five years on the frontier

Five years ago this week, i slammed the brakes in the middle of the driveway to gawk at two cranes chilling on the pond. I was in the Highlander with Birch and Lucy Goose and all the potted plants. I was the final load to be delivered to the Moose Willow (except for the wee peeps, they were having a sleepover in Lander). Cranes. I stayed staring in wonder at the cranes long enough to breath it all in. I knew when i crossed under that MW threshold, that my life’s trajectory was pointing sky high.

Although most folk wished us well and smiled and nodded about our grand adventure, plenty of others said we wouldn’t make it for long. we weren’t certain. we went in with hearts bursting wide open and zero expectation. we committed ourselves to two years. to the summer that i had planned to ride my bike from Canada to Mexico. what better way to train for that than to live on the edge of what’s habitable. with two toddlers. often alone.

my situation of full-time saturation of skwaks and screams and cries and whines and poop and snot and boogers and tantrums and laundry and 3 meals a day plus snacks and clean up from said meals and two sets of buttoning and zippering and sock pairing and sunscreening and teeth brushing and hat finding and mitten replacing and dog feeding and wife being, was going to be the same no matter where i positioned myself. i reckoned the view out the windows at the Moose Willow was as good as it could possible get at that stage in the game. more than once, i washed the dishes while staring dreamily at a moose chomping away at the willows outside the window. i put the wee peeps (who were screaming and duking it out behind me) on mute, and envied the moose mother who never had to concern herself with the grams of sugar per serving she was offering her offspring. in fact, she wasn’t feeding them at all. she just took them with her to where the food was. hmmmm….i already liked the lessons i was learning out here.

in addition to expanding our space triple-fold, the opportunity felt like manifest destiny to both DW and to me. i have forever been drawn to the idea of the frontier. in elementary school, i wrote book reports on Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Lewis and Clark. although i was always grateful to be born a female no sooner than i was, i also knew i would have crushed it as a woman on the frontier. DW fancies himself that way too. Maybe we were cut from the cloth of the same Conestoga Wagon… or trapper tent. when the opportunity presented itself, it was a no-brainer for both of us.

in five years, no two seasons have been alike. September is the best month, and mid-March, April, and May are the worst. Snow begins to wax by the end of October, except for when it doesn’t. It begins to wane about St. Patricks Day. When you sit in the hot tub in late March, you get dripped on by snow that froze on the roof in November.

June and July swarm with mosquitoes. August and September with flies. The summer sun sets on our deck two hours before it bids farewell to Happy Hour Hill. we often scoot up there to extend the day. We’ve rafted and tubed and walked our section of creek over and over again. The campsites across from us remain occupied from Memorial Day through Halloween. the summer months have been a whirlwind of wildflowers and weeds. of tent camping, camper trailer camping, and side porch camping. of star gazing and sunrise witnessing. of campfires and DareDevil Dips. of bike riding, all attached, and all by our own selves. of seed planting and garden harvesting…sort of. of mountain peak summiting and hot tub soaking. of alpine lake hiking and wild strawberry gathering and gobbling. of flower tending and hillside slip and sliding. summer comes and goes quicker than two shakes of a lamb’s tail. we clutch tightly to each and every tick and tock of the clock. i never (and i never say never) utter a single whimper of complaint about the heat of a High Country Wyoming summer. I worked outside in the summers in Low Country South Carolina. i know better.

Fall hands out perfect days like it just won the Jackpot at Mohegan Sun. It is easy to stay light and bright in the fall. everything seems in its prime. the bulls and the bucks have grown their antlers and shed their velvet. we scout the mountains and sit silently to listen for the mighty bugles. DW puts in his time each morning and night until his tags are full. Each season the homies have taken a step closer and closer to the experience of the hunt. This year, their fifth fall, they were with DW when he shot a mule deer. they were in it together. from spotting him, making the decision, getting closer, experiencing the shot, walking up to the deer, bringing it back to the truck, hanging it in the garage, gutting it, and butchering it. all of it. every other season they had seen the animals already skinned and quartered by the time they arrived at our place. they both (all three of the, really) revered the experience.

By the time we make our decorations for Thanksgiving, the traffic out here slows down and i am ready for the break of it. When the days shrink to their shortest, we are all alone out here for the next several months.

