A week of fly-fishing and horseback riding at a Montana dude ranch an hour and a half from the nearest town was not our daughters’ idea of a great family vacation.
Eleanor, 21, just back from a spring semester in Paris, and Lizzie, 17, share a taste for indie films, books, museums and cafes. Rugged outdoorswomen they are not.
As a Foreign Service family, we had done a fair amount of globe-trotting but had never toured the American West. My husband, Larry, thought a small ranch in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness in south-central Montana would give us precious time with our grown children and a taste of Western life. The legendary trout fishing in the Boulder River had nothing to do with it, said the man who moons over fly-fishing brochures.
So on a Saturday last August we flew to Salt Lake City, rented a car and headed 480 miles north to Montana. Jagged mountains towered over sage-tufted meadows as we drove along the Boulder River. So many movies were filmed here--"Jeremiah Johnson,” “A River Runs Through It” and “The Horse Whisperer"--that the landscape seemed familiar.
Near the tiny town of McLeod we glimpsed plush spreads with Range Rovers parked in front. This is the stamping ground of Tom Brokaw, Michael Keaton and author Tom McGuane. (Keaton lives on the road we traveled; Brokaw and McGuane live on a road that branches off it.)
An hour later the road turned to dirt and the multimillion-dollar ranches gave way to church camps. When we could drive no farther, we spotted the Hawley Mountain Guest Ranch, billed as one of the most remote ranches in Montana accessible by car.
Hawley Mountain is a rustic, family-run operation, not a slick commercial resort. The 155-acre spread has three cabins and four lodge rooms accommodating up to 20 guests. More than an hour’s drive from the nearest store or hospital, the ranch appeals to guests who love the wilderness, know how to amuse themselves and don’t whine if the electricity goes out in a storm. Families are advised to bring a baby-sitter for children younger than 6, and those with heart or lung problems are discouraged from coming because of the 6,400-foot altitude.
Our secluded log cabin was furnished with lodgepole pine furniture, metal folding chairs, a coffee maker and a tiny refrigerator for our beer and wine. (Alcohol is not served at meals.) No TV, no phone, no laptop hookup. And your cell phone won’t work here.
“I hope you people are ready to play card games,” said Lizzie, scowling.
We walked through the woods to Eagle’s Nest Lodge, built on a 300-foot rocky cliff with a bird’s-eye view of the Boulder River valley. Reference books, binoculars and a spotting scope were available when a hummingbird or elk herd wandered by the picture windows. The lodge had a large circular fireplace and was furnished with spare pine furniture.
The ranch is owned and operated by two Montana ex-farm boys and their hard-working wives: Ron Jarrett, a retired engineer, and Phyllis, a third-grade teacher; Bryant Blewett, a former tax attorney, and his wife, Ellen Marshall, an ex-bank vice president.
We introduced ourselves to the staff and other guests--an English couple and two artists from California and their 7-year-old son.
Ellen explained the week’s program: daily fly-fishing lessons and horseback rides, a four-wheel-drive road trip to a ghost town and a mountain lake, talks on Crow Indian history and archeology. Then we lined up for a buffet of hearty home cooking (cheesy chicken-sausage bake, mashed potatoes, fruit salad and chocolate pudding). The owners, ranch hands and guests ate all meals together in the main lodge, sharing conversation.
Since everything was included, we parked our wallets as well as the car for the week.
“This reminds me of camp,” said Lizzie, walking back to the cabin.
“Perhaps a little,” I said.
“I hated camp, remember?”
While the girls and I unpacked and explored the grounds, Larry headed straight for the river, the first of many such trips. But what if he didn’t catch anything? A long drought had lowered the water temperature, and the trout were sure to be scarce.
I needn’t have worried.
“What an amazing river,” Larry said when we met for dinner. “I caught 10 trout. Now I know why the guidebook said the fishing in the Boulder is stupendous.”
Bryant told him he had a long way to go before he matched the record of the Englishman who needed a counter to keep track of nearly 100 trout a day. The ranch has a strict catch-and-release policy, and Bryant was happy to teach a way to release trout with medical forceps and a flick of the wrist so the fish aren’t stressed. No spinning tackle was allowed. When a guy from the neighboring campground waded down the stream with spinning tackle, Ron threw rocks into the water until he left.
