Dancing In Depuyer and Other Rocky Mountain Highs
On the way out of Kalispell, we saw a young woman standing by the guardrail holding her baby. She stared at the floodwaters and shook her head. She watched her trailer-home fill with brown water. She did not cry.
She blamed the local flooding on the state wildlife agency, and on environmentalists everywhere. A new bridge had been built over the river downstream, and the agency had not allowed the contractor to remove a logjam built up during construction for fear of disturbing a nearby nesting pair of bald eagles. There were eggs already in the nest, and had the adults abandoned the eggs for even a short time they would not hatch.
“These people think eagles are more important than people,” she said. “That eagle will have it’s babies, but what about me and my baby?” As populations grow everywhere, and houses spread into wildlife areas, these conflicts will only increase. Like most Americans, we want bald eagles protected, but what could we say to that woman? She was probably living in a floodplain out of economic necessity. The last twenty years has seen unequalled prosperity in America, but not all have benefited equally. The rich and educated achieve more wealth, the poor and undereducated also do better, but at a much lesser rate. Perhaps it will always be so.
“Boy, it must be nice!” said with a frown. “How do you do it, are you millionaires or something?” eyebrows raised. “How do you manage this. I’ve got to work for a living everyday.” said almost with a growl.
At first we felt guilty when we were confronted by comments about our financial freedom to take a year for ourselves. Then we moved to mild resentment and finally we became just plain tired of hearing it. But we understood.
What we were doing was a dream many dream in passing, but few allow themselves to begin the process of making the dream come true. They are held hostage by those other American Dreams: of home ownership, unlimited spending on the most fleeting of desires, keeping ahead of the Joneses, the new car every other year, $200 a month cell phone habits, and financial insecurity fostered by innumerable commercial interests. Their debts and shopping addictions, their misguided belief that consumption is the only way to be happy in America, keep them from even beginning the process that led us to freedom. What we have done is possible for anyone—anyone. All it takes is changing the way one thinks, the creation of a new paradigm in which life decisions are made based on reason, not desire for things, or status based on conspicuous wealth, not even on being “normal.” Normal and fulfilled are not always the same thing.
During the thirteen months of this journey, we never really came up with the perfect answer to those prying questions, the truth being much more complicated than a sound-bite answer people seemed to want. We did however pass on one simple, direct, unvarnished truth—one that most did not want to hear—we lived for years on less than we earned and saved the balance. Saving is not a popular concept. It requires the postponement of gratification for a larger goal, and is the key to financial freedom. Spend less than you make. So simple, yet so hard for so many.
One evening, at a campsite on the Pend Orielle River in Washington state, we were enjoying a warm May sun, and watching a large group of swallows gathering mud for nests near the boat ramp. A fisherman roared up to the ramp with a large, fully outfitted “bass boat,” scattering the swallows. He leapt out and returned from the parking lot with custom boat trailer pulled by a large extended cab diesel truck. The boat was outfitted with depth sounders and fish finders, a trolling motor as well as a 100 plus horsepower electrically controlled motor fitted with a jet drive mechanism for shallow water. Or as the salesman probably bragged, “This one’s got all the bells and whistles!”
The hull of the boat was molded from high tech plastic with glitter imbedded in the very intricate graphics. The colors danced in the sun, a thing of power and beauty. Doing some very quick calculations, I came to the conclusion that his hobby required around $50,000 in basic equipment, not counting the fishing gear, another thousand, for gas and diesel for his toys. If he borrowed at the going interest rates, this figure would be several thousand dollars higher on a typical three to five year consumer loan.
Based on our traveling budget, we could pay for all our gear, including our very nice tandem bicycle, all our food, medical expenses, the occasional motel and meals out, everything, our total budget, three times over, with some to spare. In other words we could live two lives, complete, doing what we wanted every day without working, for three years, for the amount this man had tied up in his hobby, which he gets to enjoy only on weekends because he works to pay the consumer loans. He is in a squirrel cage of his own making, and probably thinks it is normal, but probably thinks we inherited a few million because we are not working every day.
