Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Dew Point: The Hooligan -- Post 1

Life will always exceed our expectations. If we expect our situation will only get worse, we’ll experience constant failure. If we expect our lives to improve, we’ll work toward that instead and reap the rewards of unending success. The key to our future isn’t just what we believe, it’s what we set our minds and our hands to accomplish, because what we sow will always be what we reap.

Our dog, Hooli – short for Hooligan – died late last summer. She was fifteen. We brought her home from just half a mile up creek in the middle of May, 1995. The only time she left Muddy Creek was when we took her to be spayed by the local veterinarian. That was so traumatic for her that she would never willingly again get into the car.
Hooli was a barn dog. When we brought her here we put her in the barn with two calves we were bottle-feeding and she bonded with them so well that she spent all her time with them when we weren’t outside. If the calves – or later the cows – slept out in the pasture, Hooli slept out with them. She loved the cows and was never comfortable inside unless other dogs came over. We were never sure why, because she willingly went into other peoples’ houses when we went walking to the neighbors or if there was a thunderstorm.
The rumbling of the heavens terrified her. We often tried to bring her inside to comfort her during a storm, but she would pace around, find a spot to hide, then come back out when she heard another rumble and dart outside, if we happened to open the door.
Her favorite place to hide and (after we had to sell our little cow herd because of the drought) to sleep was beneath the kiln room – an addition to the studio we built on stilts without a closed-in foundation. Her spot had a tight opening and to get through it she had to drop to  her belly to push and then pull herself in or out.
Hooli loved snow. She loved winter and cold weather. She loathed the summer heat. Her mother was a black border collie/Australian shepherd cross; she had her mother’s long hair and her overall body shape and size. Her father was a German shepherd/ chow cross; she had her father’s thick undercoat and red hair. I’ll admit I may be a bit prejudiced, but Hooli was one of the prettiest dogs I’ve seen anywhere in the world. She was, most of the time, very thin because she made her rounds up and down the creek every morning before we headed out for early chores, but her thick undercoat gave her a bulkier appearance.
Hooli wouldn’t permit much pampering, but she was a little spoiled. She didn’t have a strong appetite and often left her food for the magpies if we weren’t watching. We figured out early on that if we stood or sat with her while she ate, she would eat considerably more and since we were worried because she was so thin, we stayed with her every morning and evening until she finished eating and headed out to be with the cows.
I suppose we took Hooli for granted. We saw her aging, but never calculated the consequences. It wasn’t as though we didn’t know she wouldn’t live as long as we will, but her presence seemed as stable as the wind, the grass, and the mountains.
As she weakened those last couple of weeks before she died, we spent as much time with her as we could when we didn’t have to work. She had never been like most dogs, didn’t let us hold her, brush her or fawn over her, but the night she died she let each of us sit beside her and stroke her wooly coat. Her legs were giving out and she had earlier tried to walk down to the barn, but collapsed. She allowed us, for the first time without a fuss, to carry her and put her inside the doghouse Ben had built with a window so she could look out. She used that doghouse during the coldest parts of her last two winters because we had put a heating pad in it to keep her warm. She died that night lying peacefully just as we had left her.
We buried her in the shade of the chokecherry tree just beyond the studio door. She would often nap there when the weather was hot.
We haven’t taken in another dog for many reasons, but one of the strongest is that her death is too fresh, so we can’t deny, nor can we yet bear what the future will inevitably bring. We have a lot of fond memories  of Hooli that we don’t want to put to rest just yet.

Hooli shortly after we brought her home. Check out her muddy paws, she loved to play in the creek.

Ben with Hooli when she was just a few months old

Spring of 2005

Ashes, one of our barn cats. So named because we rescued him from the ashes of a fire on the farm where Ben grew up.
Ashes was Hooli’s favorite playmate when we didn’t have any cows around. She loved Ashes because he put up with her and was never intimidated by her like the rest of the barn cats.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Dew Point: In the Beginning -- Part 3

Breaking away to follow your dream is dangerous and slippery. And it takes a lot of hard, strenuous work to do it successfully. Mentally speaking, it is sweaty, grubby work. But if you don’t follow your dream you’ll suffer the long, slow and poisonous death of being crushed by the expectations and quotas of someone else’s dream.

