Saturday, December 24, 2011

Living The Big Sky Life: Big Sky Christmas

The thought of buying a pre-packaged holiday tree from the seasonal supplier who sets up shop in the Safeway parking lot after Thanksgiving always seemed to create a bean-counting conflict for Chef.

The Flathead Valley also had plenty of holiday tree farms to choose from. These farms grew enough trees to help fill the nation’s annual demand for Rocky Mountain Christmas trees, but acquiring a fresh-cut and beautifully groomed spruce tree directly from the farmer was again, an unacceptable expense in Chef’s ledger book.

So it was over the river and through the woods for us, for Chef was of the opinion that since we lived near the woods, we should go out into the woods to find our tree. And given his propensity to redirect household funds away from anything he considered frivolous spending, the fact that trees in the woods were free was considered a year-end bonus.

Shopping for the perfect Christmas tree in the woods was a lot easier said than done. After a full day of tree shopping on remote logging roads, we finally ended up with a free tree that looked exactly like we went out into the woods to find it. It smelled better than it looked, and I made the best of it.

Help NORAD’s 'Santa Tracker' out tonight by turning on your runway lights.

Best Wishes and Happy Holidays!
And may all of our dreams for the new year ahead come true...

Living The Big Sky LifeTM 
© by DK King

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Living The Big Sky Life: A Winter Mooning

Punxsutawney Phil doesn’t live in Whitefish for a reason. The odds of a groundhog ever seeing a ray of sunshine during a Flathead Valley sun-free winter is just about nil. And shadow or no, everyone knows those winters will never end in six weeks or less.

By the time the local residents have flipped their calendars over to the month of February, the long months of sun deprivation will have visibly taken a toll on many. The distractions inherent with a bustling holiday season can only last so long, and in with the new year comes the cabin fever and depression. Unfortunately any time spent outside, such as on the slopes of the Big Mountain, can offer little in the way of light nourishment for those noticeably deficient in vitamin D.

The Big Mountain isn’t as big as its name implies, and from my experience, it rarely offered the skiers who graced its slopes with an elevation sufficient enough to place them above the foggy cloud that casts a perpetual shadow over the valley throughout the winter. Quite the opposite in fact, for when the resort’s chair lifts drop sun-seeking skiers off at the top of the mountain, it tends to plop them right down in the thickest part of the cloud. It’s enough to make your head spin, hence my personal Big Mountain nickname, “the vertigo capital of the world.”

Around the time Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania is preparing to celebrate the appearance of a groundhog named Phil in accordance with the region’s traditional German folklore, Whitefish, Montana is attempting to revive its winter-weary citizenry with an annual Winter Carnival under the auspices of honoring an old Nordic Snow King named Ullr.

Now old folklore doesn’t always make sense, which is probably why the tale of King Ullr never made any sense to me. Aside from the fact that it was “once upon a time”, I could never understand why any seafaring Nordic King would insist on making his Snow Queen and royal entourage trek inland 550 miles away from the nearest coastline to settle in a place like Whitefish. Just to say he was King of the Big Mountain? And while some would say it’s always good to be king of something, perhaps the legend was simply one of convenience. Even a good excuse to have a parade.

Whatever the story, February’s Winter Carnival in Whitefish is considered a local tradition, replete with surrogate royalty selected from the community’s most prominent socialites. The parade is one of the carnival’s main events, and its participants are recruited from every school, business, restaurant, church, and organization in the area.

I’ll never forget my first Winter Carnival parade in 1993. The skies were as clear as could be expected under the abiding cloud cover, and it was bitter cold, which I suppose was to be expected as well. It didn’t seem to matter to the gathering crowds who were appropriately dressed for the occasion. The Yetis in the parade that were heavily dressed in fleecy costumes were undoubtedly grateful for the freezing temperatures, especially since their primary purpose was to run along the parade route, throw candy into the crowds, and terrorize unsuspecting spectators with creepy Yeti pinches.

I reckon community obligation made it necessary for Whitefish High School to give its show of support by putting a “float” and the marching band in the parade every year. Accordingly, the town could always expect to see the football team, the team’s cheerleaders, and some of the student body notables riding in the back of a large flatbed truck (the “float”) with side panels decorated in the school’s gold and green like a Bulldog pep rally.

