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  • Writer's pictureShelli Owen

My Community

Updated: Sep 9, 2023

"How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!"

(Psalm 133:1)

Is there any urge stronger than the human desire to belong? Earlier, I described how I grew to love being outdoors in God’s creation, mainly because of my father. He was in church leadership positions during most of my growing up years. I believe this is why, at least in part, our Boulder Ward (church congregation)—what became my main community outside of my family—also regularly participated in activities in God’s creation. These outdoor activities along with other church sponsored amusements and group projects were foundational to the strong sense of community that God has developed in me.

One group activity I was fond of in childhood was Ward campouts in the summer in the Colorado Rockies. Besides roasting marshmallows for s’mores, I loved it when everyone joined together to sing folk songs around the campfire. This (and on long road trips) is where I learned the folk songs “Down in the Valley,” “On Top of Old Smokey,” and “Clementine,” and a bunch of rounds like, “I Love the Mountains,” “My Dame Has a Lame, Tame, Crane,” and “Kookaburra.”

I remember being really proud of the willow sticks my dad would cut and shape for us kids, and sometimes for other people too, to roast marshmallows on. Other dads couldn’t find the right sticks or make them nearly so well as my dad. When people started bringing metal coat hangers to reshape or store-bought “sticks” for marshmallow roasting, I thought they were lame. The marshmallows slid right off them if you didn’t hold your “stick” just right. I always liked the sticks my dad made the best.

Another highlight for me was going sledding with our church group in the winter. Inner tubes were my favorite. It was a lot of fun zipping down the mountain with two or three people on one large tube. Though you couldn’t usually get up as much speed that way, the joy was in packing nearly on top of each other, holding on to each other and the tube, and sharing the wild, still fast, uncontrolled ride, down the mountain, while laughing and screaming at the top of your lungs, until falling off the tube in a heap together when you stopped at the bottom of the run.

I also liked it when we’d sometimes slide in a chain of inner tubes, keeping together by holding onto each other’s legs. Though sometimes I avoided groups with certain people in them—weak “links,” who would let go and break the chain too easily, or “brakers” who would put their feet down and slow the train or cause it to go sideways or to crash.

Going solo had its advantages and disadvantages with a large group of people. I coveted being able to have my own medium-sized inner tube. In an innertube that was too small you’d feel every little jutting bump (snow covered rock or branch). In the Largest tubes you could hardly catch any bumps at all, except the really big ones. Bumps were the most fun on a medium tube and part of the thrill as you zipped down the mountain at high speeds. Going solo, you also weren’t constrained by having to wait for other people, and you could freely fly down the hill as many times as you could muster.

The speed and possibilities were sometimes a little terrifying when the slope started to become hard-packed ice. If even a smaller person like me hit someone, depending on the speed, he or she could get majorly injured. If someone got in the way after you’d already started down the hill, if you saw them in time, you could bail off your inner tube—but then you’d probably lose that innertube for the day. Someone else would grab it up. You might get hurt too depending on where you landed. People stopping or walking across the run at the wrong time frustrated me to no end. Are you an idiot or something? Cant’ you pay attention?

No matter which way a body went down, it took a while to trudge up to the top of each sledding run in the deep snow. Some parts of the mountain slope were relatively steep. The higher the run, the longer and more tiring the climb. I don’t remember ever having to settle for the “baby run.” My dad took me up to at least the middle runs as far back as I can remember. I had little fear and enjoyed the adrenaline rush of whooshing down those slopes. Once I could hike to the highest run, there was no going back for me. I loved looking down from the top of the run to the beautiful, snow-covered valley below. I loved almost flying down the slope at high speeds and catching some air on the bumps.

One family had a large, heavy-duty, army tent with a wood stove in it that they brought every year. Everyone else also contributed so there was always plenty of hot chocolate or stew—which were both wonderful to savor and warmed me from the inside out. I was always glad for these when I got really, really cold—which I always did at some point.

When I was a child, we didn’t have fancy gear. My dad and mom would bring layer upon layer of clothing for each of us kids to wear to keep us warm up there. So as not to overheat on the way up, we’d wait and put it all on while still in the car once we arrived at the sledding area—sometimes with no small difficulty in such a small, enclosed space. “Ouch! You hit me with your elbow!” “You’re sitting on my mittens!” “Would you help me pull my boots on, please…pretty pleeeease!?”

