Making My Own Tracks

It’s been snowing steadily for more than twenty-four hours, and there was already more than a foot of snow on the ground before it started. As I write this afternoon, the winds are picking up, and tonight the temperatures are going to drop below zero. So this is what people were talking about when they questioned whether I could handle a Montana winter.

Can I handle it? You mean, do I love it? I moved to Montana to experience real winters like this. After a lifetime as a Seattle-area resident, I longed for an end to the rain-soaked days and gray skies. For years, I had dreamed of living in a place where I could cross-country ski all winter long. And today, I checked one more thing off my Montana wish list. I skied from my front door.

I have to admit, I do love the arrival of my snowplow guy, but today I was hoping he wouldn’t make it, or maybe he could just delay his arrival. There is something so satisfying about watching his truck push aside all that snow in minutes. I love how all that pure white powder piles up along the sides of my driveway and near my porch. But today, I really wanted to make a cross-country ski course around the house. My neighbor was amused by my idea and welcomed me to expand the course into her yard, too. By one this afternoon, there was no sign of him. It was time to get the skis.

First, I had to make a run to the mailbox. Since the neighborhood hadn’t been plowed either, I popped on the skis and made the quarter-mile trek without incident. Okay, that was a good warm-up. Then I decided to go beyond my yard. I trudged through a foot of powder, down the thin strip of common area behind the neighbors’ houses. Next, I went around the corner to the golf course. How could I possibly resist all of that pristine, wide-open space?

It was hard work, but worth it, and the trip back over my tracks proved a bit easier. To finish off my adventure, I made the ski course I had envisioned in our two adjoining yards. I have to say it was much more fun than building a snowman!

So, can I handle a Montana winter? Yes, and I can handle so much more. I am adventurous, resilient, and more of a risk-taker at this stage of my life than I ever have been before. I have experienced more “living” in the past six months than in any other six-month period of my life. Have I made mistakes? Yes. Has everything worked out according to plan? No. Do I have regrets? Absolutely not. Did my snowplow guy ever make it? Nope.

January Isn’t So Bad

I used to hate January. There was just no way around it. Once Christmas and that sweet, long break were over, I had to drag myself back to work and attempt to inspire my students to get back into the learning groove. For many years, January had mostly been a month to trudge through and count the days until it was over.

But now, that’s all changed. First, I’m no longer in the classroom. I did take a long trip to visit family and friends over the holidays, but I was anxiously anticipating the return to my new life in Montana. I couldn’t wait to get back to my new friends and neighbors here, and, of course, get some skiing in.

When I arrived home two weeks ago, there still wasn’t much snow. It was rather warm, dry, and disappointing. At least there was enough snow up north and in the mountains, so I wasn’t entirely out of luck. I did get a few ski outings in and even went downhill skiing for the first time in, well, literally decades.

Then yesterday the magic happened. I had been putting in some hours at my friend’s shop to help with inventory over the past week or so. It was lightly snowing when I woke up, and it really started coming down by midday when I drove to the shop.

After only three hours of work, I had to brush what appeared to be a couple of inches off my car. The winter wonderland had arrived! I made the short drive home without any mishaps, but it kept snowing so hard that I decided to cancel my evening plans with a friend. It seemed too risky to venture out when I could stay safe and warm at home.

This morning I looked out my window to see that my driveway had been plowed, which meant we got more than three inches. The internet reports that it was between 4.5-6 inches. That seems about right.

The very best thing, though, was that there was finally enough snow on my local ski trails to go try them out! I have been waiting since November for enough accumulation to make this happen. Last summer when I was house-hunting, I had dreamed of the day that I could take that short drive, pop on my skis, and go swishing around. I know you probably don’t understand, especially if you aren’t a cross-country skier, but it just made me so happy! There’s something magical about the pristine, freshly groomed trails. It’s actually better than Christmas in my world.

Now January feels more like a welcome friend than a dreaded enemy. I’m looking forward to more time on my skis, and I’m grateful that my friend convinced me to buy snow tires.

It’s Good to be Home

After twelve days of trotting coast-to-coast visiting family and friends, I have to say I’m delighted to be back in my Montana home. It’s not that I really needed a reminder of why I absolutely love it here, but the trip back to the Seattle area confirmed that I made the right decision when I decided to call this place home. As I experienced many places that had been so familiar for much of my life, I unexpectedly felt like a stranger. I didn’t have any feelings of regret for having moved, just memories of places I had gone and things I had done.

Now don’t get me wrong; I did enjoy spending time with old friends. And the best Christmas gift a mom can receive is to see her adult children. But I had only been away from Montana for a couple of days when I became terribly homesick. My next-door neighbor wasn’t much help either when she sent me a photo of my snow-covered house one morning.

