Monday, August 18, 2014

Montana or Bust - Stilp Family Vacation 2014: Part Two of Who Knows How Many

Our families at Debbie's ranch
The first big stop on our Stilp Family Vacation 2014 was to see my brother, Shane, and his family who live in Great Falls, Montana.

We left Newberg on a Friday night at 7 p.m. and drove to Spokane, Washington, checking into our hotel around 1:30 on Saturday morning! We were back on the road by 7:30 a.m., tired but with God-given energy, strength and mostly good attitudes for the drive ahead.

Instead of going to Great Falls we arranged to meet Shane, his wife Quenby, and two of his three daughters (Maggie and Sydney) at a gas station in Ulm, Montana. My cousin Jon, who lives in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, just happened to be in Montana visiting his wife Laurie's family and they joined us for 24 hours of our adventure.

Technically Ulm is not even a town.  According to Wikipedia, "Ulm is a census-designated place (CDP) in Cascade County, Montana.  It was originally a large ranch owned by Indiana-born cattleman William Ulm.  The population was 738 people at the 2010 census."  Ulm is basically a few houses and one gas station/restaurant/casino combo just off the Interstate, about twelve miles from Great Falls.

Shane roared into the station with his big, 'ol white Ford pickup followed closely by my cousin Jon in his city slicker mini van.  We landed squarely in the middle with our Sequoia and made quite the caravan heading out of the gas station.

From Ulm, Shane took us a good hour (probably more) into the country.  The County Road we turned onto was a dirt road. There was a slight learning curve to following the vehicle in front of us.  Follow too close and you could see nothing but swirling dust.  Follow too far back and you lose sight of the car you're supposed to be following.  We quickly learned to follow the dust cloud, not the car, down the road.
follow the dust cloud
The land we were driving through was on the Rocky Mountain front.  No jagged mountain peaks but rolling hill after rolling hill melting into bigger and bigger mountains.  Vast blue skies with white clouds dotted the sky line.  Stress melted away the further into the wilderness we drove.
This was still on the County Road
The view from Debbie's homestead
Eventually we saw Debbie's homestead in the distance.  Shane became friends with Debbie years ago.  She and her husband own a giant (3,500 acres) ranch in this vast wilderness.  A few years ago Debbie's husband passed away and Shane stepped up to help Debbie with the never ending chores at the ranch.  She thanks Shane by letting him use her remote cabin on the outer edge of her property.

We stopped at Debbie's to say hi and use the bathroom.  Her home is filled with animal mounts, including several giant mountain lions, all killed on her property.  It was eye-opening to realize that lions, bears, elk, deer, rabbits, and who knows what else would be sharing the land around the cabin with us.

We piled nine children, two dogs, and tons of camping gear into the back of Shane's pickup truck, left Jon's mini-van in Debbie's driveway and caravanned to the cabin. The "road" from the ranch to the cabin requires four-wheel drive because we drove through a small creek, down a steep canyon, then out onto a vast plain where the cabin sits on a bluff above the Smith River.  It took us thirty minutes to drive three miles.

leaving Debbie's ranch
Parts of the road were unnerving.  Thankfully my brother is one of the best drivers I know.  At each dangerous part, he'd stop and holler at the kids, "You better hold on or you could die."  They know enough to listen.
down into the canyon
The cabin was unlike any place I have ever stayed.  Think "Middle of Nowhere" multiply it by a hundred and you might be close to where we were.  No running water.  No electricity.  An outhouse with an awe-inspiring view of the cliffs, canyon, and the Smith River.  (My sister-in-love even added moist wipes and air freshener to it to make it more homey).  Jon and Laurie's family stayed in the Bunkhouse.  Shane and Quenby's family slept in the cabin and on the deck.  Our family slept in a big teepee style tent.  Being a City Girl, I was initially skeptical, but it was awesome!