This is how the parade predictably floated along year after year … until the year of the winter mooning that is.

Unfortunately my parade position was on the sidelines during the year in question, which didn’t allow me to personally witness the sophomoric prank that gave the local morality police a god complex; but I heard all about it all the same. And then I read all about it every week for months thereafter in the "Whitefish Pilot".

What I gleaned from the numerous accounts swirling around town after the fact was that the high school students in the Bulldog float did exactly what I’d expect of most normal high schoolers - they freely expressed their opinions in a way they believed was congruent with the social consciousness of the time. In this case, it was the nation’s newfound awareness about the far reaching and fatal effects of HIV-AIDS. Several of the students made their point by throwing a few condoms into the crowd and holding up some signs that mentioned safe sex. Nothing disrespectful per se; until they chose to end the parade with a synchronized mooning over the side of the float.

The indignant old fogeys who’d apparently forgotten what it was like to be young and idealistic went ballistic, and unmercifully set out to make an example of the student with the most to lose. And it wasn’t a Bulldog on the football team. Their unlucky target was a senior honor student, and from what I understood, a girl who’d earned several college acceptances and had scholarships lined up for the coming fall. In the end, the powers that be showed her the kind of wrath that only the almighty can exact when they had her permanently expelled from the Whitefish School District without appeal three months before the end of her senior year.

Her tearful pleading and public apologies were published in the paper for weeks, but there weren’t enough mea culpas in the world to appease the hard hearts of the Whitefish morality police.

Having raised independent and free-thinking daughters of my own (and proud of it), I still can’t help but feel some sadness when I think about what happened to this young woman I never knew in person. My greatest hope is that she used her smarts to bypass those small town trolls on the bridge, and showed them all what real revenge can look like when exacted with the empowerment of success.
Chef offers me an unapologetic mooning at
Trestles Beach, Southern California
If all it took was a full mooning finale to irrevocably change the course of one young life, I can only speculate on whether or not Chef’s shameless mooning of my lens ever interfered with his long term prospects, especially when it came to his dream of slinging hash for the gourmands of the Flathead Valley.

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Living The Big Sky Life: Geography Has Made Us Neighbors

A continuation of “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” …

It was a year and a half before we finally got around to having an official housewarming party to celebrate the acquisition of our new home on the range.

Fifteen months of country living had simply flown by in our consuming fury to finish up the construction of Chef’s licensed catering kitchen in the walk-out basement portion of the new house. By the time we had the final permit in hand, we realized that we’d better hurry up and have that fully catered BBQ we’d been talking about for over a year. And we’d better do it before the warm fall weather took an irreversible turn for the frigid.

Signs of Fall in our backyard around what's left of the duck pond
Yet with the unintended passing of time, went our original motive for having the housewarming party in the first place. It had now become less about inviting our friends over to see the house or getting acquainted with our inherited neighborhood, and more about introducing our new catering business. The reality was our friends had been hanging out at the house for more than a year, and we knew more about our neighbors than we ever needed to know thanks to the narrated updates regularly delivered by my daughter who enjoyed making frequent after-school visits to the households along our street, especially to those without young children.

The afternoon school bus routinely saw my daughter dropped off in the same place it picked her up every morning; namely, at the top of our street in front of the corner house belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Casey. Mr. Casey was a retired school teacher and former coach, which might’ve explained why he had that enormous asphalt ball court with a stand-alone basketball hoop in front of his oversized detached garage, and no one around to enjoy it. After we moved in, Mr. Casey had a postcard-variety big red barn built on the back half of his property which always seemed strange to me. Not because it stuck out like a red sore thumb in that it aesthetically clashed with everything around it (including his house), but because he had no large farm animals or any apparent purpose for it.

I had little doubt that Mrs. Casey probably preferred the retired Mr. Casey to be out of her house as much as possible during the day, so there was rarely an afternoon when my daughter didn’t spend at least a few minutes chatting with Mr. Casey who’d be predictably doing chores around the property when the school bus made its daily deposit near the front of his house.

