Thursday, November 24, 2011

Living The Big Sky Life: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

When our quest to find the perfect house began in June of 1992, we did what most people do when preparing to make a large purchase they expected to live with for a long time; namely, we prioritized our list of top three must-haves to include something for everyone. Everything else pretty much got thrown into the “we’ll know it when we see it” bucket.

Now anyone who has ever worked around the real estate industry for any period of time would’ve undoubtedly heard the three basic rules of real estate preached like a mantra from every professional’s pulpit. And while the timeless rules of “1) Location 2) Location 3) Location” have shown themselves to be typically true during my years in the business, I also knew that sometimes the rules needed a little bending, especially under extenuating circumstances.

I personally considered our need to evacuate the claustrophobic Unabomber bungalow as soon as possible to be an extenuating circumstance. This admittedly influenced our priority list enough to make it look more like this:

1) more room(s)/square footage (something for me);

2) a kitchen layout with potential (something for Chef); and lastly

3) Location - the essential rule of land acquisition, which in this case really meant ‘the neighborhood’ since we intended to stay in Whitefish (something for everyone).

It’s with this list that we ultimately found our new home on the range. The spacious 10-acre lot with a duck pond and circular views we ended up with were frankly bonus, not to mention a great place for the dog to play. Another bonus was the fact that the smallest lot on our long block was 5 acres which made unwelcomed peeping next to impossible absent a strong pair of binoculars.

Thanks, in part, to our urban-styled upbringing in “The OC”, Chef and I tended to be naturally cautious about who we invited to share in our private lives, and we weren’t inclined to quickly immerse ourselves into any neighborhood or community. Nor were we prone to make our neighbors part of our social circle or privy to our personal business simply because they lived on the same street.

My 5th grade daughter was of a different mindset, however, and this became evident as soon as I pulled my urban-mobile into our new driveway behind the truck packed with our moving boxes. She wasted no time in jumping out of the car and onto her bicycle to pedal her way back down the lengthy driveway to the street on a self-assigned mission to visit every house on the block. When she finally returned, breathless from a busy day of making the acquaintance of every new neighbor we had, it became clear that she’d generously shared our life history (as she knew it) with everyone on the block. And we, of course, got the unfiltered lowdown on them as well. All quiet cringing aside, I found this to be a true “out of the mouths of babes” moment that proved to be a nice blessing for her as time passed.

In spite of my daughter’s enthusiastic exchange of personal information at the outset, Chef and I tended to remain neutral and relatively elusive when it came to interacting with our neighbors overall. Obviously this wasn’t the case with my daughter. She’d managed to thoroughly endear herself to most of the neighborhood during that introductory bike ride, and many of them proved to be actively devoted to her during the years we lived there.

No man is an island, and I sometimes think neighbors are there to remind us of that, whether we like them or not. The problem is that we don’t really get to pick our neighbors - we inherit them because they come with the house. Our new house was situated in the middle of a long block culminating in a cul-de-sac which was lined with about a dozen other houses whose occupants had now become our inheritance. And like it or not, we’d become theirs.

The first neighbor we met was Carl, an elderly retired man who lived directly across the street from us with his wife, Milly. Carl and Milly were the poster-grannies of every child’s fantasy, and could easily have passed for Mr. and Mrs. Claus as far as I was concerned, if only Carl had seen fit to grow a full white beard. Carl was a rotund old fellow of medium height who securely belted his pants high above his belly button which thankfully spared us from seeing his low hanging apron of belly fat in the flesh.

Summer had just made its debut when Carl walked over to pay Chef a visit one afternoon as he was out in our front yard trimming debris from a large spruce tree. After some precursory pleasantries, Carl got to the point. He wanted to know if we intended to decorate our front yard with Christmas lights during the holiday season like the previous owner used to do, because it would be a real shame if we were the only house on the block to sit in the dark during December.

At this point, our boxes hadn’t even been unpacked, and Carl wanted to know if we had the holiday display for our huge new house already planned out? Chef intentionally remained noncommittal throughout the conversation because lighting up the house for the holidays was clearly not a priority; the holiday was half a year away. We had no way of knowing in advance how devout Carl was to the Christmas lights cause though, and that made his offer to come over in December to string the lights around our large front trees himself (if we weren’t going to do it ourselves) all the more puzzling.

Apparently a big black 10-acre hole in the middle of the street on Christmas Eve was unacceptable to Mr. Claus.

After Thanksgiving, we had the opportunity to witness just how far Carl’s puzzling obsession with Christmas lights went when he set out to decorate not only his house, but his entire 5-acre lot which was rectangular in shape, and enclosed with a double-railed wooden fence that ran along the entire perimeter of the property. This was about 2,000 linear feet in border fencing alone, not to mention the fences that lined both sides of his long driveway or the fencing that encircled his house. And Carl made sure that every inch of those fence tops and the house too were brilliantly illuminated by a mile-long string of traditional white Christmas bulbs.

