I’m celebrating my 20th class reunion this weekend, which is so surprising to me because I just turned 16. But time does that and it seems to be true that me and my 54 classmates—from ranches, small town neighborhoods, farms, the outskirts and tiny communities along the way— graduated from WCHS at 17, 18 and 19 years old and made our way into adulthood somehow.

I just finished going through old photos and memorabilia and was struck by how long 20 years actually is (and how bad I was at managing my hair back then …).

Because it reminds me, as I imagine I’ll be reminded this weekend, what it really meant to me to have grown up in a small town. For a girl who wore wranglers and boots and took the dirt road on the small yellow bus to a country school until I was 11 years old, it was so important to me that there were a few souls who could help save me as I opened the glass doors to the big school and prepared myself for a world completely foreign to me. And so many of them came through for me. My high school friends.

Now 20 years have passed and so many of us who once struggled with algebra in desks sat side-by-side will likely never be in the same room together. We knew this when we moved the tassel on our graduation cap, but this is what time passed really looks like. Some back home now. Some with plans to never return. Some cutting ties. Some friends still. Forever.

I fell in love with one of them. A small town boy who grew up in a baseball cap, like so many of the other boys out here, driving their dad’s pickups, fishing on the banks of Lake Sakakawea, helping neighbors brand and always searching for the next big escapade on anything they could ride or drive too fast.

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Yes, I still love one of those boys and that’s a gift my small town high school gave me that I will never be able to repay.

Because in a small town you don’t have a large pool to pick from, so maybe you hold on a bit tighter, lean in a bit closer. Maybe. The reason doesn’t matter now. Twenty years have passed and here we are.

Because between the blacktop and dirt roads that didn’t stretch far enough for teenagers with windows open and plans drawn out wide, so many times the rumors flew, and we hurt and felt trapped and wished away the time it would take when we could leave this place…a place where we knew all our friends parents and they knew what time we were supposed to be home at night.

Yes, as students of a small town we grew up in a circumstance that gave us every reason to set our eyes wide on the open highway ahead of us. But as we drove the gravel roads at night, The Red Hot Chili Peppers blaring through our speakers, or built a bonfire in the middle of a field or on the edge of the big lake, when we celebrated birthday after birthday with the same neighborhood kids who drank Kool-Aid with us and gave us our first My Little Pony when we turned six, when we could sit on the roof of our boyfriend’s house in town and count the stars in the quiet of the hour before curfew, when we had our first kiss in the back our best friend’s old, beat-up car, we didn’t realize how free we really were.

And when we pushed the limits, when we drove too fast, drank too much, yelled too loud or loved too quickly, when we got our hearts broken, missed the winning point, forgot the lyrics to the song, or failed the test, we thought, indeed, the world would come to an end when we were just kids. We didn’t have all our muscles yet and didn’t understand that the world we lived in protected us enough to allow for these kinds of mistakes.

We didn’t appreciate that our world just picked us up, shook it’s heads and said things like “she’s a good kid, this will be a good lesson for her…” and then went on watching out for us anyway.

That’s the way I felt it anyway. Maybe others didn’t feel as cared for. I realize that now. I didn’t understand it then. No small town is truly and fully forgiven for their sins.

And so now as I prepare to reunite with old friends at 37, 38 and 39 years old, I can’t help but think that’s what most of us want right now: our best friend living next door, a place where our children can see the stars, casual conversation between friends on a safe street, an open road and a home that welcomes us, no matter how far we’ve traveled away, with open arms and mercy.

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