Bill O.

Storyteller, Author



MtRushmore2Mt. Rushmore on 9/11.  Giant coal mine and windmill farms in the midst of Wyoming Prairie.  Horseback riding under a supermoon.  Fly fishing in a beautiful mountain pool.  Good country music.  Great food.  All shared with my loving wife.

We can post a few pictures, but nothing can capture your experience – the things you see, the trails you walk, the people you meet.  My advice: You can go around the world, or out West, or a few miles from home.  Wherever you can go, go.  Get out there and make it yours.


MakingMusicGUEST: Are cattle prices pretty stable?

COWBOY: Sometimes prices smile, sometimes they frown, sometimes they puke.

And finally:

GUEST: What do you think about vegetarians?

RANCH MANAGER:  I love ‘em.  I own 6000 of ‘em and I’m sittin’ on one.


ABarRanchThe ranch opened in 1923, and its buildings span a century of furnishings, a century of tools and photos and corrals, barns, bunkhouses, and timber structures everywhere.  A Bar A started as a working ranch, but evolved quickly into a guest ranch due to an overabundance of visiting friends and relatives.  Today 100 staff, mostly in their 20x, navigate the summer season. Guitars, banjos, fiddles most nights, along with lots of stories.  During the day, horseback riding and fly fishing are the main attractions.  But equally interesting is a visit to a working high altitude cattle ranch, the operation complex and the cowboys way smarter and skillful than most.  Many guests tried a hand at cow sorting and many failed.

Sample banter of cowboys shouting back and forth:

RANCH MANAGER: Cowboys have the least pay and the most smarts around, yet idiot enough to take this job.

COWBOY:  You heard him!

RANCH MANAGER:  You mean the idiot part?

So far we have enjoyed several days of less than stellar trout fishing (though I am the kind of trout fisherman that makes others feel good about themselves), several concerts, hikes, pool matches, TED talks, and outstanding meals.  We have just returned from a horseback ride to a chuckwagon dinner in Slim’s Draw, followed by a full moon return….someone called it a super moom… and it sure looked that way over the horizon.  The best part is the silent ride, silence broken only by the wind and clip-clop of hooves that occasionally sparked up as shoe met rock.

Tomorrow, after those elusive trout again, and being convinced to try skeet shooting.


In Medicine Bow, a sign warns us that rattlesnakes have appeared in town.

About thirty miles north of the Colorado border, a high timber gate announces our destination, just a few miles down a gravel road, a few miles downstream from the headwaters of the North Platte River, in the heart of the Medicine Bow Mountains.  We are headedWhoa to the final destination of our little heart tour:

The A Bar A Ranch.




…Gus and Buddy.

Gus is the bear.


FancyandHarleyAlong the meandering way, we came across one of those little “Scenic Turnout” signs, onto a little gravel road.   About a hundred yards off the highway, we came to a bridge over a fast-flowing stream, which a small green sign identified as the Dismal River.

The Dismal River – how wrong can a name get?  It’s a gorgeous, clean stream, wide enough for kayaks and fly fishing, narrow enough for a wooden bridge.  Sunflowers and watercress thickly line both banks, occasionally interrupted by little paths with deer tracks.  The river is created by seepage from the immense Ogallala Aquifer.  It is all sandy bottom, no rocks, no whitecaps, but flows so fast we could hearing it rushing between its banks.

Couldn’t find the origin of the name, but dismal it’s not.  It’s one of those amazing surprises you hope for when passing through fly-over America.



Strange what one remembers at museums.  With all the masterpieces at the Louvre, I remember best an old wood 12th century crucifixion sculpture in the Medieval section.  At the Denver Art Museum, I remember best a painting where a herd of stampeding buffalo fade into the mist, an 1862 painting that eerily foretold the near extinction already underway.

And then there was a stack of folded blankets at least twenty feet high, a modern totem created of a Native American artist.  Each blanket is tagged with the story of its history in the life of the donor.  A community’s story, told family by family.

The word “museum” is dusty, passive, old, dull.  Wrong.




…except bad weather delayed the flight, which caused us to miss our connecting flight, which caused us to miss our dinner reservation at one of Denver’s most romantic bistros, which, now that we’re finally almost there, causes me to pray our bags caught up with the changes…

…all of which makes me grateful we’ve visited several third world countries in the recent past, including Tanzania just two months ago.  There, we have seen real shantytowns, real need, real misery.  Our problems are strictly first world.

We will arrive way late, with or without bags, with or without a fancy dinner, but with each other, with loving and grateful hearts.  It’s a great day.



4 a.m. December 25 Launch

The story can be found somewhere between the rich poetry of Bill O. Smith’s words and Glenn Wolff’s warm (even when frosty) watercolors.


I sit down and look around the table.  There are my parents.  There, my former mother-in-law.  There are my high school principal and my sophomore English teacher – what a tyrant she was!  And finally, with the smile of a pixie, a small Wisconsin farm woman.

These six, all gone now, are alive on every page, in every word I write.  They are in the soldier trudging home, the holiday conga line, in the chickadee-clipse, in the northern lights and African veld.

Tomorrow Donna and I head out on a Western adventure.  I wonder about the people we’ll meet – who sits around their table?   Won’t you come join us?