Horseback riding began Monday morning, and we greenhorns were nervous. Larger guest ranches have baby-sitting and elaborate children’s programs or a barn and riding rings for the horsy set. At Hawley Mountain, horses are the best way to explore the roadless wilderness, where vehicles are banned.
The wranglers--Steve, 24, Melissa, 16, and Rachel, 21--helped us choose our horses and adjust the saddles. Steve was an honest-to-goodness cowboy, and both of the young women had grown up on ranches with fathers who were outfitters. Melissa, handsome in leather chaps and spurs, looked like a model in a Ralph Lauren ad, and I told her so.
“Who’s Ralph Lauren?” she asked.
After a quick lesson--"Show the horse who’s boss. Squeeze with your thighs. Put a third of your weight in the stirrups. Remember, the horse doesn’t want to fall any more than you do"--we formed a string and ambled down the road, nose to tail along the river.
“This isn’t so hard,” I thought as my horse, Whiskey, plodded through the pasture.
After lunch we remounted for a longer ride, heading into the mountains on trails that grew narrower, edging steep ravines lined with enormous boulders. We grew quiet as the horses picked their way among the loose rocks on abrupt descents.
“Just lean back and relax,” Rachel told us.
Yeah, right. I never let go of the saddle horn. The opening scenes of “The Horse Whisperer” came back to me--where the horses rear up and one girl is killed and the other loses her leg.
Lizzie was easy in the saddle, barely holding the reins. She chatted with Rachel about close encounters with celebrities--Michael Keaton fishing the ranch’s stretch of the river, meeting Dennis Quaid in a bar and managing horses for the Brokaws.
Suddenly one of the guests screamed as her horse stumbled. In the commotion, Eleanor’s horse bucked and she lost her sunglasses and her composure. Melissa dismounted and led the visibly shaken guest back to the ranch. Nobody said much on the ride home. We had signed a liability waiver absolving the owners in case of injury or death, but I never thought it would be an issue.
That afternoon the girls and I joined Bryant for a quick trout-fishing lesson at the stocked pond.
“When you feel the fish bite, throw your arms up and say ‘Wow!’” he said.
Despite our best effort--and pails full of fish food--we barely caught anything. “You girls don’t have a ‘wow’ in your bodies,” Bryant said in despair. The trout were safe from us.
That night Eleanor needed a back rub to ease tension aches from the horseback ride. “It’s 8 o’clock and I can’t keep my eyes open,” she said.
It took us a week to get used to the altitude, and we were early to bed, early to rise every day. I never did see the stars glittering in the Big Sky. Most evenings we read or played board games, a rare event in our family. We wept with laughter playing Pictionary, since only Eleanor can draw. Tuesday morning after breakfast, Ellen offered to tailor the riding program to our comfort level. Did we want to practice in the pasture or take a ride up to a cabin in the mountains? Our one concern was the steepness of the trail. Uphill was bearable because you just lean forward on the horse. Downhill, you see your life pass before your eyes.
Eleanor wasn’t wild about getting back on buckin’ Buster, but she wasn’t crazy about trout fishing either. Lizzie was eager to ride--she turned out to be a natural in the saddle. So we gave it another shot, and this time the ride was easy and Buster was well behaved.
“This is pretty cool,” Eleanor said. “I’m learning a lot--because I’m being forced to--but if anybody asks if I can ride a horse, I can say yeah.”
On the daily rides Eleanor and Lizzie got to know the two women wranglers, so close in age to my daughters but so far apart in experience. Rodeo queens by age 7, Melissa and Rachel could hunt elk, field-dress a deer and ride bareback through the mountains at night. My daughters could negotiate the Paris Métro and deconstruct a modern novel.
“We call that Bloody Bridge,” said Rachel on one of our rides. While she and Melissa were clearing fallen limbs from the wood bridge, Melissa cut her arm with the saw. Instead of returning to the lodge, she tied a bandanna around the wound and kept working.