When the weather turned cold late in October of ‘94, we moved into the studio apartment. The shack had a small wood stove that we hauled up and put into the studio. It was our only source of heat and wasn’t adequate for the building; the next summer we put a large stove in that Ben’s brother, Jerry, built, but our interior walls were the 2”x6” studs, so the heat moved into the apartment easily. Even with the tiny wood stove, we felt like we were living in a tiny piece of paradise.
Just before Christmas the power company brought in the power line, but it was a full year later when we got a well with a gift from my parents of a thousand dollars. We didn’t have any more money, so when the well driller reached the thousand dollar mark at sixty feet deep and twelve gallons per minute we stopped him. We ran a line up to the studio utility sink. We couldn’t afford to put in plumbing until 2001, but the single line inside the studio was wonderful after a year of hauling drinking water from town and wash water up from the Muddy Creek a bucketful at a time. During the winter we had to keep a hole chipped in the ice to dip water.
Our lifestyle those first two years was rustic, but we were young and happily living toward our dream. Our water heater was a noisy, forty-cup cafeteria coffee pot. Our stove was a propane camper unit. We closed in the bathroom with old sheets, set up a shower with a livestock feed tub, a hula hoop, an actual shower curtain, and a camping shower bag. During the summers of ‘94 and ‘95 we put a black plastic trash can beside the creek to warm water for bathing and washing clothes with the feed tub and an antique hand plunger washing stick (which was much easier than the old wash board we started out with.
We both laugh and chatter out our memories when we think back on those early years. We have to dig documents and photographs out of dusty files to verify what we remember and remind ourselves of what we’ve forgotten in the haze of time. The years since we’ve been here have passed so quickly that we find ourselves amazed at how many years have vanished since certain events have transpired.
We often goad each other with wishes that we had done some things different, but when we search through those cherished bits of paper with facts and photos we know we wouldn’t really change much, other than our future outlook. Perspectives change as we advance through life. There were times when we felt we were expending a lot of time, energy and hard labor just to live in poverty. What we don’t have today is the luxury of affluence or a future of indolence; what we do have is a lifestyle of greater freedom than most people ever experience. We’re very good at what we do, very happy with how we do it, and live creative, healthy lives. Nothing here is perfect. But if we were on the outside looking in at someone else living what we have now, our lives would be tortured with envy.

Washing the laundry beside the creek.

Ben in the first version of our makeshift kitchen. Notice the electric lights not yet in use, but the lanterns are lit.

In the studio.

Ben freeze-drying the laundry.

Our first new year, which we celebrated with the neighbors.

In our upgraded makeshift kitchen, I’m ironing a piece of canvas (with a cast-iron skillet) to use for rolling out clay on the slab roller.

Our first dining area.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Dew Point: In the Beginning -- Part 2

The quest to improve our lives is vital to our personal success, but if it consumes all our energy, when will we start to live?
After we signed the papers and cleaned out the shack, Ben and I spent as much time as we could the rest of that summer camping in the shack so we could plant tree seedlings, listen to the coyotes sing, watch the sunsets and sunrises and any other excuse we could think of just to be here. Throughout that first winter we visited often  just to see where the show drifted, which way the wind blew, and how deep the ice piled on the creek so we knew what was ahead and where to build the studio.
Ben had been involved as another hand on a few building projects, but had always been able to follow others’ directions.  I, on the other hand, had not built so much as a doghouse. Our first project was an outhouse without a door, because we didn’t want to block out the view we had of the mountains. We bought three carpentry textbooks and drew up plans for a studio with an attached apartment, since we couldn’t afford to build separate living quarters.
Beginning on the first of July in 1994, Ben and I started living in the shack, returning to Bozeman on the weekends to work. Ben’s brother and sister-in-law, Jerry and Denise, came up from Wyoming with a family friend, Earl. They gave up their Fourth of July weekend to help us build the barn. On the fifteenth, Micky dug a trench with his father’s backhoe for us to put in the footing of the studio. There wasn’t electricity to the the land yet, so we borrowed a generator from Micky’s brother.
We began studying our carpentry textbooks by lamplight late in the evenings and built, chapter by chapter, each day from sunup to sundown. My friend, Tana, came up from Casper to help put in the footing, so we put a sheet on the outhouse for a door, which proved to be an acrobatic challenge to keep closed in the wind.
We got the roof tarpapered in late September, finishing just the day before we had to leave to teach a pottery workshop at a recreation leaders workshop in the Black Hills. That was a greatly needed break for me. I had gotten so exhausted working from sunup to sundown that I really had to push myself every morning just to climb the ridge from the shack to the studio site. We were both refreshed from the time away and, though fall had settled in Montana style and we were out of money, we decided to add the steel roofing and insulation, charging it on our credit cards so we could stay here that winter – albeit without plumbing – to start working in the studio.
We had wanted to go off-grid, but alternative electric energy sources were not yet reliable or powerful enough to run an electric kiln on a daily basis, so we had the local electric cooperative bring in a power line in December. Then we quit working in town and started making pots.

