Of the wide array of experiential gift-giving ideas out there, one in particular keeps on giving long after the gift itself has been used up. No, we’re not talking nuclear energy, psychedelic drugs or unprotected sex here. This is about the immense cache of theoretical knowledge and practical know-how harbored in the minds and bodies of our community’s many diverse inhabitants, a resource made easily accessible through the efforts of the Dickinson Lifelong Learning Center. To the quandary of what to give your best buddy, work acquaintance or lover, we say: send ’em to class!
As boring as some self-improvement classes may sound, they merit top billing due to their nearly unlimited potential to grease the skids of life for their participants. And at the top of this list stands a multitude of courses designed to enhance the performance of perhaps the most powerful tool in the history of mankind: the computer. The Learning Center’s stable of computer geeks are ready to shine a learning light on the bits and bytes that give direction to all that pointing and clicking.
Besides basic computer and keyboard classes, DLLC offers a host of programs that will introduce or refine the skills needed to navigate specific software programs, from word processing and spreadsheets to multi-tasking programs like Office and Access. Graphic designers and shutterbugs will benefit from brush-ups in Pagemaker, Illustrator and Photoshop, while the Website Design program is sure to satisfy the desires of all those who wish to add yet another star to the universal infinity of cyberspace. And for the elders who may have missed the first wave of the future, there are a number of classes that will ease their techno-fears and get them hanging ten along with the rest of us.
For the budding entrepreneur, courses in writing a business plan, marketing a business, or excellence in customer communications will surely prove helpful, and the next Motley Fool success story may originate from the “How to Start and Run a Profitable Investment Club” class. These are gifts with some serious kickback potential, as you may parlay your generosity into a ground-floor stock option of the next Washington Corporation.
But the real fun in giving knowledge can be found under the “Personal Development,” “Special Interest” and “Arts & Crafts” classes, although you’ll have to be careful of the subliminal messages you may send with these gifts. Does the recipient of the herbal soapmaking class, for instance, see it as a neat craft to learn or a direct affront to their hygienic practices? Does the hunter who receives the “Navigating with GPS” class take it as a desire on the giver’s part for their safety or as a condemnation of their flawed sense of direction?
You can help someone who seems all bottled up by giving them the gift of Feng Shui, limber up a tight-ass by bestowing Neck and Shoulder Release, or redirect a lost soul by showing them “Your Heart’s Desire: Creating the Life You Want.” Gearheads or hard-core mountain bikers may appreciate Basic Combination Welding, intrepid travelers will marvel at “Exploring Roadside Geology,” and you can give air-guitar gods something real to hold onto with Beginning Guitar.
Preparations for warm-weather pursuits are perfect for this time of year, as classes in fly-tying and garden planning attest. You can get all sensual and classy with a lovemate by foregoing an X-rated video gift for a course in “Bath and Body Bliss.” The inner artist in everyone will be forever grateful for such outlets as Beginning Stained Glass, Watercolor Painting, or Beginning Pottery. And finally, another gift guaranteed to give back in a big way are the class tandem of Beginning Japanese Cooking and a personal favorite, the “Sushi Workshop.” Check out the Dickinson Lifelong Learning Center at www.montana.com/dllc or by stopping by their office at 310 South Curtis.
A walk in the woods
This year, be Brobdingnagian in your gift-giving. Give a generous swath of Big Sky Country and earn a permanent place in the happy memories of your friends and loved ones.
For a nominal fee, you can give the gift of a cabin in the woods, a home-cooked meal prepared on a wood stove and a fine bottle of wine.
Our friends at the U.S. Forest Service have gone to the trouble of restoring a number of old cabins for our enjoyment, which they then rent out on a first-come, first-served basis.
Most cabins are the real deal: authentic and rustic log structures built decades ago for use as forest guard stations, or as homes for long-ago foresters.
Most were also built in remote places, far back into the woods. There are dozens of available rental cabins scattered across the timbered countryside in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Bitterroot, Clearwater, Custer, Flathead, Gallatin, Helena, Kootenai, Lewis and Clark, Lolo and Nez Perce national forests.
