Montana: Home From Home on the Range

‘I look around the dimly-lit bar and notice how the hard-drinking clientele watches suspicious newcomers like me, with my British-tainted accent and far too many questions. I ask another one: “Do the Hell’s Angels come here, Brian?” Bingo.’

Agriculture Dispatches North America
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.

“So what do you think of Obama?” I ask. But I already know the answer won’t be politically correct. The Chief Motel we passed on the way has a “Me Like Um” motto above its promise of “newly-remodelled rooms,” and my uncle has already encountered “birthers” — people who think Obama was really born in Kenya (regardless of his Hawaiian birth certificate) and his presidency is therefore illegal. They claim it was without a licence that he fished here in August. He couldn’t get one, he’s not American. “I think he’s too close to those Muslims, you know, all that giving a speech in Egypt. What’s he doing there with the Muslims when we’ve got real problems here at home?” 

I look around the dimly-lit bar and notice how the hard-drinking clientele watches suspicious newcomers like me, with my British-tainted accent and far too many questions. I ask another one: “Do the Hell’s Angels come here, Brian?” Bingo.

“We get all the biker gangs here. I’m a biker myself, you see,” he says pointing to his ad in Montana Biker, featuring his own “hog” (as Harleys are known) and the headline “Ride ‘Em Hard, Y’All… Winter’s Coming!!!” “They meet in the back and conduct their business. They’re okay guys, but you wouldn’t wanna mess with ’em.” 

The sky looks as if it’s on fire the next morning when I rise before dawn for the cattle drive: flaming russet and gold cling to the underbellies of a few scattered clouds and refuse to illuminate the dark earth
beneath. I dress in layers, warned that we would run the gamut of three seasons in a day, and indeed I think I can nearly see my breath as I hoist a huge Western saddle on to the back of a horse that looks bored by it. 

We’re at a neighbouring ranch belonging to the Pullmans (family of actor Bill, a close friend of my screenwriter-director uncle) to drive their cattle off federal land ahead of the opening of big-game season. Despite the fact that I have ridden since I could walk, I’m struggling a bit with all the straps and heavy leather everywhere. Gary, a cowboy out of central casting, complete with worn leather chaps and a red bandana, offers help and loops straps around places that simply don’t look right to the fox-hunting eye. Off we go, a motley crew. It’s so windy, I can’t feel my face. My saddle’s so thick, I can’t feel my horse. 

Our first task is to rescue a small posse of escaped cows that are dangerously close to the highway. As other riders chase the cows towards me, I have to block them and bounce them through the gate, back toward the herd with a rapid back-and-forth manoeuvring on horseback. This is the main tactic in cattle driving: chasing, blocking and bouncing the cows back to where you want them to go, in a move reminiscent of the Atari video game, Breakout. For in the sprawling expanse of federal land, the cows are everywhere: up hills, down ravines, hiding behind bushes and houses. With dogs to help us, we have to round them up into a herd we then drive back towards the ranch where they will be corralled, sorted, penned, and inspected. 

“Go, gallop up and guard the middle of the left side of the herd,” instructs my aunt. “Go: ‘Woo! Woo! Woo! … Woo! Woo! Woo!'” I try it, but the cows, presumably bemused by my English accent, stare blankly back in that particularly bovine way. It is not until I gallop right up to them and gain confidence in my whooping that they move. 

What first starts to grate on your nerves about cattle ranching is the incessant, deafening mooing that pierces your skull. You have to shout to the person next to you as you stand in the giant corral, ready to ride through the herd of several hundred and separate out 20 cows at a time and chase them to the cowboys on foot, who then separate them into pens according to the colour of the ear-tags that identify their owner. One horse knows his task so well he nips the cows on their buttocks to get them to move faster toward the second set of gates leading to their pens. 

After the driving, corralling and penning comes the segregation of cows and calves ahead of the veterinary inspections. It is not easy to run counter to nature, separating mothers from their clinging young, so we have to work the system of gates quickly to capture them as they charge us. I then “cowboy up” and remount my horse, Sig, to chase the recalcitrant cows down “the chute”, towards the end trap that snaps in around their necks and behind their legs, holding them still for the vet. The vet sprays them for parasites, vaccinates them and checks them for pregnancies, which is where the brutality of cattle-ranching sinks in: they’ll keep the pregnant cows and send the sterile ones to slaughter, for they are not worth feeding through the winter. 

I am dressed in a medical smock, a long plastic sleeve pinned to the shoulder, and latex gloves. “Deeper,” says the vet, as I put my arm in to feel my first bovine fetus. I reach in through one chamber, find another opening, through the next chamber and another opening, until I feel the bone. Then I angle my hand down into the uterus and feel the head of the foetus: about the size and shape of a lemon, it bounces back up when you press down on it. “Bouncy!” I say. The foetus is about three months along, I’m told. With a four-month-old foetus, I can reach below the head and feel the tiny front hooves: they’re like little buttons. Just as I feel them, the cow defecates all over me, while my arm is still inside her. After the cows come the calves — inspected, vaccinated and then released back to be reunited with their waiting mothers, who offer them a celebratory suckle at their teats. 

So far, so jolly, but it is after this point in the annual ranching cycle that the business gets messy. The cows sold to stockers and feedlots face one of two imminent futures until their slaughter. One is in grassy sloping fields with good drainage. The other is up to their knees in mud and excrement and the rotting carcasses of other cows, that are
often mashed up and fed back to them. The result is mad cow disease. Though feeding back dead cows to the living is now illegal, no one can be certain what really happens on these farms. Whether meat is “organic” or not apparently hinges on this point — the conditions of the stockers and feedlots between the rancher that raises the cows and the slaughterhouse that marks the end of their days. The Pullmans recently changed the buyer they do business with, because they want their cows to have more humane treatment after they leave the farm. Beyond that, the rancher has little control. 

Spending the day driving, corralling, penning, segregating and inspecting cattle has a strange effect. Far from developing empathy for cattle, you view them as part of a larger life-cycle linking human and animal, and farming them as perfectly natural. “You’ll crave a steak afterwards,” I’d been warned. “Cows are remarkably stupid, much dumber than horses.” They were right — after cattle ranching from dawn to dusk, we went to historic La Hood Park for a giant, sizzling steak. 

La Hood is steeped in Montana history and stands as a lone survivor from a more adventurous era: Lewis and Clark camped here during their 1804-1806 expedition to explore the territory of the Louisiana Purchase (which doubled the size of the United States at the time) and open the way to westward expansion. On one side of the restaurant had stood a wooden hotel that burned down a few years ago. Without insurance, it was never rebuilt. On the other side, a lone stick stands next to the railway tracks to denote where a station once stood. 

But this is no sad tale of the glory that once was or what might have been, for Montana’s future looks assured. Its governors clearly understand where its appeal lies. The next day we go “floating” down the Jefferson River, whose protected access points for boats make for happy fishermen, like the ones we saw enjoying their lunch break on the riverbank. Large nature preserves make for happy hunters and their dogs, which are bred and trained here to enter national competitions and trials. While there are some old-time ranchers keeping the family tradition alive, there are also a lot of new ranchers, wealthy hobbyists who have made fortunes in other professions (Hollywood, banking, medicine) and buy up large adjoining tracts of land to live out their Montana fantasy. Me, I think I’ll stick to writing.