My annual pilgrimage to my home away from home in Northwest Montana started out innocently enough, as many things do. I’d been skydiving for several months at that point, having earned my A license, quit my job for a temporary sabbatical, hit the road to dropzone-hop, and achieved 100-jump-wonder status,. I was up for another adventure. So when my friend Kev said that I had to join him on a road trip to the middle of nowhere Montana, all I could say was “when do we leave?”
Somewhere along the line between planning and executing that first trip in 2005, I invited this guy I was kinda sweet on that I’d met on my road trip adventures to join the trip, thinking that if a budding romance could survive a ten-hour road trip and five nights camping in the sticks, it could survive anything. Ten boogies later, not only has that budding romance endured, so too has my love affair with Lost Prairie.
It’s the one boogie I’ve never missed; it’s the one that’s non-negotiable. The closest I came to skipping it was in 2008, when a fit of stress and anxiety made me think I couldn’t pull it off. I had been laid off from my job in Seattle, made the decision to move to California, and was still trying to find a new job in a new city and figure out how to make the move happen. I also had a dwindling bank account and a mortgage in Seattle hanging over my head in a economy that was about to go tits up. The stars (which, by the way, are far more numerous in Montana than anywhere else) aligned to have me accepting a job offer (with relocation to California covered) mere days before leaving for LP, and my summer fantasy vacation wasn’t disrupted.
So why Prairie? I know it’s a cliche, but it’s a really difficult boogie to explain if you’ve never been there. It’s ridiculously challenging/expensive to get to. The nearest commercial flights arrive about an hour away in Kalispell, which has a tiny, expensive airport that caters to Glacier National Park tourists, with “we’re the only game in town” prices to match. Once you get there, you’re pretty far away from all of the vestiges of civilization. There’s a convenience store about 7 miles up the road, but to really be comfortable at Prairie, you need to bring everything you need for a week with you. You’ll need to be prepared to be a self-sufficient camper, capable of handling temperatures that can range from the mid-30s at night to the mid-90s during the day.
If it sounds daunting, it is and it isn’t. Part of the appeal of a boogie like Prairie is its very remoteness; you can take a look at the map to get an idea of just how far it is from, well, anything. It used to be that once you set foot on the Prairie, you couldn’t communicate with the outside world; lately if you stand on one foot and hold your other arm out as a sort of antenna, you might be able to get a Verizon phone signal on certain parts of the dropzone. There’s even a wi-fi network, though it’s sort of retro and has the throughput of a 14.4 baud modem… if it’s working.
What this remoteness creates is a family-within-a-family. The Lost Prairie Boogie has been alternately described as “summer camp for skydivers” and “a family reunion.” It’s both of those things, in the sense that it’s an annual event where you see many people that you don’t run into at any other point in the year. But you pick up right where you left off, with the same silly and somber traditions that you’ve been doing for years. People come who haven’t skydived in years, but they wouldn’t miss the reunion for the world.
You indoctrinate the new folks, so that before they know it, they’re the ones telling the new guy that he absolutely cannot miss Cock Chorus practice, or dragging the new gal over to Crack Choir rehearsal despite all of her protests that she can’t sing (don’t worry, it’s just like singing in church in that you’ll be given a songbook with all the words, and everyone sings and no one cares whether you can carry a tune; except that it’s nothing like singing in church, nothing at all).
Before you know it, ten years have gone by, and you know most of the inside jokes, including some of the ones that were before your time but that have been passed down to you like family lore. Ten years have passed and you realize there is a whole generation of Prairie-goers who are new enough that they don’t remember the demos we used to do at Lang Creek Brewery. They don’t remember the open taps of Skydiver Blonde Ale and Taildragger Porter and Huckleberry n Honey, and the warm welcome that at least one, usually two, Otter-loads of demo jumpers got each year when they landed on the Lang property.
They don’t remember the old bar, or when the boogie took place across the runway and was hosted by Skydive Lost Prairie. They don’t remember the change in 2011, when the boogie hosting transitioned to Meadow Peak Skydiving. Of course, there’s a generation older than me that is rolling its eyes at me, because they remember the days of the Osprey Sport Parachute Club, which I’m told started the whole thing (and is memorialized in some of the many traditional Lost Prairie songs).
But they remember the traditions that live on , because each year we bring up a new crop of Prairie virgins; the aforementioned singing, the Thursday trips to the Meadow Peak fire tower, the Saturday sunset cross-country (with stories of that one year when half, no, three quarters of the load landed out. Okay, maybe it was only two or three people but that’s why they don’t drop us as far away anymore).
And those virgins go home, and they tell their friends about LP, and they try to describe it and wind up just saying “you just have to come to experience it.” And each year, there’s more and more new people looking around and saying “Wow, now I get it.”
The next Lost Prairie boogie is scheduled from August 1-10, 2015. Get it on your calendar, ask for the days off, start planning, and join the family.