Author Q&A: ‘Big Sky Siren’ author LA Ramirez
By Doug Mitchell
Montana Magazine: Congratulations on your book. How did you become a writer?
L.A. Martinez: Thank you and thank you for this interview Doug. That is a good question. I never imagined I’d be a writer, but I cannot remember not being a story teller.
My father had been a merchant seaman, and in his seafaring years, he spent much of his time on cruise and cargo ships. He would regale me with adventures of the high seas and travels to exotic ports. He met many interesting people along the way, including Bogart, Bacall and Hemingway. His accounts ignited my imagination, and I conceived my own tales of far-off places and intriguing characters.
Money was tight and we lived simply, but we always had books. I dreamt of seeing some of the places my father had spoken about, and through reading I have been able to feel the experience of those places and stories. By junior high I amused myself with Frost, O Henry, Poe, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and L’Amour. Quite a list for a young mind.
During our childhood, my brother and I would make up dramatic yarns, one would start with an idea, and the other had to expand on it. He steered toward sci-fi, while I always added suspense and mystery.
After getting married and raising a family I found the time to jot more of my stories on paper. One of my children read a short story I wrote, and he said, “Mom, if that were a book I’d read it.” His words inspired me to expand that one short story into my first full length novel. I never published it, but it provided the muse to write my second novel, filling four composition books. My husband, my biggest support through all this, encouraged me to turn it into a publishable book. Big Sky Siren, first of The Big Sky Series was born.
MM: So do you write your stories longhand? Or are the composition books just a brainstorming venue?
LAM: I started out writing everything long hand, but found when I typed it into the computer, it took too much time. On my current work in progress, I type it out, and use long hand to write inspirations and brainstorming.
MM: So tell us a bit about the inspiration for Keeva.
LAM: Keeva’s character is a combination of many women. My first feminine role model was my paternal grandmother, who arrived from Austria as a teenager and later worked in kitchens to raise her three sons. Other elements of Keeva come from my daughter and daughter in-law, who inspire me with their hard work and intelligence. Finally, the many assertive women I’ve met in Montana, particularly those farming and ranching women who have shown me being feminine can be possible, while still being strong and resilient. Keeva’s Irish heritage is an homage to my own ethnicity, and to the many women I have met in Montana, whose roots can be traced to Ireland.
The conceptualization of the antagonist in the story came to me at the same time Keeva did. I realized then that the brave and assertive protagonist would fit very well in contrast with the antagonist’s flaws.
MM: What was the hardest part of writing Big Sky Siren?
LAM: For me the hardest part of writing Big Sky Siren has been the nuances of producing a novel. I am a storyteller, and editors want to make sure I got it all right.
Keeping my “voice” has also been important and challenging. I have my agenda, editors have theirs, and sometimes that has been a struggle. I have been very fortunate that the two editors who worked with me understood my needs until we were all satisfied.
MM: What was the most fun?
LAM: So much of it was enjoyable. Once I had sketched the story, I had a lot of fun developing the characters, and getting to deeply understand them by the time I finished the manuscript. Breathing life into ideas and characters is a very exciting process.
Research was also enjoyable. Among several research topics, I learned about firearms, and studied personality disorders. I drove around the locations where the story takes place in order to construct the scenes realistically.
I have to admit, holding the first paperback was the most satisfying moment. It still feels surreal.
MM: Well, congratulations again on your first novel and thank you for taking the time to answer some questions. We’ll keep an eye out for the next installment of the series.
The Sherburne family creates home away from home for Glacier guests
By Keila Szpaller
Photos by Kurt Wilson
Since it opened in 1947, the Mountain Pine Motel has offered respite to royalty from Europe and a llama on a trek along the Continental Divide.
The llama remained outside, of course, but it’s probably one of the rarer creatures to stay overnight at the homey inn just down the road from the train depot in East Glacier Park.
“It’s kind of a place where you can tell somebody, I’ll see you in the morning, but I’ll leave the key in the door for you,” said Terry Sherburne, owner and operator.
Terry’s parents opened the motel – then with 10 units – tucked under several stands of tall pines at the edge of Glacier National Park.
Adventure fueled the decision by the couple, Doris and Fred Sherburne, to run the business that’s grown to 25 rooms, and an appreciation for the people who stayed at the motel kept their love for the work alive.
Mountain Pine Neighbors
Mountain Pine Hotel is no doubt surrounded by spectacular scenery, but its neighborhood also includes more than a handful of must-stop food and local shops that are full of Montana goodies.
Here’s a few of our favorites:
At Luna’s Restaurant, about a block away from the hotel, the menu offers huckleberry pie, and it’s listed as a breakfast staple. In case you wondered, a slice costs $5.50, and it’s “a perfectly respectable breakfast!”
