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Jen Burman and Dusty Burman work side-by-side to do the chores around the ranch, aided by the family dog and a pair of felines. (Iain Woessner/The Dickinson Press)

'We get our family involved': Massachusetts transplant plants North Dakotan roots

BEACH, N.D. — It's a boy's life for 4-year-old Dusty Burman as he goes about his chores on the Sentinel Butte Ranch, feeding the chickens, checking the coop for eggs, tending to the pygmy goats and helping momma 'round the ranch. There's plenty to keep a lad busy.

Few other lifestyles afford an opportunity for mother and son to work side by side, yet that was just one of the many appealing qualities that drew Jen Burman from Massachusetts to North Dakota.

"Fortunately I grew up next to two neighbors who had horses and that was when my love started," Burman recalled. "I was on the back of a horse before I could walk. I always had a love for horses."

It was that love of horses that drew her to come west, participating in a cowboy adventure with High, Wild & Lonesome, a company in Wyoming. There she roughed it outdoors, sleeping in a teepee and driving cattle. It cemented her dream of making a life out here, but it was love of a different sort that made the decision final.

"I knew I wanted to be out here, so I started networking," Burman said. "I was actually a vet tech back home. ... I worked in an emergency clinic and a research clinic with monkeys, and I wasn't sure how I was gonna do that out here. I was going to go into horse dentistry, but what ended up happening was that I met my husband online."

They spoke at a distance for six month, and then she came out for a 10-day visit.

"By day two, I called my mom and told her 'I'm moving,' " Burman said Wednesday, Aug. 16. Thirty-one hours later, she was packed and driving out from the East Coast to the Midwest. Today, in fact, marks the nine-year anniversary of that move.

"We get our family involved, my kids, both of them have been in it since day one," Burman said. "This is hopefully what (Dusty) wants to do eventually. We get to ride horses, we get to run our cows and I get to have my kids with me, I don't have to send them to day care."

Burman works for Byron Richard, who owns the land, and he's given them 21 head of cattle of their own, the start of what may be their own multi-generation North Dakota ranching legacy.

"I think it obviously gives him a bit of work ethic," she said. "This kid will sit for hours in a tractor with me. That's what we gotta do, we gotta go hay, we gotta do any number of things in a tractor. It teaches him patience."

Dusty seems to have embraced the part, marching around the ranch in cowboy boots, pointing out the various animals and equipment he's already a thorough expert on—he's the first to suggest they check the coop for eggs, and he doesn't flinch at pouring out a dead mouse who took an ill-advised swim in the goats' water bucket.

"Responsibility, I mean he's got chores he needs to do, there're the animals who need to be fed and taken care of and those are definitely two major things (he's learning), the hard work and the patience that goes with it," Burman said.

It's been a winding trail through destiny's Badlands for Burman, but one thing remains true: She still loves to ride.

"Being on horseback, that's the number one," Burman said. "When we get to do stuff with our cattle on horseback, that's the dream, I guess."

North Dakota inspires strong feelings; some take to it immediately, some are just as immediately repulsed.

"If you come from Massachusetts, it is congested," Burman said. "Tons of people, you come out here and it's wide open. I love it for that fact. You don't have somebody staring at you all the time. There's space here. People either love the wide open and majestic (landscape) or ... I got a brother who came out to visit and he said 'Jen there's nothing here. There's nothing to do. What the heck do you do to keep busy or entertained?' "

Compared to the East Coast, though, North Dakota seems to be a leader in being neighborly.

"Y'know, what I love about this area in particular is that everyone is willing to help another person," Burman said. "Your neighbor, whatever it may be, whatever help you may need, you don't even need to ask, it is right there. Compared to back home, where people just keep to themselves, they just walk straight ahead ... that's what I think I love about the neighborhood is having that help, without even asking."