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