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