The Montana mountain air was cool and fresh, and as I breathed it in, something inside of me awakened: evasive like magic or childhood. I pulled on my rain boots and walked quickly to keep up with my daughters, who had already raced off of the porch and through the mud to the purple sky in front of us.
Alpenglow was a word I never heard before my trip to Dancing Spirit Ranch, but it is one I won’t soon forget. As the sun sets, mountains exposed to the direct sunlight undergo an optical phenomenon and assume a color wheel of orange, yellow, and finally violet, creating an illusion of the air being tangible enough to reach out and grab a handful of it.
In the northwest corner of Montana, at the edge of the mountain time zone, it was half-past eight in the evening in the middle of March and I could still see my parents, children, husband, and sister walking around the water in a hazy pool of light that reflected off the mountains behind them.
I paused, scanning the jagged horizon formed by movements in the earth’s foundation, punctuated by swans taking off in unison from the small pond in front of me. After a year of far too few visits with my family, we were together again, lost not in worrisome, despairing talks about our nation or the pandemic that have become commonplace in the last year, but simple, soul-filling wonder.
Dancing Spirit Ranch is a family-owned retreat center and vacation rental outside of Whitefish Montana, America’s playground for skiers, nature lovers, hikers and fly fishers. On the edge of Glacier National Park and boasting 150 acres of gardens, ponds, walking trails, and mountain views, the ranch is a place layered with beauty.
Katherine and Gordon bought the ranch nearly 30 years ago, but only in the last few years has it been opened up for retreats and vacations. Guests can stay in three of the carefully built or renovated houses on the property. The Bunkhouse, a perfect accommodation for a larger family reunion, sleeps up to 14 in high-end rustic style, while The Schoolhouse is perfect for a couple or solo retreat. From our windows in the Cedar House, a four-bedroom cabin on the edge of a 14-acre pond, we watched birds and deer navigate the early Montana spring against the stunning backdrop of the mountain range.
The food at Dancing Spirit Ranch sits in a league of its own. Ananda Johnson, the head chef, has a seemingly endless repertoire of healthy, delicious, plant-based recipes: rosemary paleo biscuits, garden lasagna, made with layers of zucchini, butternut squash, and eggplant between lentil brown rice noodles, oatmeal energy bites, and buckwheat granola, to name a few.
Prepared and served with gracious hospitality as we ate in the dining room of the Barn, next to a crackling fire while the sun beamed through the large windows, Ananda, full of humor, stories, and warmth, made us feel like old friends by the end of the week.
There are more food plans in the works. By the end of 2021, Dancing Spirit Ranch hopes to be completely farm-to-table. They’ve built gardens and greenhouses to this end, thoughtfully arranged in geometric patterns. Dancing Spirit Ranch takes pride in its working relationship with the land–in caring for the soil correctly and planting sustainably so that the ground remains fruitful for years to come.
We could have gone the entire week without leaving the property of Dancing Spirit Ranch, enjoying the bubbling of the Whitefish River, the first signs of buds along the walking trails, sitting around the large communal fire pit where we enjoyed s’mores after dinner in the sunset, the white, sugary fluff of the marshmallow sticking to my daughter’s chin.
We did venture off, to ski Whitefish Mountain, which still had an ample snow base of 100 inches in March, and then to Glacier Park, where we drove 10 miles alongside the clear waters of Lake McDonald. But every time we turned back toward Dancing Spirit Ranch, it was with the anticipation of coming back home.
Katherine told me that the ranch has a way of bringing in the people who need it, a sort of magnetic pull. That might be true, but I think equally crucial to the equation is the way visitors are received when they arrive at Dancing Spirit Ranch. I think it matters that Dancing Spirit Ranch is family-owned and operated because the staff and owners know inherently what visiting families and guests most need. After so much time apart, my family craved a beautiful, relaxed setting to enjoy one another and the world around us, and the ranch delivered tenfold.
Watching my dad swing my daughter up onto his shoulders as they walked through the grass in the evening light, my mom laughing with my youngest as they ran in circles, my husband and sister standing together, talking about how good their dinner was, I decided that Dancing Spirit Ranch was a place I could return to again and again. To quote the poet Wendell Berry, the place is full of the “peace of wild things.”
The author was a guest of Dancing Spirit Ranch.
Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website, RachaelDymski.com