An Interview with Rodney and Brenda Church, Antelope Creek Campground Hosts
All summer long, the Lewistown staff at the National Discovery Center have been hearing from visitors about how wonderful the campground hosts are at Antelope Creek, how they know every nearby nook and cranny to explore, how friendly and helpful they are, and how they’ve made Antelope Creek such a welcoming spot for visitors of all kinds. I’d met the hosts, Rodney Hill and Brenda Church, a few times on my way to and from the prairie this summer, but on a hot hazy day in August, I drove up from Lewistown to the campground to sit down with the two of them to learn more about what makes this place to special to them, and how they make it special for visitors.
They met me at their RV, where their “Live a Great Story,” flag was waving in the breeze, along with Waylon, their toy poodle, who goes just about everywhere in Brenda’s arms. We sat down under the campground’s shade structure, and, over sandwiches and cold drinks, I asked them a few questions about who comes to Antelope Creek, what they do, and why it’s been so meaningful for Rodney and Brenda to work here as hosts. We talked about stars, silence, owls, the videos Rodney and Brenda have made for visitors with their drone to capture experiences on the prairie, and more. Below you’ll find a short excerpt of some highlights of our wide-ranging conversation. I hope it inspires you to get out on the prairie, and to stop and say hello to the excellent folks who serve as hosts and caretakers across American Prairie properties - folks like Rodney and Brenda at Antelope Creek, Mike Ferda at the PN, Wendy and Clark at Blue Ridge, and Paul and Jordanne at the 73.
One of the beautiful images taken by Rodney and Brenda during their time at Antelope Creek
Corrie: So, what do you tell folks to do for fun when they stay at Antelope Creek?
Rodney: Well, first, I tell everybody that the prettiest thing on the prairie is the sunset. But the second prettiest thing is those bathrooms over there!
Corrie: [Laughing] It’s true – I also tell everybody that the Antelope Creek restrooms are the nicest for miles!
Rodney: Yeah! And often, folks don’t really know what to do when they get here. I’m not saying you have to lead them by the hand, but you kind of have to point them in the right direction. We’ve been here long enough now, between our two summers as hosts, there’s SO many cool things to see beyond the interpretive trail here, and the CMR [Charles M. Russell Wildlife Refuge].
Brenda: Even just beyond that gate right here… [gestures west toward open prairie]
Rodney: Oh yeah, we were sending everybody out there for the borrowing owls, ‘cause there’s tons of birders that come out here. That’s the majority of people that show up.
Rodney: Yeah, and we knew right where the burrowing owls were, and you could send folks to the holes with the bones in front of them. And that’s how you find them: look for the holes with the rat skeletons!
Brenda: There was one owl we saw this summer that had just had a baby, and the little mama would sometimes be sitting in the hole with her baby. When folks would see that and come back to tell us, they’d lose their minds!
Rodney: And I watch the forecast for the northern lights. The nights when they were out, and people got to see them here, they didn’t even know they existed, and it blew their minds!
Corrie: They might have stayed in their trailers if you hadn’t told them to look.
Brenda: And as late as it gets for the night stars, I tell people they might want to take a day nap so they can stay up. I kept missing the stars because they come out so late, but I started taking naps during the day and would go out around midnight, and it’s beautiful. I’d never even seen the Milky Way until I came here.
Rodney: You can get pictures of the nebula here in the middle of the night with an iPhone. It’s that bright. And it literally goes right over the top of our RV. It’s incredible.
Corrie: Have you had many people come just to stargaze?
Rodney: Oh yeah. There’s three kinds of people that stop here. There’s people that are supporters, and want to see what the campground is like. There’s people that are birders. And there’s people that want to see the night sky – that want to see the dark. That’s who comes here, and that’s what makes this place so special. It’s, well, listen…
Corrie: ….. [Silence] …. Birds and wind.
Rodney: That’s it. That’s what’s here. The quietness takes you over… Everybody that I’ve talked to that’s been here for more than a few days, they say the same thing. They find themselves talking quieter, speaking quieter, they hear better. It’s because you’re not competing with any outside noises – unless you make them. I mean, if you have your AC on in your RV, yeah there’s some noise, but beyond that….I tell people that all the time. They’re like, "so what do we do here?" And I tell them, Stop for a minute. This is what we do. This is why it’s here. That’s what makes this place amazing. You can go to hundreds of places and see mountains and snow, and wildlife that runs up to your car and things like that. But you don’t get to go anywhere where at night you can turn in a 360-degree circle and not see a tower, not see an artificial light other than the six little solar lights that are out here to mark the cabins. That just doesn’t exist anywhere – not in the lower 48.
Antelope Creek Campground
Corrie: Do you have any favorite moments or memories from the summer that stand out?
Rodney: All these videos we’ve made for people are probably my favorite. [Rodney has a drone, and has taken to making short videos for visitors that capture their adventures and memories on the prairie, adding music and special touches.] Just because these are people I guarantee we’ll stay in touch with. One group sent us a wedding gift, knowing we’re gonna get married later this summer.
Brenda: A lot of complete strangers we met here invited us to come visit them, to stay in their house or camp in their yard.
Rodney: The people that come out here are a different kind of people. And even the ones that come out and have no idea what they’re coming to leave with a whole different respect and understanding.
Brenda: And they wanna come back…
Rodney: And you’re standing there talking to them, going, can you imagine being on a horse, or in a tipi, and living in these conditions? After you spent one night in a cabin ‘cause the wind shredded your tent! And people live out here, they make a living out here. And you know, I love seeing what happens when you start telling the story of American Prairie and what it really is and what they’ve actually done here. When you take time and explain to people what American Prairie’s doing, I think a lot of folks that just showed up here by accident have become supporters and really appreciate when you tell them about the 120,000 acres across the fence that they’re welcome to go explore and wander and that they now have access to. They really appreciate it, that’s their public land they couldn’t get to before, and they have access to really go out and use it and enjoy it.
Corrie: Will you come back next year, do you think?
Rodney: I think so. I don’t see why not. I’d sure like to. I love being here, there’s something about this place I really love – the quiet, it’s unlike any place I’ve ever been. But really, it’s the people. Seeing them have a great time is what gives us the biggest thrill, honestly that’s what makes it fun. And plus, I love Brenda, and Brenda loves me, but sometimes you gotta have other people to talk to!
Rodney and Brenda getting a better view of the prairie using a drone
And indeed Rodney and Brenda have talked to folks from all over the country. They’ve become friends with visitors, neighbors on Fort Belknap (where they plan to get married in the Mission Canyon), a ranger at the Chief Joseph Battlefield, birders, hunters, ranching neighbors, Harley Davidson executives who got their motorcycle trailer stuck in the gumbo, tent campers and RV motor home drivers staying one night or twenty, folks they’ve moved into the cabins after 70 mile an hour winds destroyed tents, and everyone in between. Next time you come through Antelope Creek, don’t forget to stop and say hello to these special folks. And to listen for a few minutes to the wind, the birds, and the vast quiet of the open prairie.