Population 47: Living Big in a Tiny Town
As a child, I loved watching reruns of the 60’s television comedy, “Gilligan’s Island.” The idea of becoming one of seven castaways on an uncharted, previously uninhabited island was oddly romantic to me. Of course, it was easy for me to relate to Gilligan, the bumbling and accident-prone crewman of the S.S. Minnow. But it wasn’t just one character that did it for me, it was the hodge-podge of pasts, personalities, interests and hang-ups of all the ill-fated passengers – the Skipper, Thurston Howell III, Lovey Howell, Ginger Grant, the Professor, and Mary Ann – that made the Island seem like a home. A person can still feel alone living in a bustling city surrounded by millions of other people; when you live on an island, you don’t take your neighbors for granted, even if they are downright strange.
And then in the 90’s along came “Northern Exposure” – now, there’s an addiction of mine. Residing in a tiny town in backcountry Alaska is pretty much the same as squatting on a spot of dry land amidst the immense Pacific Ocean – give or take a few or 6 feet of snow.
I was not only intrigued by a diverse handful of people gathered in a remote location just for the purpose of living – survival – but I adored the vast space between these humans… and the next town… and the town after that.
The silence throughout a piece of music is just as important as the notes themselves; music depends on rests to distinguish one sound from another and another and another. Like silence in composing, spaces between people – lives - hold an equal necessity and richness.
Drive out of a chaotic city, and keep driving, until you hit nothing but wheat fields, rows of corn, desert, sagebrush.
I love people, and I love the long pauses between people. This blog is about both.
In October of 2009, I purchased my own, first home in Martinsdale, Montana - population: 47 or so. This "stat" all depends on the day of the week, the season, the wind, whether the Mint Bar is open yet, who happens to tell you...
...Welcome to the Island of MDale...
"We'd have a better chance of playing Pick-up Sticks with our buttcheeks than getting a plane out of here tonight."
~~ Del (John Candy) from the 1987 film, "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles"
Pardon the midly-vulgar quote but I just had to... "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" was the theme for the 2009 Land Family Christmas.
My parents took the Amtrak train from Indianapolis to Denver. My Aunt Dot hopped on a plane and flew that same route. And I - along with Borage, Chloe, and Jigs - drove south from Martinsdale, Montana to Denver. Before we all left our homes, we were leary that we'd all make it to the same place at the same time like we'd planned - it is the middle of winter and the Holiday season after all.
Thankfully, we all met up at my brother and sister-in-law's home in Wheatland, a suburb of Denver, within 12 hours of each other. Actually, the trip was fairly uneventful for all of us. Everyone made their connections, no one got (seriously) ill, and my nephews Ivan and Anthony scored big on presents. Lots of adults and only two little people = CHA-CHING! in the gift department.
I was really looking forward to the trip because Dot and I arranged to be roommates at the La Quinta Inn. Dot hasn't taken a trip since the 2004 Iditarod (she went to Anchorage AND Nome with my mom) because of health reasons. For awhile I was worried Dot might not ever travel again but, as always, she bounced back with a huge smile on her face and that delightful laugh that makes all three of my dogs go ballistic whenever they hear her. Laughter is contagious, healing, and inspiring - that's why I love having Dot close (there is NO ONE I'd rather go see a comedy film with than my Aunt Dot - she gets the entire theatre howling). I will never forget those three Iditarods with Mom and Aunt Dot there for it all. Girl power.You never know - we might just end up back in Alaska again someday soon...
PS... one of my favorite photos of Dot in Nome, Alaska with my unloaded Taurus .41 magnum titanium revolver. I carried the gun to protect my dogs and myself from moose and buffalo along the Iditarod Trail. I sent the gun up to Alaska by mail because you cannot drive a firearm across Canada. When it came time to get my revolver home, Dot offered to put it in her luggage (which is legal to do) and fly it home with her. Still she was a little nervous about it all; when she went up to the airline counter she announced first off, "I have a gun!" Not really a good way to start a conversation at an airport. Thankfully, Alaskans have a good sense of humor too!
"Good men (dogs) must die, but death cannot kill their names..." ~~ Proverb
Tonight, I was checking email when my Jack Russell mix hopped up on my lap. I told her she was the best Goat dog in the whole world, joking then that she was the only Goat dog in the world. She twisted her little head at me, and I agreed - we should google "dog named goat." Imagine our surprise to find another dog named Goat!
I enjoyed reading about your Goat's big adventure, when what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a link to an article about a dog named Pig. I called to my deaf Schipperke, "Hey Li'l Pig, you aren't gonna believe this!" Your Pig sounded a lot like mine - one tough, devoted little captain.
The photo I've attached also includes my Husky-Chow, Duke, who passed away a few years back. He did the "woo, woo, woo" that your Goat does, particularly at supper time, when to my neighbors' dismay, I would join him to wind him up into full ululation.
Thanks for your terrific articles! I look forward to telling everyone that I'm not the only one to name my dogs "Pig" and "Goat".
Fort Lauderdale, FL
"The strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the home."