Also just across the street? The world’s largest purple spoon. You won’t want to miss it. Actually, the enormous utensil will lead you to The Spiral Spoon, a small shop with great beauty in its handcrafted spoons.
Sure, East Glacier is closer to Canada than it is to Mexico, but for some delicious enchiladas, burritos, guacamole, and other Mexican fare, head to Serrano’s Mexican Restaurant, across the railroad tracks. Beverage of choice? The house margarita, with salt on the rim.
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Updated Depot: Historic Billings Depot thriving as events center
By Allyn Hulteng
Jennifer Mercer’s eyes light up as she guides a newly-engaged couple around the historic Billings Depot. As executive director of one of the city’s most iconic buildings, Mercer delights in showing off the beautifully restored edifice, weaving bits of local lore into her tour.
“It’s encapsulated history,” Mercer said. “There’s no other place like this.”
Elegant, with ornamental columns, articulated beams and plaster relief, the interior bespeaks of another era, evoking a sense of timeless grandeur.
The authentic vintage appeal is perhaps one reason the Depot has become a popular venue for weddings and other community events. Yet the fate of this legacy landmark could have been far different had a handful of visionaries not intervened.
To read the full feature on the Billings Depot, subscribe today!
Red Ants Pants Music Festival quickly becoming a Montana summertime favorite
By Kelsey Dayton
Photos by Erik Petersen
The stars radiated in the sky as they do only in Montana, flaming, shooting and omnipresent, far from any competition from man-made light as singer Brandi Carlile came back to the stage.
The indie folk rocker had started her set under a true Montana sunset that faded into a night of stars as she sang.
It was the type of moment that makes Montana’s vast sky so famous.
Rising from the prairie near the base of the Castle Mountains, just past the small town of White Sulphur Springs, stacked bales of hay and livestock equipment fill much of the space along one of Montana’s trademark stretches of highway – until a miniature tent city appears each July.
“It’s the middle of nowhere, and as I kind of like to think of it, the middle of everywhere,” said Sarah Calhoun, the founding owner of Red Ants Pants and producer of the same named music festival she decided to host in a local rancher’s field outside White Sulphur Springs, a town of about 900.
For three days each July, well-known musicians like Carlile – and this year, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Lee Ann Womack – play the main stage at the Red Ants Pants Music Festival.
Music from up-and-comers fills the air from a second stage nearby on festival grounds.
Calhoun started the festival in 2011 as an interesting offshoot of her manufacturing company that makes work pants for women.
She grew up on a farm in Connecticut and moved to Bozeman in 2004, following a dream to live in the West. When she couldn’t find a pair of durable work pants designed specifically for a woman’s body, she designed her own and started Red Ants Pants in 2006 without any business experience.
Wanting a more authentic Montana experience and inspired by Ivan Doig’s famous novel “This House of Sky,” she settled in White Sulphur Springs.
The problem was Calhoun never wanted to simply run a business.
Instead, her passion lies with supporting women in leadership and helping ensure the future of the agricultural industry and family ranches, the mission of her Red Ants Pants Foundation, which since its inception has given away around $45,000 in grant money raised through the music festival.
Along with drawing artists like Josh Ritter and James McMurtry, the festival features demonstrations of traditional agricultural skills like roping, sheering, grain milling and meat processing. It’s a family affair with young kids exploring on bikes and lined up for hay rides.
The same things that drew Calhoun to the area – the vast sky, the mountains and the strong agricultural community – is what makes it so incredible to hear artists like Carlile playing in a field under a Montana sky.
Even with about 11,000 people at the festival in 2014, it’s incredibly intimate and the artists respond to the atmosphere.
“You can see them come alive on stage,” Calhoun said.
All told, Red Ants Pants is a celebration of Montana, its agricultural traditions and values, and great music.
Scott Benson, of Pocatello, Idaho, returned to the festival for his third year last summer, bringing his visiting daughter, Chloe Benson, of Dallas, Texas.
There’s something about hearing an artist like Carlile play an acoustic, stripped down set in a dusty field, he said.
“It was brave and special,” he said.
He comes for the headliners, but also to discover new bands and music.
Donna and Steve Tobin, of Billings, came to the festival for the third time in 2014. The first year they came to see Lyle Lovett and since have discovered other musicians they like, such as Martha Scanlan and Matt Andersen.
The Last Revel, a band from Minneapolis, Minnesota, played in the emerging artist contest last summer.
“It was by far the coolest music festival I’ve been to,” said Ryan Acker with the band. “That one just has a really special vibe to it and it’s the most amazing setting I’ve ever seen.”
