Montana on Horseback: The West is neither dead nor gone; you just can't see it from the road.
My wife took it pretty well when I told her I had fallen in love with Meg, but in my defense, I don’t know a man or woman alive who could have resisted Meg. Like my wife, Meg had big, beautiful brown eyes, and tended to be a little obstinate. However, since Meg was about 6 feet tall, weighed in at 1,400 lbs, and was decidedly equine in nature, I essentially did whatever she wanted. And for not tossing me over her head, Meg got to feast on alfalfa treats every time we stopped. A few more days on the trail and she might have been as fat as she was tall.
I hadn’t been on a horse since 4H camp in 1982, so when Soldier’s Angels (I am on the Board of Trustees) decided to team up with Montana Horses to run combat veterans through a seven-day ranch experience (the Heroes and Horses Program), it sounded like a great idea. When I met the cowboys in Vegas a few months ago, it seemed an even better idea. And when they offered me a spot on the annual Three Forks Montana round-up and horse drive, I leapt at the idea. My backside, lower body, upper body, hands, back, shoulders and even toes are currently lamenting my hasty, and not particularly well-thought out initiative in saying yes.
Flying into Bozeman, Mont., you get an idea pretty quickly about how beautiful the country is. For a kid who was born in Maine, raised in Massachusetts and lived in South Carolina and D.C., the West is something I’ve never really had a chance to see. My only experience in the West has been a few trips to Colorado last year, and a stint at the National Training Center in Ft. Irwin, Calif. But even Colorado is a bustling metropolis compared to Three Forks Montana where the drive occurred. The flatlands that Bozeman lies in give way abruptly to the mountains in all cardinal directions. There’s not much of a transitory area there; you have flatlands, and then it is mountains.
According to Wiki:
The Bridger Mountains are to the north-northeast, the Tobacco Root Mountains to the west-south-west, the Big Belt Mountains and Horseshoe Hills to the northwest, the Hyalite Peaks of the northern Gallatin Range to the south and the Spanish Peaks of the northern Madison Range to the south-southwest. Bozeman is east of the continental divide, and Interstate 90 passes through the city. It is 84 miles (135 km) east of Butte, 125 miles (201 km) west of Billings, and 93 miles (150 km) north of Yellowstone National Park.
After a quick stop to get pizza, we headed a half hour west to Three Forks, an area as rich in history as it is in beauty. It was here that a 10- or 11-year-old Sacajawea was captured by Hidatsa raiders in an attack that killed her mother. Sacajawea would return later in the fabled Lewis and Clark expedition, with her French Husband Toussaint Charbonneau, and son Jean Baptiste Charbonneau (later to be dubbed Pompy) in tow. Three Forks itself was named by Lewis and Clark for the three rivers which converge to make the Missouri River. As Lewis noted in his journal:
Both Capt. C. and myself corresponded in opinon with rispect[sic] to the impropriety of calling either of these [three] streams the Missouri and accordingly agreed to name them after the President of the United States [Jefferson] and the Secretaries of the Treasury [Gallatin] and State [Madison].
Thursday evening we rolled in and started the briefings. The drive itself is a pretty simple concept. Winter in Montana isn’t a time to be doing much packing up into the hills. Kail and Renee Mantle of Montana Horses operate by leasing out horses to other ranches and groups. In the winter they keep several hundred head of horses in winter pastures about 15 miles south of Three Forks, near a place called “Willow Creek” (population 209.) The horses run free, and generally forget that they are broken. But come spring time, those horses need to be brought back to their ranch (about 10 miles North of Three Forks) to be reminded that they aren’t wild before the Mantles can send them out for the summer. Our job was to work for and with the cowboys to make sure that the 30 mile trek to the summer pastures goes off without a hitch, and no horses get lost or hurt. “You know, we used to do this by ourselves,” said Kail. “Then someone got the idea we could charge people to do it for us. Seemed like a dumb idea to me at the time, but here we are eight years down the road, and people are still coming.”
