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Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Red Oak House Winter Notes No. 4: On Being Named Lillian

I was named Lillian after my maternal grandmother, my Norwegian ancestor. My mother tells me that when they handed me to her upon my birth, she looked down and saw her mother's face, hence my name. I think I would have been given that name no matter who I looked like, but, no matter. My mother loves to tell the story!

I've written once about my Grandma Lilly's quilt. I have but a few memories of her including standing next to her in the Slope County farmhouse kitchen while she made sugar cookies, gobbling up the scraps she would hand to me. My Mother tells me that Grandma Lilly could handle any horse. She was an extremely hard worker, both indoors and out as well as exceptionally thrifty. As she would work in her kitchen, she would sing old hymns. She was the rock of the family. When I was born, she gifted my mother with a month of diaper service.

The last time I was with her was in the early summer of 1970 when she and I had driven the Ford Galaxy over to the juneberry patch along Deep Creek for an afternoon of picking berries. She let me sit in her ample lap and "drive" on the way home. The next morning, when I awoke, they had taken her to the hospital where she died. My mother's story of her death is harrowing and I have vivid memories of how broken-hearted my parents were upon her death. She was a much-loved lady in her community and my Grandpa was never the same after losing her. The picture below was taken just before she died, by her lilac bushes in front of the farmhouse.

Below is a picture of Lillian and her sister, Anna, when they were cowgirling somewhere south of Miles City, MT, in the Powder River country, before they were married.

It tickles me to no end to see photos of me over the years with that same hands-on-hips stance, even when I was a little girl. I must have picked it up from her when we were living with them the year before we moved to Okinawa.

The photo below was taken on a family expedition to the top of Bullion Butte, in the summer of 1966. I'm the girl in the white top with dark pants on the right side of the photo. My older sister, Sarah, in the dark blue shorts, also has "the stance."

When I was young, I did not like my name. I wanted a more 1960s name, like Tina or Lisa. I never knew anyone else in my age bracket with such an old-fashioned name. Because my Grandma was known as "Lilly," I was always called "Lillian" to avoid confusion. As I aged, I grew to love my name and embraced the honor of being named after such a beloved lady. Much to my surprise, in the past twenty years, I've begun to get compliments about the beauty of the name and I appreciate those and the memories of my Grandma this sparks.

When my daughters were young, the singer Emmylou Harris released a song called "Red-Dirt Girl," which included the lyrics "me and my best friend Lillian." My daughter, Chelsea and her pal, Maddy, were just tickled when they heard that line. You can listen to it here. Some years later, Jim and I were at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival with some pals and Emmylou was one of the performers. Lo & behold, she sang "Red-Dirt Girl!" When it was announced that she would be signing after her set, I was first in line. I told Emmylou my name and she said I just had to come behind the table for a photo with her. She also signed the hat that I was wearing.

How cool is that? Thank you, Grandma Lilly.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

"The Mountains are calling and I must go."

"The mountains are calling and I must go."

John Muir wrote these words in the early years of the twentieth century. He lived much of his life near to the mountains. Mountains have been on my mind of late, although I don't live near any. Perhaps the trigger was that one night not long ago we watched an excellent documentary on mountains, inspired by the work of Robert Macfarlane, one of my favorite contemporary writers.

Watching this film took me back many decades, to my time as a young woman backpacking in the Beartooth Wilderness of western Montana. My summer college job was counselor at Badlands Bible Camp near Medora. The camp director selected me to be his female counterpart for a week-long backpack trip with high school campers from western North Dakota scheduled for the end of the Camp's summer season. By this point, I had spent a lifetime camping and hiking in wild places but had not yet backpacked, so I was very excited about this assignment and proud that I was selected.

At the beginning of the summer, my mother and aunt had sewn me a down-filled sleeping bag from a Frostline kit they ordered (I still have that sleeping bag) after listening to my complaints about being cold in my bunk in the uninsulated camp dorm building. I went home to the farm for the weekend between staff training and the arrival of the first campers, we spread out the kit on the farmhouse floor, and they went to work with my mother's sewing machine.

By mid-June, my hiking boots were well broken-in, after days filled with leading kids on badlands hikes. And I was extremely fit from climbing buttes hence ready to carry a very heavy pack for a week.

The kids gathered at the camp on a late July Sunday afternoon. We spent the rest of the day in drills designed to assure we could erect our Eureka! tents as quickly as possible and sorting through our possessions so that our packs carried as little as possible. We even broke off the end of our toothbrushes in the effort to minimize weight. The camp director's wife advised me to remind her husband to brush his teeth now and then, something he was wont to do when backpacking. Together we assembled tinfoil dinners for our first night at the base camp near Red Lodge and filled peanut butter tubes for high-energy trail lunches.

