Vermont Goes West, continued
Becky and I landed in Kalispell, Montana at midnight and took a cab to the Kalispell Grand Hotel, built in 1912, and wonderfully restored. As I wheeled my luggage through the saloon doors to the stairs, I felt like Miss Kitty. If I’d been more astute at seeing the future, I might have seen myself as Calamity Jane.
In the morning, we boarded the van for McGinnis, seventy miles away. Montana is sharply etched: tall slim evergreens pierce the sky. Low mountains lie clean against the blue horizon. We drove through a long deep valley and sometime later, we arrived at the ranch.
The cabin we had booked to stay in was the one farthest from the lodge. We hoisted our luggage, took a narrow path from the main house, crossed a brook, and then we saw it: its back nestled into the woods, its small porch facing out onto a vast meadow, which, we would learn, welcomed herds of deer in the afternoon. The conventional cabin belied its interior. The ground floor held a huge bed, draped with a deep rose coverlet. Half a dozen flounced pillows buffered the oak carved headboard. A crystal chandelier hung above the bed. Lamps with red brocade shades and tassels stood on the bedside tables. I blinked: bordello meets rustic cabin, I thought.
Upstairs in the small loft, two single beds dressed with Native American blankets nestled in the eaves. This is where I chose to sleep, a cozy place I shared (unwillingly) with a small mouse.
On our first morning, along with everyone else, we took a class in basic horsemanship: how to mount, turn, stop and fall off a horse. My inclination was to tell them that I already knew how to fall off a horse, but I let it pass. And it was then that I realized that there were no amateur horsemen here. People had come from all parts of the country to work with these skilled teachers of the Brannaman method. They had all ridden for years and were refining well honed skills. And they were all decades younger than I was. I felt like a weekend dancer who has inexplicably landed in the Kirov. I was in way over my head.
Only one of us knows what we're doing
But the days went well. My complete lack of experience was married to a complete lack of fear—not a combination I actually recommend—and things progressed as well as they could. And while I could rarely make my horse, Hollywood, understand what I wanted, at least I did manage to stay on her. I had wanted to ride a horse called Donald Trump, so named because he had a long blond forelock which kept falling over his face. But Donald was claimed by someone else—and a good thing too—as he turned out to be unreliable and a little bit shady…..
I took morning instruction and afternoon trail rides. I ignored the other offerings of round up and wrangling. And Becky had not managed to fit them in. On our last afternoon, I signed up for a short trail ride. Our group of seven included four gifted and experienced riders, one cow hand along to round up cattle which had strayed into the hills, and our leader, Randy, a principal instructor whose remarkable skill and grace intimidated me.
We trotted out from the ranch at a fast clip, no mean feat for an amateur like me. The sun was high and the heat was intense. My cowboy hat shielded me a little; but it took all of my energy to keep up with the group.
We rode out across the valley and then began to climb, looking for the lost cattle. The horses slowed as they carefully picked their way up the rocky hillside. And then we spotted them: five cattle just below us in a small meadow. “Ya’ll stay here,” said Randy to the group. “Head ‘em off to us if they come your way.”
“You!” he said suddenly, looking straight at me. “Come with me.” I looked around wildly. Surely the man was talking to someone else! “Let’s go!” he said, brushing my horse slightly on the rump. And off we went: through brambles, scrub, woods and brush. Up hillocks, down vales, across brooks, and finally out onto the meadow. The cows looked up questioningly. They hadn’t moved from their grazing. “Head ‘em off that way,” Randy called to me, gesturing to a bottle neck at the end of the field. “Ride straight towards ‘em.”
This man is just crazy, I thought, squinting at the five huge animals which looked extremely grumpy to me. And one brown one looked downright angry…..
“And around,” called Randy to me, waving at the cow hand who was making his way towards us at a leisurely pace. “Okey dokey,” he said, nodding at the cow hand, and looking at the rest of us said, “Let’s go for a ride!” I looked at him in amazement. Surely we were going home now, weren’t we? I was completely exhausted, but of course, he hadn’t even broken a sweat.
And so we regrouped and headed up the mountain. Hollywood had been exhilarated by the wrangling, and now decided to take her head. With great enthusiasm, she lunged up the mountain, me clinging to her neck. And suddenly we were at the top, standing on an exposed plateau overlooking the valley. It was breathtaking. But sightseeing was not on Hollywood’s agenda. With a quick, backwards, knowing look at me, she began to plunge down the mountain at a staggering pace. I tried to shorten the reigns but it was too little and too late. We skittered downhill, scattering stones and shearing scrub. I braced myself in the stirrups and clung to her mane.
Some time later I collapsed on my bed. “I wrangled,” I said to no one in particular, but maybe the mouse heard me. “I actually did it!” And like all things we think we’re incapable of before we have to do them, this experience changed my life.
And at dinner that night, as I passed Randy, he smiled at me and said, “Howdy wrangler. That was nice work!”
Joan Jaffe February 2018
Photographs by Becky Conklin