Meat and Potatoes
My first glimpse of Bozeman, Mont., came through the window of our plane from Minneapolis as it bumped and swayed out of the clouds and down into the valley, the shadowed sunlight spotlighting a crescent of mountains encircling a pale green high mountain plain. As the plane lined up on the runway, I recalled a trip to a dude ranch in Wyoming almost 40 years ago, where I discovered the vast expanse of the West as well as the 13-year-old girl in the cabin next door. Now I was traveling with my own family to a Montana ranch in search of adventure, realizing that family vacations are a risky business--pilgrimages often produce unexpected results.
Our first glimpse of the ranch as we drove past was promising. It looked -simple enough; no fancy new construction, just a collection of modest log cabins set in a narrow valley headed past Snowflake Ridge and up toward the Taylor Hilgards, a snow-capped range that rises above 12,000 feet.
The ranch was purchased back in the 1920s by a couple who had little money but a lot of spirit. The husband used to stand on Wall Street, spinning tales of the Wild West to attract customers while his wife ran things back at home. As their granddaughter, Linda, who still heads up the ranch, told me, "He brought 'em, and she kept 'em." The most famous character employed at the ranch was Cruse Black, who showed up one day locked in a boxcar with a load of mules. He hailed from the Dakotas and couldn't read or write but made himself at home for the rest of his life. "Never hired, never fired" was his motto, and his photo still hangs on the wall of the office cabin.
Jim McGuiness, like his father before him, runs the dude operation, which boasts more than 100 geldings. Like most country folk, he takes his time with most everything, words needing a bit of time to be introduced properly. He has been chased on horseback by a grizzly, he has a taste for Rocky Mountain oysters (strips of meat from animal testicles that are deep fried), and he grew up on a Norwegian diet of flatbread, potato dumplings, and meat, the latter still being the food of choice for the wranglers. Since they eat the same menu as the dudes, who prefer pasta and vegetables, there is a fair amount of grumbling around dinner time.
On the all-day rides up into the mountains, the fields are woven with Indian paintbrush, forget-me-nots, mule's ears, larkspur, elephant head, pussy toes, shooting stars, and lady-slippers. Up past 10,000 feet there are wild meadows with elk and sandhill cranes. A mule is spooked, a wrangler is thrown from his horse, we make lunch over a campfire and then head down a draw through Sage Valley to dinner, a cookout over a wagon wheel. Jim makes beer-batter buttermilk biscuits in two large Dutch ovens, heated over a fire, placed in a shallow pit, and then covered with coals. They are perfectly browned and fluffy, the best I have ever eaten. Steaks and brown trout are grilled and served with potato salad and beer. The sun starts to drop, it turns cool, and we saddle up and head through the valley at a lope under a robin's egg sky, down the trail toward camp. It's dusty, and you can smell the sagebrush and sweat from the horses. I'm sore, my knees ache from the long ride, but it has been a good day.
Things haven't changed much at the ranch. In October, they still herd the horses up through a mountain pass to their winter pasture and then move them back down in April. Sometimes the snow is "hat deep" in the spring, and they have to break trail just to get the horses through. There are wolverines, bobcats, mountain lions, coyotes, and bears nearby. The wranglers still wear chaps or chinks (short chaps) and, when they have time off, they take target practice on gophers or play tricks on the girls in the kitchen.
Back home in Vermont, I remember the trip: a week of cold mornings with a fire sparking in the cabin's wood stove; kids playing until dark, their voices echoing up the valley; a 16-inch rainbow trout stripping out line like a freight train one afternoon on the Madison River; and my 5-year-old son standing for a photograph in cowboy boots and hat with a group of wranglers by the corral, eyes squinting into the sun. I had traveled 3,000 miles in search of something new, but found, instead, the familiar. Sure, we have hardwoods instead of pine, black bears instead of grizzlies, and the fishing isn't half as good, but we are meat and potatoes folk all the same. I guess I trust a man who is happy eating meat and potatoes. He is the kind of guy who doesn't need to leave home in search of adventure. Like Cruse Black, who knew he had found paradise the moment he stepped out of that dark boxcar, he's smart enough to stay put when the grub is good, keep his head down at dinner, and take a second helping whenever it's offered. He doesn't need something new on his plate. He's been around long enough to just look for some more of the same.