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Somewhere in South Dakota

photo by Tony Nelson

July 25th, Somewhere in South Dakota

Sitting on a hillside in the tall grass. The wind is blowing hard and smells sweet, but the sun is so hot I feel like I am being baked like a loaf of bread. The crickets are loud. One jumps on my hand and startles me. In the valley below, the cattle are calling to one another, and the sound echoes up to me, though I can not see them. The view before me is so long it seems the ocean must lay just beyond on it. I take a deep breath and it feels like the first breath I have ever taken. It's depth is intense, and I immediately feel like some strange knot in the center of my chest has suddenly and inexplicably loosened. A few minutes have passed and the feeling remains….

I came across this entry in an old journal the other day. It was written six years ago, long before I came to live on ranch. Before I even knew the difference between a ranch and a farm, a heifer and a hereford. I was traveling back from Denver to Minneapolis, because I'd been in Denver playing a showcase as part of a city-wide music festival. The show hadn't be well attended, or rather, it was very well attended, but mostly by folks who had come to drink, to see and be seen, and who weren't really interested in listening to a girl play banjo, and sing quiet folk songs. It was a long way to drive and I was frustrated with myself, and the company that was booking my tours, even though, really, it was nobody's fault.

I'd been traveling a lot that spring and summer, because I'd released an album to pretty decent reviews, and touring was what one did after such an event. But it felt like I was getting nowhere. I was 32 years old, too old it seemed, to be living out of a suitcase. I had no illusions that I was on the path to fame either, I just loved playing music. I was following my heart, and living my dream, but I was scared. Scared of running out of money, scared of never getting to have a family, scared I was never going to amount to anything as a songwriter, scared of being broke and lonely for the rest of my life. I wanted more from my time on earth than the road could give me, but I had no idea when, if ever, the road would lead to a place I could call home.

I once told a friend, "Sometimes when I am playing music, I feel like I am holding hands with God. Like my feet on the ground are suddenly roots tunneling deep into the earth, finding the Big Love in that rich soil." So many times during those years of touring, I told myself if I felt that way, it couldn't be the wrong thing to continue, to trust that I was right where I needed to be, but, of course, it's hard to have faith when you are scared. I'd left Denver, deflated, and driven through the night, finally stopping at a motel so rustic, the outer doors of the cement block rooms had torn screens with wrought iron curlicues over them. I remember walking on tiptoes across the stained carpet, trying to make as little contact as possible with its greasy coils. It was a black night, and when I stepped through that screen door, the whole sky was so full of stars, it was dazzling for a weary city girl -- an embarrassment of riches, really, too many stars to count, too many to comprehend. I remember feeling overcome with gratitude, blessed in that moment, to be witness to such beauty. I was sad about the shows, about my career, full of worries and woes, but getting to see those stars? Well, to me, those stars looked like God's handwriting. I went back inside and fell asleep.

So, that's the back story to the day on the hillside in South Dakota. The next morning I woke to heavy heat and a sagging mattress. I put the wrinkled jeans I'd worn in Denver back on, and started driving again. When I stopped to walk down that hillside it was for the most unromantic of reasons. I had to go to the bathroom, and hadn't seen anything remotely resembling a gas station or rest area in a long time. I was West River, no doubt, as I made it to De Smet by evening, and this passage was written late in the morning. I read it now and I hear myself trying to be brave -- trying to follow what felt like my path, wondering where I would land, or if I would just keep falling. After I finished writing, I spent just a few more minutes in peaceful silence, then I got back in the car and kept driving. There was no way I could have known that day how close I actually was to the very place I would eventually call home, but when I reread it, it seems a part of me must have sensed it.

As I write this, my baby and my husband play beside me on the floor. "This is pretty impressive stuff we are doing here!" My husband says. We watch as the baby carefully places a ball into a blue cup, then shakes it over his head, crowing with delight at what he's just accomplished. Every day is filled with these small miracles -- the baby's tiny victories, our pleasure watching him learn and grow -- too many to count, too many to comprehend. Turned out I was never falling, just flying toward the place my heart was meant to settle.

I am starting to play music more again. I have plans to record another album. Maybe I'll even do a little touring. Or maybe I won't. I have the luxury of choosing. I am scared -- it's always scary to put yourself out there. 'What if no one likes it?' say the nasty voices in my head. But it's easier to be brave now that I can look out my front door and see God's handwriting on the branches of the lilacs, their purple heads just starting to peek out of their gray winter bark, or on the backs of the horses as they run together, smooth as a silk dress, across the winter grasses, their manes like flags against the wind. I see it most of all in the face of my little boy. I imagine him that night six years ago, looking down on me from his home in the stars. "Don't give up, Mama!" he was saying. I am so glad I listened.

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