Andy Vantrease sat down with Paul and Gail Wilson in their home—the original caretaker’s cabin—where the couple has lived for over 38 years. On a fleeting fall day, they reminisce about the very early years at the Feathered Pipe Ranch, when they milked goats by candlelight (oops—fire hazard!) and grew vegetables according to the moon cycles. The two open up about their connection to the land, their extended Ranch family and the memories that bring them joy and laughter after all this time.
I know you’re both from California. Tell me about how each of you found yourselves at the Ranch back in the 1970s.
Gail: I moved out to Helena in 1974 with my first husband Jeff Demetrescu, and our two kids, Josh and Beth. We were both from the Bay Area and had had our children while living in Oregon, but we wanted to raise our kids somewhere outside of the city and Montana seemed appealing. Jeff landed a professor job at Carroll College, so we drove out to begin our new lives, renting a place in town for a few years. I heard about the Ranch shortly after arriving, and I’d come visit for experiential workshops, “guided fantasies,” things of that nature.
In 1976, Jeff and I moved out to Colorado Gulch and rented the caregiver’s cabin (back when it was just an 800-square-foot space), and I began working two shifts in the Ranch kitchen—breakfast and lunch. Jim Barngrover, who had a background in organic food, came to the Ranch in 1978 to develop and manage a large garden, which would provide vegetables for workshop meals and add to the holistic experience that this place was offering. I helped him manage the operation, and we practiced a biodynamic French intensive method of gardening, utilizing raised beds and growing by moon cycles: squash, lettuce, spinach, beets, carrots, potatoes. This is when I learned how to create a supportive and diverse ecosystem—when you have healthy plants, they can fend off insects, fungi and other issues all on their own. There were bad years of grasshoppers, but we didn’t have any problems with grasshoppers in the gardens because of what we created. The deer weren’t an issue either because so much of the gulch wasn’t developed, so they hadn’t come as far up the road as they do now.
Helena was absolutely the right place for me and the kids, but it wasn’t for Jeff. He really was more of a big city person, an out-of-the-box thinker, and he got questioned so much in his teaching at Carroll. His coworkers talked about the Ranch as the weird hippie place outside of town, and he left after a few years to find a better fit, while I stayed and carried on with life here.
Paul: And I’m originally from Phoenix, Arizona, but I went to college in Southern California. The first few years after school, I worked at different advertising agencies, and one year, I was between positions, so I started painting with a friend’s brother. When we had a gap between paint projects, we decided to road trip up north, planning to swing through Montana, where my friend Zeke said he had a few friends that he knew from Orange, California. As we got closer, Zeke looked up their names in the phone book, and instead of an address, it just read “West of Helena”—no street or zip code or anything. Luckily, we called when we got to town and she gave us directions up to the Feathered Pipe Ranch. Well, it turns out, Zeke’s friends (and old neighbors) were India and VJ Supera.
One night of camping at the Ranch turned into a much longer visit when Zeke was driving on Colorado Gulch Road and hit a big rock that knocked the oil pan off his camper van. In this quiet, small town, it took a while to obtain parts: One week turned to two, turned to three weeks. Many people have this type of story, where you seem to just get sucked into the vortex of the Ranch and stay much longer than anticipated. Finally, we just took the old oil pan off and took it to West Side Welding and rigged something up so we could leave.
A couple of years later, I was working at an ad agency back in California and had one of those “You can’t fire me, I quit” moments, retreating home in the middle of the day with my box of stuff from my desk. The phone was ringing when I walked in the door, and it was India calling to ask if I could come help them build a bathhouse. Because I had carpentry skills and newfound free time, I agreed and headed to Montana. That year, I lived in a tent, a tipi and the honeymoon cabin while working on the bathhouse and in the office, helping with the advertising, copywriting, layout and design of all the brochures. During this time, Gail and I were getting to know each other and the following fall, we decided to stay together, so I moved down here with her to the caretaker’s cabin.
We got married in 1982 and did a major remodel on this house—and I’ve been here ever since!
What’s been your involvement with the Ranch over the years?
Gail: After those first few years of helping out in the kitchen, I went to work at the library for 30 years, so my main function and passion here is the family connection. Paul and I have both aimed to be a second set of parents for not just my biological kids, but all the kids who grew up here. We’re part of the village that raises the next generation. That’s where so many of my memories stem from: When Crystal and Beth were growing up, we’d hold birthday parties at our house. I’d work a half day, pick them both up from school and come home to do arts and crafts. Taking kids to the school bus, making Halloween costumes, quilting lessons, ice cream parlor visits, spending time at the lake, making lunches and dinners when they needed a break from Indian food at the Ranch. I’m a natural caregiver, and I like to help execute dreams, projects and activities for other people—I’ve always known that, and I put myself in situations to carry that out.
