Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Why "Church of the Big Sky"?

About seventeen years ago, I took my last really big trip with my mom. Growing up, our family traveled all over the United States. My father did some sort of semi-clandestine work with weapons and such for the U.S. Government (and hello to any shadowy people reading this!) He spent a great deal of time going to proving grounds for tests (when he wasn't overseas using his handful of passports... hmm...) My mom, faced with solo summers riding herd on her pile o' children, popped us all in the car, which, by the time I came on the scene, was a hideous, enormous army green Chrysler station wagon we called "The Tank", and she took us all over the United States. We had a little blue trailer, covered in really old school peely decals from all the states and national parks we'd visited.

All the kids were Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, and we were very adept at packing the car (unlike my father, who, if allowed to pack the roof would lose at least one suitcase on I-80) and experienced at wilderness camping. We'd travel West and South, usually chasing after my father, who would briefly join us in between missile tests at White Sands or burying aliens in Nevada (okay, I made that second one up, but who knows?!?) We had bears invade our campground, encountered food-stealing hippies, and once (before my time) even killed a Great Snowy Owl who unfortunately flew into our car. (My traumatized oldest brother was told that the owl was "napping.")

All in all, it was an awesome way to spend summers as a kid. Mom was up for anything. That last trip, back in 1988, right after I graduated from college, was different from the rest. Mom was no longer keen on tent camping. She and my father had purchased a motorhome (a Mallard, god help us) the year I graduated from high school. In fact, they delivered me to college in Minnesota in that thing. It was fairly humiliating, especially when my father, who learned how to drive in a tank in WWII, drove over another parent's car directly in front of my dorm. I wanted to die.

My parents, it turned out, just wanted to ditch me and get the hell out of Dodge. They'd been raising children since 1945, and they dumped me, high-fived each other, and took off. This is before cell phones, remember. I didn't hear from my parents until the week before Thanksgiving, other than postcards from my mother. I still recall my favorite:

"Your father drove the Mallard into a row of gas pumps in Salt Lake City. I hope the owner doesn't press charges."

Apparently, he didn't. My father had an amazing gift for BS'ing people. He must have put his silver tongue into overdrive on that one.

After my father's death in 1986, the Mallard was completely paid off through the wonders of the "credit life". For two years, while I studied overseas and Mom adjusted to life as a widow - and got used to some major physical changes after cancer surgery the same month my father died - the Mallard just sat in storage at the RV sales lot, over in the less desirable part of the Quad Cities, by the harness racing track and the prison.

When I graduated from college, Mom wanted to travel again. In fact, she arrived in Minnesota for my graduation in that damn Mallard and whisked me away a mere hour after the ceremony was over. (That was a little traumatizing, actually, as I didn't get to say goodbye or have any Hallmark moments with any of my friends.)

Within a week, we were on the road. I hadn't done much driving during college, and I was rusty. But, with Mom suffering from arthritis and her vision less-than-perfect from diabetes, she wasn't up for much time behind the wheel. With us, we had one of my sisters - freshly and bitterly divorced, her petulant teenage daughter, and her young ADD son.

This made for a jolly time.

Here are the highlights of that trip:
  • Visited world's largest cement buffalo

  • Listened to niece bitch about separation from first serious boyfriend

  • Visited Wall Drug (we wanted to see the "bowling cat" but it had died shortly before we arrived)

  • Listened to niece bitch some more

  • Visited Devil's Tower (made obligatory Roy Neary/mashed potatoes comment and did impression of Francois Truffaut)

  • Threatened to throw niece out the back window of the Mallard

  • Got really, really depressed by the tribal-run campground at Little Big Horn

  • Called ex-brother-in-law and begged him to take daughter for the summer

  • Camped at gorgeous Lolo Pass in Idaho

  • Finally snapped and smacked niece in parking lot of Lolo Pass campground
Well, you get the picture. My niece, who is now married, has two kids (and suffered a stroke at 30) and still talks about me walloping her on that trip. She likes to tell people she seriously needed someone to smack some sense into her, and, apparently, I was the one pushed to the edge far enough to actually do it. (She was awful. Really. Ask her.)

