The Feathered Pipe Foundation board president offers her take on what unfolds
behind the scenes during the so-called ‘off season.’
Those of us who have been embedded in the work of the Feathered Pipe for more than a few years become intimately familiar with the seasonality of its operations. Back in the old days of the early 2000s, when I came to the Ranch in summer as a guest, if I thought about it at all, I assumed that once the summer season was over, everyone retreated to their regular life until late spring. I didn’t appreciate just how much work and planning happens behind the scenes 365 days a year. May I share a glimpse?
At the Ranch itself, there’s the annual white-knuckle tango with Montana weather.
It’s an agility-demanding dance for the staff as they dodge and weave around late spring snowstorms as they ready for the upcoming season. Once the last program finishes up in late summer or early fall, it all repeats in an autumn waltz around weather systems to make sure the grounds and facilities are prepared and secured for their winter rest.
I had an up close and personal taste of the mercurial Montana meteorological maneuvers (MMMM) this past May when I came for a spell to help ready the Ranch and get some in-person time with Crystal and the team. Mama Nature punctuated that 10-day stretch of 70-degree sunshine with a three-day record-breaking blizzard that blanketed the Ranch with well over a foot of snow — and took out the power for a spell.
I like to entertain a fictitious version of myself as someone who can channel her inner Laura Ingalls Wilder at will. The truth is that my first MMMM instincts weren’t all that composed or pioneer-woman-ish. Back home, I’d know what to do: report the outage to the power company, monitor the online map showing progress toward getting the lights back on, trust that the county snowplows would show up in short order to clear and treat the roads, and start calling local friends with power to make contingency plans to huddle in their heated homes.
The scene at the remote end of Colorado Gulch Drive isn’t the same as it is in a populous, urban East Coast setting. What happens now? Who do we call? What about our plans for outside projects today? Who’s going to plow the road? How do we stay warm? How do we know when the power might come back?
I pull on my boots (props to Susan Smiley for insisting I pack those before coming to Montana in May) and march with purpose from the Lake Cabin to the Main Lodge — wait, what thoughtful soul has already shoveled a path for me at 7am? — to find the staff engaged with their Red Cross first aid/CPR refresher training. I peer through the window of the big practice room and watch them take turns resuscitating a manikin. Unfazed by the power outage or all those pressing-to-me questions about how we’d survive the stormy day.
When their training finishes, a pacing not-Laura-Ingalls-Wilder peppers the Montana-savvy crew with questions. What happens now? We put on layers and work on the indoor jobs. (“Want to borrow a sweater?”) When will the power get restored? When the crews repair the line, probably soon, but maybe not. How will we stay warm? Someone points to the fireplace, smiles, and offers to share a pot of chamomile tea. (“I think you might need this just now.”)
Behind the scenes, too, for the rest of the year, there’s a continuous drumbeat with a bunch of other moving parts that need attention on a surprisingly tight schedule.
Finalizing the program calendar for the next season. Reviewing guest feedback to identify areas for improvement. Fundraising. Dissecting monthly P&L reports to extract clues and insight to inform the next cycle of budget planning. But despite all the careful planning, it’s the fickle fates — the metaphorical blizzards — that appear out of nowhere to remind us of how little influence we have over . . . a lot of things. They serve as a wakeup call for remembering that we are not the masters of the Ranch but servants to its values, its mission, and its MMMM weather. It’s the fates, too, that remind us of the luxury we enjoy, working together on a meaningful, worthy project. In a place that also puts us in the way of unimaginable beauty.
The fates at the Ranch have their own inertia and offer evidence for the “Man makes plans, and God laughs” principle. There’s no end-running them or expecting the unexpected as far as I can tell: The death of our founder. A global pandemic. Wildfires. All playing out against the backdrop of grand transpersonal implosions and personal reconfigurations — from outdated systems, from the climate, and even from personal relationships that demand unexpected updates in ways that leave human nervous systems reeling.
In a poem published in 2016, spiritual storyteller and cancer survivor Mark Nepo wrote that “the fates wait for the moment that we finalize our plans to set our maps on fire. They send a storm to blow the secret from our hand. And let a downpour wash the trail from under our feet. Not to be harsh but to force us to believe in ourselves.”
The fickle fates over the past several years at Feathered Pipe compelled us to ask us whether we “believe in ourselves” and if we do, how we can best walk our talk.
The team that throws hearts and bodies into the work leaves me in open-ended awe. I’ve worked in and with scores of organizations (public, private, and nonprofit) for nearly four decades. Like anyone who’s been to a few professional rodeos, I know there can be plenty of unsettling daylight between an organization’s public image and what goes on behind the curtain. What’s striking to me about Feathered Pipe in these times — and what accounts for my own continued commitment to it — is the authenticity and integrity of the people who work to create conditions so the “crazy miracles” can happen. Feathered Pipe board treasurer/dear friend Clint Willis said to me the other day that the real miracles at the Ranch aren’t ‘done unto us’ by some mysterious, invisible outside force. The miracles, he said, are from people rolling up their sleeves, doing the work, and pouring nonstop attention into what we’re about.
One last personal aside. May I tell you what one of the best things is about being on the Foundation board? It’s the regular calls I get to have with our Executive Director (ED), Crystal Water. I love our calls. Here’s why.
If there was ever a conspicuous example of integrity and compassion in action, Crystal embodies it. She’s six time zones ahead of me and because my own energy is at its best in the wee morning hours, we usually have our WhatsApp talks when I’m still sipping coffee ahead of the sunrise, just before it’s high noon in her home in the Netherlands. Since I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of watching Crystal settle into her challenging new role and shoulder all the complex responsibilities that come with it, I realize she’s become one of my best teachers. She navigates choppy waters with superhuman composure. She reminds me of why we must “believe in ourselves.” She helps me acknowledge the power of grace and mercy in this messy world.
Pro tip: If you ever find yourself lucky enough to work on a meaningful project with a great person, keep going. Those chances don’t show up in life as often as you might hope.
When any of us get to feeling overwhelmed in these times (no, it’s not just you), facing off with obstacles too large to overcome or even to understand, it helps to find someone to remind us about the bigger picture. To drop the pretense that our power lies anywhere except in influencing that part of the world and that patch of humanity that’s within our reach. And to say yes, with due humility, when a friendly soul offers to share a pot of tea while you wait out a blizzard together.
With love and heart,
Feathered Pipe Board Foundation, board president