It would seem that no neighborhood could be complete without at least one family like “The Cleavers”, and the “Ward and June Cleaver” of our lane lived across the street from us between the Casey’s and Mr. and Mrs. Claus (Carl and Milly). We never called them Ward and June though. We called them James and Brenda. They were Florida transplants who brought with them three small children, a substantial net worth from sources unknown, and eventually James’ widowed mother who acquired the vacant lot at the end of the cul-de-sac where she built a custom house to live in whenever she felt the need to swap Florida’s humid heat for Montana’s dry summers.

The first neighborhood Christmas party we attended was hosted by James and Brenda, and I found it hard not to empathize with Brenda’s ambitious attempt to bring civilization to the wild west as she struggled to be the “hostess with the mostess” under the party planning tutelage of her idol, Martha Stewart. It made me wonder if June Cleaver ever felt the same kind of pressure to be perfect from Julia Childs.

Living in the house on the other side of Carl and Milly were the Perkins. Like many of the men throughout the Stumptown community, Mr. Perkins was a long-timer with the Burlington Northern Railroad, and would typically be gone for days at a time while working at riding the rails into eastern Montana and back again. From the many closings I performed at the title company in Whitefish, it became obvious early on that working for the railroad provided one of the best livings (above minimum wage) to be had in the area.

Mrs. Perkins was a homemaker who appeared to keep herself busy with arts and crafts projects, and caring for their three little terriers. She was very partial to my daughter, and so particular about whom she’d let care for her children, I mean dogs, that whenever she’d be gone for more than half a day, it was often my daughter who did the babysitting. In fact, one Friday afternoon she dropped by my office in town to see if my daughter could care for her dogs that night because she had to leave unexpectedly. When I told her my daughter would be spending the night with a girlfriend and wouldn’t be home, I watched my neighbor’s face sink with despair. She was so distressed that I felt compelled to offer to care for the dogs myself. It was only one night after all, and I’ve cared for many a child and pet over the years. I figured I could handle it, but Mrs. Perkins didn’t seem to agree, and left me standing there, mouth agape, as she passed up my generous offer on her way out the door. All righty then.

In the cul-de-sac, next to James’ Floridian mother, lived the Cannen's. Mr. and Mrs. Cannen oozed their New York roots from every pore. They owned the Par 3 Golf Course on the east side of Highway 93, just north of Highway 40 in south Whitefish. Mr. Cannen was a fast talking east coaster who always had a sly twinkle in his eyes which seemed to go right along with his cheery, almost Gollum-like, quasi-toothless grin. Mrs. Cannen looked as if she could’ve been the long-time wife of an old mob boss, and she appeared to fit into the Montana mountain mama scene about as well as I did. The Cannen's seemed to really enjoy the way my daughter would simply drop by unannounced for no other reason than to socialize. I always liked that the Cannen's never tried to hide or make excuses for who they were, east coasters gone west. Take ‘em or leave ‘em. No skin off of their brusque hides either way.

Between our ranch house and the Cannen’s, resided a nice young couple, Sam and Mary Ellen. They moved in with several barking rottweilers and two young boys about a year after we did. They were Flathead Valley natives who were looking for enough space to have horses, and once attained, they expected to never move again. They began acquiring those horses as soon as they were settled in. Their boys should be all grown up by now, and there's no doubt in my mind that Sam and Mary Ellen are still living in that house.

The neighbor who lived in the house on the other side of us was Peyton, with her teenage son, Michael. They also shared our large duck pond in the back. Peyton was widowed shortly before we moved in, and I would venture to say that she was my daughter’s favorite neighbor because she’d often chose to spend her after-school afternoons just hanging with Peyton. Peyton was a nice lady who kept pretty much to herself, although we did share several dramatic episodes when my daughter’s cat decided to get aggressively territorial in territory belonging to Peyton’s cat … a story for another time.

We had a well on the far front corner of our property, and it was a community well that provided water not only to our house, but to four other homes on the street including, Sam and Mary Ellen's, Carl and Milly's, the Perkins', and a nameless neighbor's house on the other side of Peyton. I have to say, of all things to have to share, I was always glad we shared that well because whenever there was a problem, it became a community problem and expense, and not ours alone to bear.