I am not saying his choice was a bad one for him, I can’t be sure of that. I am only saying that the life choices we made let us live so inexpensively that it is almost better not to work, particularly if working means needing to buy, and support, such expensive toys, just to forget work for a few hours.
So, I had an answer for anyone willing to listen long enough without their eyes glazing over. I still need that sound bite though…
Financial independence. The word has a many different meanings as there are people to say the words. For us it means having enough, just, to live without working for money (we do some volunteer work) as a means to the end of living. It means having health insurance, a good motorhome, a good used tow vehicle, seven bicycles and a 4×8 foot storage area with stuff we aren’t ready to part with yet. It means (still) spending less than our investments provide, but in general not feeling deprived of any life experiences we really want. Notice I did not say “things.” I said “life experiences.” This is key to our financial independence. Unless you have a practically unlimited source of money, you can’t just buy anything you think you might want, anytime you think you might want it. It is a self defeating, never ending spiral.
However, almost any life experience can be had, with a little creative thinking, for a modest price. For example, you could no doubt get a bicycle touring company to support your cycling around America, staying in first class hotels, eating three meals a day in fine restaurants, carrying all your gear for you, fixing your flat tires, oiling your chain etc., for a year, for a price, maybe $50,000 or so. Of course you would have to follow a preplanned itinerary: experience Tourist Site A, on Monday, have your choice of Tourist Site B or C on Wednesday, share all your experiences with fellow travelers you may or may not personally enjoy, have little control.
Our year cost us around $15,000. The supported trip could not have provided: the silver comet seen through our tent door in the high desert night, coyotes singing us to sleep, a bitter night’s memorable sleeping bag snuggle, and the wonderful people who invited us into their homes, cooked for us, and prayed sincerely for our continued safety. These things are priceless. There are many experiences that money not only can’t buy, but that money will keep you from enjoying. So, no, we don’t feel deprived, don’t feel cheap. But we do feel free, free because we know we can support our lifestyle indefinitely, and you can too. Here’s how:
Adjust the American Dream to your needs, not the needs of corporate America. Do you really need that new Sport Utility Vehicle, or will your old Volvo crank out a few thousand miles more. It’s paid for. Look at the numbers: Luxury SUV, $35,000; tax, title and insurance in excess of the old car, $2,000/year; debt service on $25,000 (assuming trade in = $2,000/year; depreciation (straight line) of $6,000/year, more in first two years. So the total cost of a new vehicle over a not too old one is, $10,000/year. Now, just pay yourself that $10,000 each year and, invested at a conservative 8 percent it will double in less than ten years to $20,000. Do this each year for 10 years and you have accumulated nearly $150,000. Take out 10 percent a year, remember our $15,000 cost to travel for a year, and you’ll never touch the principle.
Not enough, you say, I need my comforts, even when I’m bicycling. Okay, if you insist. Time to rethink some other possessions, expenses: Kids gone soon? Do you still need that big, valuable and expensive-to-maintain house, or would a smaller house or a condo do just as well. Take your $150,000 equity now, buy a $50,000 condo and invest the other $100,000. In less than ten years that will double to $200,000. How close are you getting to financial independence now?
But I don’t want to leave my neighbors, you say, and will the children, come to see me if I don’t keep their childhood home? Have you asked them? We know a couple from Oregon, who have been traveling in their motorhome for a decade. They sold their home early on and haven’t been sorry. Now they visit their children and grandchildren whenever they want, and find the arrangement much better for all, than the over-the-river-and-through-the-woods-to-grandmother’s-house-we-go holiday shtick with all the attendant guilt baggage. And when grandpa gets worn out playing horsie with the little ones, or the son-in-law wants to argue politics, they can pull the plug and hit the road, to return on a happier note after they are missed again. They find it much better than living across town.