Eventually, we ended up in Montana. We're not really sure how or why, but there we were. By then, my niece had settled down and we were just in awe of the absolute majesty of nature. I decided that I wanted to live there. Now, of course, Cher and Dennis Quaid and half of Hollywood have bought up most of Montana, so I think those dreams are dead, but a girl can dream, right?

Looking for a place to spend the night, we came across a KOA campground in Bozeman. Bozeman is a town bubbling with natural hot springs. You know the steamy Brad Pitt/Julia Ormond "doin' it in nature's hot tub" scene in Legends of the Fall? That's Bozeman. The campground actually had a swimming pool filled with sizzling hot springs. It was fantastic. No matter what had ailed our traveling party, it all melted away (no, I did not drown my niece.) We didn't want to leave, and ended up staying a few days.

During our stay, we took drives out to just soak up the views. We'd find ourselves to be the only humans for miles, with only the occasional moose or big horn as company. One day, in the middle of nowhere, in fields of emerald green and brilliant yellows, surrounded by mountaintops, we came across a tiny church. It seemed so out of place, yet was so striking against the stunning backdrop. I dubbed it "the Church of the Big Sky."

For years now, I've talked about going back there. I used to joke with my mom all the time about moving there and taking her with me. Only half-joking, she'd reply, "I'm ready! Let's go!" When she was miserable and blind and dying, I used to tell her to imagine that we were there, and still, she'd whisper, "Okay, let's go."

Not to be morbid, but I've long thought, when I go, I want someone to take my ashes up there and just let 'em fly.

Today, on a whim, I typed in "Church of the Big Sky" on Google. And you can only imagine my amazement when this popped up as the very first link. I'd put the picture right here in my blog, but I don't want to disrespect this gentleman's rights.

But that's the place! That's my "Church of the Big Sky" up in the middle of nowhere! I'm tickled pink, blue, and purple to be able to show it to people, so they know I'm not nuts. So, if you find yourself wandering through Montana and you come across this little church in the wilderness, stop and think some good thoughts. For yourself, for a friend, for the world. Take a look around and just revel in how beautiful nature is.

I swear, if I find that Cher or Dennis Quaid has built a coffeehouse next door, I will have an enormous bone to pick with them...

And, if I haven't bored the crap out of the five people reading this, mabye I'll tell you the story of the rest of that trip, driving down guardrail-less mountain passes in the rain and playing "Duel" with the psychotic trucker in New Mexico while all the scrub brush around us is on fire.

Good times. Good times...


Merujo said...

Thank you! It's actually pretty cool to know that there's someone out here reading this stuff. (Makes me feel less like I'm shuffling around in slippers, talking to myself...)

And now, I have another blog to read. I love your cat. Pillow cats are the best. :-)

Anonymous said...


Imagine that! Two new readers in a week - how cool is that?

I used to live in Montana and I know the little church that you speak of... I used to know two people that were married there in the late 60's or early 70's - they are still together.

So when I read the title of your blog, that was the mental picture I got! In some ways it is a very small world, no?


Claire said...

I just noticed your sidebar link to this Church of the Big Sky post today and so enjoyed it.

Every time I see Close Encounters, I'm reminded that I want to see Devil's Tower. Or make a huge mud shrub sculpture of it in my living room. My favorite moment is when he slams the top of in frustration and then it looks right. So cool.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this with us. Great you found the picture on-line, a way of revisiting without the travel, maybe you'll make it back there some time soon.

I have a place like this in my heart, a church on a steep hill, dates back 600+ years. I'll like to reside there when I "go". If I make it there anythime soon I'll post a picture.

Yours, near-earth-object

Anonymous said...

I really like this story:) Your bit of memorial in a sense. And, some of the rest of your blog cracked me up. I'll be back. -- Robin

TBW said...

What a terrific story. The link to the photo of the church is dead, though. I guess I'll just have to use my mind's eye.

Anonymous said...

Great article! Just wanted to let you know that I found your blog by reading the Daytona Beach News Journal. You are mentioned in the Accent section of the paper under "Make your blog more than a blip on the Net". I see what they mean after reading your stories.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed reading about your family travels, the places you went to and the hurdles you and they have overcome. I also laughed which is good.
I will send your link to a friend and fellow blogger, I think you might enjoy her style too.
keep up the writing

Anonymous said...

That is a great story. I'll be back!