The septic tank and leach lines were another matter altogether. Definitely a story for another time.

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King

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 grâce.

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

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Living The Big Sky Life: Cowgirl Coiffure

All it took was one night of impartial observation while sitting alone at the bar in the Great Northern for me to put it all together. The signs had always been there, all around me. Until that night though, I’d been unable to wrap my mind with any semblance of clarity around the nudge that had regularly gnawed at the back of my consciousness. Like something wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Apparently it took an hour of disconnection for me to finally make the connection.

The Great Northern Bar and Grill was a popular establishment and a happy hour hot spot (I assume it still is), and I was supposed to meet Chef there for dinner on this particular Friday night. Since I’d arrived an hour early, I opted to wait on a stool at the bar and soon became distracted with watching how hard the happy hour crowd was working to unwind from a hard week of working.

Each passing minute saw the crowds multiply, and as the music became increasingly louder to counterbalance the conversation, the deafening din rose exponentially. While I casually watched the patron revelers grow predictably relaxed and animated, thanks in part to the flow of liquid courage as many prepared for the “will I get lucky tonight?” mating ritual, it hit me like an epiphany.

In that instant I became acutely aware of just how slim the female pickins were in Boy’s Town. The odds easily saw ten Jeremiah Johnson’s wrangling for the affections of one Calamity Jane. This was contrary to anything I’d ever known, except perhaps during that ski season I spent in Vail, Colorado back in the early 80’s.

Chef and I had both grown up in “The OC” community of Huntington Beach - A/K/A “The Land of the Beautiful People” … and one of the “beautiful people” I was not. My adolescent self esteem had sustained plenty of bruises while growing up in the shadow of those “beautiful people”, where the only spotlight I ever saw was the one shining on all of my flaws. The irony was that once I moved to Whitefish, my face soon became highly recognized by the local population, yet very few actually knew me by name. I was eventually told by a friend that many of the townsfolk simply knew me as “the woman with the title company who wore the lipstick”.

That being said, I was naturally fascinated by the plain-Jane mountain mamas at the Great Northern that night who freely flirted with confidence and deflected rutting suitors as if they were Venus incarnate; when, according to the standards of my formative years in “The Land of the Beautiful People”, the embodiment of Venus they definitely were not.

I sat on that barstool as a city girl who’d unwittingly managed to snag herself one of those wannabe mountain men, and wondered if the “beautiful people” city standards I’d known all my life could ever make the translation into my big sky life.

What I knew for certain was that I was no mama grizzly, and no matter how the local townsfolk perceived me on the street, I was no Bulldog with lipstick either. I also knew that I had some well-established grooming standards of my own, which included shaving my legs and armpits, waxing my eyebrows and bikini line, and regularly scheduled visits to the hair salon. And I wasn’t about to compromise my standards simply because I was living in the wild west.

Now that I was living in a cow town, however, it seemed a cowgirl hair stylist would have to be the one to do the do. Finding her was no easy task, and a true find she was. Janine and I couldn’t have been more different on the outside, but when it came to my hair, we were of one mind.

I had made it very clear to Chef from the beginning that I would not give up my hair appointments for any reason. I even went so far as to say on one occasion that he wouldn’t eat before I wouldn’t get my hair done because I wanted to make sure he understood just how serious and non-negotiable the issue was. And still is, by the way.

Women everywhere know what it’s like to feel guilted into sacrificing their personal needs, wants, and desires for the greater good of their families, and I was no exception. There came a time pre-Montana when I had to finally draw a line in the sand which no man (or child) could ever cross, and mine was a hairline. Anyone who knows me has probably heard my mantra at least once, “change your hair, change your life”. A motto I continue to live by.

No matter how many times I warned him in advance, Chef either didn’t believe me or thought he was the exception to the rule, for he became furious one night when he learned that I’d used money that he assumed would be spent at the grocery store on my hair appointment instead. As annoyingly clichéd as “I told you so” may sound, I had to remind him that I had indeed told him so. This occurred during the honeymoon period in marriage month number two, and rankled Chef’s sensibilities for the duration of our four year marriage. He never got over it, and it was invariably thrown back in my face every time we had a serious, yet completely unrelated argument.

