Eastbound to the West
One way to say how I ended up on the Sun is that my life in Walla Walla, Washington, where I’d stacked basalt, poured concrete foundations, and waited for a girl to finish her last year of college, ended. The door slammed shut and I just kept moving, out of desperation more than anything else. I went home to Seattle, slept on the floor in a friend’s house in Fremont, and knocked around miserably in bars. Then I joined up with another buddy, who lived on a sailboat that was thirty years old and twenty-eight feet long, and sailed that tub up to the San Juan Islands in a January storm. I was at the helm when the boom snapped in half and threw us broadside to the swells. As I fought the wheel and Bill cursed his rickety diesel inboard motor, I thought about how small the warmth of my body was and how endless the chill of water. I thought of how things thrown in the ocean sink down beyond the reach of the sun. Waves broke over the bow and it was raining so hard that I breathed through my nose to keep from choking. In spite of oilskins, rubber boots, a plastic hood, and neoprene gloves, I was soaked to the skin.
When the motor finally kicked over, Bill folded the sail into a packet no bigger than a bedsheet, and we limped against the storm back toward Port Townsend. Veils of rain hid the Olympic Peninsula, so it seemed the world was made of only water. I tasted the ocean. It flooded my eyes. I watched it rise into jagged topographies that passed like mountain ranges on the move. When we docked, I had to pry my hands from around the wheel. I stepped onto dry land and thought: Enough.
Getting lost was easy. One day I went down to the Amtrak station and slid out of Seattle on a pair of steel rails, traveling three unwashed days down the coast to San Diego, where I surfed poorly and did chores for my grandparents. My grandfather was on the mend from his first go-round with cancer. Though we couldn’t walk the beach together, he was optimistic when he left me at the station.
I took trains that rattled across the Southwest: Phoenix, Tucson, San Antonio, and a hundred map dots in between. I got a hotel room in New Orleans for my twenty-third birthday, did what everyone does there, then ran north to get away. From D.C. and New York to Chicago, where clinker ice hissed against a concrete breakwater, I was quick and free. My feet had barely touched the ground since California. I bought a southbound ticket and one week later crossed into Juárez, Mexico, in the middle of the night.
It makes a difference when your money runs out, especially in Mexico. I ate tacos of dubious provenance, scraped through the twisting innards of the Copper Canyon, and hitchhiked up Baja in a propane delivery truck with no starter and no brakes. After crossing back into the States at Tijuana, I spent three days retching in my grandparents’ bathroom, and went home to Seattle feeling as though I could handle just about anything. I looked for work, and the first good thing I found was a summer ranch job.
That’s one way to explain how I got to the Sun.
Another way to say it is that, ever since I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with the West. I grew up in Seattle, the son of a professional photographer and an art director. My father started running the University of Washington’s art museum when I was four and kept the job for twenty years. He must have had a touch of my own mania, because when I was seven he organized a show called The Myth of the West. While the curators installed it, I played with balls of wadded masking tape in front of Albert Bierstadt’s lightsoaked picture of Yellowstone Falls and practiced my quick draw facing Andy Warhol’s duded-up Double Elvis.
Dad brought home crowds of artists from work to eat at our long kitchen table. I was six when Pat Zentz came to dinner and kept everyone up with stories until night gave way to morning. In Seattle’s art scene, Pat was something different. He hailed from a ranch outside of Billings: a two-thousand-acre spread of dryland wheat, old homestead buildings, Black Angus cattle, grass, and sky where he built sculptures and worked like hell to keep from losing the land. One of these summers, Pat said, we should come out and see it.
Our first visit to the Zentz Ranch, when I was seven years old, lasted only a couple of days. We pulled spotted knapweed with Pat, his wife, Suzie, and their three boys and helped move a few cows on horseback. My mother photographed every skeletal cottonwood and disintegrating outbuilding she could find. On the last evening, we drove out to a high bluff that Pat called Martini Ridge and watched the sky grow dark above the Crazy Mountains.
