Sustained by a secret


Virginia Cross

The brilliant yellow leaves of aspen trees seem to light the way on the trail to Sioux Charley Lake.

Lay of the Land: A series of essays on the spirit of Montana

I hope we all don’t brag too much about our October 2014 weather. I have already warned the Fishtail coffee klatch on this, because we might regret it. Instead, in our out-of-state conversations, we should emphasize the depths to which the thermometer drops come winter, and we need to mention how many seasonal jobs we all have to work in order to live here.

California is suffering its worst drought and highest temperatures in living memory and we don’t want news of our astounding weather to get out. I know enough refugees already from California—including me and my partner Richard, and Dr. Arlan Ellis, a dentist in Absarokee.

He and I had an appointment this morning; something about a crown, I believe. My drive from the ranch where I am a caretaker was gob-smacking, as they say in Britain. The aspens merrily waved their brilliant gold leaves, the cloudless cerulean big sky stretched off to the Crazies and beyond, and the crisp gold-infused air streamed through my open truck windows. I could not wipe the smile off my face and almost kissed Dr. Ellis’ whiskery cheek in my weather-induced intoxication.

Tom McGuane wrote that “giving freaks a pass is the oldest tradition in Montana,” and I can attest to the complete truth of that statement. As natives of the British Isles, my husband and I worked for 30 roller-coaster years in the world of Southern California Thoroughbred racing. The moment our youngest child left home, we took to the high seas in a 28-foot sailboat, wandering small anchorages of the Americas until we washed up three years later on the shores of the Atlantic seaboard, well past the limit of our overstretched sailing kitty.

For our penance we became innkeeper-managers at a lakeside bed-and-breakfast in the far western part of Maryland. Our dear little boat was left sulking in dry dock. Running a B&B is not the relaxing retirement goal that so many of our guests told us they dreamed of, and after a year we began desperately trolling Internet job sites for alternate work as a couple.

One Sunday in May 2010 we leaped into our old Ford F150, which we bought on the side of the road in Deltaville, Va. It has since crossed the country six times and we have dubbed it “The Best Truck in the World.” But that is a story for another time.

We left an empty inn and had to be back by the following Friday to check in another 20 new guests. A cooler full of breakfast leftovers kept us fueled on our manic drive to the first of two interviews as ranch caretakers, one in Pagosa Springs, Colo., and the other in Fishtail, Mont. The rest, as they say, is history. Do we count as freaks yet?

Back to dear Dr. Ellis, formerly of Anaheim, Calif. He has lived in Montana for 10 years with his wife Kelly. They both work in the dental office three days a week, and like the majority of rural people, they have another job: running a moderate size cow-calf operation at their home ranch in Molt. Kelly comes from a line of English and Dutch dairy farmers, and at the dental office just say the word “cow” and she whisks out her iPhone to proudly show off her quality herd of Herefords out at Molt.

The Ellises are far from alone in pursuing several occupations.

Up the road a piece in Absarokee, you will come to the Itty Bitty Café. Its owner is Rex Anderson, who also owns and runs Valley Veterinary Service a little farther up the road. Rex can be found undertaking emergency triage surgery on horses or cows, then seamlessly turns his gifted hand to his signature pies on pizza night at the café. He also wins awards for barbecue, which dovetails nicely with his third enterprise: a high-end stove business called “Finest Flames” inside the Itty Bitty. He recently married his love, Monica, who herself is an accomplished artist, chef and canine behavioral trainer. It is dizzying.

When we first arrived in the area I met an awesome woman named Maria. She worked in the post office as a clerk and as a hostess at Montana Jack’s restaurant in Nye, while also writing bids for a concrete business in Absarokee. She knows everyone, appears to be able to learn any sort of work, and like the American Express card is everywhere you want to be.

Shamed, Richard and I searched for a second job of our own in our new community and finally found work as the maintenance crew at the Fishtail Community Park, despite the fact that we did not own a lawn mower or possess much knowledge of landscaping. I guess our price was right and our spirits were willing.

It looks like our stunning weather might continue. Open your windows wide and take it all in between the jobs you work so hard at in order to call this place home.
We will greet the snow joyfully when it comes because we all have a big fat secret— the fall of 2014.

But remember, don’t tell the others. There probably are not enough part-time jobs to go around.

Virginia has been a wanderer most of her life. Born in the UK, she traveled to New Zealand at 18 in pursuit of the man who has now been her husband for 37 years. She has lived all over the United States and traveled extensively in Europe, Mexico and Central America. Virginia has made her living riding Thoroughbred race horses and has a Cordon Bleu diploma from the London school, which comes in handy every so often. She has three adult children and became a U.S. citizen in 2013.

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