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  • Sarah Smith Warren

Drive or Pull Over

Updated: May 12, 2023

I met Jessie Veeder in the summer of 2006 at the same place I met the rest of my best friend soul mates, a non-profit arts center in the big city of Fargo, North Dakota. And compared to the towns where we all came from with just a couple thousand or a mere few hundred people like Tokio, Carrington, Oaks, Watford City and Aberdeen - yes it was the big city! I think that was what connected our unlikely bunch to create such a deep bond- our commonality in small town living, loving and escaping.

For someone (Jessie) who traveled constantly and basically lived out of her car, I'd never met someone so rooted to her home, her story and her community, even though it was hours away and on the other side of the state. I'm not sure I had even heard of Watford City before I met Jessie. And yes there's a little thing called an oil boom that may have put it on the map, but it is no match for the soothing soul and sound of the stories that Jessie's writing and music tell with every note, every lyric, every sentence. It's nostalgic, cathartic, medicine for your heart and it makes you miss something you didn't know was missing.

I've now made it my actual business to help people and businesses identify and connect to their story and share it. Jessie has been doing this for decades and generously taking us along for the ride. There's such beauty and clarity in not only knowing where you are from, but dedicating your life to sharing it and celebrating it and then carving out your own story there. Welcome Jessie and thank you for always singing us home.

- Sarah Smith Warren is the owner of Soul Space Work, a coaching, consulting and facilitation space dedicated to helping humans make space for their souls in their work and life. Connect with Sarah @soulspacework or

Drive or Pull Over

by Jessie Veeder

I started traveling as a touring musician up and down the middle of America when I was barely 19, fresh off the ranch on the edge of the badlands in Western North Dakota. I took the interstate exits to highways that ran through small towns held up by community colleges and cafes, Main Street bars and churches with steeples, grain elevators and railroads and the promise of spring.

I came with my songs about winter and small town angst, my guitar and my white Chevy car pushing 200,000 miles with a bashed-in trunk from the icy North Dakota streets that render brakes worthless. That trunk, even after it was fixed, would stick sometimes, so I would have to pull down the seat to access my suitcase full of CDs and T-shirts, my set list and microphone and sound system. I played the part of struggling folk singer well, looking up the closest Super 8s and sustaining on fast food and gas station snacks, wondering what it would be like if I upgraded to a band with a van.

I decided I liked the solitude of the gig, but it would have been nice to have backup—a stronger set of arms to help me with the trunk. Or a navigator I could blame when I took the wrong turn through Green Bay that sent me in circles, throwing me off by an hour or two and landing me right in the middle of a blizzard heading west of Bismarck toward home on Interstate 94, white-knuckled on the wheel in the dark pushing midnight.

This predates GPS, but I did have a cell phone. And it’s times like these that a 19-year-old girl calls her dad, as if he has the power to stop the wind whipping blinding snow across a road you can’t see that’s supposed to get you home tonight.

“What should I do?” I asked him, crying in frustration, thinking maybe 90 miles from the ranch was close enough for him to come get me.

I remember now how independent the wide-open road made me feel. I was comfortable there, driving early mornings and through the dead of the night. I navigated four-lane traffic and toll booths with much less confidence, but the highways and cheap hotel rooms seemed to be my element, just waiting there for me to find a story.

How could I be that rooted to the home that raised me yet so completely comfortable on those highways and interstates that stretched on for miles between Midwestern towns? I had no reason, no context in which I could reach back and pull that confidence, I just said yes, even if I was terrified, and got in my car and drove.

But that blizzard quickly humbled me. Exhausted from fifteen hours in the car, I felt helpless, wishing someone could come take the burden of the weather off my shoulders and onto their own.

“Well, there’s not much I can tell you, Jess,” my dad’s voice echoed on the other end of the line. “You either keep driving or you pull over. It’s your call.”

And that was that. There would be no rescuing that night.

So I inched my way off the interstate to the exit to Mott and pulled over to sleep the storm off in the car, waking up every 20 minutes or so, as you do when you’re a young woman alone with nothing but the radio, the car heater on high, three granola bars and the whipping wind to get you through the night.

I supposed then that this is what it means to be grown-up — paying the price for your idiot mistakes or decisions that didn’t turn out as you planned. With all the miles under those tires that needed to be changed, it hadn’t really occurred to me until that moment that the path I was carving for myself was mine alone to drive through.

I had officially left the nest for cheap hotels and coffee shops and a car that would perpetually need repairs, or at least a new set of windshield wipers every once in a while.

“You either drive or pull over. It’s your call.”

But how do you know what to choose? I’ve asked myself that 1,000 times since my dad spoke those words, standing at the back window on the ranch, brow furrowed, worrying, watching the snow blow.

In a few months I’ll turn 40. After all that wandering, the songs and stories settled me back at the ranch in a small community with a new booming economy—western North Dakota suddenly found by the world when they figured out how to bring the oil up. When I was dreaming of a life as a musician and a writer back then, it didn’t occur to me to dream past my twenties, as if the art itself would keep me young forever, not responsible for anything but my songs.

If I just keep driving, I would never have to decide where to land.

Turns out it wasn’t Nashville that called me. Or Minneapolis or Denver, the big cities us small town, Midwestern kids of the 90s were told were an oasis of opportunities. It was a message we received too clear—to come back to our hometowns meant we failed somehow.

But here I am, back at the ranch raising cattle and two young daughters, writing our stories and feeling less like a failure and more like a part of a new vision that includes these rural communities, one that asks sincerely, “Why not here?”

Are our small towns not deserving of artists? If we give up there, if we send them all away, down the road to be swallowed up by the big cities, who will tell our stories? Who will paint our sunsets, sing our praises or call us out? Could we not nurture them here, let them teach our children, send them out in the world and have a soft, supportive and beautiful place for them to land? I think so.

That’s what I’m working on here between the hundreds of miles I put on the state highways and county roads to perform in community halls over potluck suppers, in pioneer museums surrounded by rusty farm equipment or on flatbed trailers at county fairs while kids like me say goodbye to their 4-H steers in the livestock barn next door.

I’m continually convinced the question should have never been what a community can do for you, but what you can do for your community. Much like that night spent in my car in that blinding blizzard all those years ago, sometimes the only one there to save us is ourselves.

In addition to her career as a writer and performer, Jessie Veeder is a founding member and director of McKenzie County’s Long X Arts Foundation where she works to help create and promote cultural and arts based activities in her hometown, blending her love and connection to the arts with her drive to make her community a better place to work and live. She writes a weekly column for Forum Communications and hosts a weekly podcast with her husband.

Find out more at

Instagram @jessieveeder

Facebook @veederranch

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