Emergent stars seemed closer than the horizon. When we left I pressed my face to a dusty backseat window and cried.
I came back the next summer—stayed longer, worked a little bit harder, got paid two bucks an hour. I learned to roll up rusty, ground-bound strands of barbwire. In the summers that followed, I built fence, fixed fence, moved cows, and learned how to catch and tack a horse. I drove a 1978 GMC High Sierra on tracks so rough my forehead smacked the steering wheel. When the work was done I lay faceup on the truck’s roof looking into the deep blue bowl of the sky. Thunderstorms rose in the southwest, raged a short while, and then blew east to die in the Badlands. The smell of wet dirt followed.
Every summer until I turned eighteen, I returned to the Zentz Ranch to work for nothing, or next to nothing, finding recompense in the little calluses on my palms. Whenever I went home to the damp claustrophobia of Seattle, I would dream about big, dry, lonely country. I pictured it each time I bought a ticket to anywhere or filled up the gas tank on my truck.
After returning from Mexico, when I sat down in front of my parents’ computer to look for a job, I could not put the idea of ranching from my mind. I found a job announcement on the Montana State University website. The first paragraph read: The Sun Ranch is located on the edge of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, in the upper Madison River Valley of southwestern Montana, about 30 miles south of Ennis. It encompasses approximately 25,000 acres of deeded land and grazing leases. The Ranch is committed to conservation and improving the health of the land for wildlife and livestock through progressive management.
The position was seasonal, a six-month gig beginning on the first of May. The job title was Assistant Grazing Technician/Livestock Manager. Of the nine traits listed as the “Successful Applicant’s Qualities,” six were unremarkable, couched in the narcotic jargon of human resources, but the last three were different. I read them slowly and more than once: “Common Sense, Adaptability, Gumption.”
I did a little research and found that the Sun Ranch straddles one of the most important wildlife corridors in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, providing habitat for grizzly bears, wolves, lynx, and wolverines. Elk herds numbering in the thousands move across it. The ranch was at the vanguard of a movement to rethink the way agriculture is practiced in the West. Large herds of yearling cattle grazed the ranch each summer. The movement of these heifers and steers across the landscape was carefully choreographed to complement, rather than hinder, the systems of the wild. Simply put, the idea was to integrate ranching into a functional, natural ecosystem.
The Madison Valley, and especially the south end of the Madison Valley, was my father’s fishing heaven. He’d taken me to the river as a teenager, and we’d leapfrogged up the pocket water near Three Dollar Bridge. From my time on the Zentz place I knew a bit about the work described, the fencing and herding, anyway. I had gumption, or thought I did, so I called about the job and was hired.
On my last morning in Seattle, I packed the back of my truck with jeans and work shirts, a few cooking utensils, sheets, and food that would keep. I scuffed my cowboy boots against a curb so they wouldn’t look brand-new and drove out of the city on wet streets, weaving through the morning rush.
Interstate 90 led toward the west slope of the Cascades. Ahead the clouds snugged down around Snoqualmie Pass and its attendant peaks like a gray skullcap. The forest pressed in from either side of the freeway—firs, cedars, and elephantine blackberry tangles.
I charged up and over the pass. The walls of greenery blurred and then, somewhere after Cle Elum, disappeared.
I had practiced this departure many times, and as the irrigated fields and scrubland of eastern Washington unfurled in all directions, everything felt right. I was headed away from my youth and home, a place where the clouds spat water through a lush, evergreen canopy. Ahead, the horizon was wide and empty, and the sky a clear blue. I was eastbound toward the West, to become a ranch hand in the high country of Montana. I never even glanced at the rearview mirror.
I sped through wheat fields and orchards, slept in a ratty Coeur d’Alene motel, and crossed into Montana by way of the Idaho Panhandle. By four in the afternoon I was at the foot of the Norris hill. If the Norris hill were someplace flatter than southwest Montana, it would be considered a mountain. Here, though, it’s unremarkable, and probably wouldn’t even merit a name if it weren’t for the fact that Highway 287 climbs it to a saddle from which the whole Madison Valley is visible.
