Features Hidden Gems

Dancing Spirit Ranch: ‘The Peace of Wild Things’

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 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’s 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.

Enjoying the mountain views in northwest Montana in good company is a pastime at Dancing Spirit Ranch. (Courtesy of Dancing Spirit Ranch)
The Alpenglow effect of late-day sunlight bouncing off the mountains, clouds, and lake at Dancing Spirit Ranch. (Courtesy of Dancing Spirit Ranch)

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 past year, but simple, soul-filling wonder.

Birds in flight with the mountains in the background at Dancing Spirit Ranch. (Courtesy of Dancing Spirit Ranch)

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.

Dancing Spirit Ranch is a retreat and event space owned and operated by the Cross/Singer family. (Courtesy of Dancing Spirit Ranch)

Katherine and Gordon bought the ranch nearly 30 years ago, but only in the past 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.

Executive head chef Ananda Johnson prepares a meal for guests at Dancing Spirit Ranch. (Courtesy of Dancing Spirit Ranch)

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.

Enjoying a meal in front of the fire in the Barn at the Dancing Spirit Ranch. (Courtesy of Shalee Wanders)

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—caring for the soil correctly and planting sustainably so that the ground remains fruitful for years to come.

Enjoying the fire pit, s’mores, and family time at Dancing Spirit Ranch. (Courtesy of Dancing Spirit Ranch)
Family time around the fire. (Courtesy of Rachael Dymski)

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.

Gordon Cross, owner of Dancing Spirit Ranch enjoys spending time teaching his grandson to fish at Dancing Spirit Ranch (Courtesy of Dancing Spirit Ranch)

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.

Venturing off property for some spring skiing at Whitefish Mountain Resort in northwest Montana. (Courtesy of Shalee Wanders)
Skiing at Whitefish. (Courtesy of Rachael Dymski)

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.

The serenity of the ranch is a balm for the soul. (Courtesy of Rachael Dymski)
The serenity of the ranch is a balm for the soul. (Courtesy of Rachael Dymski)

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,

Hidden Gems The Great Outdoors

The Hartman Rock Garden

There’s a small artistic treasure in the little city of Springfield, Ohio. Sometimes an everyday person creates a work of art that captures the spirit of a time. “The Hartman Rock Garden,” created by Springfield resident Harry George “Ben” Hartman, is one of those works of art.

The foundation of Ben’s garden is characterized by enduring patience in the face of hardship. In 1932, Ben was laid off from his job as a result of the Great Depression.

Jobless at 48 years old, Ben was trying to find ways to stay positive and keep busy. His garden started with his intention to create a fishing pond out of cement. He didn’t know that this project would turn into an artistic endeavor lasting the rest of his life.

For the next 12 years, Ben would spend his time creating his garden. He gathered inspiration from multiple sources including friends, family, magazines, books, radio, and film. These sources would provide the content for many of his handmade structures and figurines.

Some of the objects in the garden are handmade using concrete, metal, glass, stone, wood, and anything he could get his hands on. He built over 50 structures, countless figurines, and surrounded them all with numerous plants and found items.

Closeup of Noah’s Ark and the fourteen sets of animals. Photographed by Eric Bess.

Walking through the garden is like being transported into a miniature world containing themes of American history and Christianity. Ben created replicas of historical monuments including George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, the White House, and Lincoln’s cabin, all of which are around the size of large dollhouses.

At the back corners of the garden, Ben created a replica of Noah’s Ark and a cathedral, which is the largest structure in the garden. “Noah’s Ark” displays fourteen small pairs of animals walking toward the entrance of the ark. The “Cathedral” is modeled after medieval cathedrals in Italy and has Madonna figurines in it along with a version of Leonardo da Vinci’s last supper.

Closeup of the Madonna in the Cathedral. Photographed by Eric Bess.

Outside of the historical and religious items are cultural items depicting folktales and nursery rhymes. Ben had “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” gnomes around the central birdbath. He also made a water well he called “Jack and Jill,” a boy inside a pumpkin he called “Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater,” and small figurines on a shoe called “Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe.”

Sometimes life can throw us the unexpected. It can be difficult to know how we will take care of ourselves or our families when we are laid off from our jobs or an unexpected illness arises. For 12 years, Ben dealt with the difficulty of being laid off not by feeling sorry for himself, but by celebrating the things in life for which he was grateful.

Gratitude is my biggest takeaway from Ben’s project. Despite the hardships life throws our way, we can choose to be grateful for and celebrate the things that are most meaningful to us. So maybe this obscure work of art can encourage the spirit of our time: a spirit of celebration and gratitude for life.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).

Hidden Gems The Great Outdoors

Desert Creations

The sculptures of Ricardo Breceda

Photographed by Jeff Perkin


In the timeless scenery of the Southern California desert, ferocious dinosaurs and larger-than-life creatures are brought to life through the animated work of Ricardo Breceda. Where else can one find a 350-foot-long sea serpent which appears to swim through the surface of the desert floor and under a road? The impeccably-detailed, rusted-metal monster is just one of 130 sculptures in Galleta Meadows of Borrego Springs, CA. Other imaginative sculptures include a scorpion facing off against a grasshopper, incredibly life-like rams rearing up to head butt each other, and a mother camel nestled against her child. Formed out of sheet metal that has been cut, shaped and welded into place, these majestic creations come to life in the sparse desert landscape.

Dinosaur Fight in Borrego Springs, CA.