Later, if I needed to un-freeze inside the heated tent, I’d have to take off some, if not all, of the layers again. My hands and feet would get cold the soonest. Sometimes almost totally disrobing was necessary in order to get warm again. Clothing and a person might both have to warm up and dry out. This warming tent ended up being a lifesaver every time we went up for the kids, and sometimes for adults too. Still, I was glad I didn’t have to rely on getting warmed there nearly as much as others did.

Our family wasn’t extremely well off, except in having lots of children. But my mom, especially, was very creative. To keep my feet warm, she’d put plastic bread bags over my socks in my boots to keep my feet dry. This worked very well. Snow would, of course, get into my boots with the snow being so deep, but the plastic bags would generally keep my socks dry. This made a huge difference for me in how long I could be out and play in the snow and stay warm. As a child I was both embarrassed by the plastic bags and glad for them. But then I’d see another girl with pretty boots spending most of her time in the warming tent, because her feet were frozen. I didn’t envy that. Frostbite wasn’t something to mess with up there. I ungenerously thought of people who came up there unprepared for the cold, as big wimps. They should have just stayed home, instead of coming up and being a bother to everyone else. They ruin all the fun.

After all the sledding fun, and most everyone was well worn-out, it became time to head back down the mountain. I almost always wanted to stay longer and almost always resented having to go home “already!” The runs would all be nicely packed down by then, and I’d have figured out how to avoid or catch the bumps just right for the best ride.

Inevitably, my dad with some other men would need to help get a vehicle or two (or three or four…) unstuck from the snow and ice before everyone could all get out of the parking area and out onto a traversable road. This was generally done with prayer, shovels, chains, towing ropes, men pushing with all their might, and our Jeep Wagoneer. And I was proud of my dad, again, because he would always be one of the people helping and never the one needing help. Though most of this part of the day entailed a boring and sometimes cold wait for me and my siblings, l liked the way it seemed to draw people closer together as a church family.

Every clear, crisp Memorial Day morning, our church group would gather for a sunrise breakfast on Flagstaff Mountain. This was another thing I looked forward to each year. The only thing that dampened my happiness was that usually we arrived later than almost everyone else. It seems like we always ended up sharing a table with some other family that had to make room for us, since all the other tables were already taken.

My dad would fire up his Coleman stove. He always made our family wonderful breakfasts that I loved, though we had to eat them quickly, because we were late. I’d sit as close to another family member as I could on the picnic bench to keep warm. “Anyone ready for more?” “Me!” I could always put away more food when we ate outside than when we were at home. Usually, the sun would have just started to warm the mountain as we were cleaning up breakfast.

After breakfast, everyone in our church group would migrate to an outdoor amphitheater that was not too far from the picnic area. We were almost always one of the last families to get our table cleaned up and to get down to the amphitheater because of our late start. I wasn’t allowed to go ahead; I was expected to stay and help clean up or help with the younger kids. My dad also wanted us to go together and sit together as a family. As I got older, I began to bitterly resent that our family was generally late to everything. But, in this case, being outdoors on the mountain, helped ameliorate most of the frustration I felt.

The American flag would be raised by the Boy Scouts, and past servicemen honored with a “talk” (speech) or two. I was generally bored to tears by this part of our annual celebration, having no personal or emotional attachment to anything going on. As I got older, and the boys participating were closer to my age, the ceremony got a little more interesting.

After the memorial ceremony, most of the parents and little children would head back up to the picnic area and spend time talking and making sure the picnic area was all cleaned up. Meanwhile, most of the teenagers would hike down the mountain on a well-established trail to another park at the base of Flagstaff Mountain, where their parents could eventually pick them up. I always wanted to hike down the mountain with the older kids. There was a shorter hike that was doable for younger kids. To my great delight, one or the other of my parents took me down that portion of the trail at different times, while I was still too young to go on my own or as far as the older kids were hiking. I think I was eleven or twelve the first time my parents let me go all the way down the mountain “on my own.”

Occasionally, in the summer, our church group would organize an all-day hike somewhere in the Colorado Rockies. Sometimes, my dad would bring me along. I described what that was like in an earlier chapter.