The view on the far side is distracting enough to cause a wreck. I pulled to the edge of the road to take it in. Two mountain ranges strike south from the hill, keeping roughly parallel to each other.
In the foreground they are at least ten miles apart, but farther off the ranges bend inward, pinching off the valley like an hourglass waist. Though the valley is symmetrical in shape, the mountains that flank it could not be more different.
On the east side, the Madisons leap suddenly toward the blue sky. Sharp, sheer, and rocky, at first glance they seem to cant forward and overhang the valley slightly. My map named some of the peaks: Fan, Helmet, Sphinx, and Wedge. From the top of the Norris hill they look like a solid wall with broken shards of glass along the top.
The map also named a few of the Gravelly Range’s westward mountains, but I could not match them to the landscape. While the Madisons form a line of glinting canine teeth, the Gravellies are a many-shouldered swelling of the earth. The fallen-down range humps up from the floodplain grass, rising into a maze of timbered ridges, flecked from bottom to top with open meadows of various sizes.
Rangeland begins where the foothills end, and the valley is wide enough to hold an ocean of grass. From atop the Norris hill, the landscape resolves into a series of descending benches, regular enough to look from a distance like a massive green-carpeted staircase connecting the mountains to the river.
The most striking part of it all was the Madison River, which reflected the afternoon sun and drew a golden line through the heart of the valley. Curving smoothly across the floodplain like a snake navigating stony ground, the river issues from the south and is flanked on either side by dark thickets of willow.
Traffic roared behind me, pulling my attention back to the early-season tourists and long-haul truckers topping the hill and accelerating down into the valley like roller-coaster cars. A little convoy of them dropped out of sight on a curve and reappeared on the far side of the town of Ennis. After Ennis, the highway crosses the Madison and veers south, running straight toward a little smudge in the grass called Cameron, population forty-nine.
According to my map, Cameron was fifteen miles from Ennis, and the Sun Ranch fifteen miles farther up the road. I stared south, following the twists and turns of the Madison River upstream to where the mountains squeezed in tight around it, trying to imagine how the ranch lay upon the land.
When I arrived on the Sun for the first time, Jeremy was standing in his front yard, waiting. For a long time I wondered how he had pulled that off, since I had given him the day, but not the time, of my arrival. No doubt he’d heard my truck clattering over the frontage road washboards or seen a dust trail rising. At any rate he was ready and I found him leaning against a low chain-link fence, looking like the boss in a broad straw hat and a sun-faded blue shirt.
“Glad you found it,” he said, and shook my hand.
I thanked him for taking a chance on hiring me, and he laughed like I had told a good joke. Up close, Jeremy looked younger, almost baby-faced except for a light goatee and a pair of round photosensitive glasses. Under the high April sun, those glasses turned dark enough to hide his eyes entirely.
We talked in the yard, orbited by a pair of black border collies. Sometimes the dogs trotted up close to measure me with quick, inquisitive sniffs.
Jeremy took me on a walking tour of a cluster of buildings adjacent to his house. We looped through a machine shop, corrals, and a handful of old livestock sheds in slump-roofed subsidence.
Because of the eponymous stream that ran behind these structures, the little settlement was known as Wolf Creek. In addition to the compound we were walking through, there was another clump of buildings in the dead center of the ranch, which included the owner’s house, an old barn, the ranch office, and a sheet-metal building full of heavy equipment. Those constructions were scattered along a watercourse of their own, and were therefore called the Moose Creek buildings.
As we passed the various ranch trucks, parked in a neat line, Jeremy pointed at a massive white one-ton flatbed Ford.
“You’ll share that one with James, when he gets here.”
He left me at a low wooden bunkhouse, not far from the machine shop, with instructions to get settled in.
“See you in the morning,” Jeremy said. “We leave at seven.”
I had arrived.