After listening to music all day, Acker and other musicians jammed in the nearby campground that is set up for festival goers each year.
“It was this really euphoric feeling the whole time,” he said.
The Last Revel’s performance on the smaller side stage netted them enough votes from festival attendees to play the main stage this summer. They’ll perform the Friday of the festival and Acker said they can’t wait to return.
It’s an eclectic mix of people, he said. There are college kids and old cowboys, rural ranchers and people from cities.
Calhoun’s aim has always been to bring people together, and music is a powerful tool for that, she said.
“(The festival is) one heck of a party that brings folks together,” she said.
Calhoun loves seeing people from obviously different places connect through music.
“You see them being the best versions of themselves,” she said.
Rikki and Alan Serfoss, of Vaughn, have been to a lot of festivals and gatherings. They came to Red Ants Pants for the first time in 2014, after hearing about it via word of mouth. They loved the location, music and atmosphere.
They planned to return this summer with a caravan of friends.
“This is much more low key (than other festivals),” Rikki said.
As the festival grows in popularity, Calhoun hopes to maintain the important homegrown vibe, which she knows draws people just as much as the music.
It’s become a community event, Calhoun said. Local cowboys on horseback park cars. Horse teams provide rides in wagons and the Meagher County Cattlewomen serve breakfast as a fundraiser.
All in all, the festival is a reflection of the small town life Calhoun loves.
It’s friendly and tight-knit, while never feeling crowded – something special that brings people together.
Shooting stars crossed the sky as Carlile returned for her third encore at the 2014 festival.
“It was so powerful,” Calhoun said. “Everyone was dead silent. She just had us all in a trance.”
Carlile played into the night, mixing original songs with covers of songs like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”
Each time she finished and left the stage, she returned.
“Some nights,” she said, “are just too hard to leave.”
Kelsey Dayton is a frequent Montana Magazine contributor. She writes from Missoula.
If you go: Red Ants Pants Music Festival
The Red Ants Pants Music Festival is July 23-26 in White Sulphur Springs, featuring the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Keb’ Mo’, Lee Ann Womack and Ryan Bingham.
A weekend pass costs $125 in advance; single day passes cost $50. Camping near festival grounds costs $20.
For more, click here.
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Berry lovers find paradise in ‘Huckleberry Capitol of the Montana’
Story and photos by Aaron Theisen
In western Montana, where a relatively short history of permanent human settlement combined with long distances between settlers has somewhat slowed the development of cultural institutions, one tiny fruit has served as a common currency: the huckleberry. Native American tribes that inhabited the region prized the huckleberry harvest as an opportunity to visit relatives and interact with members of other tribes.
European settlers quickly realized the social as well as nutritional benefits of the berries, too, and picking picnics often turned into courting grounds.
- Scroll down to find a set of huckleberry recipes
Often, huckleberry camps high in the mountains represented the bulk of the interaction between the Native Americans and white settlers. Come mid-summer in western Montana, much as it’s done for thousands of years, the huckleberry – which itself has resisted domestication – continues to cultivate a sense of community.
Friends and strangers can discuss the huckleberry forecast or their latest haul – if not their favored picking spot.
Communities throughout the region celebrate the strong pull of the purple berry with festivals.
But it’s in western Montana’s Cabinet Mountains, a lightly inhabited region of rugged ridgelines, expansive wildflower meadows and steep, glacier-gouged basins of beargrass and bighorn sheep, that the huckleberry has attained mystical status.
Here, tucked between the slow-moving waters of the Clark Fork River and the Cabinet Mountains, tiny Trout Creek bills itself as the “Huckleberry Capitol of Montana.”
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Savoring Summer: Our pick-your-own picks
Story and photos by Jessica Lowry
It is a luminous, neon-blue June morning as sunlight spills across the low rows of strawberries at Red Hen Farm. Marked by a large red barn, these 10 lush acres at the edge of Missoula in Western Montana has become a produce-picking destination for families, cooks and fruit-lovers alike.
Visitors to the farm won’t find anything particularly fancy.
On one side of the two-lane road leading to the farm is an open field for public picking. On the other side sits the family residence and a table with a small, metal scale where you can pay for your handpicked treasure by the pound.
What sends droves of locals and tourists to visit each summer?
That first, exquisite bite of freshly picked fruit.
At Red Hen Farm there are 18 different kinds of strawberries to keep you hunting for just the right one.
Greg Peters, 42, and his wife Julie Engh Peters, 37, have run the pick-your-own portion of their farm for the past four years.
“Our typical year produces 8,000 pounds of strawberries,” Greg said.
With Lolo Peak as a backdrop, it doesn’t get much more picturesque.
To read the full story on Montana pick-your-own farms, subscribe today!
