Dispatches From the Road: Snow, Cults and Spirits in Southern Montana

A road through Paradise Valley, Montana. (Chris Marshall / CNS)

When the man I’d let use the only functioning computer at the court told the woman who came in after him that she could use it when he was done, I decided to hit the road. After all, a storm was brewing to the west, and to the west was the compound.

Fat raindrops plopped on the windshield as I headed to the grocery store in Billings, Montana, where the cashier said I could check their website for future sales when I declined to leave with a flyer.

“I won’t be coming back,” I replied.

The rain thinned and turned slushy, then a little icy on the drive.

By the turnoff in Livingston small flakes of damp snow mingled with the icy mix. I decided to forego a planned stop at ramshackle Neptune’s Brewery.

And good thing I did. The snowflakes, now fluffy, grew in size and number on the nearly vacant two-lane road into Paradise Valley.

Snowfall in Paradise Valley, Montana. (Chris Marshall / CNS)

By the time I reached Emigrant, 10 minutes from headquarters, the weather approached whiteout conditions.

My phone buzzed as I made the right turn onto the windy road that led to the house. I ignored the text message and headed up the hill, blowing past the driveway. I tried to turn around but the truck got stuck in the snow. The phone rang as I switched to four-wheel drive.

“Where are you?” the voice shot through the phone.

“Just about to pull up to the place,” I answered.

“Cool, we’re leaving Bozeman now. We should be there in about an hour. Rob and Jen are coming tonight and the rest tomorrow,” the voice replied.

I rolled the truck slowly out of the snow and down the dirt road, turned right at a house with a travel trailer and a few cars parked outside, passed a garage with cardboard over the windows and another out building. I parked in between a second garage and a large fifth-wheel camper.

After heeding the signs to close the gate behind me and getting the key from the lockbox I opened the door, intending to turn up the heat. But somebody already had. Too high, in fact. 

“Hello?” I hollered.

“The Compound,” Paradise Valley, Montana. (Chris Marshall / CNS)

Silence.

I minded the sign telling me to remove my shoes, and read one above it admonishing me to make sure the doors remained closed lest “wild life” try to enter the house. The grammarian in me shuddered.

More grammatically challenged signs greeted me inside, including one saying not to drink the water, another warning visitors not to approach Oma the stallion and a third – above a lock box covering the thermostat – advising visitors to call a listed number if they wanted to adjust the settings.

Beyond the large main living room were two bedrooms, with two more on the other side of the dining room. From there a hallway opened into an even bigger living room. Two bunk beds were tucked in a corner next to a bathroom and yet another bedroom. Off that room was a sunroom and another room with a hot tub. A deck spanned the length of the house, empty vegetable gardens in front of it.

The mountains beckoned in the distance, the tops obscured by low-hanging clouds. A large field ran to the bottom of the hill in front of the property, interrupted in the middle by the main north-south road. And was that the top of a yurt at the edge of the hill?

What a strange place, I thought before my reverie was interrupted by a work call about Twitter. But that’s a story for a different time.

I’d first encountered Paradise Valley a few years earlier on the way to Yellowstone National Park. Hemmed in by the Absaroka Mountains to the east and the Gallatin Range to the west, the valley is home to many large ranches, some gobbled up in recent decades by wealthy buyers eager for solitude and sweeping views, and to wildlife including elk, deer, bear, mountain lions and an outdoor cat who does his best to convince the humans to ignore the signs and let him inside.

Paradise Valley, Montana. (Chris Marshall / CNS)

Yours truly could count the passage of time by what remained of a deer carcass on my daily run down the hill and back, during which I was able to confirm that yes, that was a yurt, the air is quite thin up here and that perhaps I should start running with an incline on the treadmill at home, or better yet, learn to take a break.

On the third day we donned matching hats and caravanned south into Yankee Jim Canyon, named after a 19th century squatter who laid claim to land north of Gardiner, Montana, and charged tolls to travelers. Jim supposedly hailed from Vermont, hence the “Yankee” designation.

After recommending we invite Jim’s spirit to visit during a Ouija experience planned for later that weekend, the crackling voice on the walkie-talkie advised us to look to the right to the Royal Teton Ranch, once home to the Church Universal and Triumphant – a new age religious organization that many consider a cult.

The church gained national notoriety when members built fallout shelters at the ranch to survive a nuclear apocalypse that leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet claimed would occur on March 14, 1990.

Gardiner, Montana. (Chris Marshall / CNS)

According to the voice on the walkie-talkie, when they emerged six months later to find the world had carried on fine without them, “boy were they surprised.”

According to Prophet, the community’s prayers had averted war.

A young man who visited headquarters later that day told us many houses in our neighborhood were owned by church members, which, if true, might help explain the outhouses and extra bedrooms tacked on seemingly at whim.

But fear not, dear reader, though we came from far and near, we did not come to join a cult or for other spiritual reasons, though after visiting a sliver of Yellowstone we washed down the day with drinks at a watering hole in Gardiner, and spirits of the liquid kind were dispensed liberally back at HQ.

We were called to remote Montana to celebrate a good friend’s birthday, and our group – which included bar owners, adventure tour guides, a nurse, a malcontent journalist and a director of a health care nonprofit – made it out of the valley at the end of the weekend and returned to our work-a-day lives.

At least I think we did.

Then again, who knows. I wasn’t the only one to lose my way in that strange building, and there was that one locked door down some stairs off one of the hallways that I’m convinced led to a separate unit, perhaps a fallout shelter.

Click a photo below to view the images as a slideshow.

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