Generally, Forest Service rental cabins come equipped with the bare necessities: table, chairs, bunks (some with mattress pads, some without), wood stove, sometimes a propane cook stove, often cooking pots, pans, plates and utensils. You’ll also find an ax, hatchet and splitting maul, which means you’ve got to cut and stack the firewood you used during your stay for the next guy. What is lacking is running water and electricity, which means absolute peace and quiet, except the noise you make yourselves. No constant white noise running through your head and no ringing phones.
As for getting there, you’ll have to rely on your own steam in most cases. For example, the venerable Hogan cabin, tucked against a tree-ringed meadow near the confluence of Lost Trail and Chief Joseph passes, is roughly a five-mile (one-way) ski trip or snowmobile ride. Not all cabins are accessible by skis or snowmobiles, however. If the snow’s not too deep you can practically drive up to the door of the East Fork guard station, near the entrance to the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness, about 20 miles east of Sula.
Dining options are wide open. We suggest cooking up a stew or some kind of hearty winter soup at home before heading out, then freezing it overnight in a Ziploc bag laid out flat on a cookie sheet. Flat stew makes for easy carrying. As you ski, it will thaw, so by the time you get to your cabin in the woods, it’s ready to heat in the saucepan. Or, you can carry in frozen steaks, which should be relatively frost-free by the time you arrive. And since you’ll no doubt have your canine pal with you, you won’t even have to carry out the bones.
For easy wine hauling, we recommend emptying out one of those indestructible Mylar bladders you find inside those cardboard big box o’ cheap wine containers, and filling it with good wine out of a bottle. That way, you can complement dinner with a fine wine without having to haul your glass in and out. Be prepared to drink your wine out of plastic coffee cups, however, since cabin life is only partially perfect.
Overnight rental costs run about $25 per cabin, which makes for a pretty inexpensive and memorable Christmas gift.
Picture it: A log cabin in the snowy woods, a blazing fire in the wood stove, homemade beef stew bubbling on the stove, a loaf of crusty French bread, a bottle (or bag) of Pinot Noir, your best friend across the table, your dog curled up in front of the fire. And all at an affordable price. Does it get any better?
Call your local Forest Service ranger station for cabin availability and prices.
Get a life—Gifts that grow
There’s an old Indian adage: Never accept a gift that eats. While some people, whether for ethical or pecuniary reasons, might balk at the idea of giving or receiving a present that entrusts to the recipient its very existence, there’s also something very rewarding about accepting responsibility for a fragile little life. I’m not talking about a puppy or a rabbit here. I’m talking management opportunities for entry-level positions in the wild kingdom: those critters with too many cells to be yeast or bacteria and far too few to be Spot or Mister Raffles. I’m talking about brine shrimp and domesticated weeds. They won’t purr or catch a Frisbee, but they won’t pee in the rec room, either.
House plants make ideal gifts for almost anyone on your list. They’re a quick decorating fix for any number of problem spots in the home, and they make any room look instantly more inviting and homey. Plants are also inexpensive ($3 and up) and available in many shapes and sizes, not to mention degrees of hardiness to suit everyone from the green-thumbedest indoor farmer to the most horticulturally challenged tyro (“Dude, do you think I can give it a wine cooler?”).
Lucky bamboo, a Southeast Asian import, makes an attractive (and attractively-priced) gift of greenery. A four-inch stalk is only about $1.29, but even a jumbo two-foot section will set you back less than half the cost of a Britney Spears CD. Specimens that have been tormented into all manner of corkscrew shapes with single light sources in dark rooms sell for slightly more, but all are relatively affordable and need only clean water and indirect sunlight to thrive. No bothersome soil for kids and other mammals to spill on the carpet!
For those whose tastes run a little more toward the exotic, the Venus fly trap in the clear plastic cup (less than $10) is still as intriguing a house plant as ever. The Discovery Channelers on your list will thrill at a houseguest that pulls its own weight by catching and slowly digesting flies, mosquitoes and other airborne nuisances. And what a conversation piece! Unfortunately, with organic free-range houseflies scarce this time of year, what’s more likely to happen is that they’ll tire of Mother Nature’s infinite patience and kill the fly-trap by overfeeding it with wads of ground round. Perhaps a bonsai kit (about $6, complete with soil, tiny pot and pine seeds) will teach them a thing or two about patience. Their lifetime of pruning and watering with a miniature hose will ultimately be rewarded with the Zen-like simplicity of a miniature pine cone, perhaps even a miniature family picnicking in the splendid miniature shade the tree affords.