Chef wasn’t the only one who came to learn that there were no exceptions to this commitment I’d made to myself many years before. My escrow assistant immediately understood the priorities, and knew better than to schedule a closing during the hair appointment times I’d blocked off the closing calendar.

Chef grudgingly came to passive-aggressive terms with my hard line stance on hair, and tried another approach down the road when he suggested I go “au naturel”. You know, without makeup. Are you kidding me? He defended his audacious suggestion by trying to tell me how much better I looked without makeup. Not because it was true, but because he was cheap and apparently without pride when it came to his partner's appearance. The truth was he didn’t want money that he could use for his own pursuits to be spent on something he deemed frivolous. Evidently any investment in my appearance was considered frivolous spending and a prime target for reallocation. As if I didn't produce my own hard earned income, let alone ever expect him to pay for the cost of my upkeep and maintenance.

Whoever said “When money goes out the door, love flies out the window” knew what they were talking about. In all of this, I've come to appreciate that I am my best investment, and it's up to me to preserve and protect that investment.

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Living The Big Sky Life: Dr. Jekyll Is Detained For Questioning

Within six months of NAFTA‘s 1994 new year implementation, my father finally decided to make his first trip to Montana. Chef and I had left the Unabomber bungalow behind fifteen months earlier, and were now living in a large ranch house on 10 acres located three miles southeast of downtown Whitefish.

My father didn’t rent a car when he arrived that August. It wasn’t really necessary. As far as I was concerned, it was just as easy for him to drop me off at the office every morning, and pick me up at the end of the work day. I was going nowhere fast and usually chained to my desk all day anyway. He and his granddaughter would then be free to spend the summer weekdays doing all of the local sightseeing they wanted; and after living in big sky country for over two years, my young daughter had become a pretty good tour guide.

My parents had been divorced for 25 years, and up to this point, I would’ve sworn they had absolutely nothing in common except their offspring. But when my father declared early one morning that he thought it would be a shame not to take a day trip into Canada given Whitefish’s close proximity to the Canadian border, the overpowering wave of déjà vu that ensued, caused me to choke and sputter on my coffee.

Let me preface this particular morning with a little history about my father, also known as Mr. Hyde on occasion, especially when behind the wheel of a car on any winding mountain road.

Like Dr. Jekyll, my father was a very intelligent man, sometimes too smart for his own good. So smart, in fact, that he could be dumb. He unwittingly showed me at an early age that there are those who exist in this world who are so intent upon cerebral expansion and scholarly pursuits that they somehow miss out on the common sense part, and the street savvy that comes with it. He also had an innate ability to get caught, even when everyone else around him was busy doing the same thing without repercussions.

When it came to play time though, my father could emotionally retrogress to the mentality of a 15-year old in an instant; and like any 15-year old adolescent boy, his better judgment could often become clouded, with little thought given to the long term consequences that may result from his actions in the heat of the moment.

Case in point took place in the mid-1980’s when he went out for a day of four-wheeling fun on the eastern plains of Colorado with my brother-in-law of the time. It wasn’t enough for them to whoop and holler with exhilaration as my brother-in-law raced his truck across a limitless landscape covered in sage brush and prairie dog holes. Or even to spin the occasional dirt donut at top speed. No, they had to go extreme when my father, at his son-in-law’s suggestion, pulled a shotgun off the cab’s back window rack. The man who was supposed to be my parent instantly turned into a 15-year old, then proceeded to hang out of the truck’s passenger window while it sped over the erratic terrain, and began to excitedly shoot at the prairie dogs popping up and down from their holes in the ground like prairie dogs do, as if he were a kid at a carnival shooting gallery trying to win a cheap prize.

Fortunately prairie dogs are quick critters, and to my knowledge, no prairie dogs were harmed in this reckless pursuit. We probably have the Colorado Game Warden patrolling the area to thank for that. My father was promptly arrested, and my brother-in-law appropriately shamed enough to bail him out. He ultimately ended up with a felony on his record for the incident, and had some serious ‘splainin’ to do many years later when he made a career change that required specialized licensing.