“I’ve never met anyone like these girls,” Eleanor said. “They’re intense.”
Rachel told us she sometimes carries a .357 pistol just to make noise in case riders meet a grizzly. Driving through the Gallatin National Forest we had read terse warnings for hikers: “Many bear charges are bluff charges. If attacked, play dead.” The grizzly paw prints in the riverbank and the mountain lion scratches on tree trunks gave those warnings force.
When Larry mentioned that he had spotted a moose and a calf on the river, Ron and Bryant were alarmed. “How close did you get?” they asked. Since we live in New England, we are accustomed to mild-mannered Maine moose. Their Western cousins are a lot more aggressive.
I was reexamining my knee-jerk Eastern attitude that all wildlife is benign and all guns are bad. When I spotted Rachel reading the “Armed Citizen” column in a National Rifle Assn. magazine, I was relieved. At least one of us would know what to do in a dangerous encounter with an animal.
One night we had a cookout with grilled trout, steak, baked potatoes, beans, s’mores and cowboy coffee (boiled over the fire, the grounds settled with eggshells). Melissa played her guitar and, without giggles or irony, sang about “Grandpa and the olden days when there were no single mothers.” She had never seen the ocean and was excited about an upcoming trip to Seattle with her Future Farmers of America group. Roasting marshmallows over the campfire, Ron told us about his great-grandmother coming West in a covered wagon and his childhood tending sheep on the ranch. We talked about the idiocy of bull riders in rodeos, “all stove in before they’re 40,” and why real cowboys wear Wranglers (no welted seams that chafe when riding).
We discussed the Forest Service policy of reintroducing wolves in nearby Yellowstone. Steve’s T-shirt summed up the local view: “Save the Wolves--for Stew.”
The federal government’s fire policy was also controversial. In the distance we could see smoke from Yellowstone, only 24 miles away. Our hosts were worried. The year before, the Forest Service had closed the road and the camp because of wildfires.
“They say ‘liberal’ in the same tone of voice that I say ‘conservative,’” Lizzie said to me, slightly amazed. In long conversations with our charming hosts, we began to understand the Western viewpoint and why the electoral map in the last presidential election was blue on one side and red on the other.
Midweek we drove up a primitive road in “Ol’ Blue,” a 1960s Ford four-wheel-drive truck held together with duct tape. Steve tied the gearshift with a bungee cord and off we went, clutching the horseshoes welded to the frame. Ducking tree branches, I lost an earring and another guest lost a watch.
After a stop at an abandoned gold mining town, which once had a brothel, phone lines and four blocks of buildings, we drove up to Blue Lake for a box lunch and some fishing. Larry spotted a juvenile golden eagle soaring above 10,996-foot Monument Peak, its white spots clearly visible. The dried vestiges of blue lupine, Indian paintbrush, gayfeather and harebell made me vow to return in June to see them at their peak.
By Friday morning I noticed a slight dip in our daughters’ mood. Both are accustomed to a fair amount of independence and privacy, and they chafed a bit at the organized activities and communal meals. They were missing friends and beginning to think of school starting in a few weeks.
“I’m happy I came, but I’m ready to go home,” Eleanor said.
On the day before our departure we made a triumphant all-day ride to Meat Rack, where the Crow Indians once dried elk meat. After three hours of hard uphill riding, we reached an 8,500-foot meadow with a tiny stream so clear you could see the colors of the cutthroat trout, descendants of those Ron’s family had carried up in coffee cans a generation ago. Larry caught a nice one in spite of the splashing and shenanigans of indefatigable Blue, Rachel’s blue heeler, a dingo/Australian shepherd mix.
On the ride down we eased our way past kneecap-smashing boulders and eyeball-gouging tree limbs. Crossing a stream, my horse jumped a 3-foot embankment, and I nearly sailed over Whiskey’s head.
Something about the trail seemed familiar, and as we fed our horses carrots and gave them goodbye pats, I asked if that wasn’t the same path we had taken Monday, which rattled us.
“Yup,” Steve said. “Guess we broke you in.”
Elizabeth Pope, who lives in Portland, Maine, writes on aging and retirement, travel and gardening.