Thursday, May 25, 2006

Heart Four Bar

My folks are both westerners, but my mom's family fits the mold better than dad's. Mom is from Montana, central southern Montana, in the Beartooth Range, to be more exact. Her home town is Nye. Nye contains 5 churches, 2 bars, and 1 combination general store & gas station. The nearest big town is Red Lodge, about 40 miles southeast over a mountain pass that is more often closed in winter than not. Of course the ranch isn't in Nye, it has a Nye address - The ranch is another 30 miles south by southeast of town. It's actually closer to Red Lodge than Nye, but there's a mountain range between them, and there ain't no roads.

The Beartooth Ranch, (The brand is a heart on the right side, next to a 4, over a bar - 'Heart 4 Bar'), is 16,000 acres, not huge by Montana ranch standards, but big enough. The main gate at the ranch reads, 'Beartooth Ranch, elevation, 5,429 feet'. It's tucked into the edge of the mountains, along the headwaters of the Stillwater River. The river begins in lakes up in the mountains, the high range, and by the time it's going by the Ranch, (About 3 miles of it), it's cold, wild, and fast. Last time I was there, my oldest brother and I went fly fishing just outside the corrals; it was the middle of July. In the few hours we were on the river, it was sunny, then raining, and ended up snowing heavily for about 30 minutes. The game Warden stopped by in his pickup, not to check our licenses, but to see who we were and how we were doing. We exchanged flies, the three of us, mine from the northwest, Timmy's from the east coast, for local favorites that a Stillwater Brown Trout would like. Nothing we caught was under 18"...

The ranch has entertained dudes since 1949; every summer families came to ride, fish, shoot, eat heartily and enjoy comfortable but rustic living, and that's just what they got. Things were done ranch style there; when stuff broke, it was fixed in a utilitarian, albeit not pretty fashion - It's from there I learned the phrase, "Good enough, it ain't like a guy on a fast horse would notice..." Every June, when I was a kid, my mom and any of us who were up for it headed from where ever we lived to the Ranch, to join the spring roundup, wherein all the horses were gathered from the low pasture and lead up to the high range for the summer. The trip in reverse was done each August, bringing 'em all back down. they were Morgans and Quarters, big, solid working horses with even dispositions. When working, the dude horses always went slow on the outbound leg, and noticably faster on the way back - Go figure; they didn't like idiots on their backs any more than we do, and they always knew the difference between heading out to work or coming back for rest, food, and a nice curry comb. My horse was a little paint named Pepper; she and I got along just fine, 'cuase she was generally forgiving and liked me. It didn't always work that way between man and horse. The toughest ones to break for dude or working horses would be handled by my Aunt. Half Cherokee, she knew how to horse whisper before it was a popular term. I don't remember a horse she couldn't ride, though I certainly do remember her coming angrily into the corral and taking the lead from a bewildered hand who was trying too hard. Horses trusted Ellen and listened to her. She taught me to do the same, and I always have. Whenever and where ever I've riden since boyhood, I greet the horse first, get to know them, and eventually ask if it would be OK if we went for a ride. I've never had a problem with any horse I've been on.

When I was growing up, the only people who lived anywhere around the ranch were other ranchers. Now there are not as many working ranches, and there are many more very expensive, very large houses where ranches used to be. Most of these houses are empty for 11+ months of the year. It's still an incredibly beautiful drive from Nye to the ranch, down a nasty, beaten down 2-lane road, but those big houses bother me nonetheless...

Progress has not bypassed the Beartooth, either. A combination working horse / dude ranch since 1949, molybednum was discovered in 1987. A small mining operation has become huge, and has effectively taken over the ranch. It is a state-of-the-art clean mining operation, and people come from all over the world to see it and learn how they do what they do there. The cabins that held dudes and wranglers and staff now hold geologists, engineers, and chemists. My family owns the rights to use of the place for as long as we are alive. When the Langstons, Atwaters, and Foxes are gone, the ranch will belong solely to the mining company. My Uncle Jim and Aunt Ellen are still there, in the house they've lived in for decades, about a half mile down from the main entrance, right on the Stillwater. They are older now, and none of their children wanted to continue running the dude business, or try to eke out a living raising horses. James and Radford work for the mine, James as a heavy equipment operator, Radford as a Geologist, and Catherine is a nurse.

I need to go back there again soon, to take the measure and feel of the place. It worries me a little that it's not a working ranch any more, but my cousins assure me that the mine is taking great care of the place and nothing has changed, really.

When my Grampa died, he directed his kids to go to a certain hillside above the ranch proper and give his ashes to the wind there, and that's what they did.

I think that it's getting on toward time for me to go see him again.

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