Brace yourself. I am preachier and longer-winded than usual in this one….
Even though the Old Man and I had grown weary of the military lifestyle and are happy he is out of it, we do miss the sense of community that is so inherent in that population. We’ve always noted that when living on the civilian side of the gate that it is so much harder to meet people, make friends, and really be a part of the community. We always assumed that the reason for the disparity was varying senses of urgency. The military families are always in fleeting circumstances of being new or nearing departure, with everyone else falling somewhere in between your duty station timeline. So if you don’t seize opportunities to get to know people you risk missing them altogether. However, our time in Montana has widened our thoughts on this matter….
Community is built on trust, yet an increasing majority of Americans distrust each other according to these articles: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/11/30/poll-americans-dont-trust-one-another/3792179/
Military families have to overcome our societal inclination to distrust in order to survive the demands of a lifestyle that is in a constant state of transition with new people or being the new people, far from family, and often with an absent spouse. We have placed ourselves in the state of transition again with this adventure of ours, with one of the objectives being narrowing down where we want to settle and spread roots. Obviously, it has to have employment opportunities, ideally it will facilitate the recreation we enjoy, but really high on our list is a strong, inviting community. So, color us surprised as we journeyed through southwest Montana and strangers intentionally, thoughtfully, and generously disregarded the 24-hour news cycle’s calls for distrust, and invited us into their homes.
When we began planning this quest of ours, Sissy’s violin teacher tipped us off to warmshowers.org, a website for cyclists and hosts. Cyclist and hosts each post profiles describing their journey (and group if applicable) or the accommodations they are willing to offer for free. Some people allow you to camp on their property, others let you sleep in one of their beds or on a floor. All allow you access to a warm shower (hence, the name). We looked into it, kept the possibility in our back pocket and continued our planning. Once we were in motion, we checked into hosts between Seattle and Portland and none would accept more than 2-3 people. We resigned ourselves to the reality that we simply aren’t the target audience of this organization and stopped looking into hosts along our route. Thus far, we had fared pretty well camping with the occasional hotel stay, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. We had no idea of what we were missing out on.
Our first hosts flagged us down along the bike route as we traveled toward that night’s campground. They mentioned they were on warmshowers.org but are off doing their own adventures so often they haven’t been able to host anyone yet, but would like to host us if we didn’t have other plans. “Oh, well, we have a campground nearby, we’ll be fine. “ “We can do better for you than that campground, we’ve got a finished basement you can crash in.” I was a bit incredulous. “You realize there are six of us, right?” “Yes, we have plenty of space.” Not only did they have plenty of space, but they had grandkid toys for our kids to play with, a big backyard for them to run off excess energy, and they cooked dinner for us with little notice. They provided us much valued insight about our route and history of the area. Holy moly! What a treat for us to get a break from setting up camp and cooking dinner on our little Coleman stove, and we got adult conversation after kiddo bedtime to-boot! The next morning we pedaled on our way feeling refreshed and very blessed by this couple.
The next night we camped, and as I slept the Old Man reengaged the warmshower.org website to check out possible hosts given what a great experience we had the previous night. As it turned out, there was one host near the vicinity of where we planned to camp the next night. Since a cold front was to hit that night and we were to begin the climb to another pass the following day, he thought a good night’s sleep indoors would be nice if possible. Early the next day, this potential host called to confirm they had space for us, so on we went. Christian hospitality is their calling and they operate a house oozing in it. They run an Airbnb room, have WWOOF volunteers assisting on their farm, AND warmshowers guests as their schedule allows. They fed us, Farmer Fred engaged the kids in country living (visit the goats, grind wheat, cut seed potatoes), let us do laundry, and spared us the rotten weather of below-freezing temperatures with rain and snow. When Otter went to bed that night he said, “Mom, we scored!” The next day we woke up to a thin blanket of snow that up at the pass (where we were to bike that day) was much dicier. We were stuck and felt terrible to continue our imposition on their incredibly kind and generous hospitality, but they didn’t blink an eye and took it in stride. They continued to feed us [well!] and Farmer Fred put the kids to work distributing bedding for the goats, collecting eggs, and snuggling baby goats. The kids were in heaven. I think they prayed for continued bad weather that night so they could get more time with these loving people and their animals. The next morning, Mother’s Day morning, a day that Miss Lucinda more than deserved to kick up her feet and relax, the pass looked the same as the morning before. Farmer Fred was giving the sermon at their church that morning, so we accompanied them, relishing the opportunity to attend our first church service since leaving Seattle and hear his wise words, with the [adult] hope that afterwards the sun would be out and we could depart and give Miss Lucinda the remainder of her day without us buzzing around her house. The sun did come out, but the condition of the pass was still questionable, so they offered to drive us over the pass (which required two vehicles due to the number of us, and pretty much all of their afternoon). We accepted their offer for fear the weather would continue to linger and we would become Cousin Eddie’s family if we stayed any longer. As we packed up, an expectant goat who was due anytime that weekend gave birth to twins. The kids and Farmer Fred walked into the barn just as the buck dropped. As if the kids weren’t over-the-moon enough with their experience, Farmer Fred then let them hold the newborns and dry them off—a memory cemented in their hearts forever!