I don’t know exactly what I had as an idea of what a cowboy would be, but Kail and Renee fit both perfectly in that image, and well outside of it. Both are very educated, Renee even has a law degree. Their political views are what one might expect for rural Montana, with Renee being so Libertarian that even Kail chuckles about it. In case you couldn’t tell that from a few seconds of talking to them (or listening to some of Kail’s bawdy, non-PC songs around the fire), there’s always Kail’s truck’s license plate which rhetorically asks, “Who is John Galt?”
Like the hero of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” the Mantles value rugged individualism and responsibility in their own private “Galt’s Gulch” of Montana. Much like the quiet professionals of our Special Forces, the Mantles prefer to do a good job and get it done, rather then to be seen doing a job, and falling short. As Kail told me regarding success on the drive: “It’s kinda like pissing in a wet suit: it’ll make you feel warm, and nobody will see you doing it.”
The roughly 75 riders were broken down into five or six groups, each headed by an experienced wrangler. Our group was just called “The Soldiers” and consisted of myself, Matt Burden of Blackfive fame, Jeff Pappas (our lead on the Heroes to Horses Program) and a few other folks. Jeff’s son Mike and his friend Kyle Hausmann-Stokes came along with us, but didn’t ride. Both Mike and Kyle are combat vets from Iraq, and Kyle is an incredible videographer who has done work with the VA, and was along to shoot footage for the Soldiers’ Angels Heroes to Horses program. Also along was Jeff Bader, our photographer, and the husband of Soldiers’ Angels founder Patti Patton-Bader (who is the grand niece of General Patton.)
Our wrangler was an energetic cowboy named Roger, who runs an insulation business when he isn’t out on horseback. Always encouraging, it was Roger that kept me up and running from day to day, helping me saddle the horse, giving me tips on how not to bust my grape, and guiding me through the herd on my occasional heart-attack-inducing forays through the herd and up to the front.
Rounding out our group was Mark White, one of the cowboys I met in Las Vegas. Mark and I hit it off immediately, and I would be hard-pressed to pinpoint exactly why. He’s a man’s man, and folks are drawn to him by just the strength of his personality, even more so after they learn more about him. More than 30 years ago Mark was working as a lineman when an accident blew off his leg and burned up his face. He made it through the 30-plus operations that would follow, with his wife Jean at his side.
On one of the slow parts of the ride I got to talking to Mark about the life he’s had with his wife, and their son and daughter. The story was touching in the extreme. They met when Jean was just 14 and Mark was 17. As he tells it, “She was a young Indian from the reservation, and I was a cowboy, seemed like a good mix right from the start.” Forty-one years later, they still act like newlyweds, at one point just dominating the dance floor, while the younger cowboys and us city-folk looked on with envy. I never once saw either of them without a smile on their face. “When I sat there by Mark’s side in the hospital,” Jean tells me, “I promised I’d spend my whole life with this man, and I’ve kept my promise.”
Jean’s a proud Indian, and enjoys making Indian hollers as the herd approached the ending. “Look out!” yells Kail, “I warned y’all this was Injun territory!” Mark seemed a little concerned his daughter got more than her share of that Indian blood, since she’s now an extreme mountain biker in the Seattle area with more than her fair share of broken bones to show for it.
Mark made me aware very quickly that he did not approve of my non-custom head apparel for the trip, a sort of Irish cap with only the brim on the front. “What the hell are you wearing a Tammy Sham for? You want to be my butler?” I don’t know exactly what a “Tammy Sham” is, but it became my name for a while, and I rather enjoyed hearing his voice booming out over the sound of hooves, “Tammy Sham! Get over here!”
And so, that was our crew.
The briefing at the winter pasture had all the trappings of any operations order you’ve ever been through, except without the “Rock Drill.” After that, we set about to getting our horses assigned, getting some time up in the saddle, and making sure everyone knew what they were doing, and had what they needed to accomplish it. “If someone told you that you were coming to dude ranch, you might want to consider kicking their ass. You’re here to work, and you’ll do it or me or one of the wranglers will set you straight with some language you might not have heard before.”
Kail and Renee did seem to have a grasp of our language that was admirable, even for a guy with as many years in the Infantry as I have. Kyle mic’d them up on the horse-drive and was chuckling about how he would need to do a lot of “bleeping” to make the audio PG13. Mark wasn’t much different. As I was whispering sweet-nothings to Meg and plying her with treats to try to buy her affection, Mark was lovingly referring to his mount as “shithead” and similar terms of endearment.
