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Growing Pains, Part 4: An identity — Big Sky’s search for soul

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The Big Sky Farmers Market, a community staple in the warmer months. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO


This is the fourth installment of “Growing Pains,” an ongoing series centered on Big Sky’s growth, the challenges it presents and potential solutions.

BIG SKY – While returning home from Bozeman on July 2 of last year, Big Sky residents Joanie and Andy Dreisbach of Big Sky were involved in a head-on collision on U.S. Highway 191. The force of the impact buckled their Dodge truck and left both with serious injuries.

Soon after, a close friend started a campaign on the crowdsourced meal-giving platform known as Meal Train, a tool used to help friends and families organize homemade meals following accidents such as that experienced by the Dreisbachs. Within 10 minutes, two months of meals were scheduled for the couple and their three children.

An I’ve-got-your-back mentality has characterized Big Sky for this family since 2004, when the couple moved here with their 1-year-old daughter and Joanie was warmly welcomed as a new mother to Big Sky.

“Right away, [mothers] started this mom’s club of Big Sky and we met at the parks and we went on hikes,” said Joanie, adding that it was a way to bring new moms into the community.

The same care for mothers was present eight years earlier when Kathy House, the librarian at the Big Sky School District, had triplets in 1996. While she was in labor in a Salt Lake City hospital after being taken by emergency helicopter from Big Sky, cards and bouquets piled around her bed as her friends and neighbors expressed their support and solidarity.

“It was just such a unique experience,” said House, whose husband Dave owns The Corral Bar, Steakhouse and Motel in Gallatin Canyon. “The nurses in Salt Lake just looked at me like, ‘Are you a celebrity or something?’”

When she returned to Montana with her three newborn boys, a handful of women would visit for two hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays to provide some reprieve.

Neither Joanie Dreisbach nor Kathy House is certain the same warm welcome awaits mothers today. They worry the intimate and tightknit Big Sky of 16 years ago when Dreisbach moved here, or 31 years ago when House moved to the area, has changed from what it once was. While new growth has ushered in a host of benefits, the loss of the intimate community and the erosion of its shared values has been difficult for them and other longtime locals to stomach.

Upon their separate arrivals in Big Sky, both Dreisbach and House found that a deep-seated appreciation for nature acted as common ground for locals joining the community.

“I think what ties us to Big Sky is we all love the outdoors so much,” Dreisbach said. “Everything that we love we shared with all our friends. We were all the same in that regard.”

For House, the proximity to a far quieter Yellowstone National Park, which has experienced an increase of over 1 million annual visitors since 2003, according to official park statistics, as well as the relatively untapped skiing and hiking opportunities fostered in her and her neighbors a special sense of ownership.

“We each felt like we were the luckiest people in the world living here and having it to ourselves,” House said.

To Joanie and Andy Dreisbach, it seems outdoor love and respect has begun to erode as people casually trade-in a life elsewhere to move here, while the couple had to work hard to maintain theirs.

“I loved the mountains so much that I lived in shacks with rats,” Joanie said. “I had five jobs just to stay there and make it through.” Though the Dreisbachs now own a comfortable home and Andy has directly benefited from the growth as a builder, they’ve been dismayed to see how some new residents and their children treat Big Sky as purely a vacation spot, a playground, and not the place they cherish.

“We respect it,” Joanie said. “My kids, if they see garbage, they’re picking it up. It’s where we live. We’re proud to be here and we take care of it, and I feel like a lot of the people that are coming in, they don’t have that same respect that we do … the keeping things free and natural.”

Reed McLeod, a server at Olive B’s Bistro in Meadowview Village and a former property manager at the Yellowstone Club, moved to Big Sky two years ago from Massachusetts with few expectations of the community other than a reverence for outdoor living.

His work at the restaurant has opened his eyes to the sense of community here, as families and children of all ages dine together on any given night.

“Once peak season ended, it was surprising to see people [who] truly call this place home,” McLeod said. “It’s hard to sense that community with peak season in swing, but once that ended you could see the town was alive even in the offseason.”

Still McLeod, a relative newcomer, recognizes the same problems called out by the Dreisbachs and Kathy House.

“As long as it’s sustainable to live here for original community members, then it will always have that organic scene,” McLeod said, “At the same time, there’s a strong commercial force trying to make it something that’s not quite there … but I don’t think this place will ever lose one side or the other.”

Andy Dreisbach hopes the community will maintain its roots.