A few days ago, right before landing in Kalispell, the woman next to me on the plane started saying things that described how I felt. She too was a fellow transplant from Washington State and had missed the warm, friendly people of the Flathead Valley. She was happy to see a dusting of snow, but not too much to make driving difficult. We soon realized that we had a mutual friend and exchanged phone numbers. By the time we got to baggage claim, we were chatting like old buddies.

Over the next couple of days, I started reconnecting with friends and catching up on what I had missed during my nearly two weeks away. Then I actually did feel a little regret having missed out on some of the holiday festivities here in Montana.

Today I feel like I’m back to my old, comfortable surroundings. It’s funny to think that I moved here just short of six months ago. I haven’t felt the need to make any resolutions for 2019; I’m just going to continue to see where that Montana Magic takes me.

Family Feelings

The holidays are a time when we gather with family and friends. Sometimes those gatherings bring up feelings of pain and regret rather than delight in seeing our loved ones. We are reminded of the loss of loved ones as well as the disappointments and disagreements of the past. Thus, the holidays are often more painful than joyful for some.

No family is perfectly happy. When we reflect on relations with extended family, some baggage is bound to have developed over time which makes those family gatherings a bit strained. It’s kind of hard to avoid, isn’t it? Over a lifetime, there are so many interactions that some are certainly negative. There are those arguments and misunderstandings that just can’t seem to be resolved because we are too stubborn to let go. Or maybe the pain is too profound to release just yet. And it’s a two-way street: Perhaps one person is ready to forgive and move on while the other is hanging on to that grudge and hurt.

Sometimes, we have essentially taken separate paths and no longer have much in common. We’re left with nothing to talk about but the good old days. Then there is that competition that can grow between us. Jealousy can rear its ugly head when we see how a family member has reached success while we may be struggling in some way.

On the flip side, we have those close friends who are really more like family. We aren’t bound by blood, but we have a lifelong bond that seems inseverable. We get along so well that we wish we were related.

So, this year and every year, it’s really a mix. I’ve had time to visit with blood relatives as well as old friends who are like family to me. I’m grateful for them all, good, not-so-good, and in between. They all make up part of who I am, where I’ve been, and where I’m going. And there’s always hope that the argument will be resolved, the misunderstanding will become clarified, and the pain will diminish the next time we see each other.

‘Tis the Season to Be Busy

Oh my, have I been busy! I can’t believe that December is more than halfway over, and I am just now getting to my first post of the month.

The Christmas magic in my cozy new hometown continues. December first was the night of the Christmas parade. Fortunately, a friend had asked me if I wanted to go, or I may have missed all of the fun. The variety of floats was charming; I do believe my favorite was the sled dogs—yes, real barking dogs. It was definitely a community event with a constant sprinkling of candy for the kids from almost every float. I think nearly everyone in town was either on a float or watching along the street.

The next day I attended a Christmas party that was held at a local recording studio. Besides a lively variety of music, the white elephant gift exchange was a highlight. There were about forty gifts in all, and the hostess managed the whole affair with great skill, taking control of the mic from the musicians. Afterward, musicians took turns singing and playing their instruments, rotating in and out, and sharing the stage. I’ve decided that being a groupie is pretty cool. You know, I’m doing my part to support the arts.

The following week, I took a field trip to Missoula to check out a business opportunity. It was a perfectly clear winter day, so the scenery alone made the drive worthwhile. My companion for the day was a spirited character who shared his compelling life story all the way there and back, over an hour each way. In the end, I decided against the business opportunity, but I’m trying to convince him that I should ghostwrite his memoir. We’re in touch; it still may happen.

Throughout December, I’ve been covering extra shifts at my friend’s shop here in town. She is active in the community and was coordinating “Twelve Days of Christmas” baskets for a silent auction in support of the local arts and culture center. I jumped in to help set up some of the baskets and typed up some of the descriptions. It was a hectic couple of days before the event. I then actually attended the gala, rather than volunteering, which was a pleasant change of pace. I ended up with the winning bid on one of the baskets, too!

The following morning, I was a volunteer judge at the local high school speech and debate tournament. It was my first return to a school-related event since leaving my teaching position last June. I have to say it was an absolute joy to see so many hard working kids giving their all in such valuable activities. As an added bonus, they were incredibly polite and grateful for my volunteer service. Their coaches had indeed trained them well.

That afternoon, my neighbors hosted an open house style Christmas party. There was an unbelievable number of people crammed into their home, and all were enjoying themselves. Everyone was engaged in conversation, and I have never seen so many people squeezed onto a sofa before. I met some new people, and chatted with neighbors and acquaintances along with a couple of people who seem to appear everywhere in this town!

