In a Sow’s Ear

Gwen Petersen
Big Timber, Mont.

Last week I was hired to be one of the entertainers for the Philanthropy Northwest Conference Annual Conference held at Big Sky, Mont. I was a little concerned.

Would I know how to rub shoulders with people of enormous wealth? Big Sky is a resort complex that caters to skiers in winter and hosts conferences all year round.

Condominium homes and resort hotels crowd together high on the mountainside.

I traveled south on a narrow winding blacktop from Bozeman, Mont. If I saw a truck coming at me with a sign announcing WIDE LOAD, I scrunched to the side as best I could. Fifty miles from Bozeman, I turned right at the Big Sky sign. I thought the road to this point was twisty and a trifle nerve-wracking, but I hadn’t seen nothin’ yet. The blacktop got skinnier, the curves sharper, the road steeper and the traffic swarmed with bumper to bumper automobiles, pickups, campers, motor homes, jillions of huge semi-trucks, gasoline trucks, implement trailers, logging trucks … I felt like a bug about to be squashed. For the nervous, there are “pull-out” wide spots at the side so that “slow traffic” can pull over and let others by. These islands of safety are announced in the form of tasteful blue signs with white lettering. I loved those signs. Resting in a pull-out, I could allow my hands to unclutch from the steering wheel and release my bated breath while a parade of vehicles zoomed by.

Seven miles up the mountain, I reached my destination ” two hotels, each 10 stories tall. Behind them, the mountain kept on reaching for the heavens. Somewhat overawed, I wondered just what I was doing there with my scruffy briefcase full of poems and lugging my cheap guitar.

My job began after the evening dinner. I had been instructed to do 10 minutes of material, so I laid some humorous poems about ranching on the assembled philanthropists. They laughed. Encouraged, I grabbed my guitar and warned them that I had written a song especially for them, adding that they were in for a religious experience, “Because,” I said, “Whenever I play, people say, Oh, my Gawd.” They laughed. I invited them to sing along to the tune of “O Tannenbaum.”

Philanthropy Northwest Waltz

Philanthropy, Philanthropy

How wonderful our interests :]

We spread throughout the whole northwest

We seek to do our very best

Philanthropy, Philanthropy

How wonderful our interests


Philanthropy, Philanthropy

Committed to our vision :]

Philanthropy Northwest, our star

We strive to be the best by far

Philanthropy, philanthropy

Committed to our vision


Philanthropy, philanthropy

We help to make lives better :]

Wyoming up to Canada

Alaska and Montana

Philanthropy, philanthropy

We help to make lives better


Philanthropy, philanthropy

Our caring has no measure :]

It gives us hope and constancy

As seasons pass, we’ll ever be

Philanthropy, philanthropy

Our caring has no measure.


The audience cheered till the chandeliers shook. I came away from Big Sky with great respect for the people comprising Philanthropy Northwest. They were there to attend workshops and lectures and brainstorm ways of “giving back” some of the wealth they’d accrued. These are people behind grants and foundations that so often help out schools and communities.  

The trip down the mountain was just as scary as it was driving up.


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