Now back to Montana and my father’s anticipated day trip into Canada. Since I expected him to be back in Whitefish in time to pick me up at the office after work, I understandably felt it necessary to advise him about the challenges I’d experienced two years earlier when taking that day trip into Canada with my mother. I never expected there to be any complications as long as he didn’t travel too far north.

Well, the old guy almost didn’t get past the Canadian border guard at Roosville, and I heard the distressing details of his interrogation when he picked me up that evening.

He’d left Whitefish that morning with my daughter who, at the last minute, decided to bring along a girlfriend from school. They picked up the girlfriend on their way out of town, and the two girls sat together in the back seat of my urban-mobile as the three of them leisurely cruised north along Highway 93 to Canada for a fine day of sightseeing.

When they stopped at the Roosville border crossing, the border guard took one look at my father innocently sitting in the driver’s seat and the two 5th grade girls sitting together in the backseat (neither of whom bore any physical resemblance to him), and began probing suspiciously. My father naïvely tried to explain what he thought was obvious, and the girls corroborated when asked directly, but the border guard would have none of it.

Unlike today, it’s important to remember that back when this event occurred, the girls had never been provided any form of photo identification, not even a school ID card. And with NAFTA, passports were not a requirement for Americans crossing the Canadian and Mexican borders, and vice versa. Neither were notarized permission slips when traveling out of the country with minor children sans both parents.

In this, my father had done nothing wrong or illegal, but the border guard wasn’t taking any chances. He instructed the car be parked at the guard house and took them all in for questioning – in separate rooms.

My father tried to explain to the leery border guard why none of the surnames matched. His granddaughter (in the other room being questioned) had the last name of her father. His daughter (me) had remarried and now had Chef’s last name which was reflected on the Montana licensing of the urban-mobile he was driving. And then there was his last name, my maiden name, which was fortunately reflected on the Montana vehicle registration as well.

Apparently the little girlfriend was a non-issue in that everyone understood she wasn’t related and simply along for the ride. What seemed to bother the guards the most was the fact that they couldn’t find anything to support what they were consistently being told during questioning, something that would connect my father to my daughter and me as her mother.

After hours of interrogation, my father was asked once again to pull out the envelope I kept in my glove box containing my vehicle registration and insurance information. When he started digging deeper into the contents, he soon realized my entire registration history was kept in that envelope, and once he could produce an old California registration showing me as “first name-maiden name-last name of ex-husband/my daughter’s father”, that was it. They were free to enter Canada to see whatever they could with what was left of the day.

As would be expected, my father was still a little shaken when he picked me up that night and began to recount his harrowing experience on our ride back to the house. Like I said, he’s a magnet for getting caught. Knowing how he is, it was impossible not to see the humor in the guileless predicament he'd driven straight into that day...long after it was over, of course. 

What I always wondered about afterward was why no one from the guard house had bothered to call me in Whitefish to verify their stories. If this had really been considered a serious situation, wouldn't someone have called me? My daughter had given them my phone numbers, and I would've welcomed, nay, expected a call under such a circumstance.

Thankfully, no house guest ever asked to take a day trip into Canada again. As far as I was concerned, been there, done that, and I was over it.

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King

Friday, September 16, 2011

Living The Big Sky Life: Dragging Out The Dusk

A continuation of “In The Beginning, There Was Light” …

In the months that preceded my move to Montana in May 1992, I noticed that those around me always seemed to have the same 3-word response whenever I’d mention my pending move. And those 3 words were never the expected, “it’ll be beautiful” (spoken with a *wistful sigh*); but a very disheartening, “long cold winters” (spoken in a ~gloomy groan~).

Not the case with my mother, however, who simply asked the question, “Does it get hot in Montana?”

Chef was quick to snort in disdain at my mother’s simple question, or at any suggestion for that matter that the weather in Montana might ever be less than perfect, let alone hot and miserable. It just so happened that my little urban-mobile came standard with air conditioning, but our 100-year old Unabomber bungalow in town clearly did not. It was nature’s cross-breeze or nothing.

