Years ago, I realized that what I really wanted to be was a cowgirl. So my friend Helen and I packed up our boots, our stetsons, our vintage pearl snap shirts and headed out to Montana. I had read about the Horse Prairie Ranch, a working cattle and guest ranch just outside of Dillon, and wanted to experience, firsthand, the life of a cowgirl.
We landed in Butte, Montana - which I immediately fell in love with. In its heyday between the late 19th century and about 1920, it was one of the largest and most notorious copper boom towns in the American West, home to hundreds of saloons and a famous red-light district. Butte is the only city in the United States where possession and consumption of open containers of alcoholic beverages are allowed on the street - bizarre but true.
By the third day in Butte, we had been to the rodeo, picked through all of the antique shops and spent some quality time at the M and M Saloon. Our cowboy escort picked us up and drove us out to the ranch, first making a stop at the local package store - since the ranch was dry and he figured we would need some "medicine" for the days ahead. He knew us well.
Once there, we were given our cabin, unpacked our "ranch" wear and were served a four-star meal cooked up by the head chef. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I slept soundly in my cabin, only to be awakened by a cowboy bringing the horses in at 5am. By 6am we had been assigned a horse for the week - I was given Dillon, a rain poncho and a packed lunch. For the next eight hours, with the help of two ranch hands and four cowboys - five of us city slickers led, herded and contained over 2,000 head of cattle. Eight hours later we returned to the ranch - I was exhausted, sore and rejuvenated. A little bottle of arnica did wonders, not to mention the scotch.
For the next six days we followed the same routine, up at the crack of dawn and out to work driving the cattle. Every once in a while, all of the cowboys would round up the cows and pause for about 45 minutes. I had no idea what the pause was for - but I began to refer to it as the cowboy pause - the time when everyone just sat on their horse and took in the scenery for a while. It turned out, this pause was actually a pause for the cattle as well - they were giving them all a chance to stop and have a drink out of the local wells. After a bit of relaxation, we would all pull our hats back down and continue the move towards the next field where we would leave the cattle for the night.
I returned the following summer, this time bringing Molly with me. I thought I would continue to visit every summer - but the Horse Prairie Ranch stopped inviting guests - they decided to turn it into a family home and hire a staff to drive the cattle between the lands. I became friends with the owners and hope that someday they invite me back for a cattle drive - just to get back into the saddle and see the big sky. If you have this inner yearning, and not all of us do, but if you do - read more about the Horse Prairie Ranch on Mr. Duncan's blog.