Stage One of the operation came Friday when we started running the ridges of the winter pasture and consolidating all the horses in a smaller one on the road. It’s wasn’t done at a cantor the whole time, which is a good thing, since my body certainly wasn’t ready for that. What there was though was some rather sketchy looking terrain; or at least sketchy looking to a guy who hadn’t ridden in 28 years. Up and over rocky mounts, down little gullies, even across a part of a reservoir. Trying not to get wet while also maintaining my death grip on staying horizontal was more than I could manage, so the boots did get a little wet. Which, in 20-degree Montana weather wasn’t what I had wanted to do, but seemed a small sacrifice considering.
As a light snow fell, I met an older gentleman who was wearing a Redskins watch cap. He looked like he knew what he was doing, and I figured it might not hurt to befriend an actual equestrian in case one of my wrangler friends went missing. We talked about the Skins (he also thought Snyder was a drain on the team) and about horses in general. Somehow we got talking about politics, since he said he was from McLean, Va., and spent the languorous moments between my panic attacks just quietly talking. I wouldn’t find out until two days later that this man was John Rusling Block; a 1957 grad of the U.S. Military Academy, former Screaming Eagle of the 101st Airborne, and Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Agriculture.
I woke up Saturday morning cold and sore. I always thought that it would just be my backside that was sore, and was counting on my ample padding there to shield me. Not so much. I was glad I hadn’t stayed out too late around the fire drinking the ever-present fire water. And by “too late” I really mean, “glad I hit the sack before 1 a.m.” What I recall of the evening I don’t think I will ever forget. I guarantee there are vast stretches at the time that neither Matt nor I will ever remember either (the Scotch was single malt, but the portions were many). Kail and a few other cowboys played songs, with Secretary Block doing a duet of Johnny Cash with his daughter, and Jeff Bader chipping in a few good ones, including a remarkably good imitation of Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead singing “Me and my Uncle.” Not sure how many Deadheads there are hiding amongst the American Cowboy population, but you’ll have to trust me, it fit in well. (I requested “Can’t you see” by Marshall Tucker, but they broke a string before I got that one.) But it was Kail that stole the show with songs about a one-armed man trying to flee a bear by swimming in a circle, a drunken cowboy in South Dakota who after a night in the Saloon woke to find out his new Indian name was “dances with fat girls” and another song about Harley Davidson that I won’t be repeating on the Legacy Drive.
But, out of the rack I rolled, and set out to find Meg. She seemed pleased to see me, or rather, pleased to see my pocket bulging with her tribute of alfalfa.
The drive from the pasture to Three Forks took about three hours. In theory, it works easily enough. You get the horses moving with cowboys up front guiding and the rest stationed behind pushing the recalcitrant herd. When there’s a break in the fence, you put a cowboy and a horse there to block any escapes. Once one horse is gone through, you can count on that trickle becoming a flood as the rest of them smell freedom and start to running. Every now and again word would come back that I was to ride to the front. “Your turn to head up,” the wrangler at the rear, a powerful lady named Barb would say. “You ready?” Somehow the “Hell no” never quite made it from my head to my mouth, which traitorously kept saying “yeah, let’s do this.” I seriously think it was just my fear of Barb, as unfounded as that fear might be. She honestly couldn’t have been nicer, and I had some great chats with her, but she makes woodpecker lips seem soft by comparison. I wasn’t joking when I told her that if the Infantry lets in women, I hope she’s the first one. (Matt said the same thing: “I told Barb very respectfully that she missed her true calling and should have been a Command Sergeant Major.”)
But, the ride through the herd was an experience that is hard to relate. There are about 300 horses, all trucking along at a trot, and the road is only about 20 meters across. Roger would lead, and I tried to keep Meg’s nose on his horses hind parts, as I tried to forget that to the left and right of me (and ahead and behind) were 1400 pound animals that wouldn’t stop if I fell. If I had, they would have found a smear and an Irish cap. Kail said he would have said some fine words for me after the fact, but I didn’t really want it to come to that. Up through the center we pushed, and for some inexplicable reason I kept thinking of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade.”
Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
"Forward, the Light Brigade!
"Charge for the guns!" he said:
Into the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Luckily, there were no guns, and no death. With one hand gripping the reins, and another white-knuckled hand “grabbing leather” (as Mark told me “It’s ‘grabbing leather’ not a ‘death grip’”) I made my way safely to the front. I’d lost Matt in the meantime. Seems he and his buddy Goblin had thrown not one, but two different stirrups, and he was riding in the truck. But, I caught up to Kail, who had a nice chuckle when he saw how pale I was. Mark smiled at me and said “OK, you’re not an Irish butler anymore, now you’re a real cowboy.” The pace was slow at the front, and I enjoyed it like it was a last meal before I walked the Green Mile, which was what the final push into Three Forks felt like.
I was interviewed by an ABC affiliate out of Butte, Montana when I got in that night, and one of the questions they asked was what I was thinking as I made the final turn into Three Forks, where thousands of people stood awaiting our arrival. People lined the roads, clapping, waving, and holding their kids up to get a good eye on the horses. And in the center of it one might have seen the tallest horse bearing a sack of potatoes wearing a Guinness shirt and praying that he wouldn’t get a road rash when he fell off the suddenly sprightly Meg. I answered the question as truthfully as I could, my first thought was “don’t cry.”
I’m kind of at a loss to explain it, but the emotional release rolling into town was nearly more than I could handle. Part of it was just the thought of a shower and a bed to sleep in. I’m not gonna lie, I was looking forward to that and the Guinness awaiting me at the Sacajawea Hotel. But it was more than that. The night before in the tent, as I drunkenly slid off to sleep, I did so listening to the Audio CD of “Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad. One of the passages in that work reads:
Or think of a decent young citizen in a toga–perhaps too much dice, you know–coming out here in the train of some prefect, or tax-gatherer, or trader even, to mend his fortunes. Land in a swamp, march through the woods, and in some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, had closed round him,– all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. He has to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is also detestable. And it has a fascination, too, that goes to work upon him. The fascination of the abomination–you know. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender, the hate.
I think that the drive into Three Forks was the exact opposite of the “fascination of abomination” that Conrad talks about. I would later try to define it as the “catharsis of the pure.” It was almost like being on a religious pilgrimage you didn’t need. Was it a panacea for some hitherto unknown mid-life crisis? Not really, it was just an incredible experience, made all the more incredible because it was so unlikely for me. It just seemed as I made the 500 meter trek through the center of that town that with the exception of my wedding, I’d never been so scared or elated before. And the fact that thousands of people were witnessing it and not understanding what it meant to me made it very special. I tried to talk to Kail and Mark about it, but as Mark told me “I guess when you’ve done it as many times as we have, your main focus is getting the hell off the damn horse.”
A night of revelry ensued at the Sacajawea. There was dinner, some drinks, dancing, more drinks, quiet and not-so-quiet chatting with our new friends, more drinks, and a late crawl into my plush bed at the hotel. I awoke Sunday to find I could barely move. It wasn’t localized pain, I was sore all over. The journey to the shower took longer than my commute to work, but after an hour under near-scalding water, I could move again. I went outside and walked around Three Forks, until one kind woman took pity on me and handed me six Aleve which I chewed with all the gusto of Meg and one of her beloved treats. By the time it came to mount up again, I was ready, if not overly eager.
So north we rode again, albeit at a more leisurely pace. I spent some time talking to Barb, and the Secretary, as Matt made up for the time he missed yesterday by pushing to the front with the real cowboys. If the day before had been beautiful, Sunday was spectacular. We went slow through the Missouri River Headwaters State Park, and moved on towards the mighty metropolis of Trident, Montana, which apparently isn’t even big enough to have its own Wikipedia page, but does house a rather impressive looking cement factory.
One interesting anecdote from this languid stretch was when a rather….well, “excited” male Shetland pony of about 3 ½ feet managed to leap a fence and proceeded to show Meg his interest. I’d seen him running around, but hadn’t noticed his escape in pursuit of the comely Meg. The first indication I had that something was amiss was Meg’s ears turning around, and some of the riders behind me launching profanity. I leaned over to pet Meg’s neck when she suddenly blasted out with her back feet and hit that little guy enough to send him spinning. I’m not sure exactly how I stayed on to be honest, but Meg kept me up top. I didn’t so much mind the little guy’s amorous intent, and admittedly was impressed with the thinking that his 400 lbs body was going to somehow entice Meg, but nonetheless, he needs to be taught some manners. But it reminded me of being in Afghanistan a bit: every time you think all is well with the world, the world will prove you wrong.