Well, my mother got a real-time answer to her question the very moment she stepped out of my air conditioned car that first day of July 1992, and hit a wall of 100F-degree heat. In fact, the record-breaking daytime temperatures hovered just above 100F degrees her entire visit and beyond. It was funny to watch how quickly Chef swallowed his contempt for all things air conditioned as he volunteered to drive my car everywhere he went that summer.

Now that we all knew with certainty that it did get hot in Montana, staying cool became a top priority; and the only place to find relief from the heat was with the fishes in Whitefish Lake. My daughter had wasted no time in figuring this out, and she’d made it a point to spend those long hot days on City Beach swimming with every other kid in Whitefish. 
Whitefish Lake City Beach
Now I don’t do lakes. The very thought of lake-bottom sludge oozing through my toes and tullies swirling around my legs gives me the creeps, and the only way I was getting into that lake water was on top of a floating device. At this point, there were only two plastic rafts left in town, and my mother and I found them in some back corner of the Ben Franklin store on Central Avenue. Side note: Several months later, that Ben Franklin Craft Store was completely incinerated in a 5-alarm fire which took out half of the west wide of the block between 2nd and 3rd Streets, including an attorney’s office. It was hardly a surprise considering that the store had been stocked like a poorly lit hoarder’s garage. Cause was later determined to be an electrical short that sparked and ignited surrounding debris. Oh duh.

Inflated rafts in hand, the two of us managed to push off from some rocks on the eastern shoreline and float out onto the lake far enough to consider jumping in without risk of hitting bottom or getting tangled in tullies. We realized, however, that the water was deceivingly refreshing only on the surface, and anything deeper than an inch was basically untouched by the beat down heat and the equivalent to glacier water. So we floated along the top to avoid hypothermia and did hasty limb dips when the heat on top became unbearable. Good enough for me. 
Whitefish Lake courtesy of:
Because Whitefish was so close to the Canadian border, my mother thought it would be nice to take a day trip into Canada. Without any real plan, we casually left around noon one day expecting to be back around dinner time. My daughter didn’t want to go and stayed behind in Whitefish with her friends at the lake, while Chef worked at being a chef up on Big Mountain until midnight. We entered Canada on Highway 93 sixty miles north of Whitefish at the Roosville British Columbia border crossing with nothing more than a AAA fold-up map. That means no cell phone, no GPS, no access to anything akin to 21st century technology now considered commonplace.

The Canadian border guard asked us where we were going. I turned to my mother and asked, “Where are we going?” It was her idea after all.

She thought for a second, then leaned forward and said, “Banff! I want to go to Banff.

The border guard leaned in to look at her before responding, “So you’ll be in Canada for several days then?

Oh no!”, I said, “We have to be back by dinner.”

Not if you’re going to Banff.”, he said.

Oblivious to the cars lining up behind us, my mother, in classic form, started in on how disappointed she was about not having the opportunity to see Banff after everything she’d read about it. She kept asking the border guard if he was sure we didn’t have enough time to go to Banff and still make it back in time for dinner. Every once in a while, even now, the subject of Banff comes up with a little tinge of remorse in her voice. The border guard obviously knew his country and Banff was out of the question that day, so we settled for driving around the Canadian side of Glacier National Park, making only one pit stop at The Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton.

After driving more than 9 hours, we barely squeaked back into Montana 20 minutes before the Alberta Chief Mountain border crossing closed at 10pm. The unnerving part in all of this was that we didn’t even know that the borders had a closing time. Chief Mountain was on the east side of Glacier National Park and the area very remote. Had we been locked out on the Canadian side, our only re-entry option would’ve been to wait until the border re-opened at dawn.

Dusk was in full swing when we re-entered Montana at Chief Mountain. By the time we entered Glacier National Park, the sun had disappeared behind the glacial peaks of the Rockies and put a permanent end to the daylight as we made our way home along the Going-To-The-Sun Road. It was 11pm when we finally pulled into the driveway. My daughter was watching a movie and had barely noticed our return. Chef was still at work and never even knew we were gone.

