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All penned up: Vanessa Neumann and Sig 

Well, I wanted an authentic American Wild West adventure and I got it: a real Montana cattle drive. The preponderance of cowboy hats and boots at the Bozeman, Montana airport is my first clue I'm not in Manhattan any more. A sign welcoming me to Montana on behalf of the American Legion is another. 

Montana both meets and confounds expectations. While a favourite haven of the Hollywood liberal intelligentsia (if there is such a thing), it is also a bastion of old-school conservative, even macho values. The giant roadside billboard proclaiming "Life...not a choice!" makes that pretty clear. This is closely followed by a huge distributor of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, whose sign must be visible for miles. 

You drive along wide, perfectly-paved stretches of motorway with scarcely any cars, beneath a sky that's not as big as it's reputed to be. Instead, broad swathes of blue are carved out by a shifting array of encircling mountains, creating a landscape that is a strange hybrid of the Andes and south-eastern Tanzania, and a collage of elements: rivers meander through hot arid plains ending at the feet of snow-capped mountains. 

The day I arrive is the first hot one that week but the normally glittering red and gold scenery is still frozen a dull brown by an early frost of nearly 20 below zero...Fahrenheit. 

But Montanans are made of sturdy stuff, as quickly becomes evident at Murdoch's Farm & Ranch Supply in Bozeman. Murdoch's is Americana on steroids: a massive warehouse-style department store filled to the rafters with everything from knives to cowboy boots to farm equipment. Under the blinking fluorescent lights, I dig my way through the huge selection of flannel shirts, but cannot find one small enough to fit me properly. I can't decide whether this means that Montana women are tiny and have bought out all the smalls or fat and the store doesn't stock smalls. Minutes later, I am cheerily clutching a pair of rather dashing bright turquoise cowboy boots. By the cash register, between the hunting knives and the fishing gloves with cut-off fingers, a glittering display catches my eye: silver belt buckles, the best of which proclaims the cowboy way: "Git 'er done!" We drive back to my uncle's ranch near Big Sky.

"Git 'er done! Down in one!" is our chant a few hours hence at the Two Bit Saloon in Whitehall. Brian, the generous proprietor in jeans, navy blue shirt and navy blue baseball cap with an inexplicable LA on it (Los Angeles? Louisiana?) is bringing us over a special treat: shots of local whisky served in spent shotgun cartridges. The metallic aftertaste reminds me of the theory that the Roman Empire was, in fact, ended by mass lead poisoning. Brian's fleshy round face gives the impression of honest hard work, and the unkempt bushy brows frame brown eyes that look at you with both incisiveness and compassion. He brings us two massive helpings of deep-fried green beans: "The only way we eat vegetables around here." That explains the scarcity of small flannel shirts.

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