Come Join the Chickadee Jubilee!

Come to Horizon Books, 7pm on Saturday, September 21st. Bill O. Smith and Charles R. Murphy will not only be launching their second picture book, THE CHICKADEE SPIRIT, but they will also be hosting the kind of old-fashioned community jubilee – dancing, singing and storytelling – that the new book celebrates. Come take the “Chicka-Challenge,” and come share the smiles, the snuggles – and the surprises – of THE CHICKADEE SPIRIT, cozy and very holiday-ish companion to the bestselling CHICKADEES AT NIGHT.

Bill O. Smith will be on-site for an author signing and reading.  Please join him if you are in town!

Horizon Books

243 E Front Street

Traverse City, MI 49684

(231) 946-7290

The Greatest Trip She’ll Never Remember

But over the years the disease robbed Faith of cherished memories, of logical thinking, of the ability to play her beloved parlor grand, of the will to initiate speech. It stripped Faith down to the core of herself. But that core, say those who know her, holds an inner light that refuses to fade.

Faith is my ex-mother-in-law. My own mom died before I was married, and Faith became like a mother to me. A few years ago, I retired from my career as elementary principal to become her primary caregiver.


Like many others, I learned to experience life through the lens of dementia. I learned that training sessions with Faith didn’t work. Warnings and endless repetition also didn’t work.


What did work was removing obstacles, diverting attention, radically adjusting expectations. And what worked best of all was simply noticing – noticing, for instance, how Faith needed to ‘organize’ things each day in the kitchen, noticing how her hugs over time became stronger and lasted longer, noticing how Faith almost never reacted to the content of speech, but always to the tone of voice.


And every day, I noticed Faith watching the chickadees. When they fluttered at the feeder, Faith smiled. When she saw a seed drop, Faith’s face momentarily clouded with worry. The more Faith took notice, the more I did too. I noticed chickadees perched on railings and branches, taking turns at the feeder; chickadees singing even on frigid winter mornings; chickadees first to arrive after dawn, and the last to disappear before dark.


Where DID chickadees go at night? One day the thought just arrived in my head: ‘With chickadee caps on chickadee heads/do they sleep eight across on chickadee beds?’” Faith laughed every time I shared the couplet, so I added more. Couplets became stanzas, stanzas become a story. And when renowned Michigan artist Charles R. Murphy agreed to illustrate, the story became CHICKADEES AT NIGHT. But it was too long at first, so I took out a big middle section, and that section became the core of THE CHICKADEE SPIRIT.
To celebrate the release of CHICKADEES AT NIGHT last year, I took Faith, who had been in and out of hospice just a few months prior, on a 1500 mile road trip to New England. We packed some fruit, whipped yogurt (whipped doesn’t drip from the spoon), a few dozen Depends, a favorite stuffed bear, and off we went – the greatest trip she’ll never remember.


I have read the Chickadee stories to Faith dozens of times, and for her the last time is just as fresh and moving as the first. Life is about beautiful moments now, not beautiful memories. That’s exactly what we try to give to her, and that’s what the chickadee books try to give to everyone – smiles and snuggles and beautiful moments for chickadee spirits of every age.

The Chickadee Spirit Launch Date Announced!

The Chickadee Spirit is scheduled for official launch on September 21, 2013, but pre-release copies are available online at, as well as at art fairs in Ludington, MI (August 10 – 11, 2013) and Frankfort, MI (August 16 – 17, 2013).  The author, Bill O. Smith, will be available for book-signings, and discussion, at both events.


The Chickadee Spirit takes the reader into a curious winter community – strong, kind and slightly screwy, a community welcoming to each and every creature that ventures into the “chickadee dome.”  Along the way, children are introduced to the beauties and mysteries of the natural world.


This book is the second in the Chickadee Series. The first book, Chickadees at Night, was a very well-received book by Bill O. Smith, a former elementary school principal in Traverse City, Michigan. The idea for Bill’s first children’s book, Chickadees At Night, came about when he retired to care for his former mother-in-law as she began her journey into the challenging world of dementia. Living with her in Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore in northern Michigan, Bill watched as her memory dimmed and she gracefully transitioned into someone who lived completely in the moment. She retained her sparkling spirit, however, and a keen eye for beauty. Birds, especially chickadees, delighted her. Bill realized then that life is just as much about beautiful moments as beautiful memories, and this became his inspiration for the best-selling Chickadees At Night.


For more on the release of The Chickadee Spirit contact Bill at [email protected]

Chickadees in Newtown

Click below for full story on Bill O. Smith’s visit to the survivors of the Newtown tragedy.

Chickadees in Newtown

Bill Smith Profiled by Interlochen Public Radio

The Story Next Door

Bill Smith – The Story Next Door

Scott Craig, a retired television producer now living in Leelanau County, presents a series of tales drawn from real life here in the north country.  The series is based on Scott’s firm belief that everyone has a story worth hearing.

It’s The Story Next Door, heard on IPR Music Radio the first Friday of the month at 8:30am, repeated the next day at 9:05am.

The Journey Continues

The journey of these chickadees begins on the shores of Lake Michigan, in the home of an 85-year-old ex-mother-in-law with dementia.  More about her soon – what a chickadee spirit she is!