Ricardo Breceda has been called an “accidental artist” whose talent for metal working was initially put to the test when his daughter asked if he could make her a life-size dinosaur. After successfully building a Tyrannosaurus Rex for her birthday, Breceda found his calling. Originally from Durango, Mexico, Breceda’s artistic story is an inspiring tale of dreams becoming reality. Destiny paired Breceda with a passionate and wealthy patron, Dennis Avery (heir to his family’s Avery labels fortune), who hired the artist to fill his desert property of Galleta Meadows with prehistoric sculptures.

Ricardo Breceda at his open-air gallery in Aguanga, CA.

On top of the large collection of sculptures found in the Borrego Springs area, Breceda has hundreds more for sale at his public, open-air gallery in Aguanga, CA. The gallery is an epic attraction in its own right where row upon row of sculptures attract several hundred visitors every week. Ricardo keeps the gallery experience gratuitous for visitors out of the belief that his art should be freely accessible for everyone to enjoy.

Rows of sculptures at Breceda’s open-air gallery in Aguanga, CA.

Breceda’s dedication to each of his creations is evident in their masterful design and execution. Whether it is a mouthful of fearsome dinosaur teeth, or a full-scale jeep climbing up desert boulders (with a sculpted driver), Breceda fashions many of his works to be frozen in expressive movement. Sculptural details range from thousands of round scales on the sea serpent to innumerable thinly cut strands of metal curled meticulously on a llama’s fur. The patchwork panels of sheet metal build out the artist’s forms with surprisingly realistic anatomy in addition to girth. With the help of a team of artisans, and depending on their scale, his works can take from a few weeks up to several months to fabricate.

Horses jumping over the highway down the road from Breceda’s gallery in Aguanga, CA.

Adults and children light up when they witness the whimsical creations in Breceda’s prolific body of work spanning two decades. “The best pay for an artist is when people like what you do…when people feel what you do,” proudly remarked Ricardo. He is an artist who certainly exudes passion and a childlike joy for his creations. Amidst the sands of time, his imaginative prehistoric and mythical creations join exaggerated forms of this world for this extraordinary artistic experience.

Shaded by a giant elephant in Borrego Springs, CA.

Jeff Perkin is a graphic artist and Integrative Nutrition Health Coach available at

Hidden Gems The Great Outdoors

Salvation Mountain

“Let’s keep it simple. Don’t get complicated with love.” Leonard Knight

Over a period of almost three decades, Leonard Knight used hundreds of thousands of gallons of donated paint to create a landmark dedicated to spreading the message of God’s universal love. Knight’s creativity, devotion and open-hearted energy magnetized people to the middle of nowhere in the California desert, to experience this truly unique, colorful, and spiritually-provocative spectacle.

At the peak of its popularity, after being showcased in Sean Penn’s acclaimed 2007 film Into the Wild, Salvation Mountain drew over a hundred visitors to the isolated area daily. As his work and message grew in notoriety, Leonard would spend up to 9 hours a day with visitors. Painting, expanding and repairing his work was his morning ritual while the rest of his time was devoted to giving tours around the three story, technicolor “mountain.”

Photography by Jeff Perkin

Knight came to Niland, CA in 1984 with the idea of painting a hot air balloon that read “God is Love.” After having a personally impactful religious experience years before, he made it his mission to serve God in this creative way. As he tells it, he came for a week and didn’t end up leaving for almost three decades. After multiple deflated upsets with the hot air balloon, he turned his sights to an old riverbank where he gradually grew an eight-foot sign to the size of a football field. Initially using concrete and paint, the first few years of his work on the mountain collapsed into rubble when the concrete became too heavy for the land beneath it. A true testament to his exceptional perseverance, Knight started over using adobe that he learned to craft from the area’s natural clay.

Leonard Knight photographed by Joe Decruyenaere

The famous landmark was designated a National Folk Art Site worthy of protection and preservation by the Folk Art Society of America in 2001. The following year it was entered into congressional record as a national treasure. Leonard lived on site in a broken-down fire truck or a hammock with only a modest income check from the VA. Salvation Mountain is located down the road from Slab City where others also live off the grid in RVs and tents. Leonard’s monument is a shining light revealing the best intentions of the spirit of freedom and spiritual seeking that seem to draw people to this largely forgotten area.

Unfortunately, since Leonard’s passing on February 10th, 2014 at 82 years old, and perhaps also in the wake of last year’s pandemic, the monument has endured significant areas of erosion. Constant repair with thick layers of paint is required to stave off the eroding effects of mother nature on this one-of-a-kind art installation and it is only because of the hard work of volunteers that it generally remains intact.

Photography by Jeff Perkin

At the end of Knight’s life, his good friend Dan Westfall helped set up a board of directors and a non-profit 501c3 organization called Salvation Mountain Inc. The organization hires caretakers to live and work at the mountain for a small stipend.  The organization’s website calls for donations and volunteers and there is always the possibility that volunteers will restore the site to its full glory.

In today’s digital age, perhaps it isn’t all that important to make a pilgrimage to the middle of the desert to see Leonard’s work in person. Knight wanted his message of love to reach the whole world and knew that the internet was the best way to do that. There is no telling how many people have been touched by his message thanks to his work’s appearance on the big screen, in YouTube videos, and with images and stories shared across social media. Thankfully, the internet provides us a portal to timelessly witness the beautiful spirit of a man whose home, life’s work and faith were so artfully and soulfully intertwined.

Photography by Jeff Perkin

“It was the purest ministry I’ve ever seen. He didn’t have a 401k or a crystal cathedral. He had nothing, but he was happy, and he was joyful, and he was loving.” Dan Westfall (Knight’s friend and co-founder of Salvation Mountain Inc.)

Jeff Perkin is a graphic artist and Integrative Nutrition Health Coach available at