here with all of these stories and hopes, hovering above sleeping wheat fields, frozen lakes and ribbons of roads makes me feel uneasy and lonesome and vulnerable.

Perhaps it’s because no matter how far I might wander, I’ve always preferred roots to wings.

But do we not need both? I imagine these men would argue so, especially the adventurous ones who have found this place with its arms and opportunity wide open to a future they didn’t quite plan. And in the parts of the country where mortgages need to be paid and kids need to be fed, finding wings to fly just might give their roots another chance at life.

Because sometimes we find ourselves planted too deep.

And so I suppose I have a soft spot in my heart for the men on my flight and those who are traveling to my home state by way of trains and trucks and what money they can scrounge up to fix that old minivan. I hear people talk about them as if they were strangers, ghosts of people filling up their cars, filling up the bars and filling up the landscape, and I find myself retorting a defense, concocted not out of pity, but out of a sort of understanding.

Are they strangers? You could say it’s true. But I see something familiar under those baseball caps. I see my husband and the promise we made to do whatever it takes. I hear his voice in the phone calls they make to wives, girlfriends or the family they’ve been missing for weeks and inside wells an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for a circumstance that keeps us safe and secure on the ground of home.

Because I can’t help but recognize that our stories are as close as our shoulders, sitting side-by-side high above our world.

The only difference is that my roots happen to be where their hope flies.

This column was written exclusively for The Forum.

Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.