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LITTLE SNOWY MOUNTAINS — The orange glow of the kerosene lamp drifted off at the edges, spotlighting faces at the table while steeping the corners of the cabin in darkness.

A steady rain lent a snug feel to the woodstove's warmth.

David Murnion and Jacqueline Mercenier live in the proverbial cabin in the woods, in the foothills of the Little Snowy Mountains, 19 miles from the nearest post office, nearly two miles up a four-wheel-drive track from the gravel road.

A hand-hewn log cabin is not exactly the first place that you'd expect to hear the soft strains of Renaissance music from a battery-powered CD player or to see an issue of New Yorker magazine on the desk by the front window.

The couple lives off the grid, without electricity, running water, refrigeration or flush toilets. But that's not to say they live without the trappings of a civilized life.

Murnion and Mercenier, who have been together since 1987 and were married in mid-October, spend more time talking about the joys of their back-to-nature ethic than discussing the harsh realities of outdoor toilets in winter or hauling water from a spring three-fourths of a mile away.

Living without electricity is a conscious choice, since Murnion's brother Tim's cabin, which is just a few dozen yards away, has power.

In the fall, Murnion, 61, spends his days making Christmas wreaths from pine boughs and vegetation gathered in the surrounding woods.

Mercenier, a landscape painter and art education director at the Lewistown Art Center, house-sits during the week in Lewistown to be close to her part-time job at the art center. On weekends, she returns to the cabin and the log-cabin art studio that Murnion built beside it.

"This is where I renew my soul," she said, speaking in a French accent that makes everything she says sound musical.

They are an unlikely couple to have come together by chance.

She grew up in Brussels, Belgium, in a cultured European family, and speaks French as her first language.

Murnion, the oldest of 13 children, grew up on his grandparents' ranch west of Jordan. The ranch, which sprawled over 85 square miles, seldom employed more than one hired hand. All the children grew up knowing how to work.

At times, his father would pull him out of school to herd sheep in the prairie and gumbo hills.

"Those were the best times of my life," Murnion said.

Of the nine boys and four girls in the Murnion family, three of the boys grew up with a deep love for the outdoors, said Murnion's brother, Mark, a retired Colstrip boilermaker who lives in the Bull Mountains outside Roundup.

"We love the mountains and the log cabins and kind of the Old West thing, the freedom and the quietness," Mark Murnion said.

The conservationist ethic runs strongest in David, who is particularly passionate in his opposition to clear-cutting forests and who has led efforts to restrict logging on state and Bureau of Land Management land.

Mark Murnion describes his brother as an explorer who knows his way around the woods and thinks nothing of setting off on a 20-mile hike.

"I have to almost jog to keep up with him," Mark said.

Walking through the woods with Murnion is like getting a history, geology and anthropology lesson rolled into one, said Jan Kusmierz, a friend who lives in Billings.

"What a grand storyteller he is. What a knowledgeable person he is of the forest, of the land, of the animals," said Kusmierz, who is a practitioner of reiki, a Japanese form of alternative medicine.

In 1969, during the Vietnam War, Murnion was drafted into the Marines. While en route to Southeast Asia, he was reassigned to duty in Okinawa, to work with computers tracking military supplies.

After he returned to the States, he helped his brother Mark buy land on the middle bench, between the South Fork and the North Fork of Flatwillow Creek, north and west of Roundup. In 1976, Murnion and his brother Tim bought 40 acres right nearby, a chunk of land on a hillside, surrounded by public lands and ranch land.

To help make the land payments, Murnion worked stints as a boilermaker, a miner's helper and other seasonal jobs.

By 1981, the cabin was livable, but Murnion worked elsewhere - at a group home in Lewistown and a psychiatric unit in Helena. In 1986, he met Mercenier, who worked at a Helena bookstore.

"He kept coming just before I would close the store, and finally it dawned on me that maybe he was coming for more than the books," she said.

To build her studio, Murnion salvaged lumber, and anything else he could use, from a homestead cabin on the verge of being bulldozed. Laboring without power tools, he spent 2-1/2 summers building the studio. The project cost about $500.