“I want it to still be the salt-of-the-earth-type people that are here, but they’re here for the purpose of providing for their families, raising families … and teaching their families to respect that mountain environment,” he said. “I don’t want to have retirees moving here where they’re here to golf in the summertime and then they’ll leave in the fall and spring, and ski in just the winter.”

The Dreisbachs noted the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center as a place that gathers and unites the community in a powerful way, estimating that they know 40 percent of the crowd at any given show. The high school is another grounder for the community, the Dreisbachs said, and House echoed. J.C. Knaub, a Big Sky resident since 1972, saying that Big Sky getting its own high school in 2009 has also attracted many families. Beforehand, many families had to drive their kids to school in Bozeman, or moved away once their children entered high school.

“I’ve had many people tell me that the reason they moved here is because they could work out of their house and they could put their kids in high school,” Knaub said.

The summer concerts hosted by the Arts Council of Big Sky have also acted as community builders, but in more recent years the mass influx of concertgoers has on occasion overwhelmed these longtime locals, leaving them feeling disconnected. Despite religiously attending the concerts for years, a particular show last summer was so full of inebriated strangers that Joanie left early, brokenhearted and discouraged.

“I feel like it’s kind of sad when you walk down to a concert and you don’t feel like you belong,” Joanie said. “I just felt like crying because it’s like, ‘Our little town, what has it become?’”

Knaub thinks the events are good things, but that a balance must be struck.

“People think it’s cool here,” Knaub said. “Big Sky’s a special place, it really is, but you don’t want to screw it up. So, you’ve got to work twice as hard on the good stuff that brings people together.”

McLeod believes the town is in the midst of identity crisis. 

“On the one hand,” he said, “[Big Sky] has this identity of being a hidden place with people trying to keep it their own … On the other hand, it keeps improving in so many ways it makes sense more people are attracted to it.”

Rich Addicks, a second homeowner since 1988 who moved to Big Sky fulltime in 2013, agrees that a concerted effort will be necessary to preserve what he considers the “best place he’s ever lived.”

“Going forward, I believe we will need to work hard to maintain our local identity,” Addicks said. “Although it seems obvious, sometimes it needs to be said, but I believe we need to make sure we are not defined solely by tourism and a rush to develop. At times, it feels like we are headed that direction.”

Artist and 15-year Big Sky resident Liz McRae has hope for what Big Sky’s community can become. Even as the town develops, she says, the community and its “soul” can as well.

“We have to be intentional about how we incorporate soulfulness into the identity of our town,” McRae said. “As all of these buildings pop up and new people come up for a short period of time, it’s easy to have a spirited nature stripped away.”

Last fall, she and some friends placed prayer flags near the Uplands trailhead as a way to show that construction isn’t the only thing happening in Big Sky.

“The idea [was] that we can have little art installations pop up as the buildings pop up, keeping a balance of the human side,” she said.

McRae sees elevating Big Sky’s albeit limited history and celebrating its heritage as ways to build a shared identity that locals can latch onto as the area changes and grows.

In 2017, her daughter Maeve wrote a letter to the late Mark Robin who, together with his wife Jackie, opened the Hungry Moose Market and Deli in 1993. In December of 2017, Mark died from complications related to ALS, but he left behind a legacy. The summer before he passed, the Robins wanted to celebrate his life along with the community of Big Sky, and Maeve’s letter gave the celebration a name.

“[Maeve] wrote a letter to this wonderful man who was all of our dear friend,” McCrae said. “She drew him a letter telling him that she loved him and that he had ‘soul shine.’ When they were trying to come up with a name for that festival, Mark said, ‘Well, obviously it should be Soul Shine.’

“People moving here don’t know the history,” said McRae, adding that a greater recognition of Big Sky’s unique character and its story could be a way to show newcomers—from young bucks looking to huck cliffs at Big Sky Resort to wealthy retirees looking for a patio with a view—where Big Sky comes from; that it isn’t a blank slate but bares its own rich story.

For McCrae, there’s a tremendous opportunity to influence what defines Big Sky’s identity.

“It’s a work in progress,” McRae said. “And I think that’s a really great place to be.”

The third annual Soul Shine Festival will take place in Big Sky Town Center Park on June 20. Stay tuned to EBS for further details.

Michael Somerby contributed reporting for this story. Look for the next installment of “Growing Pains,” our multipart series on growth in Big Sky, coming in the May 24 edition of EBS.

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