At the End of the Road

Portraits from a family of survivors in the Bitterroot Valley



“I always keep ten dozen eggs in the fridge at all times, and I do all my own canning,” says 71-year-old Ellis Buhler during the predawn farm chores outside his Bitterroot Valley doublewide. The trailer sits at the end of a rutted-dirt two-track road, surrounded by dairy farms and a few other isolated trailers. “I don’t think the Y2K thing’s over yet, and you gotta be prepared.”

And this man is prepared—the dozen out-buildings that clutter his four acres near Corvallis hide enough food to feed a family of five for two years: 1500 pounds of wheat, a nearly endless supply of canned goods and a supply of survival gear that includes guns, crossbows and bullet-proof vests fill every available nook and cranny. For sure, Ellis is a quintessential survivalist; his cut-and-paste family of four is funded solely through Social Security, and they’ve seemed to endure more hardships than the combined population of most small towns. If the world’s about to end, this small plot near Corvallis is as prepared a place as any around.

“We got no jobs, and we get no welfare! It’s all social security!” says the 63-year-old Leah Buhler. “We get just over $1100 a month for our family of four.” That includes $73 per month for each of the two grandchildren they are raising. “How are you supposed to raise a kid on $73 a month?” asks Leah.

A seemingly endless series of tragic events have given the Buhler family a survivalist perspective few can truly relate to—two of their three children died early in life, and their third is currently incarcerated in an Idaho work camp. Leah is partially paralyzed, Ellis’ neck was broken at birth and he has recently suffered two heart attacks. Additionally, a long legacy of abuse haunts the family.

Legally adopted by their grandparents in 1990, 16-year-old Courtney and 18-year-old Coty have both spent long hours in courtrooms and cop cars, and their two siblings are in their third and fifth foster homes. The stack of legal papers concerning these kids is over two feet thick.

“People need to know what we’ve gone through for these kids,” says Ellis, who believes it’s more difficult to be a kid these days than ever before. “People want to leave California to get away from the gangs, killings and drugs. But they bring their kids to Montana, and now we’ve got the same problems here.”

Leah and Ellis have strong convictions in the Mormon Church, but they don’t feel warmly received by the elders. “We asked for help, but the bishop refused,” says Ellis. “But the Lord helps those that help themselves, so we’ll endure to the end, and never, ever give up.”

“I’ve killed about 300 deer in my life,” says Ellis. “Back in the ’40s we’d go out for six weeks and we’d probably kill 25 deer apiece.” But following two heart attacks and surgery for his broken neck, Ellis was unable to hunt last fall. A well-stocked arsenal complements the family’s two years worth of food storage, and Ellis feels prepared. “If we have a disaster or bomb back East, we’ll have no food,” he says. “And somebody’s gotta feed the children.” “I had my first daughter in ’57, my son in ’58 and then my son in ’61,” says Leah. Twenty-nine years later, Leah and Ellis received two more when they adopted their grandchildren, Coty and Courtney. Today, Leah says, things like drugs and simple disrespect make it more difficult to raise kids. “I can’t support a third generation. Courtney wants me to be her grandmother and spoil her, but we’re their legal parents. She can’t come home pregnant.”Sixteen-year-old Courtney became pregnant last month and has decided to raise the child herself. Approaching her impending motherhood with confidence, she says that although she will miss out on some of the things her friends are doing, she’s optimistic and ready to do her best. “I’ll be young, and I’ll understand my kids better. I’ll only be 17 years older than my kid,” she says. Still, she has a hard time understanding just what a big event this is in her young life. “I’m still going, ‘I can’t believe this is happening to me.’ I can’t believe it.”Ellis has a new addition to the food stores at his trailer—baby food. “So now we’re storing baby food, but I really don’t know what to do,” says Ellis. “We’ll be raising our third generation, and I’m 71. It’s a hell of a time to start raising a baby. But I’m not giving up, damn it.”

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