Reflections on the Homestead Life

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Living in isolation is beautiful, but it can get lonely.

When my husband, Rick, and I first planned our move to the mountains, we envisioned a small and completely isolated cabin located so deep in the heart of the forest that wildlife would be our only neighbors. So we moved here to Seeley Lake, Montana … where Rick’s parents had-back in 1950-built the cabin we longed for (and where that same cabin was just going to waste),

Our new home was exactly what we bargained for: small and isolated! It consisted of a single room with a wood-burning cookstove (water had to be carried in buckets from the lake about 50 yards away). The cabin was situated two miles from the highway, five miles from our nearest neighbor, and eighteen miles from the closest small town (Seeley Lake). Solitude at last!

Our surroundings were beautiful. Tamarack trees towered 200 feet over our heads, while at ground level there were bracken ferns and wild berries growing everywhere. The local deer treated us like family, a furry black bear cub hung around our compost pile regularly, the chipmunks ate peanuts out of our hands, and we even heard the elusive elk mating call in the fall. Everything was so peaceful, so serene.

But then, somehow, it got to be lonely. So, in the middle of the winter, we decided to move closer to Seeley.

To help us, some friends came by with their snowmobiles–which we normally find obnoxious, but which at times like that can be incredibly useful–and after hitching one trailer up to both of the machines, they moved us to our present home. Now we have a cabin with hot water and a bathtub … and we have neighbors!

Our four closest neighbors, thank goodness, live only 50 to 100 yards away. Yes, I said thank goodness, because more than once last winter I got my car stuck in the mud and had to ask Vern to come push me out … and more than once I needed a ride into town and only Jim was there to take me.

And I don’t know how I would have managed so far if it weren’t for Bill and Pat. With Rick away in school all week for eleven weeks at a stretch, I was often left without transportation . . . which meant that the slightest predicament could quickly

become a full-scale emergency. Once, for example, when our goat (Francene) got bloat there was no one here with an enclosed vehicle (the weather was too nasty to use a pickup) to take her to a vet, but thanks to Bill and Pat’s telephone I was able to arrange to be picked up by a neighbor and driven to the nearest D.V.M. at eleven o’clock on a Sunday night.

And just yesterday, as I’m writing this, Francene fell in a half-covered six-foot-deep hole in the ground that was apparently put there to catch the overflow from our cesspool in the spring (but which none of us–till then–knew existed). With the nanny due to kid soon, there was no possible way for me to have single handedly pulled her out of the trap. As it was, Francene’s head was just barely above the water as she stood on her hind legs. The poor animal probably would have drowned if Bill hadn’t been just seconds away.

Still, despite our change of location and our new neighbors, we’re still quite isolated. We live, for instance, only about 200 yards from a fair-sized lake where in the wintertime you can stand and not hear one sound but your own breathing. (I don’t know if you can imagine that or not … I know I couldn’t until I experienced it myself. Silence–absolute, pure, golden silence–is an awfully rare commodity these days.)

Now that spring is here, of course, it’s a different world out there on the lake. Sometimes around dusk I go out and sit on a log in the reeds just so I can absorb with my eyes and ears the busyness of nature as this new season unfolds. Sitting there by myself, I breathe the scents of a thousand fresh, new, green things popping up out of the moist earth after seven long months of snow cover. I watch the muskrats patching and rebuilding their homes, and the mud hens diving over and over again down into the water (just for fun, I’m sure … I never see them come up with any fish). Ravens race and holler at each other overhead, while distant Canadian honkers wing their way home after a winter in the tropics.

So you see, we haven’t really given up anything in order to be closer to people.

At the same time, we’ve learned how to be good neighbors ourselves. We’ve learned that the quickest way to make enemies in the mountains is by doing what folks around here call “bringin’ California with ya”. In other words, by demanding that your neighbor tie up his dog simply because the pet “makes messes” in your yard, or shooting bears when they enter your garage to rummage through your trash (instead of doing something else with your garbage), or fencing your lot and putting NO TRESPASSING signs on trees. You see, real mountain people–real people, for that matter–don’t do such things.

Yep, we’ve learned a lot since we moved out here to the woods. Most of all, I guess, we’ve learned what it means for people to really and truly need each other. Every year here, for example, two or three cabins burn down due to improper stovepipe installations. When this happens, the three local stores all put up contribution boxes to help the families involved. Everyone (that is to say, the 450 or so people who live in these 20 square miles) always chips in what he or she can, and as a result there is today more than one cabin standing in Seeley Lake, Montana that was rebuilt with the hands, time, money, and goodwill of the townspeople.

It’s comforting to know that in an emergency someone will be near to drive the victim to a vet or hospital. (Incidentally, we’ve come to feel that good highway access is essential, because after the spring thaw every dirt road leading to every out-of-the-way little cabin becomes a mud road … and there’s simply no way to traverse these mucky thoroughfares, in a motor vehicle. That only leaves horseback or foot travel … neither of which is satisfactory when a person is injured and suffering.) It’s also a relief to know that when Francene has her kid there’ll be someone here to help her even if I’m not around.

So. You idealists out there who are still looking for that perfect uninhabited spot in the wilderness… good luck. You may be able to find–and live with–the isolation you’re seeking. As for me, I’ll keep my good neighbors.