“To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain and play with it.”
~ Charlie Chaplin
As we enter the home stretch of what has otherwise been a beautiful and joyous summer season at the Ranch, all of us in the extended Feathered Pipe family are reeling from tragic news that we wish we weren’t sharing today with you: Mike Wells died in a vehicle crash late in the evening of 7 September.
Anyone who’s been to the Feathered Pipe Ranch for the past 35 years is likely to remember Mike’s as the first face they saw in the early morning hours as he trekked in and out of the kitchen and dining hall serving up breakfast. He made the best tofu steaks and potato pancakes on Earth and earned the moniker “soup king” for the many memorable and soothing liquid comfort concoctions he whipped up for lunch.
A devotee of Indian spiritual teacher Sathya Sai Baba, Mike came as a teenager in 1986 to Sai Baba’s Indian ashram with India, VJ, Howard — and then eight-year-old Crystal. Mike was soon braided into the fabric of their and other Feathered Pipe friends’ respective lives, hearts, adventures, and good works.
In the three-plus decades since Howard hired him in 1988, Mike seemed to regard cooking at the Ranch as his spiritual practice. Meanwhile, we came to rely on him as the steady, unflappable, and preternaturally mellow presence that we somehow believed would be with us forever.
Some of us marked the arrival of morning not so much from birdsong or the dawn’s early light, but from hearing Mike’s truck coming up Bear Creek Road to start his shift. While guests slept, or maybe started to rub the sleep out of their eyes, Mike was already busy in the kitchen with bhajans and mantras playing in the background. Washing fresh berries, making oatmeal, and eyeing the shelves for the best ingredients to start preparations for lunch.
Perhaps more than anyone else, Mike dedicatedly and inconspicuously maintained the “All Religions and Saints” altar on the fireplace mantel of the Feathered Pipe kitchen. He would often spend some of his tip money to buy new posters or statues of “missing” deities not yet represented on the altar.
As much as his love and devotion to the Ranch loomed large, the focus of Mike’s most conspicuous dedication and affection was reserved for his son, Johnny Snowdrift, who first came with his dad as a tiny toddler to the Ranch. Johnny spent many summers playing video games in the basement or hanging out at the kitchen table while his dad worked. To our delight, Johnny has woven himself into the staff tapestry, working in the kitchen, helping out where needed, and playing music.
Mike also coached generations of budding Ranch cooks and passed on his little Yogi breakfast poem/mantra: “Fruit, Juice, Toast, Granola, Oatmeal….(and Eggs.)”
A Life of Love and Service
Mike’s teacher Sai Baba said that “the best way to love God is to love all and serve all. Your entire life will be sanctified thereby.” The “all” that Mike loved and served wasn’t limited to people; he had a tremendous soft spot and heart for non-human animals. He always found space on his farm for any wayward sheep, goat, chicken, orphan duckling, or creature that needed care and shelter. All of the compost from the Ranch would get lovingly repurposed to feed his animals.
In the three and a half decades that he worked at the Ranch, Mike was a dependable and steady presence of unassuming humility, dry wit, uncanny wisdom, and unpretentious inscrutability. Wry humor and his keen diagnosis of both the absurdities and grace of the human condition made those around him prone to laugh and smile, and remember not to take life and oneself “too” seriously.
His cooking nourished thousands upon thousands of guests and Mike-ness fed all of our hearts. And now? We like to think that the mischievous sparkle in his eyes is mirrored in the late day dance of low light glimmers on the lake.
Godspeed on the next chapter of your soul’s adventure, dear Mike. We know that you are absolutely fine wherever you are (perhaps in charge of an ethereal petting zoo and having chai with India?), but here in this dimension we’re struggling to absorb what it will be like in the days and years ahead at the Ranch without you. Our gratitude for the decades of laughter, food, and friendship you shared so generously with so many, for so long, runs deep and wide. We will love you all the time.
At another time, soon, we will share other news about what’s been happening at the Ranch this busy summer along with plans for the year ahead. In the meantime, we ask that you join us in a sacred, grateful pause to honor Mike’s immense contribution to the Feathered Pipe spirit. We ask, too, that you hold his family close in those big, loving hearts of yours. Address to send cards:
Johnny Snowdrift and/or the FP Team
2409 Bear Creek Rd
Helena, MT 59601
If you’d like to make a donation in Mike’s honor, here are a few suggestions.
— Pad for Paws, a Helena based non-profit dedicated to “Keeping Pets and Their People Together”
— Maclean-Cameron Animal Adoption Center, a Great Falls based nonprofit “Fostering a caring community for animals by providing shelter, advancing animal welfare, and promoting the bond between animals and humans through innovative programs, education and service”
— Or your favorite local animal shelter.
With Love and Gratitude,
The Feathered Pipe Foundation & Family