The Hermit of The Stray Bullet Reaches Out
January 11, 2018
OVANDO – Sheri Ritchlin is many things – author, lecturer, essayist, blogger and amateur videographer. During the winter she is the Hermit of the Stray Bullet Café.
Ritchlin said, "I have a strange kind of schedule. The birds look oddly at me. When they pass me they're going south and I'm going north."
Her nomadic schedule has her "mansion sitting" for friends in South Carolina in the heart of the summer and living in a field in California in a camper, appropriately named Mr. Fields, during the spring and fall. But each winter finds her nestled in the apartment above The Stray Bullet Café which overlooks the town of Ovando and offers views of snowcapped mountains out both windows. Winter is her writing time and she is rigorous about maintaining her focus and avoiding distractions.
The fruits of her discipline have reached maturity. At age 73, after 10 years of writing and five years of rewriting, her book, "A Farm in Marin: Portraits in Time from Pangaea to Point Reyes" has been published.
Ritchlin said, "It feels like a miracle to me. An absolute miracle."
Though Ritchlin's undergraduate degree is in English, at age 48 she entered the California Institute of Integral Studies, San Francisco (formerly the Academy of Asian Studies). Her goal at the time was to study one particular commentary on the ancient Chinese text the I Ching. She ended up staying long enough to earn a Ph.D. in Chinese Philosophy.
Though Ritchlin has a number of academic writings to her credit, she said, "I decided I wanted a book that I could put myself in, not biographically, although I am present in it. I wanted a book that I could put in all the things that interest me, that I love, that amuse me. And if it didn't get published, that would be okay because my family – that would be my brother and sister and their families – will know who I am. And that will be just fine for me. So it's been a real extra that the book actually has been published."
On the most basic level, "A Farm in Marin" details the genealogy of the people who came from Ticino, Switzerland, to establish themselves in Marin County, Calif. Yet there are many other threads interwoven throughout the book. The migration from Ticino is interspersed with a number of cameos of historical figures that ultimately interconnect. The story also meanders in and out of the present where Ritchlin sits writing in Mr. Fields. The overall effect is a sense of the interconnectedness of all things, the sense of present and past engaging in a living, dynamic history.
According to Ritchlin, the cameos are usually only two or three pages long and are not at all academic. She said they are meant to be easy reading and the book can be opened and read from any point. Of course, a beginning-to-end reading yields more richness and a greater sense of interconnectedness.
Ritchlin explained, "The portraits in "A Farm in Marin" often come at well-known people obliquely so you don't even know who they are until the end. I call it a deep history. I wanted people to feel the history, not as an object out there that you study, but as an event or experience that they're in the midst of."
Winter hermit that she is, Ritchlin does not often participate in Ovando happenings. Nonetheless, she said she so enjoys her stays in Ovando that she wanted to give back to the town in some way. She was receptive, therefore, when resident Howie Fly approached her in 2013 about creating a video highlighting the 1964 Montana Centennial Train.
Called Montana's biggest publicity stunt, the train consisted of 30 railroad cars. Sprawled across the sides were 150 massive murals depicting Montana life. Inside, several cars held museum displays, others housed 70-75 horses and mules, a Conestoga wagon, a chuckwagon, a traveling troupe and more than 300 passengers. After touring cities throughout the state, the train chugged off to represent Montana at the New York World's Fair, stopping both on the way there and back to participate in parties and parades in 18 states.
Fly knew about the train because, as a young man, he had been one of the horse wranglers aboard. But he found very few other people had even heard of the event. Having convinced Ritchlin to take on the video project in April, the month she traditionally begins emerging from her hermetic life, Fly set about finding photos and music. With Fly's help, Ritchlin created a 3:40 minute video, whose short length belies the amount of work that went into it. Though primarily created for the Montana Historical Society, the video is also viewable on YouTube under the name "Montana Centennial Train."
Another, longer video project Ritchlin has taken on as a way of expressing her gratitude to the town is a three-part history of Ovando. Part I is already available on YouTube. In 35 minutes it covers the descendants of Simon Hoyt from sixteenth-century England to their move to America, their founding of a number of towns in the east and Ovando Hoyt's move out west which culminated in the founding of the present town that bears his first name.
The naming was not his doing. The town was supposed to be called Saddiesville. Hoyt had merely been delegated the task of writing to request postal service for the new town. When the postal authorities saw his signature at the bottom, someone decided his unusual given name would be a better designation, and thus the town officially became Ovando.
Ritchlin hopes to get a start on Part II in the spring of 2018. She said the focus of that section will be on what she considers Ovando's strong point: early settlers whose families are still ranching on the same land today. Part III will focus on present-day Ovando, the businesses and their origins and on town events.
One of Ritchlin's goals in creating these videos is to disseminate information about the town whose economy, like that of many small Montana towns, relies heavily on tourism traffic. By presenting the town's history in a genealogical context, she was able to connect with a large Simon Hoyt website that both provided her with needed information and in turn became a way for her to broadcast her own videos to a larger audience.
Ritchlin said about the Simon Hoyt site, "I noticed they didn't know a lot about Ovando Hoyt. They kind of knew that he had come here and there was a town of that name, but they didn't seem to know very much about him." When she sent her video to the webmaster, she said he wrote back, "So excited, everything was in caps. He was thrilled to pieces. He said, 'We have all the facts, but here's the story behind the story.'"
The History of Ovando Part I video has already received more than 800 hits. To Ritchlin's mind, it is another example of how interconnected all things are – dynamic history.
She explained it by returning to the Centennial Train example: "Howie Fly was on the train and it's still inside of him and he wants to share it."
"The Montana Centennial Train," "A Farm in Marin," "The History of Ovando" – those are the things inside of Ritchlin that she wants to share, despite her hermit reputation.