Winter became the Feathered Pipe Ranch’s adoptive daughter in her early teenage years—and it wasn’t long before she was traveling the world and learning the ins and outs of running the retreat center. Winter is now the Ranch manager, helping with all guest relations throughout the summer season and co-leading international trips for Tibetan Children’s Education Foundation in the off-season.
Josh’s intersection with the Feathered Pipe family dates back to his toddler days, when he was brought to the Ranch for annual summer solstice gatherings—though he was too young to recall. Now, Josh is the caretaker of the property, planning and helping execute all the projects that go on behind the scenes to keep structures updated and the grounds pristine.
How did you two first meet VJ and India?
Winter: VJ knew our father, and she found out that Josh and her shared the same birthday, so she wanted to meet this fellow August baby. Our dad brought us to VJ’s apartment on their birthday then later that week we came out to the Ranch to celebrate VJ’s 50th. After that, VJ couldn’t really get rid of me—I’d ride my bike to her house most days, make chai and play with all of the amazing things she had around. Our parents loved us and we had a good emotional foundation, but we learned very early on that we would need to be independent and provide for ourselves. At that point, I had already begun to build this weird little life: At nine years old, I got a free Italian soda at the Mercantile in trade for bringing the owner’s garbage up to the dumpsters in the back. I sold crystals to Craig, who owned the tattoo parlor and would make jewelry from the stones. I’d buy Top Ramen out of the money I made from that. I was a mini-entrepreneur; I had to be!
At some point, VJ was getting ready for a trip, and I was told India had an open room (Crystal had just moved out). India was here in Helena running the foundation, so that’s when we really got to spend more time with her. I spent the first half of 7th grade at the Ranch then I officially moved in for good when I was in 8th grade.
Josh: I came and went a lot more than Winter did. I moved something like 30 times in my childhood—from Paradise to Plains to Helena, MT; California; Minnesota. I remember being alone a lot when I was a young teenager, so I’d spend time on the lawn at the library, roaming around town. When I finally came to stay at the Ranch, the consistency felt good, and we’d spend the whole summer here. I’ll never forget the first time India took us grocery shopping—I had never seen so much food in my life. We had everything we needed here.
What was the dynamic between you and India in those first few years?
Winter: One of my first big memories was going on the family trip to Ireland, where Crystal was going to school at Trinity College in Dublin. We did a whole tour through Ireland and England, and I kept a journal of it all to turn in for school the following semester. That was such an adventure!
India was lenient because she knew we were independent, but she was always strict about calling her if we were going to be late coming home. That was a big one, and we got in trouble if we didn’t call. Of course, her version of grounding me once was making me do Brant Secunda’s workshop at the Ranch, so I came out of it having had an amazing growth experience—even if I didn’t know it at the time.
India always stood up for our right to experience a lot of different things and learn in different ways. Here’s an example: I dropped out of traditional schooling after 8th grade and home schooled for a bit, but I had gone back to school at Project for the Alternative (PAL). I wanted to try it out. PAL had a strict rule that if you miss more than two days in three weeks, they booted you. We were doing a family trip to Morocco for the 2001 New Year, and the school tried to get me to skip the trip, saying I’d learn more by staying in school. India went in to the principal and said that she highly disagreed with that logic, and that their education system wasn’t going to teach me more than being totally immersed in a different culture. She made her point very clear—and then we went to Morocco!
Josh: Oh, and that Morocco trip was fun. We learned that the desert gets really cold at night and that riding camels is not comfortable—among a lot of other eye-opening things. Yeah, India was always willing to help me when I got in trouble for classic teenager things like smoking or “loitering,” rules that she believed were just there to pick on young people who were trying to hang with their friends. She knew some of the judges from when they were younger, and she had no problem coming into the courtroom and calling them out. As long as we weren’t burning things down and creating real problems, it was okay.
India and VJ’s parents really encouraged them to travel and gain life experiences too, didn’t they?
Winter: Yeah, that’s totally how they were raised. VJ and India knew that some people were good in traditional school—like Crystal who was the Valedictorian of her class. But they also knew how much you could learn from trying and failing and figuring things out as you go. My first big business venture went really downhill, and India looked at the whole situation, and goes, “You know what, it was cheaper than a year in business school—and you probably learned more!”
