I Ditched My Phone for a Montana Cattle Drive and Finally Dealt With My Feelings
It might be nice to come to Montana with an emotional crisis. For the story, I thought: Cattle Drive Cures Heartache. But then I was crying next to the See’s Candies kiosk in the airport and felt less sure about the plot I’d accidentally manifested. The elderly men on the flight to Missoula were way too chipper with their fishing rods. Should I really break up with my long-term boyfriend? What did I expect to get at a ranch across the country, some sage words from wizened horsewomen? At the very least, I supposed, I would listen to moody Mitski and Be the Cowboy.
I’d packed tipsily the night before: a prairie dress, a duster, a couple of pairs of jeans, and vintage heeled cowboy boots that the head wrangler would eventually poo-poo. (A too-high heel risks getting caught in the stirrup, which means getting dragged by your horse, leg first if you fall off.) Thankfully Triple Creek Ranch, my eventual destination, came stocked with every amenity: extra rain jackets, flashlights, and packets of sunscreen.
Perched in the Bitterroot Valley outside of Darby, Montana (population 700), Triple Creek is the kind of place where couples return year after year. They have their favorite cabin and catch up with the head chef over innovative dinners. Some weekends, the ranch owners invite guests for cocktails at their private homes. On Saturdays, the smiley activities coordinator Wes hosts a star-gazing night, highlighting planets with a special laser pointer that extends into the sky. (Missoula, the closest city, has light pollution ordinances—you can see the Milky Way with the naked eye.) Every night, gourmet s’mores are served at a crackling campfire by the pool.
There is no cell service at Triple Creek Ranch, and while it does have Internet, it runs at a slowpoke speed, and only in the buildings. I was forced to set aside my Instagram Stories addiction and focus instead on taking stock of my feelings. This lack of connectivity also means the DVD market is alive and well in rural Montana—Triple Creek has its own library, and one wrangler told me she was making her way through Game of Thrones, disc by disc. After I excitedly borrowed a Cameron Diaz road-trip rom-com, I realized I no longer know how to troubleshoot a TV, and couldn’t get the system to work. I took a hot tub surrounded by trees instead.
On the day of the cattle drive, I picked out a pair of fringed chaps to wear over my jeans. I chose a cowboy hat and a helmet, knowing my mom would never forgive me if I cracked my skull. We trailered out to a nearby ranch, where a couple of hundred black Angus cows were scattered across acres. They were on a rotational grazing schedule, so the owner needed us to move them to another field on the other side of the road. I appreciated that our recreational activity wasn’t some made-up task; we were actually taking care of work that needed doing.
Cattle drives are the most popular activity at Triple Creek, and some people become so attached to the experience that they plan their trip around the final fall round-up, when wranglers scour the 26,000 acres of its associated working ranch, CB, for missing cows. There’s also the annual all-women’s ride in the Montana Rockies, when participants go a total of 62 miles, raising money for charity.
Time on a ranch is part adventure expedition, part wellness getaway, and the options between luxurious and rugged are many. There are dude ranches, guest ranches, and working ranches. Triple Creek is a guest ranch, meaning accommodations are beyond comfortable and every service is seen to (I distrust most coffee, but can report they make a great locally-roasted latte). Dude ranches like Bar W and Sylvan Dale take pride in offering a more down-to-earth experience, with bunkhouse accommodations and family-style dining. Working ranches are the real deal, though they’ll occasionally accept help from city slickers.
We—a game-but-green Texan couple, an experienced rider from Salt Lake City, and a young couple wearing matching Cartier Love bracelets from New York—were nervous as the wranglers launched into their pre-drive speech. We were to work as a team, they said, pushing the cows over to a tree in the distance so that we could eventually herd them through a gate and across the road. Some of us would drive—moving the cows from the back of the herd—while others would flank, keeping them orderly on the sides. There were potholes and rattlesnakes to mind, as well as irrigation ditches. The wranglers could radio to each other, but otherwise, our communications would be limited to yelling across the plain.
We split up into teams of three, and then eventually I found myself alone, my horse whinnying for the others. I moved a pack of 20 or so cows towards the rest of the herd, zigzagging back and forth to encourage different sets of mothers and babies. I was suddenly self-reliant in an environment I’d never navigated before. I’d become so used to laboring over existential questions without immediate answers—will I ever have my own family, am I too difficult to love—that it was reassuring to follow my instincts in an unfamiliar setting, and find them effective. Perhaps I could channel this capable feeling in other daunting environments, beyond the bovines.
I never knew there were so many moos. Like Rosamund Young writes in The Secret Life of Cows, “Cows are as varied as people. They can be highly intelligent or slow to understand; friendly, considerate, aggressive, docile, inventive, dull, proud or shy.” While many of them plodded along with the herd, a few were defiant, staring me down until I got right up close. The family dynamics were clear as they played with one another, and protected the young. I’ve never felt better about being vegetarian.
A long weekend in Montana didn’t prepare me to fend for myself in the wilds of New York (my boyfriend and I resolved our issues soon after my return), but it reminded me of my own willpower and the varied ways of life I could one day choose. My trail ride guide had come to Montana to find some quiet where he could work on his novel. The marketing manager worked her way to the top of book publishing in New York before realizing she belonged out West. The activities coordinator who drove me back to the airport told me that, coming from Tampa, he’d never seen snow before. Soon after he arrived at the ranch, he survived one of the harshest winters in recent history. As we sped past the biggest sign in town—TAXIDERMY—he admitted dating could be difficult here. On my way to Montana, I’d felt so stuck, bound to go through the motions of subways, coffee, and Netflix nights forever. To my surprise, the biggest reminder of freedom didn’t come from horses or cows, but instead the people who had committed to living on their own terms.