Many people who grow up rural might hate to admit it, but sometimes it takes a city slicker to appreciate what's great about wild land and open spaces. Montana often attracts energetic, starry-eyed men and women, eager to hike, fish and hunt. The ones who can't assimilate stick out like sore thumbs, destined to eventually head for home. But many, lucky enough to have found the place they were meant to be, wear into their boots and earn their tan lines until you'd never know they originated in a metropolitan suburb. It's these people who can teach us a lot.
Author Bryce Andrews is one of these adventurers who found a better fit in the West, and learned to love it for things that even native Montanans might not appreciate. He grew up in Seattle, but summer trips as a kid to a Billings-area ranch are what shaped his imagination. As he writes in his memoir, Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West, after college Andrews felt pulled toward the "big, dry, lovely country" of Montana. He's become a 21st century kind of cowboy, one who's studied environmental science and conservation, understands the importance of riparian habitats, and he can ride an ATV, rope a heifer, fix a fence and knock back a few beers at the saloon afterward. He can read landscapes like some of us read a street map; he prefers the habitat of open spaces and jagged peaks.
Most of Badluck Way details Andrews' experiences in the early 2000s as a 23-year-old working on the vast Sun Ranch south of Ennis. He describes a hard, beautiful world, delineated by miles of barbwire fence and ancient geography.
"Some people are dumb enough to pronounce this high country empty," Andrews writes. "They pull off the highway at the Madison Bend, belly up to the bar at the Griz, watch the baseball game for a while, and then ask without the barest hint of irony: How can you live out here? Nothing happens and there isn't anything to do."
But for Andrews, there's everything to do. He finds drama in solo backpacking trips, joy in hard work and fascination in the interaction of human and nature. Badluck Way is also a story about a search for an identity, one that readers can identify with even if their own adventures were not quite so gritty. It's about labor, and finding one's purpose in it. Ranch work remains about as hands-on, grungy and miserable as it would have been 100 years ago; continual pain and violence that are part of the job. And yet, Andrews says, after one particularly satisfying day, he realized, "I was living at the center of my heart's geography."
His story reaches its crescendo when a pack of wolves start to prey on the cattle he's bound to protect. "... I was seething with anger. The wolves had gone too far. They had stolen too much from us," he writes, and so he exhausts himself chasing after the wolf. But after he comes face to face with one and kills it, he has to deal with his guilt. "As we stumbled along, I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that I had taken something that floated through the forest like a spirit, and reduced it to dead weight and a fecal smell."
I came to this book with a fair amount of wolf fatigue, tired of reading the endless back-and-forth in the news. But Andrews offers a fresh and complex perspective, one that recognizes the importance of natural rhythms, a rancher's need to protect his or her livelihood and the ongoing, frustrating conflict of putting out slow-moving prey on open rangeland and hoping that wolves will seek elsewhere for their supper.
Andrews can't come to any easy conclusion, and neither can the reader. There are other unsettling questions to take from Badluck Way, ones that I hadn't anticipated finding. Andrews and the other ranch hands' lives are devoted to the cattle, but the cattle aren't even a real source of revenue anymore. The ranch struggles to make ends meet using a combination of agriculture and tourism, with a posh lodge on a portion of the property and guided hunts for elk. Development continually looms as a possibility. Subdivisions are already platted out when Andrews arrives. It might help keep the ranch and its fundamental purpose afloat, he admits, but at a cost. "Yard lights would fleck the night like cancers on a brain scan," he writes. "Domestics would come and go, and in winter the home owners would slide into ditches and need rescuing. Eventually one of them would call to complain about cattle shitting on his driveway, eating his plantings or ruining his view of the mountains."
In the afterword, Andrews says he moves on to other projects and ranches, but it's the Sun that captures his memory. "I am still haunted by the grassy sweep of the Madison Valley, the herds of elk that move like clouds across it, and the wolves running creek bottoms in the morning half light." After finishing Badluck Way, the reader will likely feel the same.