Andy Vantrease sits down with Tom Ryan, long-time Feathered Pipe Ranch caretaker, at his treehouse-inspired abode overlooking the Feathered Pipe property. With sun beaming through floor-to-ceiling windows, they chat about memorable Montana winters, unshakeable determination and mishaps turned magic in this mysterious circle of life.
You’ve said before that when you showed up to the Ranch, you felt this was sacred land. Tell me about that first arrival and the experience of landing here.
Well, the whole thing started when I was driving here. I had heard about the Ranch from Judith and Ike Lasater after housesitting for them in Berkeley, CA, and I had agreed to come check it out—truthfully, with the thought that I may be here for a bit then go back to sailing in the Bay Area.
I knew Montana was called Big Sky Country, but as I was driving through Idaho, I couldn’t see a thing in those canyons except the walls and trees—no real view of the sky as I expected. Then I got up on top of Chief Joseph Pass, and the world opened up. I drove down into Wisdom, MT and the first thing I came across was a caribou grazing in somebody’s front yard. The land blew me away, and I had a feeling come over me, to the point that I got out of my truck, sat on a fence and wrote in a notebook what it was like to all of a sudden be in Montana.
Then driving under the archway and through the gate, the road got more rugged and the area felt secluded and free and quiet. I pulled up next to the chalet, stepped out of the car and—I don’t know how to explain the feeling now—but it was like, “Whoa, this is something else.” That feeling basically carried with me through my whole experience living here, until this very day. I came here to “check it out” over 45 years ago, and I still feel like this place is incredibly special.
Looking back on how everything unfolded, I see how life guided me here, even when I thought I had other plans. I feel like I was handpicked, plucked from California and placed right here to do exactly what I did all these years.
What was your role with the Ranch?
I came to be the caretaker of the property, fixing and building anything that needed attention. I had some skills in remodeling and did a little building when I lived in Colorado, helping buddies on different projects. But becoming the caretaker at the Ranch was the biggest project I had ever been given. It was laid in my lap, and even though I didn’t have formal training, I always had an overwhelming sense that I could do anything I wholeheartedly tried to do. Not long after I arrived here—literally 10 minutes—India was going to town, and she threw me the keys and said, “The Ranch is yours.” So I got to work and didn’t stop for three decades.
What were some of the main projects and renovations you worked on?
When I arrived, the only structures on the property were the Lake Cabin, Main Lodge, Chalet and Honeymoon Cabin, so we added and restored a lot. Our first big project was building the bathhouse in the late 1970s. Workshops were filling and many people slept in tents on the property, so we needed a toilet and showers for the campers, instead of having them come to the main lodge for facilities. That was the first building that I ever built from scratch—it had a composting toilet (which only lasted one year until we realized we had too many people and needed a flush toilet), a wooden hot tub and a sauna. Several of us worked on it: Chris Cappy, Doug Pollard, Paul Wilson and later Patrick Marsolek.
Pouring the concrete for that foundation was a scene: We had it all laid out and the first concrete truck got stuck between the Lake Cabin and the Bathhouse, so the driver dumped the concrete into wheelbarrows and we pushed them back and forth until that truck was empty. Luckily, we had another truck of concrete waiting at the gate, so we figured he could pull out the first one. Well, he came up and we hooked the two trucks together to pull out—no luck. Eventually, I hooked up ‘Rama Krishna,’ which was our blue pickup, and somehow we freed the concrete trucks and could all go about our business.
We also built the Teacher’s Cabin, expanded the Lake Cabin, did three remodels of the kitchen, turned the whole bottom floor of the Chalet from a garage to guest rooms, insulated and replaced the windows in the Main Lodge, designed and constructed the shop, made several renditions of beds for the inside accommodations, and finally, we built the dining hall using lumber from trees that grew right next to where it stands now.
I had a lot of help—big thanks to John, Doug, Neil, Dan, Ron, Butch, Chris, Paul, Patrick, Josh, Bruce, Rich, Kam, Sean, Todd, Danny and many others!
It seems like there were plenty of talented people around! Where did the Ranch find all these folks?
That was part of the magic of the place—the right people showed up at the right time. At one point, we had a dishwasher who had a PhD! Regardless of formal education, everyone was brilliant in their own ways—and very determined. My dad was a carpenter and although I never had carpentry training, I think I inherited his ability to envision things before they were built. I just always felt confident I could figure it out if I stuck to my visions for a project and took it one step at a time. You put a couple of boards together with a few nails and pretty soon you’re on your way! That’s how we built my house that we’re sitting in right now. My dad never got to see the final product of this place, but I think it’d blow him away.
