Authentic American traditions alive in Montana
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.”
It was true, I was in the middle of covering one of the best assignments of my life. I have photographed some great assignments in my career ranging from international news to local sports but this was about access and being in the great outdoors. I had been assigned to spend several days covering Montana Horses’ spring drive.
After making the seven hour, 500 plus miles drive from my home in Salt Lake City, Utah, that took me through some of the most beautiful country in the world and two near whiteout snowstorms, I finally arrived at a horse camp outside Three Forks, Montana.
I grew up in the west and have always enjoyed the outdoors and the western way of life. However, I have never been a cowboy and having once been chased out of a pool hall in Pinedale, Wyoming by a cowboy after a heated discussion that ended when I commented on his mother’s mating habits, I knew some cowboys could be a little rough on the edges. None of that was here. As soon as I made it to camp I was welcomed by the friendliest cowboys and cowgirls in the world.
They had all gathered to drive about 350 horses from their winter pasture 35 miles to another pasture from where they would be picked up for their summer jobs as trail horses at summer camps, national parks and the touristy dude ranches.
From the get-go I was set right in the middle of it all. None of this “press stays somewhere else” stuff. I slept in the wall tent with about 8 other wranglers. We ate together, we drank together and we all gave each other grief. But I have camped enough in wall tents in the middle of winter to know to pick a cot for my sleeping bag that was very far away from the camp stove that heats the tent. By doing this I was sure I wouldn’t have to be the one to get out of my sleeping bag to restart the fire in the middle of the night. The first night saw rain at the camp, followed by freezing temperatures and then snow.
But the cold couldn’t take anything away from the people. There were people like Mark White, a wrangler that lost his leg in the 1970’s but you would never know it. There was a nurse from Baltimore named Margaret Whitehead and a consultant with a financial software firm named Don Pugh, all of whom went out of their way to make sure I was welcomed.
I was also very fortunate to be able to work with Val Westover and Stephanie Adriana who are amazing equine photographers and have been on many drives. The two worked hard to give me as much information as possible and to get me in the right spots for the photos. I also found a great working companion in filmmaker Kyle Hausmann-Stokes, who I worked with side-by-side throughout the drive.
Kyle endured with me a 100-plus mile per hour ride in the back of an open pickup bed driven by a cowboy that carried at least two pistols in his truck as he got us ahead of the herd of horses.
Unfortunately for him, he also witnessed the plane episode. I will always be thankful for pilot Cody Folkvord who did not get upset when I got sick in his plane but simply asked (in an attempt to perk me up before we landed in the horse pasture), “did you have Tang for breakfast?”
Over the course of four days and four nights I witnessed a real piece of American history in action. This was a real authentic working horse drive – not like many of the dude ranch drives that dot the west now where paying city slickers get to spend a couple days driving livestock to one pasture which are driven back to the previous pasture once a new set of city slickers arrive.
Kail and Renee Mantle run Montana Horses. A big part of the ranch operation is to lease horses to horse camps in national parks, summer camps and to dude ranches. The horses have to be gathered after spending the winter on the range. They are gathered and are herded to Mantle’s ranch outside Three Forks where they are prepped for their summer employment and picked up.
Yes, there are paying clients, but these riders are already advanced riders paying for the opportunity to really test themselves by working to control a herd of 350 horses on a drive that presents its fair share of real life dangers. There were some injuries. Luckily they were minor, with the worst being a wrangler temporarily knocked out.
The spring drive has become a real attraction for the community of Three Forks. I witnessed this while riding in the back of the pickup truck racing into town ahead of the herd. As we got closer to town I saw blurs of people lining the streets waiting to watch the horses being herded down the town’s main street.
I found working in Montana to be very easy. In many cases all that was needed was a handshake and a smile to get most requests filled. At one point the manager of the Sacajawea Hotel got us up above the crowd and right over the horses in a fork lift as the herd raced through town. Something like that would take many phone calls, trading off your first born, permits and and an act of Congress to get accomplished in many communities.
But that was key to this assignment. I was witnessing a real American west tradition alive in the horse drive and in the sun-kissed faces of everyone that participated.
So there I was standing in a field by myself, looking like a complete mess. But in that moment I was not willing to trade any of it. I was in the middle of one of the best assignments of my career and I still had more shooting to do.