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From behind the steering wheel of a 1989 Ford flatbed, Howard only speaks in answers. He wears a felted Stormy Kromer and a black silk scarf around his neck. He has eyeglasses, a gray mustache and clay-caked boots. At first meeting, he lacks the affability of his father; he doesn't say hello, he nods. He doesn't extend a hand until you extend yours. It doesn't seem unfriendly so much as cautious, a trait typical of people in this area. It's a little bit like Rooster Cogburn at his soberest, a demeanor that can make a twenty-something-year-oldwish he hadn't said he grew up in Connecticut.
Howard stops the truck in a pasture where 40 or so head of cattle are eating a freshly unrolled bail of hay. They all turn and watch us as they chew. Howard explains that these cows will calve in April and their offspring will spend the summer working the semi-arid grassland into 400 pounds of lean meat to be sold at auction in October. From there, the calves end up in feedlots in Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, where they are fed grain and corn until they are marbled and knob-kneed1,400 pounds ready for slaughter. Ranch life is cyclical: calving in the spring, branding in the early summer, weaning in the fall. The completion of one job means only that you can begin the next. Depending on where you started keeping score, you end up a year older and back where you began.
Heading back to ranch headquarters, I ask Howard if he's ever had another job. He says he poured concrete for a summer after coming back from Vietnam, then he laughs for the first time since we met and says, "No, I've never really had another job." Ranching is hard, he says, but it's also interesting, different every day. "There are no days off," he says. "You live here and it's your life. Something can always be done." There are over 150 miles of fence on his property. "At the very least, there's always fence to mend."
Howard's only child, a daughter, is a lab technician in Miles City. Her husband rodeos, Howard says, and the two work a smaller cattle ranch on the Powder River. Howard isn't sure they'd ever move up to Ingomar to take over. Most likely, he and Wally will be the last Newmans to steward NNN ranch.
To an outsider, age would seem the most pressing issue in Ingomar's future. Not only are most of the buildings old, but most of the residents are elderly or close to it. Mark Boone, 43, claims he's been the youngest person in Ingomar since he moved there 23 years ago. The next-youngest person I met is Susan Webber, who fills in at the post office and waitresses at the bar, the Jersey Lilly. She's 57.
Mark and his father, Stan, are something of an anomaly in Ingomar. Stan, 76, was a sales executive for Xerox in California before tiring of corporate life and moving to Darby in 1972. "That was before people didn't want anything to do with Californians," Stan explains without even a glint of a smile.
Stan spent 17 years raising cattle in the Bitterroot before heading east to Ingomar. By that time, Mark was already sure he wanted to be a rancher. When Mark was starting high school in Darby, Stan says, "I took him aside and asked what he wanted to do. He told me he wanted to ranch. His little brother was there, too, and I asked him what he wanted to do. He said he wanted to be a fighter pilot." Stan points to a picture of a man standing next to the open cockpit of a fighter jet—his younger son—and a rare smile spreads across his face. "That was a worthwhile conversation," he says.
These days, Stan works less than he used to, leaving the management of the ranch to Mark, but he still gets out on horseback to trail cattle and check fence.
Ingomar persists because of beef. Nearly everyone in town owns a ranch, works on a ranch or worked on a ranch. In recent years, the price of beef has hit near-record highs. Boone explains this is not only due to a growing overseas market, but also because there are just fewer head of cattle being raised. In part due to the worst drought the southern plains has seen since the Dust Bowl, 2011 saw the smallest U.S. cattle herd since 1952.
'We choose this life, every day'
On a clear day, Mark Boone is driving north to show me a place that his dad thought I'd like to see. As we turn off the dirt and clay road, onto a double-track through grass, he says he doesn't know why this spot on the northeast edge of his father's land is called Acorn Flats. There are no oak trees—hardly trees at all. The spot is 30 miles from pavement, 35 miles from Ingomar, much of which, like Acorn Flats, is gone now, burnt or blown over, save for a bar and a post office. When it rains too much, you can't get here. When it snows too much, you can't get here. Unless you asked one of a few people, you'd never know Acorn Flats existed.
Mark has a neat mustache and blue eyes that brightly contrast with his wind-burnt complexion. He's eager to share information about his life, the land, cattle ranching. He says he gets about one flat tire a week driving these roads. He makes it to Billings to see his wife and children about as often. He explains that though this country is best used for cattle, the land is only suitable, not ideal. The soil is so alkaline that deposits of salt carpet the earth between clusters of sage, greasewood and yucca, like perennial frost. He says a single head of cattle needs about 50 acres. He looks after 800 head on 65 square miles.
As he stops the truck, he says, "You know, a lot of people make the assumption that we're out here because we don't have anything better to do. Like we're stuck here. But we choose this life, every day."
Boone has children, but he is fairly certain none of them will ever do what he and his father chose to do. "It's hard to get young people out here," he says. "It's hard for us to even pay anyone minimum wage. And with no schools, no socializing to be had, it's hard to convince young people this is a good opportunity."
He begins walking, winds a path through the thigh-high grass and warns to be careful of nails sticking out of planks of wood scattered on the ground. In the summer, he says, you have to worry about rattlesnakes too.
A break in the grass reveals a sun bleached spinal cord. He says most of the antelope are gone these days: "They say it's some kind of disease is getting them."
Acorn Flats is a conglomeration of buildings that once headquartered a wheat farm and cattle ranch. The six smaller buildings, Boone explains, were homesteads from the early 20th century, at some point transplanted and repurposed to this spot, though just when is hard to say. One building was clearly made into a chicken coop before its roof sloughed to the ground. Another is kept upright by wires crisscrossing its interior. Boone doesn't know who rigged the wires, can't figure why you'd want to save the place. The rest of the buildings, collapsed or close to it, are monuments.
Amidst the shacks is a two-story house built sometime after homesteaders first arrived in the area. Inside, there's evidence of more recent use: layers of peeling wallpaper, an old radio, a high school physics textbook, two spring mattresses and a lone cowboy boot resting on its side. Boone knows someone lived here in the 1960s, but he's not sure about more recent occupants. "Any day now, this building's going down, too," he explains, holding his hands up in the shape of a house. "Wind, lightning, rot, the roof'll collapse." He makes a whooshing sound as his hands fall to his sides.
A loud, strange silence
I first visited Ingomar in October of last year, to attend a town meeting about the possible closure of the Ingomar post office. The meeting was held in the rec center, a 1960s, barn-shaped building with corrugated metal siding and a basketball court that seemed too small and dimly lit to host a game. Over the phone, Coleen Robinson, Ingomar's postmaster, had told me to "just look for the new building in the middle of town."