Big Hat, Big Job, Big Sky

You can picture it as well as I can – the prototype rancher with a sun-wrinkled face, wiry frame, cowboy hat, mud-spattered jeans and boots. He’s an icon of the American West, and has shown up in places as varied as City Slickers and Marlboro commercials.

But did you ever think about what it means to live the life, not just wear the hat? And that not all wranglers are weather-beaten guys?

I had an eye-opening weekend at Sweet Grass Ranch, a working cattle and dude ranch about 40 miles outside of Big Timber, Montana. We were there for the wedding of an old college friend’s daughter, a San Francisco-raised young woman who fell in love first with Montana, then with cattle wrangling and finally with a rancher.

There’s a lot to love about this part of the country, where you wake up every morning to spectacular vistas and go to bed every night with stars blazing in a pitch black sky. Where ranches are 10,000 to 20,000 acres, and talk at dinner is about where the cattle will be grazing next. Where you drive very slowly on winding gravel roads, and patiently wait for a calf to wander across the road in front of you. Where your livelihood is your entire life, and you raise your children, hoping that at least one of them will opt for the ranching life so your legacy can live on.

And weddings are not just family events – they are celebrations for the entire town.

Jenny was wed on the side of mountain in the foothills that you see here:

We sat on hay bales, and the bridal path was freshly mowed through the meadow. Our friend, Doug, performed the service against that breathtaking vista.

After the ceremony, everyone hopped into their pick-ups and headed to the groom’s ranch for the reception. Where the entire town was in attendance. Because when you get married in a ranching community, you invite everyone – after all, you never know when you’ll need to drive your cattle across someone else’s land.

But don’t romanticize this life, because there’s nothing Hollywood or glamourous about it. This is a tough, tough life. It’s physically and intellectually demanding. Yes, you need to be able to ride a horse and herd cattle, throw bales of hale and manage heavy equipment. But you also need to know what’s growing in your fields, and if the flowers in bloom will produce good beef or not.  You need to know the land like the back of your hand, and where to drive cattle for the winter, spring, summer and fall.

You need a big heart to go with this very big job.

I take my hat off to Jenny. God knows I could never live the life she’s chosen.  But this weekend has give me enormous respect for our country’s ranchers. Think about it the next time you eat a slab of roast beef.

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One Response

  1. Sounds like a wonderful wedding.

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