As my mother and I sat down to a late dinner that night, I realized just how subjective ‘dinner time’ could be when the dusk was dragged out late into the night.

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King

Friday, September 9, 2011

Living The Big Sky Life: In The Beginning, There Was Light

Right about the time the summer solstice was serving up its annual offering on the longest day of the year 1992, I found myself becoming irrationally upset when the evening skies had the nerve to go dark at 11pm, thereby forcing me to throw down the gardening trowel and call it a night.

No matter that it was a good hour past the town’s nightly curfew alarm. After living in Whitefish for only three weeks, I’d already grown deaf to the screeching 10pm ritual of that firehouse curfew alarm. I’d also grown greedily accustomed to the longer days my new northern latitude made possible.

A definite perk in my opinion. Of all things Montana, I think the long days of summer were my favorite thing. Those extra hours of daylight always had a pleasant way of giving me the illusion that I had more time at my disposal. Frankly, all it took was one winter consisting of seven interminable months of sun deprivation and long freezing nights that began around four o’clock in the afternoon to convince me that the extended summer sunlight was THE highlight of big sky country - Northern Lights notwithstanding.

It was the first of July, and five weeks into my big sky life, when I got a phone call from my mother who was staying in Salmon, Idaho. She had just finished up a white water rafting expedition down the middle fork of the Salmon River, and wanted to pop over to Montana for a visit – her first visit to big sky country. We decided that I’d make the 150 mile drive south from Whitefish to Missoula to pick her up at the entrance of the Missoula Mall where her rafting group would drop her off on their way through town.

Even in those days before every commoner had a cell phone or any efficient way of communicating while en route, it never crossed her mind that I wouldn’t show up, let alone have a problem finding her in a city that I’d never been to before. Her group wasn’t so confident and kindly waited with her until I arrived. They were visibly impressed when I drove right up to her as if by some kind of mother-to-offspring osmosis. And on time I might add. Only to turn right around and make the two and half hour drive back to Whitefish, and we still had eight more hours of daylight left to while away in the middle of a heat wave.

I learned early on that getting to Whitefish was never very easy, even in the best of seasons. Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell was the only Flathead Valley option when it came to air travel, and there were just two airlines (Delta and Alaska Airlines) offering regularly scheduled flights that primarily included one departure in the early morning and one arrival at midnight. Basically, first out - last in, and a Delta Salt Lake City layover always sandwiched in between. Kalispell’s airport had the bad habit of getting fogged in like a San Francisco wannabe, which created frequent landing challenges for those midnight arrivals. When this occurred, Delta’s preferred resolution was to land its planes in Missoula, transfer all passengers and luggage onto several large tour buses, and bus everyone up to the airport in Kalispell. ETA was usually about 3:30am.

Although this happened to me the very first time I flew up to Whitefish pre-move, my mother got to know the routine pretty well in the four years that followed. Fortunately she was a seasoned traveler who took detours in stride. I recall her especially enjoying the one midnight bus ride she had with John Lithgow sitting across the aisle from her. Lithgow had a home in the area and was often spotted around the valley, so that same trip also saw her running into him again at the movie theater in the Mountain Mall.

The 4th of July fireworks celebration around Whitefish Lake that year seemed to be another one of my mother’s standout moments (she still talks about it), even though the show didn’t start until dusk, nigh 10pm. She seemed to like the way everyone casually meandered up to City Beach with their lawn chairs in hand to socialize and partake in the celebration of our nation's independence with a choreographed fireworks extravaganza launched from a barge anchored out on the lake.

I later realized how lucky she was to have actually witnessed the fireworks display on the day of the 4th since apparently it wasn’t uncommon for the show to be postponed to the 5th whenever nature's lightning storms insisted on blowing the man-made light show out of the water. Violent thunder showers on Independence Day had a way of dampening patriotic spirits with the prospect of getting struck by lightning, hail, and any other 'Henny Penny' deluge that might fall from a tumultuous Rocky Mountain sky in July.

To Be Continued ... “Dragging Out The Dusk

Living The Big Sky LifeTM
© by DK King