BILLINGS — It had been 37 days since residents of Alpine, a small community on East Rosebud Lake in the Beartooth-Absaroka Wilderness, had to leave their cars behind.
The group of about 60 people were stranded after historic flooding washed-out the only road to their remote cabins on June 13 and had to be rescued by Montana National Guard helicopters.
"I'll never hear the words 'National Guard rescue' the same way again," said Dayle Hayes, a longtime East Rosebud resident.
In the days afterwards, they were told it could be two years before a permanent road is rebuilt. For many, that created a real problem with many possessions, including cars, inaccessible.
It made the party 37 days later one they never expected, but absolutely deserved.
"We brought snacks and coffee, and people sat in chairs on the road," Hayes said.
They sat and watched as one-by-one, 23 cars were airlifted out of Alpine, over the washed-out road and dropped off at Jimmy Joe campground for a much-needed reunion.
"Literally no one knew when their car would be coming out," Hayes said. "It was, 'Who’s the next car?' People would be jumping up in the air. People were excited."
The cars had been stranded at East Rosebud Lake since June’s 500-year flood event. Officials had - and continue to have - much bigger jobs, so residents had to basically figure out how to get the vehicles by themselves.
"We understand that as a community, so people said, 'Ok, what can we do?'" Hayes said. "The first time someone said a helicopter, I laughed, but very quickly the conversations became serious."
It wasn’t cheap: each resident paid about $3,300, and you can imagine what insurance phone calls went like.
"My insurance company laughed and said, ’I’m afraid helicopter rescues are not part of your auto insurance,'" Hayes said with a chuckle.
But it made it all worth it when Hayes arrived around 6:15 a.m. and saw her blueberry-colored Subaru already carried to safety.
"Now I call it the flying blueberry because it’s been in the air," she said.
The whole process took about six hours and brought people in from all over the country who had been vacationing in the area when the floods hit.
"People came from California, from Colorado, and one young couple from Virginia," Hayes said. "They had all their car seats, all their strollers and all their children's things, all up in a car at East Rosebud."
Not anymore, thanks to a community that celebrated their last day together for potentially a very long time.
"We would sit on the porch and look up at the mountains and make meals together," Hayes said, fighting back tears. "Now I probably won’t see them until we have a road again.
"It was a long exhausting day, but I’ve been taking pictures of my blueberry since then, happy to have it home."
It's now a daily reminder Hayes can cherish.