I had to leave the party early because I had plans to meet a couple of friends for eggnog at the local distillery before catching a favorite local band at one of my hangouts in town. Once again, there were some of those friendly, familiar faces at both the distillery and the bar. My community continues to grow.

Last week I added party preparations into the mix. On Friday, I hosted my first Montana house party which was a huge success. After feeling a little anxious about the mix of neighbors and friends that I had invited, everything went smoothly. It was heartwarming to realize that I had made so many new friends in the few months that I have lived here. Everyone arrived with wine or food to share, and a few people even brought me gifts. My house was full of joyful chatter throughout the evening. This week, I keep running into friends and neighbors who rave about the party and the interesting people they met that night. That is a gift in itself.

The next day, Saturday, I got out for my first cross country ski outing of the season—finally! One of the main reasons that I moved to Montana was to experience the four seasons and winters full of snow rather than Seattle rain. Cross-country skiing is by far my favorite outdoor activity. Sometimes I think it must be because it is a limited activity that I don’t get to experience more than a dozen or so times each year. I just love the smooth swishing of my skis over the pristine white snow; it’s a sort of mediation for me. I can best describe it as my version of a runner’s high. Along our nearly ten-mile course on Whitefish Mountain, we took in some stunning views of the valley, all the way down to Flathead Lake and Blacktail Ski Resort. This is one of the many reasons why I came to Montana!

My friend, the shop owner, was out of town for a few days, so that evening her husband and I went out for a burger at a local bar (well-earned after a day of skiing) and the children’s musical production of A Christmas Carol. Now don’t think quaint little small-town children’s production. This was a professional level performance complete with choreography. Yet another gem in my new hometown! How was I so fortunate to find this place?

I rounded out the weekend on Sunday with a few hours of work, ice skating with a new friend, and a glass of wine with a group of friends afterward. I’m still nursing my bruised knee from my one and only fall on the ice, though. As I said, skiing is more my thing—softer landings!

Today marked the arrival of my “bestie” who is in town for a couple of days. If you’ve been following my story, he’s a friend of a friend who’s been my biggest supporter and ally through my transition. Sadly, he moved to another part of the state back in October. We had a get together this evening with several friends at our favorite local brewery. It was so good to see him in person again and share some holiday joy.

Along with everything else, I’m still trying to get the rest of my Christmas cards sent, have some writing and editing work to complete, and my house is not entirely cleaned up from the party. But those loose ends don’t matter. My life is richly blessed with new friends, new experiences, and a little Montana magic.

 

Thankful Weekend

As I sit down to write on this chilly Sunday evening, I feel like I’m living out a Hallmark movie. Really, the only missing element is finding the love of my life in my new hometown. Who knows? Maybe that is in next week’s script.

My Thanksgiving weekend started with serving the community meal at the local cafe. The owners generously donate the meal every year as kind of a gift to the town. And it’s not just for those in need. People from all walks of life attend, and reservations are required because it fills up. There’s an option to donate to the town’s food bank at the event, and many came prepared with checks and cash to drop in the box.

I had met one of the owners a month or so ago, and she invited me to attend either by volunteering or just coming to dine. Of course, the volunteering option was more attractive to me. Not only would I have an opportunity to meet community members, but I’d still get to eat afterward.

I was assigned to the soup and dessert crew. We quickly bonded and took our roles of ladling, plate prepping, and serving. Once all of the soup was delivered, we headed to the dessert station. This was even more fun because the pie case was located in the center of the cafe where I could chat with people seated at the counter. And who isn’t happy when they’re eating pie? I also provided some entertainment as I got accustomed to the professional whip cream dispenser. Let’s say it was a little more powerful than the grocery store cans. Fortunately, I had my commemorative apron to save my outfit from certain disaster.

After three seatings of more than 200 people, we volunteers went to the kitchen to serve our own plates. I quickly understood why this was a “reservations only” event. It was probably the best turkey dinner I had ever eaten, and I would really like to get my hands on their sweet potato recipe!

Less than three hours later, I joined my neighbors to further stuff myself. It was a quiet gathering, just four of us, which was perfect after the busy day. My dear neighbor thoughtfully made a gluten-free pumpkin pie for me. Delightful!