I began traveling with VJ early, and by 12, I was helping her breakdown shipments and was learning the export and trade goods business. I think I was about 18 when I finally got to go to Pakistan with her—and that opened up an entirely new world. Let me tell you: Once you’re in the buying business, you’re never out! Even when I swear I won’t shop, we go to have lunch with our carpet wallah and “looking” turns to “buying just one” turns to shipping 7.5 tons of rugs back to the U.S. I think I’ve traveled with VJ almost every year since that first trip, which has been well over half of my life now—Peru, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Morocco, England, Ireland. We’ve been all over.
Josh, did you ever join any of these excursions?
Josh: I went on a few of the seasonal yoga trips with the Ranch and some of the family travels, too. I remember the Myanmar travel retreat with Rodney Yee is when I pulled my hamstring doing yoga with the group, so I spent my time exploring around and helping wrangle in the 30-40 guests who were there. That same trip, I fell asleep on our tour bus and woke up in a different part of the city. The group didn’t notice I was gone, and I woke up just as the driver was packing up and about to lock the bus. That was interesting—trying to communicate how to get me back to the group. I eventually made it, and it was all good! Yeah, that was a memorable one.
It sounds like you’ve learned a lot and had fun along the way! Who were some of the other people you consider teachers here at the Ranch?
Josh: Oh wow, so many people. Howard, Tom, Paul, Gail, Kari and Gabriele, Chris Petaja, Jed. We learned kitchen tricks like the way to cut cherry tomatoes between two big Nancy’s yogurt lids—little things that make processes more efficient and get passed down to the next round of people. I started out in the kitchen washing dishes, so I learned a lot of these shortcuts. Sometimes there were only two or three people working the kitchen, prepping for 40 people, so you had to get creative and get it all done.
Winter: Kari and Gabrielle helped turn the food from yummy hippie cooking to set menus with each meal as a theme from a particular country’s cuisine, like we do now. Mike and I learned a lot from them, and they of course learned from the people before them, so what you see now is a product of every single person who’s touched this place.
I remember Allison was our first female driver and she really taught me how to get friendly with the people in town—which I had been doing my whole life, remember? But she’d take cookies to the people at the Merc so they’d let our guests stash their luggage there if they had a later flight and had to check out of their hotels. Now, I’m learning from Crystal while working with her and we really help each other with different things based on our complementary skills. She teaches me how to do fancy things like search documents for keywords, and I teach her funky low-tech tricks that blow her mind. It’s a good system.
How does it feel to have the Ranch in your care now?
Josh: I’ll admit, it definitely still feels like this place is India’s, and right now I’m really making decisions based on what I think will make her happy. It was tough, but almost a relief to cancel the rest of the season, because it at least gave us one certainty, you know. India really taught me how to be reliable and steady, and so I’m trying to lean into that as so much is up in the air right now.
In Montana, if you don’t use a structure, it gets more damaged than if you use it, so my job will be to keep the animals out of the buildings, keep the property going and work on projects that we otherwise infamously never have time to do—building a new dock, balcony, roof, etc. There’s no shortage of projects!
If you could speak to India now, what would you thank her for after all these years?
Winter: I would cheesily thank her for seeing something in me and giving me what I needed to let that blossom. For all the relationships and friendships and family I’ve made by just being here and being associated with the Ranch. Some of my best friends are the children of people who used to work here or who India and VJ knew from their stay at Sai Baba’s. It’s all connected.
I’d thank her for everything she modeled for me and taught me. She was the first person I’d ever known to own a car and a house. So it was that genuine role model figure that made it possible for me to imagine doing things that I otherwise had thought were impossible. Buying my own home was a huge step for me, to get there and to finally feel stable.
Josh: We were also really hard to get rid of, even if they were to try! You know, being here is fun. Where else can you take a shift break, jump in a lake to cool off and go right back to work with wet shorts and crocks?
*Special thanks to dear Feathered Pipe friend and freelancing writer Andy Vantrease!