And anyway, what kind of message do you want to send to the important people in your life: Postpone your dreams to keep up appearances. Avoid change at all costs. Life affirming adventures cause upset to others. Are perceived obligations more important than fulfillment?
Yes, there are choices to be made. That’s what this thing called life is all about. When you no longer have hard choices to make, it’s probably time to make the final one; cremation or burial.
We met fellow cyclist Jack Chase at West Glacier campground. He flew into Kalispell and was riding back to his home in Michigan pulling a bike-trailer. Jack is 60 and has been touring for some time now for his vacations. I was reminded that DeLee was barely Jack’s age when she died. I’m glad Jack is living his dreams. We saw Jack a couple of times the next day as we rode Marias Pass. At East Glacier, he was met by Mike and Pat Janicki, and their two children, folks he’d stayed with in Kalispell. Pat drove their camper and we rode with Mike and Jack for part of the way the next day.
We left them at Browning and turned south into the teeth of a bad headwind. We were now on the east side of the Rockies, the Continental Divide constantly in sight to the west, open plains to the east, with no trees to block the wind. We were going south and crossing all the drainages that run west to east here; hills and wind, hills and wind.
It was a very hard 40 miles. The wind sometimes quartered and gusted to nearly 30. Holding the loaded bike at four mph up a hill in that wind was all I could do. I was sure glad to have Claire’s power back there in the stoker’s seat. It was not a fun day, but that was about to change.
We rolled into Dupuyer, Montana about 7:30 pm, late for us, and went to the general store. The woman who owns the store told us where we could camp, behind the schoolhouse out of the wind and above the flooding river. She mentioned that we wouldn’t want to camp by the community center because there was going to be a dance.
I thought we were tired, but the mention of a dance got our attention. We love to dance. After setting up camp, we decided we’d just go check it out, maybe dance one dance and come home to our tent and collapse.
We open the door to the community center furtively, just a crack, wondering what we would find; a community dance in cowboy country might not be the place for two cyclists on a Saturday night.
We see the long skinny boards of shiny dance floor; a band of three guitars, a mandolin and fiddle play on the stage; two ceiling fans spin lazily over cowboy hats and stomping feet of the square-dancers.
Edna Parocai, hurries about setting up the makings for hot dogs and someone else puts the pop on ice. Two pots of coffee attract the talkers, the ones that need to ease into this dancing stuff. The Dupuyer Community Center looks as if it was once an old schoolhouse, or perhaps a church. A warm place, unpretentious, well loved and well used.
Edna saw us and waved us in with a big smile. “Git in here, you’re a missing out on the dancing!” When Claire and I entered their world, tired and sweaty from a day fighting their prairie wind, dressed in bright funny-looking Lycra cycling clothing, probably stinking, we were greeted like long lost cousins. Women in bright blouses and men in cowboy hats and plaid western shirts with pearl buttons, pressed forward to greet us.
You’d think we’d be out of place, but as we’re finding out, nobody is really out of place in Montana. Edna, the white matron, brought Maricia, the Blackfoot Indian matron over for an official introduction and we were part of the town. They were very quick to invite us to take part in the dancing, assuring us we didn’t have to worry about knowing the steps. “Don’t be shy now.” How were they to know what dancing fools we are, and not very shy about it either.
The band struck up a waltz and we hit the boards for our first dance. Feet habituated to going in circles for four or five hours each day took awhile to remember the steps, but soon we were spinning around the floor to the approving smiles of the old ladies warming the wall bench.
Others joined us and soon there were a dozen couples on the floor; young Indian boy and a woman his grandmother’s age, grizzled rancher and a bright-eyed Indian girl, and couples who’d danced together for a lifetime. For the next waltz, Claire was politely asked to dance by Emerald Grant III, who had just finished third grade, and knew all about this dancing business. I didn’t think he’d ever give her back.