When Patrick and I started working together and getting contracting jobs around town (in addition to working at the Ranch), we took on some big projects. Renovations in Helena and up at the ski hill and such. We never felt that we couldn’t do it. It may have taken a little longer while we figured out how to do it, but we always finished, and it always turned out good—even if it started with a sketch on a napkin!
I was willing to try pretty much anything. At one point in the very early days—I think influenced by John Lilly’s workshop—our group decided to install a sensory-deprivation tank at the Ranch, so we lined the Lake Cabin, of all places, with thick, black plastic and had the tank in the front room there. The full tank held water up to eight inches deep and 800 pounds of salt. Let’s just say, if you had any cuts, wounds or had just shaved, it was anything but a sensory-deprived experience in that salt water. But, guests got some excitement out of it while it lasted!
Any other funny memories from those first couple years?
I remember the first winter: I was in room #1, VJ was in room #2 and Laughing Water was in room #3 in the Main Lodge. It was well below freezing for a while that winter, and despite having three massive propane furnaces in the basement, we didn’t have any money to fill them, so VJ and I both got wood stoves for our rooms, and we had a fire going in the kitchen every day. We spent most of those months huddled in the kitchen, eating, telling stories and carrying on. Laughing Water was smart enough to move into the Lake Cabin with India, and VJ and I continued to call the Main Lodge home with our wood stoves. We referred to the yoga room as the “Lost Frontier”—the stretch of frozen, barren floor that we had to run across to reach the refuge of the kitchen fire. This was long before the insulation, when bats could fly through the ceiling beams.
Another memory I look back on now and can’t help but laugh: During the arrival day of Zip Dobyn’s first astrology workshop, John Barningham and I were building bunk beds in the shop (where the Shanti Boutique is now), and as folks signed into their rooms, we followed them with a bunk bed kit and assembled their beds on the spot. Oftentimes, we’d be setting up something in the Main Lodge and as the guests came in one door, we were exiting out another door, carrying a ladder or a handful of tools.
There was no shortage of work, that’s for sure, and we were putting things together until the last minute in order for workshops to go smoothly. India always got a good laugh out of watching it all unfold from the lawn, where she’d be lounging and creating the vibe that all is well and taken care of.
Did you ever go to any workshops in your 33 years of working at the Ranch?
I never went to a full retreat because there was too much work to be done, but I did listen to some lectures: Dr. Paavo Airola and Dr. Bernard Jensen—they were fantastic; John Lilly, the mad scientist; Robert Monroe—that was a hoot. The main room was filled with people lying on foam pads, blankets and sleeping bags, with earphones on, listening to music that was designed to change your brain waves! I’ve done a few classes with Judith, too, and those were always enjoyable.
That founding team was such a close-knit group. What was it like to work and live together with everyone?
It was great, and yes, we were all very close. Even in the off-season, we traveled together to India, Nepal, Peru and other places. When Aimee and Sean were in elementary school, we traveled all around India, rode camels, hit the beach in Goa and visited Sai Baba’s ashram. I remember Aimee being excited that Baba looked at her teddy bear during darshan. Crystal and her friends were always big sisters to the younger kids, and we all looked out for each other.
Most winters, though, I stayed at the Ranch, plowing the roads and taking care of the property, and I’d look forward to plenty of stories when India and the others returned from their travels.
I imagine you miss India a lot these days.
I do. We were friends for nearly 45 years, working together, hanging out, just living and sharing the same space. She was always so far-out to me, like a mixture of Mother Theresa and Saint Francis. She was fascinating, really—her and VJ both. I felt so lucky to be in the presence of those sisters and had great admiration for them. And on the other hand, my friendship with India was a typical day-to-day thing. We had our disagreements; they never lasted too long, and we carried on.
The last few years were really good, when she was living at the house right down the hill from mine. I would stop by on my way into town and sit and reminisce with her, and we’d bring each other meals or go to a restaurant together. She’d always watch Ringo when I took trips, and I knew he was in loving hands and being well fed. I felt very fortunate to be able to spend time with her one-on-one.
In her whole process of dying, I realized more and more what a rare opportunity it is to be friends with someone for that long, and to do what we had done together. In the very early days, we were in a canoe on the lake, and she was worried about whether the Ranch was going to make it, and how she was going to pay me. I laughed and told her not to worry about paying me—I had a great place to live, good food to eat and the company of good people. I said, “Let’s just devote our attention to putting this place on the map, and if that happens then all of our efforts will be well worth it. If it doesn’t work out as planned and we end up walking away with a quarter in our pockets, at least we learned a lot about life and had a good time trying.”
When I got to visit with her shortly before she died, I told her: “We did it, kid. We put this place on the map, as it is now rated the #1 Yoga Retreat Center in the country. You can go in peace.”
I think she did go in peace—and I hope wherever she is, she found Ringo out there too.