Folks on your list with a science-fair turn of mind might appreciate the gift of an avocado pit sprouting in a jar of water. As a bonus to you, the thrifty shopper, it’s a gift that costs virtually nothing to make. Simply stick a few toothpicks into an avocado pit so that it sits at rim level in a jar of tap water, readily and inexpensively available from participating sinks and kitchen faucets. Your loved one’s new “avocado tree” may never produce as much as a single fruit, but so what? When was the last time you ate a fig off the “fig” tree (pff!) in your living room?
Finally, have you thought about giving the “kooky retro gift” of sea monkeys this year? Sea monkeys make the perfect animal (barely!) companions for people whose criteria for “pet” can be bartered down to the simplest arrangement of electrical impulses and temporarily mobile carbon compounds. While individual sea monkeys (they’re actually brine shrimp) have been know to live for up to three weeks in captivity, the rapidly-perishing rank-and-file of the species also make sea monkeys the perfect starter pet for kids with limited experience in the weighty matters of pet life and death, not to mention in matters of false advertising. Once the little ones figure out their new pets are never going to build little castles or cavort with tiny beach balls as depicted in the comic books, they’ll quickly lose interest when nature takes its course.
In this holiday haven of chain stores, shop-by-mail catalogues, and Web sites that promise no crowds, no hassles, and free shipping, it is not difficult to do your duty and buy someone a present. Shop online or walk into a congested store, pick something out, smile at the Santa-hatted salesperson as she rings you up, then make your way to gift wrapping, where your present is popped into a box and bound with a shiny ribbon. Cha-ching, you’re done.
That kind of present-buying is fine. But think about it: What if you actually want to surprise your partner with something that will just rock his world, something he may never have splurged on for himself? Or maybe you want to present him with something that will remind him of you. If so, why not give your special someone an experience that will mean more than another green sweater or cute knickknack to collect dust on a shelf?
You care about the physical and emotional well-being of your special someone, right? Why not choose a gift that will soothe and relax both mind and body: an hour or two of pampering in a spa-type setting that will help leave the cares of the world behind. Consider an hour-long Shiatsu massage, an Asian-style bodywork that aims to balance both physical and emotional discomfort by applying pressure on specific points along the body’s energy channels. Or a Hawaiian massage, basically a more luxuriant Shiatsu with oil. In fact, there may be a type of massage for most anyone on your list—from Swedish and pre-natal to sports therapy and deep tissue. And don’t forget, hand or foot reflexology—pressure applied to the hands or feet to release blockages throughout the body —or craniosacral massage, a therapy used to restore natural rhythm and circulation.
While still thinking “pampering,” why not give the gift of a facial, body scrub, or mud pack? Not only will your someone special glow on the outside after one or any of these treatments, he will also feel a lovely, relaxed, pure glow on the inside. How about a rejuvenating sea algae body wrap, used to help exfoliate skin, clean out bodily toxins, and provide nutrients to firm, tone, and revitalize the body? A mud facial may remind us of a childhood romp in a wet river, but mud masks have medicinal purposes that open and clean the pores and rehydrate tired, dry skin. If the face is not enough, why not go whole hog and give the gift of a mud bath? Submerged in mud up to the neck, your special someone will detoxify, relax, and revive the cells in his body and emerge as clean and pure as the skin on a baby’s bottom fresh out of the tub.
For a more active pampering gift, consider a series of classes at one of the local yoga centers. Though more recently popular with the younger generation, yoga has been around for centuries and helps practitioners find peace, balance, and strength of body and mind. If your special someone is skeptical, not to worry. Yoga is not about eating yogurt and trying to collapse into the size and shape of a travel toothbrush; yoga is more about being inside yourself in the moment. All types of yoga—from Hatha and Iyengar to Ashtanga and yoga for teens or pregnant women—help stretch the senses, strengthen awareness, and improve mental and physical flexibility. For a good, sweaty challenge, try Bikram yoga, a series of 26 postures, known as asanas, practiced in a heated room to flush out toxins and work the entire body and mind. If you are feeling generous, give the gift of yoga to your special someone and yourself; you can enjoy it together. A regular practice of warrior poses, downward-facing dogs, cobras, and chaturangas will be a lasting and positive gift, a gift for the body and soul of your someone special.