Paul has given all of the kids driving lessons, buys them ski passes every year beginning at birth and gives them ski lessons—he put Zia, Crystal’s daughter, on a pair of skis this year at two and a half years old! We now have grandkids that come up to stay with us, and we built a zipline in the backyard. It’s just a wonderful place to have children and raise families.
Paul: Yup, I get them on skis very young and just slide them around a little bit then it’s time for hot chocolate. We did that for Winter, Josh and J.B.—took them up to the ski hill and signed them up. One day, Crystal must have been five or six, and she came to me asking to ski but had trouble because she was born with missing bones in her foot. So, I talked with Scott Brown and we built her a custom ski that fit her foot’s exact angle and allowed her to ski straight. We also built her ice skates with one foot having a double blade for increased balance and support. Before the climate changed quite so much, the pond would be frozen all winter, so we could ice skate and play hockey.
I only formally worked at the Ranch that first year, then took a long-term job at the hardware store and later at Hobart as a technician. But since I’ve been here, it’s been my habit to go up and do a tour around the Ranch—sometimes daily—to check out the buildings, the grounds. Keep my eyes out for anything that’s out of place and needs some attention. I just end up doing things like boarding up the window that the branch smashed or the screen door that blew off the hinges in the windstorm. In a lot of ways, I’ve been one of the caretakers of this place, a second or third set of eyes. For the last 20 years, I’ve been volunteering on various building projects in my retirement. It’s gratifying to be trusted with the keys to the palace, you know?
What comes to mind when you think about the founding group or stories from the beginning years?
Gail: The interesting thing about the founding group is that it was so multi-cultural and inter-faith: India was raised Jewish but practiced Hinduism; Laughing Water was Buddhist; Tom was raised Catholic; Heidi was Jewish. I was raised Methodist, and I liked to study Krishnamurti because his philosophy really resonated with me. One of the things I always appreciated was that everybody had strongly held spiritual beliefs and nobody tried to influence anybody else. We did a lot of sweat lodges, and Pat Kennedy came down to hold Native American ceremonies. There were always interesting people here and it opened me and a lot of others up to different perspectives and ways of thinking.
Paul: I liked that there was so much going on, and that there wasn’t much conflict among people at all, especially based around what each person was thinking or practicing. I can remember being at odds with India one time in all my years here, and that was a kitchen issue: I insisted on washing all the vegetables before cutting them up, even if they were going to be cooked, but she responded that they don’t wash vegetables in India because cooking them takes care of the bacteria. I said, “India, people die of dysentery every day there. Do we want Indian street food to be our standard?” She stood by it for a bit, but it didn’t actually take too much convincing before she agreed that our guests would need higher hygiene standards—not to mention the U.S. regulations around these things—so we moved forward with the washing procedure.
One funny story that I’ll always remember: Gail and I were standing on the road talking, and a group of Ranch guests came walking up and told us about the very stern lecture they’d gotten about not leaving anything out with scent or fragrance because of the trouble we’d been having with a bear that year. One of them asked, “How bad are the bears, really?” They were wondering if perhaps the disclaimer had been exaggerated. So, Gail relayed to them how one of our baby goats—our “kids”—had been killed by a bear up here and they should take the cautions pretty seriously.
I was watching their expressions while she was talking, and after they left, I told her that I think they had taken her words incorrectly. How so, she wondered? Well, because saying “one of the kids had been killed and eaten by a bear,” was left open for more than one interpretation. We came in the house, and a couple of minutes later, the kitchen manager, Kelly Wiseman, is calling, yelling at us for telling the guests that there are kids being eaten by bears. All of the guests were making plans to move inside from their tents and tipis—and it was totally unintentional on Gail’s part!
I always love to hear stories about the wildlife here—and there are plenty of them. After almost three decades, I’m curious how you’d describe your relationship to the land.
Paul: When we travel anywhere, doing long river trips and stuff, we have a phrase: “A likely spot,” which describes places that we find aesthetically pleasing and worthy of spending time in. Ideally, there’s water, a level ground to put a tent or teepee on. You just recognize the good spots. When we were traveling around the Southwest, we’d find a likely spot to camp and there’d be pottery shards and rock art that wasn’t in anybody’s guidebook.
Well, this spot—the Ranch property—is a likely spot. Gail has found tons of obsidian and chert, both chips and worked pieces that are ancient tools, because the people before us thought it was a likely spot too. We had an anthropology friend tell us that some of the pieces could be more than 400 years old, and some brought over from Idaho and Yellowstone. I can imagine the people before us staying here because this place had game and water and there was protection among the mountains. On some level, it’s mystical, but there are also very practical elements that make this place appealing to the senses.
Gail: For me, the land is a connection to food and nourishment. There’s healing that comes with food, and that was my direct link to the land, to the Ranch kitchen, to the way I choose to show and give love to my friends and family. This has been fertile ground, every year a bit different, but always a learning process and one that keeps us connected in various, tangible ways.