The sky is enormous. Everyone you meet is your host. All around are the fresh smells of alfalfa, evergreen trees, and a bit of horse manure. Well, that's how I picture Paradise, anyway.
The community pot-luck reminded me of something: do you know your neighbors? The ranch families I met in the Yellowstone River Valley live miles apart, but they know one another. They have to. Ranches here are subject to the vagaries of weather, government policy, the market, and even predator dangers, and they depend on one another for mutual support. They live a challenging but rewarding existence.
Around here, "A.I." stands for artificial insemination, not artificial intelligence. The rancher's smarts are very real and hard-earned. Ken and his son Marvin had recently disassembled and rebuilt the engine on their tractor. Their equipment works as hard as they do and has to last a long time.
Next we drove over to a neighboring ranch. "Matt's out hayin' today," said Ken. Matt, the owners' son, was operating the hay baler. He is an old friend of Ken's son, and he stopped to visit with Ken for a minute: "Is Marvin out stackin'?" You won't hear questions like that in the city. Yes, Marvin was driving the Laubachs' tractor in their hay field, grasping the huge cylindrical bales with a front-end implement and loading them onto a trailer to be stacked until the Laubachs fed them to their cattle in the winter. The rest of us were headed to Cowboy Church.
Did I mention the ranch stays are a hands-on experience? After church we got a closer look at the hay-baling operation. Guest Miki, from Tokyo, Japan, drove the tractor under Matt's tutelage: she gathered up several rows of mown hay with the towed baler and then released the cylindrical bale behind the tractor. Comparing her creation to sushi, we called it a "Miki roll."
With that, it was time for lunch.
Is it okay to yell "Play!" in a crowded firehouse? In the nearby town of Livingston, we saw an old-fashioned Vaudeville performance at the Firehouse 5 Playhouse. Re-established here in 1990, it featured eight enthusiastic singers, many of them local kids from the university in Bozeman. Their musical skits ranged from moderately serious (four ladies harmonizing "Don't Fence Me In") to hilariously absurd (an English dungeon scene with really bad Cockney accents). This theater survives in the rural area because so many people, from Bozeman to Billings, know the performers personally.
Remember those rope tricks? Around here, they aren't just tricks. Next morning, Marvin got a lasso around a calf's ankles on the first try, while Leo Cremer got his around the same animal's neck. While they held the ailing calf in place, Ken injected medicine. Most of the Laubachs' calves had been born in February, but they had three April calves that still needed to be branded. One by one, the lassos grabbed the animals, and I took a turn with the hot iron. The smell of singed beef was making me hungry. It was time to eat again, but only after a pickup tour of the Cremers' sprawling cattle ranch in the hills. We discussed the plight of American family agriculture in today's global economy as the truck bounced over the bumps. Out here, people buy four-wheel-drives for a reason!
Okay, so not everything is old-fashioned here. At the Crazy Mountain Cattle Company, we herded a flock of sheep to new pastures on "Japanese quarterhorses." (Hint: they had four wheels and read "Kawasaki" on the sides.) What fun! Since saddling a horse takes time, these four-wheelers are better for short trips. The ranch is owned by Karen Searle and Rick Jarrett. Rick's grandchildren, aged seven and four, rode horses during the drive, as did Saundra. Rick had gotten a bit choked up with pride while telling me of the kids' ability to ride and help move livestock: "They learn early on that they are valued and needed, and they build strong self-esteem." He was much more stoic in describing the problem of wolves threatening their beloved Great Pyrenees sheepdogs. The dogs faithfully protect the flock from coyotes, but wolves are now moving beyond the confines of Yellowstone National Park, where they were recently reintroduced and are doing far better than anyone expected. Over a delicious lamb dinner that evenin
(<<< Click Ken, left, for a fish yarn.) Fly-fishing! That beautiful river beside the Laubach Ranch isn't just for scenery. Ken and I teased the trout for a couple hours the next morning as the sun warmed the valley. The fish weren't really biting, but I was happy just to learn that I hadn't forgotten how to roll-cast. Ken hooked one fish, but I never got a bite. That was okay; I mostly wanted some exercise before we headed into Big Timber for a healthy breakfast of Montana huckleberry milkshakes at Cole's Drugstore and Fountain.