Thinking outside the box
So, haven’t found what you’re looking for? Banging your head against the wall over that special someone on your list who has no hobbies, outside interests or a creative sinew in his or her entire body? If you’ve got a bit of cash to drop, try one of these ideas:
How about a daylong scenic railroad getaway aboard the Montana Daylight, the state’s only touring train, scheduled to make its first-ever Christmas excursion this Sunday, Dec. 9. Ride the rails aboard this 1940s-era touring train, restored to mint condition as it looked in the Golden Age of Rail: Spacious picture windows, reclining seats, footrests, and several two-level dome cars for watching the cows and mountains roll by, all fully narrated by guides well-versed in the history and lore of the region. Passengers are encouraged to move around the train, enjoy a meal, a beer or a glass of wine in the club car—and if you can land yourself a Pullman sleeper car, try becoming a lifetime member in the mile-long club! The Christmas train departs from Missoula at 8:30 a.m., travels more than 100 miles to Paradise and returns to Missoula at approximately 5 p.m. To make a reservation on this excursion (or one of the many scenic trips that run between Livingston and Sandpoint, Idaho from June through September) call your local travel agent or Montana Rockies Rail Tours at 1-800-519-7245.
If white linens and fine china aboard the Orient Express aren’t exactly your style and you prefer instead a mode of travel more rustic and outdoorsy, consider a gift certificate from one of western Montana’s many dog sled outfitters. For example, Spirit of the North Sled Dog Adventures (406-995-3424) in Ennis (about one mile from the Big Sky Mountain Village) offers guided sled dog trips for as little as $99 for adults and $69 for kids. Spend an afternoon sledding through the backcountry without sucking up the noxious, petrochemical exhaust of a snowmobile. Other dogsled outfitters, such as Absaroka Dogsled Treks near Bozeman (1-800-468-9232) also offer a comprehensive, three-day dogsled school for that young musher-to-be in your family. Or, take a peek at the Web site for Dog Sled Montana in Kalispell (www.skisled.com). They sell recreational dog sleds and harnesses that go for under $600 and can be harnessed to nearly any medium to large dog who loves to run, from a border collie to a Saint Bernard. Give the gift that lets you and your hound heed the call of the wild!
When all else fails…
Damn! Still no luck? OK, we’re pulling out all the stops here in the miscellaneous category, in no particular order: Beer- or wine-making kits and supplies…horseback riding lessons…musical instruments big and small …arts and crafts supplies…flying (skydiving, paragliding or hang gliding) lessons…pottery classes…wheel alignments…aromatherapy…session with a sports and fitness trainer…aquarium, terrarium, or herbarium…a magazine subscription…coupons for backrubs on demand…HAM radio set…carpentry classes…long distance calling cards…carpet and rug cleaning…teas, coffees and locally-produced baked goods…locally produced crafts…guaranteed day care for a weekend…an erector set…dog grooming and/or training classes…a CPR class…flower arrangements…foot massages…ice cream-making kits…refinish an old piece of furniture…weekend at a dude ranch…a hair piece/toupee…a hearing aid…a helicopter ride…a day at the hot springs…martial arts classes of all stripes…a kite…knife sharpening…an afternoon of paintball…life insurance…record or video of yourself singing/playing instrument/performing a strip tease…dentist’s visit …cooking class…rodeo lessons…SCUBA class…Tarot or astrological reading… tattoo or body piercing (a difficult surprise gift without chloroform)…tools of all sorts…bicycle tour…living will…theater or movie tickets…day at a winery…hypnotherapy…18 rounds at a golf course…the Bible…the Koran…convert the family’s old 8 mm home movies to video…free garage/attic/storage area cleanup…ballroom dance lessons…foreign currency. Good luck!