We took a left at Trident, and headed down the railroad tracks for the final stretch. Our job was largely done at this point, as on our right was a cliff, and to the left was the Missouri. At first we rode at a slow trot, and enjoyed the day. Kyle had arranged to have a crop dusting plane take him up to get some footage of the drive from the air. Over the river they came, barely ten feet above the water, and seeming to stall as they hovered alongside the slow moving band. Turns out the plane wasn’t always moving so slowly. A Reuters photographer named Jimmy Urquhart had been accompanying us on the trip (you can see his work here) and had asked Kyle if he could go up with him. As Kyle told me later “I’ve jumped out of a lot of planes in my day, but that flight was something else.” Our intrepid reporter didn’t enjoy the flight much; he decorated some of the interior with rib chunks. I felt for the poor guy, but it didn’t keep me from goofing on him later, much as everyone else did me with my pigeon-toed waddle after I dismounted.
At noon on Sunday I found myself standing alone in a pasture in the middle of a ranch in Three Forks, Montana looking down at my cameras that had flecks of vomit on them. I tore off my shirt to clean them as best I could, while trying to figure out how to find some of the dignity I had just lost. The bush plane that dropped me off in my smelly spot of Big Sky Country had just taken off. As I tried to clean myself off while swearing profusely in the direction of a barbed wire fence because I had never been airsick before, I stopped and questioned how in the hell I found myself in this position. After a few moments of cursing virtually everything sacred in the world and listening to the now vomit smelling plane fly away it hit me like the voice of a supportive dad, “clean up your cameras, find somewhere to throw your shirt away… for God’s sake pull up your skirt, you are in the middle of one of the best assignments of your career! Oh, and find somewhere to wash your face and hands, you smell like hell.”
A final fast push, and we found ourselves outside the Mantle’s property, the horses finally back at their summer home. A flask was handed around, and we all congratulated each other on a job well done. Remember when I said that things go south when you least expect it? Meg decided now was a good time to lie down and roll in the dirt. I’m not sure how I managed to leap from stirrups and stay upright, maybe the flask had helped, but I did. So Meg got her roll in the dirt (apparently the sweat was bothering her) and I got another couple of draws from the vessel carrying Mr. Beam. Mark just smiled and said “I told you we’d make a cowboy of you.”
At the awards ceremony that night I would receive a 2011 Montana Horses belt buckle, and the designation of “Most Improved Rider.” Coming from where I was (barely seen a horse in 30 years) being most improved wasn’t too mean a task, but to me it was like earning a medal for valor. Mind you Kail took the opportunity to make fun of my use of Band Aids (hey, under armor shirts will rub certain areas raw) but even that couldn’t detract from my sense of accomplishment. Although we had to leave the Hotel at 6 AM the next morning many were the beverages enjoyed by all that night.
From beginning to end I was in Montana for all of 80 hours, but it was 80 hours I’ll never forget. I’m going back to the Mantle Ranch in a few weeks with the Heroes to Horses program, and look forward to spending the time with Kail and Renee, Mark and Jean, and (of course) Meg if she’s there. Until then, I’ll remember the great times I had, and share the stories with Matt, Jeff, Kyle, Mike, and anyone else who will listen.
Around the fire on that first night, Kail sang one of the many songs he’d written, a song called “Old Road.” It’s the song in the background of the video at the top.
I heard the old west was dead and gone, civilization has taken it’s toll.
Well I think you’re wrong, it’s neither dead nor gone, you just can’t see it from the road.
So, if you ever find yourself in Three Forks, Montana, in late April, look for the Mantles and a couple of hundred horses to go running by you. That’s the West, and that’s America. And if you find yourself there any other time of year, do what Kail says, and get off the road; you’ll find that western spirit alive and well up there in Southwestern Montana. You have my promise on it.