Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Sheepherder’s New Truck

The Sheepherder’s New Truck

There is a story brewing about Saundra and her grandpa’s Ford pickup. Something about turning 15, taking driver’s training and getting a learner’s permit has motivated her. She is interested in oil changes, carburetor workings, glass pack mufflers, cherry gear shift knobs and new seat covers. We tease that she is getting ready for a Montana double date…that means Saundra will drive with her Rascal-dog in the middle and her date on the other side. She smiled, that appeals to her.

Saundra’s Grandpa Alfred bought this pickup new in 1977 and it is still in good shape with low mileage. Only new pickup he ever bought. He was retired from sheep and cattle and ranching and his priority then was carpentering and fishing. Now thirty years later, the pickup is a classic and about to be spit polished. we wonder aloud how many calves it took to buy a new pickup in 1977.

And all this talking about Grandpa Alfred’s pickup was enough to prime the pump so to speak. Rick began to think about his dad’s 1962 Ford. It was also the only new pickup that his dad ever bought and he paid $4500 for it. That number is significant because it is the same amount of money that Grandpa Bobby had put into parts to repair his old International pickup in the previous three years. Every time they took the darn thing to sheep camp it would quit on them. Just like the old International truck with the rake tooth for a handle, you couldn’t depend on it.

Bobby Jarrett ordered his 1962 four wheel drive pickup with seventeen inch wheels and tires and that gave him 3-4 more inches of clearance in the snow. Rick’s eyes had a faraway look and the story began like this: That pickup had more clearance than any pickup in the world and my dad knew how to drive it. My dad makes me look like an old woman because he never got afraid. Yes, I learned from a master when it comes to driving in the hills. Why, when I was pretty little my dad had a Willys Jeep that looked like a pickup. One time we were going to sheep camp on a narrow road and the front wheel hit a big rock and we tipped over on our side. Crawled out from the upside driver’s window and looked over the edge and we could still see cans and groceries rolling way down the hill. Had we tipped all the way over and rolled, it would have probably killed us. We walked back to Springdale and my dad acted like nothing to it. Chances are we got a ride home and he went back the next day to right the outfit while I stayed home and cried because I always wanted to go along.

I loved to go to sheep camp and all the time I begged to drive. By the time I was eight years old I was driving to sheep camp with regularity. But more than the thrill of driving was the joy that came from being with my dad. There was nothing better than going with my dad to sheep camp and seeing the sheepherder and drinking coffee from a tin cup. I can still smell the coffee being made on the sheep wagon’s pot bellied stove, boiling with the grounds. They would pour me a cup and I’d sit and visit with them and they’d make me feel like a grown up, one of the guys. And if we were lucky, there would be salt mutton and we could eat lunch.

The sheep would stay up there in our mountain pasture until the end of January and the cattle did not come home until the first of March. Every day during January and February we’d go through Springdale and then drive the five miles up Mendenall Creek to the camp to feed hay. We’d drive those tippy little hillsides with a load of hay five bales high. Dennis was our hired man then. He is still alive and he can tell about those drives we made. One day we fell through a bridge. The front tires made it across but the back wheels were just hanging in the air. We had a jack and we just kept putting loose boards under the wheels and eventually we got across.

We bucked the sheep up there in November. Two thousand sheep with forty head of bucks. The sheep grazed on the open range during the day and there was too much country for the bucks to keep up with the ewes so the sheep would all be herded into the bucking corral in the evening. They would breed the ewes at night. There were bunks in the pasture and the herder would fill the bunks with grain for the ewes. Little feeders made in a “V” using two 1x6 boards. Musta been 30 or more. That was quite a job carrying oats from the granary all by hand with five gallon buckets. Then in the morning he would open the sixteen foot gate and stand with a stick to sort the ewes from the bucks. If a buck tried to get out the sheep herder would yell BUCK! And hit the buck on the head. After a week or so when the herder would stand at the gate and yell BUCK!...the bucks would sort themselves and stay back without so much as the swinging of a club. Oh, you should have been there for some of those days.

