A full moon illuminated the landscape the first night at our cozy cabin. One of the ranch dogs, a Great Pyrenees named Franklin, kept predators away, his loud, deep-toned bark sounding throughout the night. As I tried to sleep, I reminded myself I was staying on a working cattle ranch, complete with all the sights and sounds and smells associated with said ranch. I’m guessing the full moon amplified Franklin’s protective attitude, because he was relatively quiet the rest of the week.
Our front porch view didn’t look onto beautiful green pastures dotted with cattle, but it had its own unique charms, including an old two-seater outhouse in the north pasture. There were no cows to be seen; most of them were at their summer grazing lands in the Musselshell, the others grazing in pastures along the Frontage Road, all scheduled to return to their winter pasture at the ranch in a couple weeks. The number of hay rolls on the ranch—the winter feed—increased throughout the week. We enjoyed watching the winter preparations.
The temperature soared to the low nineties on Sunday. It would be the hottest day of our trip. By the following Saturday morning, the temperature had dropped to the mid-twenties and snow capped the Crazy Mountains. [Side note: did you know Montana holds the world record for a 24-hour temperature change? On January 15, 1972, in Loma, Montana, the temperature rose 103 degrees, from -54 degrees Fahrenheit to 49 degrees].
We set out shortly before 10 o’clock, our first stop the Catholic church in Big Timber, only to discover the second service we’d planned to attend drops off the schedule after Labor Day. Several parishioners from the earlier service were still about. A tall, lean gentleman in a western shirt and a black cowboy hat, ambled over to speak with us. He introduced himself as Doug. His courteous demeanor relaxed into warmer chitchat when my dad mentioned we were old friends of Jennifer’s and had come to her wedding in 1997. Like most small towns, local folks can be a bit standoffish with “outsiders.” Since I moved to The Last Best Place eight years ago, I’ve discovered that Montanans in particular take a good long while to sweeten to newcomers, especially anyone moving to this state from Washington, Oregon or California. And those newcomers who want to come in and try to change things that have worked perfectly fine for over a hundred years? Well, most old-time Montanans will never warm up to them.
Anyway, when I suggested in a joking way that we try a Lutheran church, Doug’s face lit up. “There’s a great little church up in Melville. My mom and dad go there.” He turned to his wife. “Mary? What time does the service start in Melville?”
“11:00. If you leave now, you’ll just make it.”
As we prepared to leave, Doug said, “Say hello to my mom and dad, Bobbie and Gale!”
Well, I’m feeling beyond thrilled at this point. Although I hadn’t put together a strict itinerary for our trip, I had set Monday aside to drive up to Melville. My mom is a staunch churchgoer, and I couldn’t impose on her wish to attend a Catholic service. So, I’d said nothing about my desire to go to an actual service at Melville Lutheran Church, the model for the fictional Hollister Lutheran Church in my books. Now, here we were, heading up the road to Melville on a beautiful, warm September Sunday beneath the Big Sky.
I’ve devoted an upcoming blog solely to Melville and the Crazy Mountains, but I’ll say this about our Sunday adventure: driving along the rolling foothills to Melville, the grazing lands on either side of the road getting increasingly expansive the farther north we traveled, our first glimpse of the church spire rising from the high plains was unforgettable.
Would you believe the first people we bumped into when we entered the church were Bobbie and Gale? Yep. My dad needed to “see a man about a horse,” which necessitated a visit to the church basement. Heading back up the stairs, we came upon an older gentleman holding open the door for his wife. I overheard her call him Gale.
“Oh,” I said. “Are you Gale and Bobbie? We were just talking with your son Doug down in Big Timber!”
I’ve had one or two well-meaning critics of my Sweet Grass-Montana Romance series suggest that some characters in my stories are just “too good to be true.” That there’s no way people can be that nice and genuine, especially these days. Well, Bobbie and Gale proved me right. They were the personification of many of my “old-timer” characters. My parents and I felt an instant connection with this delightful couple. We were so busy chit-chatting, we almost didn’t make it to the service in time.
From my pew, I observed the parishioners, a solid mix of young and old, most of them local ranch families. The two little boys in the pew in front of me wore their Sunday best, crisp blue jeans, western shirts with pearl snaps, cowboy boots and hats (the hats removed during service). Now and then, I looked at the blue sky outside the window, the Crazy Mountains in the middle distance, and thought, “I wonder if they know how lucky they are to grow up in a place like this.”
After service, we gathered in the church hall for coffee and refreshments and conversation. At first, I was a bit nervous sharing with Bobbie than I’m an author, and I set my new book series in a fictional version of Melville. I’ll be forever grateful and honored that Bobbie purchased a print copy of That Hollister Man right there and then. “Now, Bobbbie,” I said. “You be sure to tell me if there’s anything in the book I got wrong, as far as describing the locale.”
“I sure will,” she said, a sparkle in her eyes.
A few days later, Bobbie sent me a lovely note telling me how much she enjoyed the book and that she was passing it along to her friends. To my relief, there was just one thing she pointed out as inaccurate. I guess I’d been reading too many books set in the UK and Australia, because I used the term “paddocks” instead of “corrals.” Bobbie set me straight. One plus to being an independent author is the ability to fix discrepancies like that in minutes!
The five of us were the last to leave the church. My dad (86) and Gale (85), kept finding “one more story to tell.” I hope to return to Melville soon and give Bobbie a hug for her kindness and generosity.
Next, we went to Bill’s Place Diner for breakfast. Bill’s is the only restaurant in Melville. Fact, it’s the only restaurant between Big Timber and Harlowton. It’s also the post office and serves as kind of a general store where locals can get fresh eggs and milk. The fictional Gigi’s café in my books is loosely based on this diner. I’m not sure why I didn’t get any photos of the diner. But here’s a great write-up about Bill’s with photos.
Yummy, yum. A mushroom and cheese omelet cooked just right, delicious bread, a cup of good coffee. Bill’s wife served our meals. Bill stopped by our table to chat. We nodded and smiled at familiar faces we’d seen at church. People stopped in to collect their mail or order a dozen eggs. When Bill’s wife told us only one slice remained of a freshly-baked peach pie, we simply had to take that slice back to the cabin with us to enjoy during our Scrabble game later.
And it was delicious too.
Coming Next: A visit with Jennifer; A drive along the Boulder River; Melville Country; A ranch in the Crazies.