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                       Our first building project

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                      Ben and his brother, Jerry, working on the barn

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                                                  Tana’s Door

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                                      Micky digging the trench for the footing

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                               Me and Tana building the forms for the footing

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Ben using the generator on the newly constructed floor to cut all the lumber we would need for the day

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                                  Me, taking a breather inside the new walls

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                                       Ben and my dad raising the upper walls

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                                 Sunrise over the Crazy Mountains

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                         Ben working on the rafters

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The Studio, closed in and roofed, with the lean-to greenhouse to raise seedlings and the boardwalk we named The Canasphere because the pallets we scavenged to build it were all labeled with that name

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Dew Point: In the Beginning -- Part 1

Without a lifelong quest, no human soul can thrive.
Ben and I began our quest long before we realized we were on one. While the economy of the ‘90’s swelled like a marshmallow in the microwave, we began our life as potters on Muddy Creek. Without maps to direct us, we knew only that we wanted to build a lifestyle that could be maintained through lean times. We wanted to be full-time potters and knew that the market for even functional work in the arts can be very fickle.
We met at a recreation leaders workshop in the fall of 1990. Both of us were living and working in Wyoming and making pots as a hobby. Since Ben had his own pottery studio and I was still taking classes at the college in Casper just to have studio space to work in, I wanted to see his set-up. When he invited me up to the family farm to ride horses, I didn’t give him a chance to change his mind even though I had never really ridden more than an old plod on a dude string.
Over the next two years we talked about pots and frustrations over our jobs; we camped, hiked, and backpacked together; and we finally convinced each other to quit what we were doing and build a pottery studio together. We both had far more confidence in each other than we did in ourselves, so we embarked on the fantastic journey we’re still following today.
I was raised in Idaho and moved to Wyoming with my family in 1976, but had never really been into Montana, other than the extreme southwest corner on family camping trips. But when Ben and I took a vacation to visit his sister, Lori, and her then-husband, Micky, in Bozeman to explore the possibility of moving here to build a studio, I fell in love with the area. The two of us moved into Lori’s barn in the fall of ‘92 after building an apartment in the hayloft. Lori and Mick put us to work that winter plowing snow and doing janitorial work.  Then we set out in May,  camping out all across western Montana to search for a place we could build a full-scale studio.
After brainstorming ways of survival, Ben and I knew we needed to find a place we could have a garden and pasture animals so we could raise as much of our own food as possible. Every day that May we read enchanting ads for perfect pieces of Montana only to find places fit for no more than a hunting cabin or, at best, a summer home. Even places well beyond our price range were little more than a disappointment for our needs.
Once we were driven by a real estate agent to a place she raved about, telling us about the views, possible building sites, and the amazingly low price. She drove along a road cut into a steep slope, stopped to check her map, then looked out through the windshield and blurted, “Well, hell, you can’t build a place on this!”
We found another place that sounded too ideal to be true – it even had a good sized cabin thrown in practically for free – and were driven out to see it. The location was a beautiful, forested area with wonderful meadows. We had just had a good rain, so the agent let us out of her car to walk down the two-track jeep trail to the cabin. The slippery trail dropped steeply as soon as it left the main road and meandered through the trees to a building the previous owner had built out of short log-ends he had scavenged from a cabin-construction company. The walls were sagging in some areas, but we thought we could at least stay in the cabin while we built the studio. When we opened the door we heard scuffling and peeked inside to see a troop of pack rats peering at us from atop walls and furniture streaked with excrement and urine. The smell nearly overwhelmed us and we slammed the door, gasping and gagging.

What we were hoping for on a piece of land was a source of surface water for livestock, a good covering of grass, and a water table we could tap into for a well that wasn’t too deep. We also hoped for a fairly level spot to build the studio on. We would have settled for no surface water and uneven ground, but we needed grass and a good well. But after reading so many perfect-sounding ads I was jaded and ready to start searching in Oregon and Washington. So, when Ben read one more perfect ad – in the mini-nickel, no less – I scoffed. He insisted we go look at it and I was too weary to argue. The owner had told us briefly where it was located, but was adamant that we see a video she and her son had made of the place. She also said it had a small cabin she and her late husband had built as a temporary structure. Already impatient and closer to the land than we were to her house, we drove to the area. We spotted the place by the cabin, which turned out to be a shack with a dismounted motor home for the kitchen.
She had owned seventeen cats that she insisted were “just about right to keep the mouse population down.” The cats had lived under the shack and that was the place they also used for their litter box. When they left, the mice moved in, but we had not heard of hantavirus back then, so this was not the problem for us that the pack rats had been. Especially after we traipsed across the land. This time we were overwhelmed by the beauty of the creek and the views of the  mountains.
Neither Ben nor I said much, but the look on our faces was clear, and when we climbed back into the car we just looked at each other and nodded.

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                                         Ben traipsing the land
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                                       Looking down into the creekside meadow
                                        The Shack in the meadow