I remember one winter day my dad was driving up a steep hill side and the sheep had been trailing on that hill side so it was packed with ice. He had a ton of grain in the back for the sheepherder to feed to the sheep and the wheels lost traction and broke loose. We started sliding toward the coulee and I ask if we should jump and dad’s reply was “no we gotta see if we can save this pickup.” Some how we caught on a little piece of sage brush and were able to get stopped and put the chains on. It was always a game to see if you could get by without chaining up…but it was standard procedure to chain up all fours plus do a little shoveling when you went to sheep camp in snowy weather.

In later years after my dad died, I continued the tradition of hauling feed to the Mendenhall and Jarrett Creek pastures. (Named after my great great-grandparents who settled there.). We had 250 cows to feed and we had to get there every day in the winter. Some days snowdrifts would block the road so we would try to go up side hills to get around them. After Chinook winds, there would be a thaw and then things would freeze up again and be slippery as heck. Every day was an adventure.

Just though the gate and across the bridge it was good topsoil and not much rock so it would get deep ruts toward spring. The ruts would fill with snow and then ice. It would be muddy everywhere else so I would drive up the rut. That road winds on a gentle climb for about a quarter of a mile before it turns into a steep son of a gun. Dennis could probably tell the story better…but as I recall we had only gone about 20 yards up the steep part of the hill cruisin’ along with a big load of hay when we spun out and started sliding back wards. With all four wheels locked up we were going back wards at speeds up to 30 miles an hour. Around corners, down grades, no control, could not even see out of the back window… couldn’t even think about steering. It was quite a ride. Just wild the way the pickup stayed in the rut all the way back to the gate. It was just like going down an Olympic Luge Raceway … backwards…with a load of hay on!

Saundra’s question about oil filters broke the spell and we turned back to the task at hand…but something tells me there are more stories where that one came from. I mumbled "Let’s just hope Saundra does not feel compelled to drive her grandpa’s truck on these roads less traveled."

She smiled. That also appeals to her.

Friday, November 11, 2005

The Cowboy’s Perspective

The Cowboy’s Perspective

Reading that lofty mutual fund fees are under attack has not been enough to occupy my mind during the last two weeks of my stint as couch potato recovering from my 4-wheeler accident. Wall Street buzz does not tend to be the high priority for ranchers as we contemplate the bank paperwork necessary for operating loan renewals. Before I flung my crutches, I had read every page of the Agri-Newspaper, an assortment of back editions of magazines and the two books I got for last Christmas.

Then my mind started to wander. Back to a ride that Rick and I took with Cort last fall. I’ve wanted to put that experience on paper and this convalescence has given me the time to revel in those rememberings. For those of you who have not met Cort, he is a fine man and a character as well. Cort Strobel, now semi-retired, rides as Rick’s cowboy during summers on the Gallatin Forest grazing permit. Named for his grandfather, Harvey Cort, who built the Cort Hotel in Big Timber and who had the distinction of being the individual owning the largest number of sheep in Montana in his day. Thirty thousand. Harvey had a unique way of keeping his money in circulation. He kept a tab at the bar for his sheepherders. When they got paid in the fall, they tended to come to town on a bender…spend their hard earned money in the bar, stay in the hotel and then when they sobered up…return to the ranch.

Cort spent many an hour working for his granddad as a youngster. He is well acquainted with work. And he knows a lot of things about a lot of things. As we were riding along he noted the squall that was moving in and said this bad weather should be moving the cattle down…if they are still alive. The main bunch of cows had been trucked home from this high mountain pasture the month before when we found we were missing two cows and two calves. We had managed to corral one of the missing calves after several hours of chase. We were looking for tracks…any sign… of the others.

We came upon what could have been mistaken for big cow tracks but Cort pointed out the marks of the dew claws. Moose tracks are readily recognizable in snow. On our ride, we saw more evidence of moose than elk. This is consistent with the data released from the Park Service…elk counts today are just half what they were in 1991. Even the advocates of the 1996 wolf reintroduction see the connection.

Earlier in the week it had warmed enough to turn the first snow into mud. Here and there we would see the wolf tracks in the patches of bare ground--sometimes of a single wolf and then a pack of several wolves. Cort said at the beginning of the summer a big wolf came into the area and then hooked up with a female.