No question about it, winter is a force to be reckoned with up here at 8, 000ft. i love it in all the ways i dreamed when i wished on stars in my childhood that i could have a life like Heidi. i was desperate to live up high in the mountains, alone, above the village, where you had to sled and ski to get around in the winter and the snow gave way to meadows of wildflowers in the summer. i knew it would suit me the way i knew being a frontiers-chic would suit me.

the first couple of winters were particularly rough, when we were newbs and we already had our hands full with just life. neither of us operated a truck and plow before. DW had plenty of farm equipment experience growing up in Kansas and all…but me, zilch. well, except when i got to operate a couple of mini Holder tractors when i worked for Parks and Rec in Jackson. i used the sweeper brush to clear the pathways, and the snowblower to clear the broom ball rink. of course, i performed those duties in my county-issued Carhart costume. i was a real catch in my early 20’s. it didn’t matter if i never plowed before. DW was gone allthetime it seemed, i was in charge of keeping the road open. and i did. i kept showing up. even when the three of us had the stomach bug. i would pull over, open the door to throw up, chip the ice of the windshield wiper, and carry on. we didn’t even have a place to be. our first winter was pre pre-school! we did that just to keep the road open. i guess for the times i couldn’t go another day without my Jeopardy match with Frank. My only other business in town was my twice a week yoga class.

Christmases have been dreamy. There is always enough snow to coat the solstice to New’s Years time with a cold blanket of magic that melts you to your very core. We spend our Christmas Eves with Frank out here, and Christmas days with him in town. and one special Christmas we got to share with Nanny and Pa.

In the first few winters, it was an entire day’s event to ski out to Big Tree and back. It required setting up little puffy people on the floor of the living room. two sets of polypro tops and bottoms. two pairs warm socks. one dry diaper. two snow pants. two puffy coats. two pairs of mittens. two winter hats. two pairs of snow boots. two sets of snacks. two water bottles. two cups of chai. one pair of ski boots and skis. then i had to get myself ready. and get the Chariot ready and find all the blankets. then get them situated in the Chariot. then attach the waist belt and sprint as best i could up the first little hill in the driveway. from the end of the driveway to Big Tree was thigh deep snow every step, even with skis on. the Chariot would just scrape along dragging its belly through the snow. i trudged on and told myself with every step forward that it was worth it.

This winter, i was down to only helping with mittens, and often only with the second one. DW devised a mini groomer two winters ago that he pulls behind the side by side. He puts down a mighty fine track. The homies had their own packs packed with water and snacks and extra layers. after i helped them snap into their skis, they took off. it was rare for me to be in front of them, ever. all i get now is photos from behind. When Crit races to Big Tree, she is hard to beat. what once took all day, is now a warm up for a morning adventure. Hoping next year finds us skinning to the tops of hills and zooming down.

DW has flourished in the past five years. He runs himself ragged in the summers, hunts with a smile tucked under his beard all fall, travels heaps for work all winter and spring and adventures with us the rest of the time. He is legit when it comes to snow removal. Now he knows so many of the things we could not have know then. like where all the drifts accumulate. how to “push back the bankings” as the plow driver from Boston taught me through a viral video. he knows the difference that putting in windrows makes. he can take chains off and put them on lickety split. he learned to dig trenches in the driveway so that it is slightly less of a sloppy mess during the melt. he’s walked out the front door, hiked up the hill, and shot an elk. in fact, with the exception of a few turkeys, all of the game he has harvested in the past five years have been within five miles of our front door. he keeps constant and vigilant watch of the hillsides and ridges. several times a season, he proclaims “I love living here.”

Crit is precisely who she should be five years from who she was. She is growing right into herself everyday. She is curious and kind and clever. She clearly sparks in the natural world. She notices it all: the ice on the puddles and the design of the snowflake, the smell of the rotten duck egg, the flower from bud to bloom to seed, the chill of the creek, the warmth of the sunshine, the sound of the warring eagles and the raucous cranes. she slides up hills on skis and foot like she’s riding an escalator. she feathers her brakes and wedges her skis to control her descents. she does not want to be moving through space too quickly. she gains confidence every day, and still remains humble. her very existence validates my own. The emotional regulation that seemed galaxies away when we first got here, and she was a wee little lass of three, has come to be. she has tools and she uses them. she has strategies and she implements them. her imagination is vivid and complex and she is filled to the brim with good cheer and humor.