Between dances we talked to people; listened to their stories: The middle-aged woman who came here last year from Ohio on vacation and stayed. She works on a ranch and rides her horse on the prairie and the, now snowy and spectacular, front range of the Rockies. She wore boots and jeans, and when she got up to sing a western tune, a Tammy Wynette voice.
An old rancher told me his father’s story. Came here to build a railroad up the front to Canada. When the job was done decided to float the Missouri back to Omaha. Built a row-boat and set out in 1890 something. Floated for months, over-wintered on the river and set out again in the spring. Married the rancher’s mother in Omaha and they set out with a team of horses and wagon; took 80 days to get here. They homesteaded in 1900, and he was born a few years later. Grew up a rancher. Still a rancher, though slowed now with a bad back from too many years riding horses and building fence.
The band members are all reformed alcoholics who play for communities all over: Heart Butte, Browning, Conrad, as long as there is no alcohol allowed. They were good players, particularly the fiddle player who could make you cry over a honky-tonk ballad all about, “drinkin’ an’ cheatin”.
We said good-bye to our new friends, went out into the cold high plains night and rode Zippy home by moonlight. I don’t think I’ve ever slept better, despite the unsettling word that the grizzlies use our riverbank to move out into the prairies to dig for roots this time of year.
We slept late the next morning in Dupuyer. While we were getting food at the grocery, a rancher told us there were big thunderstorms rolling off the Rockies just a few miles away. We beat it out of there fast.
A few miles down the road it began to look like the storm was going to catch us and we really began to work hard up and down the hills into a mild headwind.
We were stopped to take a picture of the spectacular clouds, when the same rancher pulled up behind us in his pickup.
“Storms look worse’n I thought,” he said. “Figured I’d better come out here and get you. We’ll just throw that thing in the back here and get on over to the ranch house. You can wait it out there.”
We could see spectacular lightning in the boiling clouds, and the wind off the storm was overpowering the headwind and getting strong.
We decided the tailwind might be enough to keep us ahead of it, and we told him we wanted to try to outrun it.
He looked a little disappointed, “Well, I don’t know.” He looked through the back window of his pickup, past the gun rack, at the black sky. Then he looked back at us. “Well, all right. I’ll just keep an eye on it from the house. We’re not far away.” He pointed to the east. “Looks too bad, I’ll drive out to find you, and you can just set in the truck with me.”
Now that’s some kind of hospitality. Montana hospitality.
We were able to outrun it with the help of the tailwind from the storm and another one further on. But just barely. I think I’ll be more willing to listen to local opinions from now on. Later in the day we called and left a message for him at the store, “Tell him we outran the storm, and thanks again.” We averaged over 13 mph for 64 miles that day, most of it quite hilly. Amazing what fear of being fried by lightning can do for tired legs.
That night in Augusta, we went out to a bar for our first steak dinner in years. We decided Montana was the place for a steak; we’d seen so many steers on the hoof we figured we might as well eat one.
While we ate, we listened to a 60 year old cowboy fence-builder, hunting guide and storyteller. A real character, hard working and hard drinking.
He was a wonderful storyteller. This one is true:
A couple of years ago, an eastern college girl spent her summer here working for an uncle. There was a going away party for her at the bar her last night in town, and she was bemoaning the fact that she had spent all summer in Montana and hadn’t once ridden a horse.
The tall cowboy leaning on the end of the bar paused, his long neck beer half way to his lips, and smiled. He sat his beer down, turned on his heel and walked out the door.
“Uh oh,” said the bartender, who knew the cowboy all too well, and he went to the window. The cowboy was getting into his horse-trailer. A couple of minutes later he led his horse into the bar, clomping on the oiled wood floors and peanut shells, up next to the pool table.
He picked the scared girl up by the waist and put her on the pool table and told her to get on the horse. Then he led her laughing, and ducking ceiling beams, around and around the pool table. She got to ride her horse.
These people know how to have a good time.