Next we visited the local wool warehouse beside the railroad tracks. Once the busiest wool shipping point in the country, this warehouse moved as much as a million pounds of wool per year, but with cheaper imported wool dominating today's market, it currently ships about 80,000 pounds. The brick walls are adorned with the painted names of employees dating back to 1908. Cinnabar Creek, a nearby gift shop, had local crafts, clothing, and books about Montana and ranch life. I was struck by one title in particular: "Too Poor to Move, but Still Rich." Given that the wealth of ranchers and businesses is tied up in their property, this described their life pretty well.
If you're an avid fish-teaser, a stay in the Laubachs' RV (or your own) by the river at Cottonwood Meadows or in a cabin at Cayuse Livestock Company may be the perfect choice. If chasing cows on horseback is your thing, the Range Riders Ranch may be just the ticket. If horse training interests you, check out Carriage House Ranch. Or try Crazy Mountain Cattle Company for riding or the annual spring lambing season. LC Cattle Company offers feeding, branding, and calving, as well as autumn hunting near their rustic cabins (hunting info at www.fwp.state.mt.us). Or enjoy a genuine chuck-wagon dinner and sleep under the stars at the Richert Ranch. These activities are subject to the weather, so come prepared to change plans and clothing. This list is by no means all-inclusive; call 406/932-6719 or check out www.montanabunkhouses.com for more information. By the way, the 7% "bed tax" levied on rooms in the state goes to the non-profit organization that provides information to the public about these ranch stays. No one likes such taxes, but this one is put to good use.
What's a ranch vacation without a few saddle sores? We had a blast moving a herd of heifers from the Terlands' Range Riders Ranch up the Bridger Creek Valley to the proverbial greener pastures. As my steed galloped across the meadows and climbed sure-footedly up and down the dusty hillside trails, I had the "Magnificent Seven" theme playing in my head. My humming must not have been good, because the horse deliberately went under some very low tree branches. Steve and Sheryl Richert's ranch is nearby, and at day's end Sheryl served dinner outdoors from a real chuckwagon built by Steve. That night some of us slept in the cozy ranch house, while the rest "roughed it" on cots around the fire pit. If you're not sleeping under the stars once in a while, you're missing out.
Ever seen a triple-length picnic table? I hadn't either until I visited the WD Ranch. Their kitchen feeds a large number of ranch hands, whose help they share with the nearby Cooney and Green ranches. Their neighbor, Carolyn Green, still runs a one-woman business in high-grade wool (www.sweetgrasswool.com) and registered Targhee sheep breeding stock.
After a great outdoor lunch prepared by co-owners Paul and Ellie Hawks, we heard some great ranching stories from WD co-owner Bill Donald, Ellie's brother. He told us a joke about a struggling wheat farmer forced by his banker to grow watermelons, since wheat prices were so awful: the farmer reluctantly switched, made a ton of cash on the melon crop, and gleefully exclaimed, "With all this money I can afford to grow wheat again next year!" Bill chuckled over his jibe at Montana farmers: "We don't cotton to change too good." I wonder if they ever change to cotton...
Our final dinner was held at the Sanders Ranch, where host Lynn Sanders prepared "pitchfork fondue" from his wife Julie's recipe. The steaks, cooked in a huge pot of canola oil over a fire, were delicious, if not overly dietetic. Oh well, we'd been working hard all day, right? Neighbors from all over the valley attended, and we all mingled in the lovely old ranch house and outside in the large yard. Time really flew, and soon I would have to as well. After nightfall, we guests reluctantly said our goodbyes and headed back to our host ranches for one more peaceful night's sleep in Paradise.
The rancher's way of life may be a dying one, depending on what the future brings to these warm and hospitable people. It was a treat to see their traditions, appreciate their hard work, and be part of their families for a brief spell. Next time your kids (or anyone else) ask you, "Where does hamburger come from?" you have the opportunity to show them, not just tell them. After you return to your modern, urban life, you'll long remember that for a few fun-filled days, you rode for the brand in Yellowstone Country.
By Robert LaGrone, Las Vegas Correspondent.