And then we stopped to examine a bear track. Griz. Big ‘un. You can tell by the size and you can see the definition of the claws. I wanted to measure the size of the track but I was afraid to get off my horse. Rick, did you bring your gun? (I noticed Cort never left the cabin without “heat” at his side.) Again Cort laughed, You don’t need a gun…griz prefer elk hunters…not smelly sheepherders! That telling remark speaks more about my heritage than I thought was evident at first glance.

And then the conversation went in different directions. Production agriculture. Ranchers are getting to be a dieing breed. Poaching. Damn criminals are devious but the sum-bitches are not very smart when it comes to poaching. Horses. This mare is mighty fine. She has covered a lot of miles this summer. Jake. I heard that Jake is missing a white mare and a mule from up in this country. They ask us to be on the look out. You going to wait until you are 65 to get Social Security? Hell, no. I’ll sign up next year…no guarantee that I’ll live until I’m 65!

Allison transmission. Never thought I’d like an automatic transmission but the Allison is great. Remember that old 305 six cylinder International with the howling rear end? Had a bent buck rake tooth to hold the door shut. Took a third of a turn on the steering wheel before you make contact. Ya, and I remember the ’62 four-by-four that your dad and Brother Bill were driving one day when the axle broke on the trailer and the wheel fell off. They chained a pole on to hold the axle out of the dirt and drove it home.

Unfortunately we never found any trace of the missing cattle. Cort says he is confident that the poor buggers are wolf or grizzly poop by now. I was darn glad that we found my scotch cap where it had flown off my head during yesterday’s chase. And I was wondering why the heck I had left my long johns in the cabin as it got colder the farther we climbed to higher elevation and hit deeper snow pack. But listening to Rick and Cort talk took my mind off of being cold. We were riding through some White Bark Pine when Cort chuckled…the squirrels do all the work gathering the pine nuts and then the griz come along and to do the harvesting.

And so it continues to unfold… The cowboy’s perspective.

Tuesday, November 1, 2005



You can see him every morning looking through the window glass
He’s waiting for the sun to dry the dew drops on the grass
You can hear him whistle loud and long run blaze fast and far
As he rolls to the rodeo, in his own back yard


The Imaginary cowboy in a world of make believe
His spurs are cold steel braces from his ankles to his knees
A shaggy collie is his doggie as his lasso splits the air
He’s riding on a silver saddle, but it’s just an old wheelchair.

Now he’ll never ride a real bronco and he’ll never rope a cow
He’ll never wear a six gun, but he’s happy anyhow
His prayers are always from the heart when he goes to sleep at night
God keep me safe forever, and we’ll ride at dawns first light


Now there’s on last rodeo he’ll ride, this time he’ll take first prize
There’ll be no braces on his legs; no pain will fill his eyes
He’ll gather at that great white throne through sparkling hills of sand
And accept a silver saddle, as he shakes his master’s hand.

---------------------Ludie Hedricks

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Guest Log of the Taiwanese Film Crew

Guest Log of the Taiwanese Film Crew

From Taiwan they came
Seeking and searching
Wandering and wondering.

Traveling in Montana, Their goal was
To experience the traditions and the hospitality
Of a working ranch vacation.
They came in search of legends and unique experiences.

As it turned out,
It was Liang and Chris and Johnny and Eric and Kobe
who warmed our hearts with their love of life.
Now they are part of the family--
The family of Crazy Mountain Cattle Company.

Their entries in the Bunkhouse guest log were translated
as follows….

I came to shoot a movie and now I find myself wanting to live here. At Crazy Mountain Cattle Company you do not find commercialism, Here you find the force of passion and enthusiasm unlike any you will find elsewhere when crossing the country. And there is scenery like pictures with mountains and more mountains dotted with plenty of cows and calves and cowboys who want to keep the traditional cowboy spirit alive. The cowboy spirit is a treasure from nature and from God.

I say this is the real life—to experience the cowboy way of life made living on this land. You find the spirit here, not because of the scenery but because of the people who want to preserve and protect this way of life. I only hope that everything you have will continue so the next generation can experience this way of life. We have never found anyone who loves the land and horses and cows and dogs more than Karen and Rick and Saundra.