An email sent to Karen Land last week:
I have created an information website about the Smith Mansion and am trying to get the word out. I started the Smith Mansion Preservation Project this October. My goal, to preserve and maybe someday finish my dad's creation and share it somehow with the public.
Please let me know if this is something that you would do for me. I appreciate your time and I just want to say that your story was very well written, and quite frankly, dead on.
Thank you again,
Sunny Dee Smith Larsen
H.P.W. - ca. 1916
Dog Jack has gone on the silent trail,
Wherever that may be;
But well, I know, when I whistle the call,
He will joyfully answer me.
That call will be when I, myself,
Have passed through the Gates of Gold;
He will come with a rush, and his soft brown eyes
Will glisten with love as of old.
Oh, Warden of Gates, in the far away land,
This little black dog should you see,
Throw wide your doors that this faithful friend
May enter, and wait for me.
This epitaph from a 1916 gravestone is dedicated to Monk - a darn good ranch dog - who passed away last week on the Cameron Ranch (Martinsdale, Montana) at the very old age of "really, really old."
Monk, you are missed...
"Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childhood days, recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, and transport the traveler back to his own fireside and quiet home!"
A few days ago, I finally got myself out to get a Christmas tree. Actually, my friend, Pea, and I had already hiked up Pasture Gulch in search of the perfect Tannenbaum several days earlier, but found nothing. Many of the evergreens are so dry in this area that they really should be called everorange, everbrown, everyellow. It was difficult to go home with an empty pickup after an afternoon of searching, but I really wanted the "right" tree for my first Christmas in my new home.
The next time we headed out, the temperature was -20 and the wind was, as usual, whipping. I bundled Jigs up in his Woolrich sheepswool coat (with toggle buttons) and Chloe wore her hand-knitted, wool fisherman knit sweater. Being the sled dog that Borage is, he went tromping around in the fuzzy buff, grinning from pointy ear to pointy ear that HIS season was finally here. We drove up to the Daisy Dean trailhead, unloaded the dogs, and grabbed my grandfather's old saw out of the back of the truck.
Pea saw the perfect tree over there, I saw an even better one over here - all of them looked like a Holiday greeting card from afar but upon closer inspection we realized almost every conifer in the area was actually many little trees growing right next to each other.
We kept searching for 20 minutes. Borage ran and played and rolled in the wonderful white stuff; he found an old elk leg to devour. Jigs was now requesting that I carry him. Chloe took turns holding each paw up out of the bitter cold snow and shook violently all over. The wind was a little much for Pea and I, even. It was time we picked out a tree - NOW.
Finally I came across one tree - with just one trunk - that was actually quite nice. Even though the Douglas Fir was wind-blown, flat on one side, and the trunk branched off into three smaller ones a little higher up, the little conifer seemed to call my name. I thought I heard it say: "Hey lady, I'm freezing my boughs off up here on this mountain. Cut me down, will you?"
So Pea and I obliged.
Trees talk when it's 20 below.
"Skating Away on the Thin Ice of a New Day..."
- Jethro Tull
It always makes me nervous walking the dogs near ice - lake ice, pond ice, sea ice, river ice - during this time of year.
Actually, ice makes me nervous in general. After running Iditarod, I KNOW it can break on you, leaving you scrambling around in total Alaskan darkness, waste-deep in slushy water at 30 below zero, trying to lift your doggie-paddling huskies (all white from their coats frozen with ice) out of the rushing current and onto an ice shelf several feet overhead...
Yes, ice is unstable and dangerous. But it's also tantilizingly beautiful.
No matter the weather, I have a hard time staying away from the Martinsdale Reservoir for more than a day. I love that big body of water surrounded by the Crazies on one side, and an endless sea of golden rolling prairie land in every other direction. The wind howls and blasts so hard in this country that the lake feels more like an ocean. Huge, hip-high, white-capped waves come crashing into the rocky banks more days than not. A calm day on the Martinsdale Reservoir always seems strange to me, a little eery even. Where are you, wind? Is this a calm before a storm?
Two days ago, the cold finally beat out the wind. No longer are there waves; now, smooth glare ice stretches from bank to bank - glittering, pristine, frigid.
I walk the dogs up in the dry grass and sage. That ice is inviting, but it's not ready for us. Not yet.
"I could dance with you till the cows come home. On second thought, I'll dance with the cows till you come home."
- Groucho Marks in the film "Duck Soup," 1933.
So far this season, cows are helping to temper my longing for sled dogs.
Of course, cows outnumber humans by far in this neck of the woods. I do realize that the loose statistic of 47 humans residing in Martinsdale does not include all of the people who live on ranches in the area, up in the foot hills of the Crazies or the Little Belts or the Castles (mountains), or tucked in the cottonwoods and willows along the Musselshell River. But still if you lined up all the humans next to all of those cows (and sheep too), the bovine would win the numbers game hooves down. If you live in Montana you gotta love cows. And I do - the more the mooier (sorry, couldn't resist).
Cows = wide open spaces.
Since I moved into my new little abode, I've had the opportunity to help out on the Cameron Ranch. My friends, Pea and Spunky, work as "cowgirls" on Gil's family spread just at the bottom of the Little Belts.