Tent practice sessions. I'm the first seated on the left. The camp director has his hand on the tent.

The campers I was leading were not much younger than I and, unlike me, none had ever been to the mountains. As we drove west through Montana, we made it a contest to see who could first spot the mountains on the horizon. 

I still have the green down vest shown in this photo, a major purchase for a poor college student. It did double-duty as my pillow on expeditions.

Although the pictures have faded, my memory is crystal clear of the moment we hoisted our packs and hiked past the boundary sign to the Beartooth Wilderness. Wilderness! That is a word that still stirs such thrill in me. At the time, I didn't fully understand that I had grown up surrounded by nearly 1/2 million acres of de facto badlands wilderness.

On day one, we hiked to Quinnebaugh Meadows where we set up our first camp.
We carried a tin cup clipped with a Carabiner to our packs. We were hiking along Rock Creek so whenever we were thirsty, we would simply dip our cups into the icy stream and drink. It was only a couple of years later that this became unsafe and hikers had to carry filters to avoid giardia. We all took dozens of photos of the cold mountain streams and waterfalls, never quite able to capture their beauty on static film. We played games of "who could keep their feet in the snowmelt the longest" and rock-hopping.

By day two, we arrived at the base of Sundance Pass. We braced ourselves for the crossing of the pass the next day. It was very humbling to look up to the top of the pass, at switchback over switchback over switchback, knowing that on the next day we'd be hiking up, and over, and down the other side. Most summer afternoons in the mountains brings showers so by now we were experienced at protecting ourselves from the cold rain as well as heating water and freeze-dried food on our portable white gas stoves. The next morning, when we emerged from our tents, we could see that it was snowing high up on the pass. There was nothing to do but gobble down some hot oatmeal, pull on our packs, and trudge upward.

The switchbacks of Sundance Pass are visible in the background of this photo of me washing my hair in snowmelt. 

Thus it was that my first crossing of Sundance Pass was made in a blizzard, encouraging along novices so that no one would succumb to hypothermia. The exertion kept us all warm and we were completely spent by the time we crawled into our sleeping bags in our tents next to the little lake a few miles from the base of the "other" side of the pass.

At the end of the journey, we peeled the moleskin off our weary feet, turned on the radio in the camp van to catch up on what had happened in the world while we were off the grid, and drove into Red Lodge to gorge on pizza.

Years later, I took my own children on a day hike in the Beartooth Wilderness, encouraging them along the trail when their energy flagged, just as I had those campers of days past. Hiking behind my daughter, I marveled at her strong little legs propelling her along.

Little had I known that these trips in my early twenties would prepare me for many adventures to come, a springboard to a life spent exploring wild places including two more backpacking trips in the Beartooth Wilderness, canoeing in the Boundary Waters several times, kayaking the Little Missouri River countless times, winter camping in the Appalachians, overnighting at the Dry Tortugas, and rafting the Colorado River for my fortieth birthday. So it was that I became WildDakotaWoman.

Now, if the danged US government would just re-open, I'll set out on my next adventure to wild places.

"Because the mountains we climb are not made only of rock and ice but also dreams and desire. The mountains we climb are mountains of the mind." Robert Macfarlane, 
Mountain (Film, 2017)

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Wild Notes: Skinny Skiing Dakota

My younger sister received cross-country skis for Christmas so I finally have a companion for some of my winter expeditions. With the abundant snow, we've made two forays in the past week: Sibley Park, just south of Bismarck, and, today, further north to Cross Ranch State Park -- both in cottonwood forests along the cold, dark Missouri River.

We had Cross Ranch almost to ourselves today, with just two rangers in the VC, and one person packing up at one of the yurts. We saw no one on the ski trails for the more than six miles we logged in the winter sunshine of the afternoon.

We both sort of putz along, stopping frequently to listen to woodpeckers drumming nearby, hoping for a bald eagle sighting (sadly, none).  A small flock of Canada geese flew over and we could hear the sound of shotguns slaughtering their kin north of us, beyond the boundary of the park.

Watching the ice float by is rather mesmerizing. The river here is far more open than at Bismarck where it is almost iced over.

Cross Ranch State Park is one of North Dakota's natural jewels, and I've spent much time there over the years, including nights at the cabins and yurts. One year, Jim and Chelsea and I went there intending to winter camp, only to find so much snow had melted that we would be sleeping in a puddle hence we opted for a yurt.

Another time we took a February picnic there with our friends Chris and Larry, with soup hot off our Coleman stove. We had to dig the table out of the snowbank.

Beats the hell out of sitting around moaning about our long winters. Now I'm going to soak my weary bones in our hot tub and watch a glorious January sunset.