It was a sight to behold in any kind of weather, and like Noah and the Ark, clearly Mr. Claus had some deep calling to create the kind of landing strip that Santa could see even in the worst of blizzards. Perhaps this was a classic case of “build it and he will come.”

The angular light show Carl put on for the neighborhood every evening in December was simply too much for his next door neighbor to let pass without comment. So one night in early December, James phoned Carl and announced in the best pilot-to-control-tower voice he could muster, “This is Delta, requesting permission to land.”

And no, we didn’t make Carl come over and string lights around our trees as offered. We did it our way, and never had a problem with Delta looking for clearance to land on our property.

To Be Continued … ”Geography Has Made Us Neighbors

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King

Friday, November 11, 2011

Living The Big Sky Life: Home On The Range

The day I moved into the 795 square foot Unabomber bungalow with enough furnishings to abundantly fill a 3-bedroom house, it became abundantly clear we needed a bigger place to live, stat.

Our first little house was situated in downtown Whitefish, and was basically a cabin-sized box with five walls inserted to create two small bedrooms with a bathroom between them, an intimate living room with a wood stove which served to heat the entire cabin during the winter months, and a kitchen/dining area. This circa turn-of-the-century cottage also had a very dank half-basement located underneath the kitchen with, much to my surprise, a modern-day washer-dryer hookup. Something I never utilized for several reasons.

Aside from the fact that the basement felt like the stuff of serial killers, making that descent into the bowels of the earth was just too risky to involve a laundry basket. Best case scenario saw me with a concussion - worst case, a broken neck. It was one thing to have to duck and contort my head and neck to keep from knocking myself out on the low header beam at the top of the stairs, and quite another to navigate a dangerously steep wooden staircase that was as old as the house.

Besides, we needed somewhere to store all of my boxes. What didn’t fit in the basement after packing it from the dirt floor up to the sub-floor beamed ceiling, was strategically stacked inside of the house so as to create a sophisticated obstacle course that weaved like a maze throughout very cramped quarters.

The three of us lived that way for almost a year before we eventually bought a spacious ranch house located on ten acres about three miles southeast of downtown Whitefish.

Viewing front of Ranch House from the driveway
Finding a new house with a kitchen layout acceptable to Chef was no mean feat, and took far more time than we'd originally anticipated, but the ranch house on the range we eventually ended up with was worth the wait.

It was a two-level structure of approximately 3,500 square feet, and included a walk-out basement, five bedrooms, and three full baths. Having grown up with four sisters, I’m of the opinion that no house can ever have too many bathrooms.

We’d hardly been in our new house a month when the front page of the “Whitefish Pilot” featured a large photo of our old Unabomber bungalow with the unhappy young couple who’d bought it from us standing in the front yard. They had good reason to be unhappy for that local photo op, and while I couldn’t have been more sympathetic to the nightmare that put them on the front page, I would be lying if I didn’t own up to the huge wave of relief that swept over me because it could’ve easily been me on the front of the local newspaper.

The Whitefish sewage treatment plant located just outside of town, and not far from our new home on the range, had a complete system failure in the middle of the night, and proceeded to backwash untold quantities of raw sewage into the basements of almost every house in downtown Whitefish. The Unabomber bungalow did not escape, and the very same basement I had jam packed with the boxes containing most of my worldly possessions barely a month earlier was filled to the half way mark with plenty o’poo as a result.

While I’d managed to escape that monumental sewage backup by the hair of my chinny-chin-chin, unfortunately I couldn't manage to escape having the nasty experience altogether, for it seems that I was ultimately doomed to know firsthand the true unpleasantness of raw sewage backflowing through my basement. And since my raw ordeal occurred right before I put Montana in the rear view mirror once and for all, some might even call that shitty incident my big sky coup de grĂ¢ce.

Viewing rear of Ranch House from backyard
Raw sewage aside, our new ranch house was without question Chef’s dream house. It was open, spacious and had an enviable 360o view. We had the Whitefish Mountain Range to the West and North, including the slopes of Big Mountain; the edge of Glacier National Park to the East; and nothing but open countryside and big blue skies to the South.

The northern back boundary of our 10-acre lot was defined by Haskill Creek, which also fed the duck and beaver pond that consumed anywhere from 3 to 5 acres of our backyard, depending on the time of year. The risk of flooding increased significantly during the spring run-off season, and tensions in our household historically ran high as we’d helplessly watch the pond’s water levels rise with the swollen creek …. especially when the beavers did what beavers do best and build impenetrable dams with remarkable speed at the corner of our property, the downstream corner of course.