Glacier’s longest-running hiking crew forms close bond with park
Story and photos by Becky Lomax
On a gray drippy day, a group of 16 Flathead Valley hikers, ages 60 to mid-80, eyeball the pouring rain.
Inside their restaurant meeting place on the west side of Glacier National Park, no one looks at a menu to order breakfast.
The waitress, greeting the regulars by name, asks, “You want the usual?”
One member quips, “With the rain, maybe we should stick around for lunch.”
But weather does not deter these weekly hikers. Not rain, snow or single-digit temperatures.
Every Thursday, nearly year round, the Over the Hill Gang meets at the Glacier Grill in Coram.
After breakfast, they depart to multiple trailheads – some to lung-busting, seldom-visited peaks, and others to worn paths where every red mudstone and gnarled sub-alpine fir is a familiar friend.
It was 1976 when five men in their 60s launched the Over the Hill Gang.
Since then, the gang has grown, evolved with new faces, and garnered the reputation as the longest running hiking group in Glacier. The big adventurers have climbed to hidden lakes, bushwhacked cross-country routes, and summited crags, often returning after dark.
For hikers that could have bragging rights as giant as the roster of peaks they’ve climbed, they ditched egos years ago behind some clump of beargrass in favor of camaraderie.
Glacier’s Over the Hill Gang
Year Established: 1976
Headquarters: Glacier Grill, Coram
Membership dues: $0
Hiking day: every Thursday, year-round
Attendance: approximately 30, for peak summer hikes
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Treasure State Hidden Gem: Malmstrom Air Force Base Museum
By Vince Devlin
Photos by Tom Bauer
It would take more than a day to hit all the museums in Great Falls, but it would be time well spent.
No visit to the Electric City, of course, is complete without taking in the C.M. Russell Museum, where you can explore the paintings, sketches and sculptures by one of Montana’s favorite sons and one of America’s greatest Western artists, and visit Charlie Russell’s home and log-cabin studio as well.
There is also the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center, considered one of the finest of its kind in the nation by many Lewis and Clark buffs. The Great Falls Museums Consortium can also direct you to the Montana Museum of Railroad History, the Children’s Museum of Montana or the First Peoples Buffalo Jump State Park, to name just half of the consortium members.
- Read more about the Electric City here
In all the varied choices, don’t let this one escape your attention: It’s the Malmstrom Air Force Base Museum and Air Park.
It’s really quite fascinating, especially if you let a museum staff member show you around.
Malmstrom is a U.S. Air Force base without an airplane, control tower or flying mission. There are, however, helicopters at the base that patrol almost 14,000 square miles of the central Montana prairie.
That’s where 150 Minuteman III missiles and their nuclear warheads, capable of traveling 15,000 mph, are buried. Malmstrom is home to the 341st Missile Wing of the Air Force Global Strike Command.
At the museum you’ll learn all about the missiles and the Cold War that brought them to Montana. The original concept, interestingly, was to place the missiles on train cars, not underground, and have them constantly on the move. The idea was that a moving target would be a more difficult target for America’s enemies.
Malmstrom may lack airplanes today, but that wasn’t always the case.
Established during World War II, the base helped shuttle almost 8,000 aircraft to Fairbanks, Alaska, from 1942-45. Sometimes they carried supplies, and other times it was the planes themselves that were bound for our WWII ally, the Soviet Union.
- See more photos from across Great Falls here
At the air park outside the museum you can see several of the planes that did call Malmstrom home when the base had flying missions during its first half-century, including a KC-97 stratotanker, an F-84F Thunderstreak fighter bomber, an EB-47B Canberra tactical bomber used for electronic reconnaissance and radar-jamming, not to mention an LGM-30G Minuteman Missile that gives the base its purpose today.
Malmstrom Museum Tip Sheet
Anyone with an interest in military history in general, and the U.S. Air Force in particular, will enjoy the Malmstrom Museum. But an interest in history or technology, period, will make it a worthwhile stop, and kids will like both the roomful of shelves filled with models of aircraft the U.S. military has used – from WWI biplanes to the stealth bomber and Air Force One – to the real things outside the museum in the air park.
How to see it
You’re free to wander the museum on your own and read about the exhibits. But we highly recommend asking if a museum staffer is available to give you a tour. You’ll learn lots more than is printed on the displays, and find your visit is far more informative and interesting.
Seeing the museum won’t cost you any money, just a little time – there’ll be some paperwork involved, seeing as you’re being admitted onto an active military base. They’ll help you at the Malmstrom Visitor Center at the 2nd Avenue North gate.
The museum is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you have questions, call 731-2705.
Vince Devlin is a frequent Montana Magazine contributor. He writes from Polson.