The studio's interior retains the worn-wood feel of a homestead-era cabin.

A nearly finished painting sat on an easel by a window. A nature journal filled with watercolor sketches lay on the desk in front of a large window. Postcards and artwork were tacked along the opposite wall.

Steep stairs led to a loft where Mercenier has a massage table for reiki, which uses touch to channel spiritual energy for healing.

Since 1976, Murnion has spent all but six winters at the cabin. He recalls being snowed in for an entire winter in the early 1980s.

He spent the time writing and hiking. Toward the end, his provisions ran low.

"I had some deer meat and a little flour, and I went down to the creek every day and harvested rose hips for vitamin C," he said.

For most of the years they have been together, Mercenier has had jobs in town. Parts of some years, Murnion has worked as a roofer or herded sheep.

In Roundup, Mercenier worked for a wool shop and gallery and for Head Start. In the late 1990s, she started working at the art center in Lewistown.

The couple's income and ability to eke out a living seem to rise and fall in cycles, Murnion said.

He has taken jobs dismantling and restoring historic buildings on nearby ranches. For seven years, the couple acted as winter caretakers, patrolling nearby ranch property.

He does various other seasonal jobs and occasionally builds rustic furniture.

"To live solely off the land, it would be a full-time job just finding your food," Murnion said.

He and Mercenier are mainly, but not exclusively, vegetarians.

When Murnion started making Christmas wreaths in 1994, he couldn't afford the tie wire, so he gathered cast-off baling wire from the old homesteads. He trimmed the wreaths with scissors because he couldn't afford hedge clippers.

"I made 120 wreaths and 105 door charms, and we sold every one of them," he said.

A sixth-grade class bought the wreaths wholesale and used them as a fundraiser to buy computer software.

This year, Murnion will supply wreaths for school fundraisers in Moore and Lewistown. He has also sold his wreaths to a Christmas tree lot at West Park Plaza run by the Magic City Optimist Club and to other lots on Broadwater and 24th Street West.

The Lewistown Art Center sells his wreaths on consignment during its December holiday bazaar.

As Murnion wrapped wire around pine boughs to form a sample wreath, the smell of pine permeated his workshop. With a needle-nose pliers he stuck in rose hips, juniper, pine cones and the red leaves of Oregon grape, which grows in open areas of the forest.

As he worked, his quick movements, angular frame, missing front teeth and the gray hair streaming from beneath his cap made him look a bit like a scarecrow.

Mercenier and Murnion are like "two peas in a pod," said Murnion's brother Mike. Both are creative, giving and committed to living an ethical life, he said.

Mercenier was drawn to the mountains long before she met Murnion. During her 20s, she spent a year in the mountains of Austria, living in a 17th-century log cabin and cooking on a wood stove.

During her first winter at the cabin in the Little Snowies, the half-finished outhouse had no roof.

"Here's two feet of snow, and you're sweeping off to use the outhouse," Murnion said.

Over the years, she has been more concerned about the hardships of commuting between the two worlds over snow-covered or rain-slick gumbo roads.

"Sometimes, your heart is in your throat," she said.

In bad weather, she parks at a clearing about a mile from the house. Murnion meets her, with a sled for provisions, and they ski or snowshoe to the cabin.

In 1996, when they were winter caretakers, they got a phone to keep in touch with the property owners. Since then, they have considered solar and wind power because those technologies have become more reliable and affordable.

"Without electricity, at times I have wished for a vacuum cleaner," Mercenier said.

Although her life hasn't followed a well-ordered plan, she has pursued her passion for nature, art and teaching. Their lack of long-range planning forces them to be more creative in day-to-day decisions and to rely more on intuition, she said.

"It also makes you live much more in the present moment, which is what all the religions of the world and all the spiritual movements try to tell us humans," she said.

She appreciates the serenity that their lifestyle provides.

"When evening comes and all the tasks have been done and you light the lamps, to me, it's still magical, 23 years later."

Contact Donna Healy at dhealy@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1292.

Contact Donna Healy at dhealy@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1292.

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