On Friday and Saturday, I worked in my friend’s shop. Most of Friday was spent preparing for Shop Small Saturday. We worked like elves, stocking the shelves and packing up bulk candy. Shop Small was sponsored by the chamber, which had created a Bingo card to get people around to the different stores. We offered chili, chips, and cookies to the customers along with wine and coffee. As people entered the store, we had them draw a ticket for an additional discount.  A local author came and planted herself on the sofa to sell her cozy mystery books, including her latest which was Christmas-themed and set in a fictionalized version of our town. It all certainly made for a festive atmosphere.

After my shift on Saturday, I headed to the main street in town to take in the decorations and lights. It was fun to recollect the big decorating party from a week earlier and see my contributions. The town is rather enchanting, all lit up like that. I thought about the fudge that I had sampled in the kitchen store last Saturday and decided that I needed to reward myself. Needless to say, I don’t think I ever need to make my own fudge again. Theirs is absolutely perfect! This could become a bad habit.

The Christmas magic continued after church this morning. I went down to the hall for coffee and donuts and saw a woman at a table with boxes of ornaments. I introduced myself and asked about her plan. Her mission was to get everyone in the hall to put at least one ornament on the tree. It was brilliant. My friend and I jumped in to help by bringing ornaments around to the tables. It was such a simple but effective way to get people involved and build community.

On my way home, I stopped to grab a salad at a restaurant and took a moment to check out the Christmas trees for sale outside. There must have been at least a dozen varieties, some I had never even seen in my native Washington. A man started telling me the story of the older gentleman who is the longtime owner the nursery. He was so enthusiastic that I was sure he was in charge of the tree sales. A few minutes later, when I went inside to buy my salad, he came in to pay for his tree.  He was just a happy customer, not the tree salesman.

My last stop before heading home was the grocery store. After grabbing some veggies, I ran into an acquaintance. We chatted right between the produce department and the bakery for more than half an hour. By the time we parted, I felt like we had advanced from acquaintances to friends.

I can’t wait to see where the small-town Christmas magic takes me in the month ahead. Already, I’ve been invited to more parties and events than ever before. And I have to decide just which one of those trees to bring home for my first Montana Christmas.

Getting in the Spirit

One of the things that drew me to my new hometown was that they celebrate Christmas in a big way. Yes, I am one of those people who absolutely loves Christmas, and I have been anticipating “Elf Day” since I signed the papers on my house back in June.

What exactly is “Elf Day?” Everyone in town is invited to just show up at 8:00 to do their part to transform our town into a Christmas village. There are no age restrictions, no need to sign up ahead of time; you just make your way to the local inn where everyone gathers for instructions, followed by a group photo.

After the photo, I turned to the couple standing beside me and asked, “So where do I go?”

They replied, “Is this your first time? Come with us. We are putting bows on the trees along the bay.” We proceeded to introduce ourselves and chatted as we walked up to the trees.

We had all just been instructed on proper bow hanging, so I felt up to the task. There were maybe fifty trees wired up to the railing along the bay. Our instructions were to put five bows on each tree. In theory, it was an easy task, but it became a bit challenging as our fingers began to freeze. Our work ended quickly, though, as several other elves wandered our way to help.

All of this isn’t just Christmas magic, though. Clearly, there is a sizeable crew of people who work behind the scenes to put this in motion. Last weekend, a friend and I joined the group that was checking bins and making sure light strings were functioning. We then properly gathered up each string to make short work for the elves. Another group was busily tying bows, oodles of red bows!

Earlier in the week, fresh evergreen trees had been wired up all over town. This is where the bows came in. And evergreen garlands were set out in front of the shops this morning. I’m sure there are other details involved that I’ll learn about with time. Clearly, this is a well-orchestrated event.

After heading back to the fire pit to warm up from hanging bows—it was in the twenties— I asked one of the head elves where to go next. She sent me to a building that was missing its bin of lights. They had gathered up some spares and needed help getting the garlands strung. Two fellow elves started at one end while the building owner and I took the other. We got acquainted and began talking about my recent relocation to Montana. His smiling response was, “Good move.” I agreed.

After figuring out our plan for the lighted garlands, a couple of men with ladders appeared to help hang them. They were a jovial pair, obviously enjoying the privilege of being ladder guys.

All throughout town, everyone was pitching in to help where they were needed. It was really quite a production requiring a couple of lifts, numerous ladders, and I’d guess over a hundred elves. There were people with tools and extra hooks, and there was even a volunteer in a golf cart offering hot cocoa and coffee. It was heartwarming to see the community spirit in action.

By the time we had finished our task, I had befriended one of my fellow elves. She and I made our way back to the inn where yet another group of volunteers was serving chili. While I was busy buying a t-shirt, my new friend started chatting with an acquaintance of mine, and another friendship began to blossom. A bit of Christmas magic was touching our little town. And I have no doubt that this was a good move.