Now all four of them are bent on having goats of their own. We moved forward with loading up the trailer and vehicles and they proceeded to drive us two days’ worth of riding to keep us on schedule. All six of us were genuinely sad to part ways—that 48 hours of time felt like so much more.
The cold snap continued, and it got down to the upper twenties that night. We all remained warm, but slow to emerge from our sleeping bags in the morning. We continued our journey in the cooler temperatures without any hitches. The temperature the following night was to dip a bit lower and it was windier, so when we were presented with the option to sleep in a hostel we took it. We checked the weather forecast to discover snow was headed our way. Had our second hosts not driven us to where they did, we would have been caught in it and stuck in it in our tents. We boogied the next day in hopes of escaping the snow. We climbed Big Hole Pass and camped in Bannack State Park (it houses a historic Ghost Town that fascinated all of us).
Snow remained in our forecast, but didn’t amount to the initial 4-8 inches overnight that was predicted. We did not have any cell or Internet service, so we could not check that day’s pass conditions, and hoping we could still beat the brunt of the winter storm, as the Montanans referred to it (*tangent: I’m no writing expert, but doesn’t labeling a snow storm taking place in the middle of May as a winter storm seem wrong? Shouldn’t it be a spring snow storm?), we took our chances and headed out. Staying put without heat, shelter, or services for the duration seemed equally questionable. Oh my goodness, was it cold! It was far from our most graceful ascent, but we made it to the top, didn’t linger, and continued down as quickly as we safely could given the conditions.
All the heat we generated climbing the pass was lost on the descent from it and we were suffering. We had reached our end and pulled into an RV camp to seek warmth. The Old Man pessimistically assumed that they would not let us shelter in their office because we weren’t customers. As he returned from the uninhabited office a head popped out of the laundry room. Mrs. Brume told us she had seen us yesterday at Bannack, had even taken a picture of our bikes, and she and her husband were worried about how we had fared in the cold overnight. Noticing how much we were shivering she invited us into the laundry room to warm up. We all crowded into the laundry room, she grandmothered the Littles and chatted with us while we dried our raincoats and thawed our digits. She offered to let us in to her RV or to drive us the rest of the way to our destination, which was beyond kind and generous, but her simple act of kindness to open the laundry room door and invite us into warmth was enough to turn around our day and enable us to make the final distance to our destination with much improved morales.
That brings me to tonight, in the comfort of another Warm Showers host. Miss Lucinda emailed a possible future host to vouch for us as guests. They accepted our request to shelter in their home and even provided playmates for our kids and a fantasy-filled dress-up closet!
They have four grandchildren in the same age range as our kids, which provided some non-sibling kid-time for the first time in weeks. They, too, have had periods of nomadic life, so there was plenty of conversation in which to engage, and we went to bed in eager anticipation of a hot breakfast in the morning.
These are four events of kindness that we experienced in the last week from total strangers. They knew nothing of us before we crossed their thresholds other than the obvious facts that there are a lot of us and we are eccentrics. Gifts were bestowed upon us, distrust was overcome, and a seed of community was created. In the process of receiving these gifts we got to know people, their way of life, what Montana offers them and could possibly offer us, and a conviction that engaging face-to-face is so much more fruitful than through a screen. God’s hand was in all of this—the timing, the people, and the places.
The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. Acts 28:2 ESV
In addition to overcoming social distrust, these people had to be willing to open their doors. A friend mentioned to me once that our homes are never intended to be empty—it’s not our natural state to be solitary or isolated or the function of a home. Whether you’re filling your home with children, grandchildren, foster children, refugees, foreign students, or travelers, our homes are meant to be shared. If you believe that everything we have is a gift from God and is not meant to be hoarded, then naturally, our homes should be open. (Extra brownies points to anyone willing to open their door to SIX people at once! Ha!)
Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. Hebrews 13:16 ESV
Interestingly, the topic of Farmer Fred’s sermon was that no matter how insignificant you may feel, do not underestimate how significant your impact may be on someone else. We have been loved, fed, sheltered, and engaged. We trusted and have been trusted, and we have been blessed by it. The global insignificance of our hosts’ daily lives and actions have had a tremendous impact on my family. Our perspective on the goodness of humanity has increased greatly, despite all the statistics and media assurances otherwise. Our brief tastes of community with various households puts Montana high on the list of landing spots. Each of the kids has asked at least once, “Can we move here?” Wherever we do land and piece together our insignificant life, we will open our door to strangers and attempt to pay forward the inspiring seeds of community that have been generously bestowed upon us during this journey.
**Another interesting read, if you haven’t had enough already: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/the-distrustful-generation : “The solution is not only to discover the ways in which our neighbors are decent people who share many of our values and want to live in peace with us. We must also reach out across divides and build that kind of shared life where it doesn’t already exist. In short, social trust arises not only from an awareness of my neighbor’s virtues but also from “the better angels of our nature” that move us to build bonds with those we view as alien or foreboding. The Greek word translated as “hospitality” in your New Testament, φιλοξενία, literally means “stranger-friendship.” The contribution Christianity made to the shaping of America’s political institutions is a complex story. But the contribution of Christian φιλοξενία to the shaping of American culture more generally has been at least as important, if not more so.”