When my dad took me hiking, I always had to watch out for ticks and allow my parents to check me very carefully for them afterward. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever from an infected tick can be horribly debilitating on a long-term basis or even fatal. If a tick went unnoticed and became embedded in our skin, we went for antibiotics right away. Mosquitos seemed especially hungry and big in the Colorado Rockies as well. They were usually the worst where there was water nearby. I remember coming home from a few hikes or camping trips with big, itchy welts all over me. Besides the social aspect, hiking in a group was nice because we could, and did, watch out for each other to help keep these pests from doing their worst. I kind of liked seeing a mosquito on someone else and whacking it, and of course them too, to kill it. It was Colorado Rocky love.

During my childhood, the people in our Boulder Ward pooled their resources and skills to build a new chapel. Even though I was too young to help much, this event made a big impression on me and gave me a strong sense of how communities are meant to work together. This isn’t something that is done anymore in the LDS Church. Now only professionals are hired to construct buildings. But seeing—mainly through my dad’s eyes—how the people pulled together on this major project; offering money, labor, materials, expertise, and time; inspired my admiration and respect. Many people contributed at great sacrifice to themselves. I knew all this because my father took notice of it in expressions of deep gratitude and encouragement. This all contributed majorly to my ideal of authentic community.

The Boulder Ward regularly hosted parties on major holidays. One of my favorite booths at the Halloween party was the one where I got to have the apple, I had “bobbed” for, dipped in melted caramel to eat. One of my least favorite booths was the bobbing for apples booth. Eventually, I resolved my frustration with trying to get an apple in my teeth by spinning the apple until I could get a hold of the stem with my teeth. This way I didn’t have to “cheat” to get my apple.

When I was in my teens, the Boulder Ward’s haunted house (someone’s barn fixed up) got to be so well known in the community that our group stopped doing it. That wasn’t how they wanted to be known. I would have been more disappointed than I was, but I found that I didn’t care much for my assignment there. I “got to be” the witch that “flew” across one of the rooms on a broom (attached to a rope in the rafters). The costume and green face and neck make-up was meant to make me as ugly as possible—something for simulating warts was suggested too. As a young teenage girl—who spent hours each week trying to look pretty—well, I wasn’t much liking this whole witchy idea.

When I was young, as part of the Christmas party, our Ward put on a nativity play. I didn’t want to participate in the play myself, but I loved it when my dad and the two other men that made up the “bishopric” (a bishop [who is like a pastor] and his two counselors) walked down the middle isle of the church all dress up like wise men and bearing gifts. For some reason this seemed really appropriate to my young mind. My dad seemed like the wisest of men to me.

I think some people in our Boulder Ward were into the performing arts. The church there put on several plays during the course of my childhood, including “The Pirates of Penzance,” “Oklahoma,” and “South Pacific.” Again, I didn’t care to be in any of the plays, but I loved to watch them. And I was as proud as I could be to see my dad, and a few of the kids my age, play even minimal parts. “Pirates of Penzance” was my favorite. The men seemed to have such a great time singing the rollicking songs. In rehearsal, they often broke out in laughter. I was a little jealous of the kids who were good at acting and who seemed to enjoy being in these plays. I was especially jealous when there were any pretty little girls in the plays, getting all kinds of attention—it seemed to me—just for being pretty.

As I got older, the woman who gave me piano lessons, also started up a choir at the church. This was something I really, finally wanted to be part of. I loved the idea of singing in harmony, and in a choir a person could blend in. Even though I was taking piano lessons, the thing I dreaded above all else was having to play piano or organ for the choir or for the church on Sunday (or any other time)! I even quit piano after eight years of lessons only because I feared being pressured into having to do this. I stayed in the choir and loved being part of it.

God used these kinds of interactions to give me a glimpse of, and a strong hunger for, good fellowship and true community. These bits and pieces of togetherness that I experienced during my childhood were very impactful. Growing up within this community lit a spark in me that has burned ever since towards a strong desire for the ultimate society—in the Presence and Kingdom of God. All my life I have yearned for a continual stream of this kind of companionship. But I have learned that in this life I should just enjoy these kinds of moments when they come and not expect them to be ongoing. I’ve also learned that this is only one aspect of what builds strong ties with other people. It’s interesting to me that the Lord has given me such a powerful desire for this kind of interrelationship, since one of my strongest tendencies from very early on has been toward introversion.


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