If I ever have the chance to come again to the United States, I will come straight to Montana to Crazy Mountain Cattle Company to do it all again. I want another opportunity to fall in love with a cowboy, with a horse and with Montana.

Thanks Karen, Rick and Saundra for your hospitality, thoughtfulness. You are the most thoughtful people that we have ever interviewed. You took good care of us—cooked us wonderful meals and you shared the true cowboy spirit. Again, I sincerely hope that you are able to keep alive the traditional cowboy way of life.

You have our support forever,
Chris Chen
Director of the Taiwanese TV Program called “King of Adventure.

This cowboy family—they are so crazy.
Crazy under the Crazy Mountains.
It is here that we learn about heritage
and about the cowboy spirit.
Because of this family we understand
and we love this way of life.
Anyone wanting to experience everything
about the cowboy way of life
should come to Crazy Mountain Cattle Company.


God Bless You.

Johnny Chang
Programmer for “King of Adventure”
Taiwanese TV Program

Guest Log Journal Entry:

For gentle people,
We have gentle horses.
For spirited people,
We have spirited horses,
And for people who don’t like to ride,
We have horses who don’t like to be ridden!

Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Looking Back and Giving Thanks

Looking Back and Giving Thanks

Looking back I recall how Rick, with his characteristic romantic flair, had tossed his duct-taped down vest in the corner of the porch and into the kitchen he came with a bottle of champagne in one hand and a copy of the February Sunset Magazine in the other. Grinning from ear to ear, he said “We’re gonna have a toast while we read Home on the Range!” Turning the pages, we admired Rob’s photographs which so aptly give the reader a sense of place. And we nodded our heads in agreement as Jeff eloquently drove home the importance of small family ranches and challenged people to think about what they eat. We were privileged to have him feature our Montana ranching community in the telling of his story. Even though we knew we were facing certain indigestion--neither of us much of a drinker--we clinked our glasses with gusto. Here’s to the future of small family ranching. Here’s to Montana Branded Beef. Here’s to Jeff and Rob who believe in us enough to tell our story in pictures and in words. (Not just in a farmer-stockman journal, but in a well-respected mainstream publication read by people on both sides of the Mississippi.) Here’s to Montana Bunkhouses Working Ranch Vacations.
Today, there is still much to celebrate and to be thankful for.
· Comfort in the rhythm of seasons repeating themselves summer after spring and winter after fall and the healing that mends a broken leg or a broken heart.
· Grandkids that fall asleep on our laps while watching the annual cowboy poetry gathering.
· Weather that warms from thirty below to thirty above when the Chinook winds blow in the winter.
· Snowfall in the mountains with some promise of irrigation water, snow for sledding on the hill behind the ranch house and a snowman in the yard.
· The legacy we leave our kids of happy memories as time repeats itself with joy and bitter-sweet sadness.
The importance of this legacy is what sparks my vision, fuels my choices and instills a spirit of entrepreneurship that drives me to continue growing Montana Bunkhouses Working Ranch Vacations in spite of some very large odds.
Thanks and “Hats Off” to my family and my friends in Big Timber and throughout Montana, as they give me encouragement to strike out on my own and to grow the agri-tourism cooperative. Leading the way … going against conventional wisdom. Putting a new face on agriculture… in Montana where myth has long been in partnership with reality.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Planting Seeds

Planting Seeds

Optimism is a characteristic of most ranchers. Even when we’re grumbling, we’re counting on Mother Nature to eventually be kind to us. When she isn’t kind and we find ourselves in year after year of drought, we try to plant a crop that depends more on sun than rain. We diversify and look to agri-tourism. All the while building relationships with people and groups of people who believe in us—building teams of people who can go from idea to reality.

It’s about planting seeds. Cultivating the seed bed carefully and then hoping that we’ve planted the seeds at the right season, praying for enough moisture to get the seeds sprouted. And then once the seeds have sprouted we’re right back to needing more water or more drought resistant seedstock. That’s how it is with marketing.