For the next 48 hours we soaked in what a Mighty Creator we serve.  Every direction boasted a view prettier than the next.  It was a total paradise. Shane is a bit sarcastic and often says after admiring the view, "It's like rubbing garbage in my eye."
Shane and Curt taking a walk with Shane's dogs
Shane and Q have a system down for the food/clean up/ and hydration.  We ate one awesome meal after another.  Everyone pitched in to cook and clean up, sharing the weight of the work and having fun in the process.
Quenby doing dishes
The first morning we were at the cabin Shane drove back to Debbie's to pick up his oldest daughter Kayla.  I ran behind him to the ranch and back.  It was the hardest six miles I've run in years.  The cabin sits at around 5,500 feet elevation and I was running on gravel up and out of a steep canyon.   The beauty was the return trip was mostly downhill and I loved that!  Six blissful miles in the wilderness on a private ranch on the edge of the Rocky Mountain front.  It was pretty incredible.

We split most of our day time between the swimming hole and tubing.

The swimming hole in front of the cabin is deep with a slight current but the water had warmed up nicely so it wasn't too cold.  A cave was on the other side of the river that the kids had a blast swimming over to and exploring. Shane and Curt hung a rope ladder from the top of the cliff for the kids to climb up and jump off the cliff into the water.

Grant jumping off the cliff
The Smith River is a destination place for vacationers from all over the country.  Rafting companies guide tourists through the river over the course of several days, camping along the way.  Debbie's cabin is on the rafting route and makes for some great tubing.

We accessed our Putting In Point via a similar "road" that junctioned off the field by the cabin.  It went up a mountain and down the other side on a single track with hairpin turns, steep drop offs, and big rocks mixed in with the gravel that we had to drive over.  There was no room for error and our kids were all in the back of Shane's pickup.  GAH!!!! It was the scariest road I've ever been on.

Shane's philosophy?   "Someone made this road which means they drive it.  If they drive it, I can too.  And I figure if I make a mistake and we go over the edge, we'll all die quick and happy."  So reassuring...
Looking down the road from the top of the mountain
Driving UP the road
The scary road was worth it though because the Smith River winds through stunning country.  The canyon walls and cliffs rise up from the river's edge for what seems like forever.  Everything is so vast and big that I felt itty bitty.  We put in and floated for about an hour down to Debbie's cabin. Shane's dogs ran along the bank of the river, swam alongside us, and sometimes hitched a ride with him in his tube.  It was pretty cute.

When we finished tubing we had to retrieve Shane's truck.  Shane and I ran-walked to the top of the mountain, ran down the other side, and drove his truck back to the cabin.  Thank you Jesus for protection!
I love my brother!
We all need rest.

Restorative, real rest where we let our bodies, minds and spirits slow down.

Breathe in. And out.

Open our eyes to look around us and actually see the beauty around us.

That's what this time in Montana did for our family.

We sat on the river's edge and watched our children play with their cousins.  Skip rocks.  Jump off cliffs into the water below.  Catch crayfish.  Chase butterflies.  Throw their heads back and belly laugh
chasing butterflies
We sat around the fire and watched in awe as the sun set the cliffs on fire before it melted into the horizon and the evening shadows took over.  Stayed up just long enough for the millions of stars to light the pitch black sky.  Slowly sipped coffee in the warmth of the morning sun.  Slept until our bodies woke rested.  Had quiet, meaningful conversations with family members that we love deeply and see too infrequently.
Late evening sun painting the cliffs
It was restorative.  Peaceful.  Fun.  Life-giving.  And a little bittersweet since 735 miles come between this time and the next.
Saying goodbye was rough.  Hugs.  More hugs.  Pictures.  Another round of hugs.  Family prayer time for safe travels.  More hugs. And finally tearful goodbyes as we drove off.
Thank you Shane, Quenby, Kayla, Maggie and Sydney for another amazing adventure.  We love you and can't wait for the next one.


  1. Your photos are soo relaxing to look at! I'm so glad you guys could invest so much time and effort into having really good quality family time. It's so important! Love you guys! - Faith