It didn’t take long to learn that a sump pump was the only thing that stood between us and the disaster of deluge from a rising water table. Yet when it came to the water in our world, electricity held all of the power; for without electricity, not only would the sump pump stop working, the well pump was also powerless to pump water from the well to our house. For starters, this meant no flushing toilets, no showers, no drinking water, no clean clothes, and a sink full of dirty dishes. All the things city folk take for granted.

At least we had the luxury of a backup water supply located behind the garage/horse stable outbuilding out back. It was in the form of an old fashioned hand pump installed decades earlier to service several horse stalls that we never used. The trips I was forced to make to that horse pump were innumerable, and I can honestly say that I have not one fond memory of braving the elements to pump water into a bucket after a brutal nor’easter had just blown down the region’s power lines thereby halting all water flow inside of the house, sometimes for many days until the power lines could be repaired. It was one thing to actually pump the water while standing knee-deep in the snow, and quite another to get it all the way up to the house before it became a heavy block of ice, or worse, sloshed all over me.
Our backyard during early winter on an unseasonably sunny day
About a year after I’d fled Montana like a caged dog bolting from the pound, I saw Andie MacDowell on the David Letterman show. She and her husband at the time were known to have a large ranch somewhere in the Bitterroot Valley, and I felt an unexpected kinship with this lovely woman as she walked Dave through what it took for her to get to his show in New York City from Missoula, Montana after a huge winter storm had cut all power to their ranch days before her departure. Still without power, she had to fly out of the Missoula airport unshowered, unshaved, and 'au naturel'.

I agonized right along with my new soul sister as she described the sponge bath she struggled to give herself in the plane’s bathroom compartment en route, and how she had to apply her makeup in the bathroom at the airport during layover - which was probably in Salt Lake City because everybody knew there were no direct flights from Missoula to anywhere but Salt Lake City.

And here I thought I was the only one who knew what it was like to live off the grid with a spouse who was always trying to sell me on his interpretation of ‘quality of life’. Apparently Andie MacDowell wasn’t buying the simple life sales pitch either because not long after that Letterman interview, I read that she too, bolted just like any proper city dog trapped in the country would.

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Living The Big Sky Life: Velcro Gloves…Priceless

Chef was on the hunt for the perfect fishing hole, and had invited us to join him for the day as he explored all of the rivers that run through it. The late afternoon drive home saw me staring absentmindedly out of the car’s passenger window as our tires sped as fast as safety would allow over the dirt road shortcut he’d decided to take through the Bitterroot Valley.

Given the huge dust clouds we couldn’t avoid leaving in our wake, I barely noticed the large yellow “Range Cattle” signs that were posted along the roadside like mile markers. It was impossible not to have my attention rudely returned to the open ranges surrounding us every time the car jerked and bumped over one of those ranch-dividing iron cattle guards set deep into the dirt road. And each time it happened, I couldn’t help but notice that in spite of all the warning signs, there wasn’t a cow in sight.

In fact, there hadn’t been a cow for miles. Where were all of the cows anyway? Frankly, I could see more cows grazing daily on the Voerman pastures bordering the backyard of my home on the range than I did on this particular day driving through prime cattle country. So when Chef finally made that turn onto Voerman Road more than an hour later, the tranquil cud-chewing herds in the northern fields before us did not disappoint.

I would be remiss were I not to also mention that the southern fields lining Voerman Road were populated by flocks of sheep as well. This is important only because of what happened next.

But first, let me offer up a little background on the subject of Montana men and their sheep. The most popular saying always seemed to be, “Montana: Where the men are men, and the sheep are scared.” Truth be told, it put an entirely new slant on the whole ‘counting sheep to fall asleep’ thing for me, especially when I witnessed so many lonely men living in a place where the female pickins are slim, and the value of a pair of Velcro gloves was never underestimated.

We had family friends with us in the car that day, and by the time we turned onto Voerman Road, everyone was quiet from exhaustion and more than ready to get out of the car. The silence was broken when Chef looked over at the sheep flocked together on the side of the road, and said out of the blue as he randomly pointed at several of the sheep while we were passing, “I had her, her, and her. Oh! And I had her too!”

Chef was known to have a comedic sense of timing, and did a pretty good job of bringing the group back to life. All I could say to my friends in the car at the time was what I’d been told upon my arrival in big sky country, “This is no Ireland where the sheep roam free, and the men wear Velcro gloves. This here is Montana where the men are men, and the sheep are scaa-aa-aa-aa-arr-rred.” Baa-Baa-Bulldogs.

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King