We’ve had some successes. Our familiarization tour for travel writers planted seeds and they have sprouted into magazine articles. On the eve of the publication of the Sunset article, we find that our website is a graphic instead of text. I’m not sure where to go next with this analogy … maybe it means that we bought the wrong kind of seed for one of our fields …very pretty but yielding little fruit. So we are frantically bouncing along with the dust a flying trying to get the infrastructure in place before the next rain and the sunrise/sunset that we know is coming. Consultants have been brought into the field and the website is taking on a new look. Mostly the changes are behind the scene—underground where the search engines crawl.

We’re building relationships with people who believe in us. Some people believe in us for what they have seen us do in past decades. For my part that means people in Livingston who watched me get things done in the health care field. I built relationships when I worked with a task force to get funding for our community health center thereby addressing the medical needs of low income residents. Sharon Walker was on my task force and she is now the chairperson for the Park County Alliance Development Corporation (PCADC). When she learned about our working ranch vacations, she put me in touch with the executive director of this economic development group and within a matter of days I was a member of their Agriculture Committee and spoke to that group at their meeting last Wednesday. This group is looking to find ways to make those of us in agriculture economically viable. PCADC is a think tank and they are scattering seeds all over the place. One idea is a plan to develop a county model for a state wide initiative based on the successes in Utah to promoting “Heritage Highway 89 from Yellowstone to Glacier.” Along with other celebrations of history and heritage, Montana Bunkhouses would be featured in that promotion.

Yesterday we spoke with Jeff Phillips on the phone. He believes in us. Our article will appear in Sunset in two weeks—a magazine that plans more than a year in advance will feature us twice in less than a year because he made it happen. He continues to read and enjoy the ranch reports and as a result he feels like he has spent the winter with us…he questioned Rick …when was he going to stop chasing coyotes with his car? and Rick’s ready reply was “when there are no more coyotes or when they stop making cars!” And as for writer’s block, he said “No fair!” At Sunset magazine they have agonizing annual issue planning sessions to come up with fresh new ideas…he says “it’s like cheating” because Karen has an unfair advantage--all she has to do is watch Rick and Rascal for inspiration.

That was when we learned that while Jeff was visiting Crazy Mountain Cattle Company last June, we were planting seeds for a bigger crop and we did not even know it. Jeff is very interested in the whole idea of the western family cattle ranch and sees us as an endangered species. And he understands that mad cow disease has put gasoline on the fire of people thinking more about where their food is coming from, where it is raised, and whether it was fed parts of other animals. He gets it. And while he realizes that the issue is more complex the more you look at it, he continues his case study regarding the future of the western ranch.

Sunset magazine and Jeff Phillips have for some time been looking at ranching in various parts of the west. Seeing how people are managing their land and resources trying to hold it together and find a way to pass it to the next generation. Everyone is diversifying their operations and he joked about our “rustlin’ tourists” in the hopes of remaining economically viable. He has been looking for a ranch that epitomizes the problems, issues, and concerns on a lot of different fronts. The search (in his words) has been for the “quintessential old fashioned 3rd, [4th or 5th]generation ranch that represents the issues that family ranches face.”

He believes he has found that ranch in Crazy Mountain Cattle Company. He sees the importance not only of the food/beef we raise, but the advantage of ranchers keeping lands open instead of having them subdivided. More importantly that he has found the ranch in a place with a sense of a bigger community--an agriculture community that is interconnected and working together to preserve our heritage and our way of life. That is how Montana Bunkhouses and Sweet Grass County ties into this.

At 4:00 am this morning it started raining. Since I started typing you all this report, it has continued to rain. The rain is most likely going to be the story of the day, watering our seeds. But there is anther story brewing. With our blessings, Jeff went in to his magazine’s planning session yesterday to propose a June visit to Big Timber and Crazy Mountain Cattle Company. He wants a story that will let his readers know what it is like to live and work on a cattle ranch. I can visualize myself dashing down the road in a sprint, throwing myself in to Jeff Phillips arms and giving him the most exuberant hug he has had in a long time. Thanking him for the opportunity we will have to put a face on agriculture.