Debul has transformed leaps and bounds. He was in diapers when we got here at the edge of it all. He was not in the kind of hurry Crit was to develop through things. He’d rather hang out in a phase for a while and wear it completely until it has to be thrown away. These past five years have certainly plumed his feathers. His best place is outside. Several falls ago, we were camping outside of West Yellowstone. We were enjoying a lazy morning together at camp. Debul was sitting at the breakfast table. He was two years old, but not incredibly verbal yet. He raised his voice to garner all the attention of the tribe of us, and said, “blah biddyblah seepyblowblahdy y perinsidy goblittity”, then he slammed both hands down on the table. he sat back in his chair, interlaced his hands behind his back and said ” I lub dat. i weally weally lub dat.” none of us know to this day what is it that he lubbed…but i knew each of us were grateful to be there at that moment of declaration. Debul has extraordinary sense of spatial relationships and an uncanny way of combining color together. It seems like maybe it shouldn’t work – but somehow it does. He loves to dress up and wear costumes and pretend-play. If any motorized vehicle is getting its engine revved, Debul is at the door with his helmet on ready to ride. He can spot animals anywhere anytime and he rides his bicycle with the same grace that Crit skies. When something is difficult, he keeps trying. When there is a problem, he is a walking brainstorm of solutions.

DW and I put our forces together and created two human beings. it seems like one came from the right side of my brain, the other from my left.

I certainly feel like I’ve grown barrels and heaps myself since the day i greeted the cranes on the pond. the first year was the toughest. it was the pre pre-school era. just me and those Macaroni Piggies day in and out. i signed them up for swim lessons that first year. in Lander. close to two hours from our driveway to the parking lot. once a week for six winter weeks. it was my major triumph each week. the next winter i drove in to town to scoop Crit up from pre-k everyday. the winter after that, for seven weeks, i skied six miles to our truck, drove from there to town to teach yoga, scooped Debul up from pre-k at noon, ate lunch in the camper trailer parked at our old house, found a public restroom for him to poop in, and then scooped Crit up at 3:30. We could then all ride back the six miles of winter driveway together in the side by side. the winter after that, things got quieter for me.

i, too, have become adept with the tire chains. and i can plow a rooster tail like a boss. i spent a week alone with my wee peeps, stranded, after being swallowed up by the February storms of 2017. I’ve tackled my kids to the ground, and shielded them with myself as a moose trotted in panic right over us. i’ve listened to a pack of wolves howl in the nighttime darkness from the top of my skinny skis. i’ve climbed to the top of just about every hill and ridge you can see out any window. i’ve polar explored on skies in every direction. since moving here i learned to sew and started a t-shirt business. i rode my bike from Canada to home. i’ve had life coaching clients. i write. i paint. i ride my bike. i go to town to walk up hills and watch Jeopardy with Shank. and and i still make the meals and clean them up and wash, dry, and fold the laundry. i sweep, vacuum, and mop. i do toilets too.

The Macaroni Piggies turned into Howling Wolves turned into Jolly Rodgers turned into whatever it is were are coming on for this summer. We change our alter-ego identities as often as it seems fit. we love no-school Fridays and still have full on Salon Days. Wee peeps soak in a LUSH bubble bath, lay towels out on the floor, choose from a variety of oils, get nails trimmed and painted, and choose their style for homesteading haircuts. I know that i will be sad when those days end.

as remote and isolating as this experience has been, i have never been taken under by loneliness. each of those five years we have travelled east to share time and space with the ones we love. it is a necessary part of the success of our story here. in the past five years, when the going got tough, i could check out the calendar on the wall and remind myself that it whatever it was, was temporary. that we were flying east soon, or that someone was coming here. when our plane lands in EWR, AVP, BWI, IAD, CLT, RSW, AVL…i gulped up sips of the humid air. sharing time and space and hugs and laughs with our people makes me feel like i’m in our old Commodore 64 game, Threshold. at the end of every level, the mothership would come down and connect to the little ship. it filled its life force right up to the tippety top, seemingly without losing any of its own, then it flew off. i get saturated and filled to the brim with all the love i receive in our time there. to love and be loved. nothing else.

We have made this Horse Creek valley our own. If anyone asks our kids for directions out here, they will need a key to translate. We have Piggy Piggy Oink Oink trail, Moo Cow Point, Monkey Tunnel, Crabtree Lane, Touch the Sky Island, Back 40 Beach, Big Tree (maybe they could figure that one out), Lorax Lookout, Osprey Overlook, Wet Willy Hilly, Nettipot Pond, Happy Hour Hill, CP Junction, Eclipse Point, Drifter Flats…i’m certain i’m missing a few.

For five years, we have made this our home. Home on the ranch. Where the deer, and the antelope, and the elk, and the moose, and the black bears, and the grizzly bears, and the coyotes, and the wolves, and the mountain lions, and the picket pens, and the badgers, and the trout, and the eagles, and the four of us humans and our two mountain mutts, range.