What Montana’s Cowboy Country Can Teach Us About Getting Along
BY ALEX SAKARIASSEN
Snowdrifts still dot the hillsand gullies along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front in early April, their ends tapering off to the southeast in a lingering nod to the fierce west wind that’s scoured the region for months. A herd of black cows drifts over the landscape like a hopeful nation awaiting greener pastures. Mud season’s relentless rains hover around the corner, and beyond them, a dry summer that farmers and ranchers hope will strike a balance.
This is the kind of country that breeds tough people, tough families whose surnames blew in generations ago and held fast like tumbleweeds on a barbed wire fence. Hard work is as deeply coded in their genes as the land beneath their feet. And while outsiders might see a raw and gritty living, folks on the Front simply call it life.
Reality can be unrelenting here, but there’s warmth enough to thaw the soul. People linger in grocery store aisles or at gas station counters chatting with old friends. Passing motorists on the highway raise a hand from pickup truck steering wheels in a friendly wave. Strangers nod and smile to one another, occasionally going the extra mile to voice a cordial greeting.
That such open affability exists anywhere today is just shy of a miracle. Devices designed to increase our connectivity command more and more of our attention as we check our phones, on average, almost 50 times a day. Those who do succeed in keeping their eyes from drifting screenward at the bar or coffee shop face a world where the chasm between political parties has widened by the day, leaving communities and families riven.
A changing world gives little quarter, even in ranch country. Yet this is where James P. Owen, a lifelong denizen of Wall Street, turned for answers when he stepped down from the national stage. He explained his rationale in the 2015 book Cowboy Ethics, that there’s much to learn from how cowboys carry themselves in everyday life. They do so, Owen wrote, with genuine humility, quiet confidence and authenticity — traits that seem all but lost in an era of curated social media accounts and career politics.
Owen may not have lived the cowboy life himself, but spend a little time around those closest to the land and you’ll find the point bears out. With our nation looking about as battered and windswept as a Montana winter, perhaps it’s time we learn from those who have survived a couple.
“The hatred and the vitriol is just amazing to me,” he says. “And none of those power brokers right or left deserve that kind of loyalty and blind subservience from any of us.”
Thick, heavy mud mixed with crumbled cow pies tugs at Dusty Crary’s muck boots as he strolls through the corral near his front yard west of Choteau. The rancher jerks open the door of an old wooden barn and enters to check on a heifer yet to calve. She lows in greeting, but one look tells Crary she’s not quite ready to yield.
The Crarys have worked this ranch since the mid-1920s, when Dusty’s great-grandparents blew into Choteau from Iowa by way of North Dakota. They weren’t full-time cattlepunchers, though. His great-grandfather, E.J., had a dental practice in town. Emily, his great-grandmother, realized a dream by opening the town’s first movie theater, the Royal. For them, the ranch was more an excuse to stay close to the mountains where the hunting and fishing were good and you could drink whiskey at the Empty Jug cabin during Prohibition. The place was mostly run by hired men until Dusty’s father, Doug, took up the reins in the 1950s. Dusty’s the first male Crary actually born and raised on the ranch, which generation-wise, he quips, makes him “kinda fourth and first.”
“I should’ve got a business degree or finance degree. Would’ve been more helpful,” Crary says. “I might have been able to excel at some other trade or craft, but I just never thought about doing anything else.”
Crary emits a kind of humility that’s in short supply these days — the kind that James P. Owen contends makes real cowboys. He’s affable, talkative, with a calming drawl and no apparent capacity for bragging. He feels deeply connected to the mountains on his western horizon, where he spends the bulk of his summers guiding pack trips through his outfitting business, the 7 Lazy P. When a coalition of locals took shape in the early 2000s to safeguard the status quo along this chunk of the Front, Crary fought for grazing rights and environmental protections alike. It was an eclectic mix of ranchers, farmers, outfitters and wildland advocates, and together they drafted a plan that Sen. Jon Tester later introduced to Congress as the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act. Passed in late 2014, the agreement added more than 67,000 acres to the Bob Marshall Wilderness while maintaining long-standing grazing practices along the edge of the Rockies.
Some outside the coalition balked at blocking mineral exploration. Others criticized the deal for not including more big “W” wilderness. To this day, Crary says, there are still folks in Choteau who won’t hardly speak to him over his involvement. But he never saw the hard-liners on the Heritage Act as bad people. Crary’s just not an “I’m right and he’s wrong” kind of guy, and the volume of his voice rises when he talks about how much people, nationally, treat ideology as gospel.
“The hatred and the vitriol is just amazing to me,” he says. “And none of those power brokers right or left deserve that kind of loyalty and blind subservience from any of us. They owe that to us.”
Choteau is a red seat in a red county; President Trump carried Teton County by 1,362 votes in 2016, compared to the 212-vote lead commanded by incumbent George H. W. Bush in 1992. Yet, despite going so hard for a man who has divided so many, people here still treat outsiders and each other with a quiet, polite respect. Choteau’s a small town, Crary says, noting that the population hasn’t budged much since his family first arrived. He doubts the safe and friendly vibe that persists in Choteau results from any special sauce beyond that; certainly not from any unique brand of humanity, he adds, wrapping his hometown in a cloak of modesty.
“Folks have to think about working with folks in rural communities … Republican or Democrat, if you find yourself in a bind, you need your neighbors.”
Cruise an hour up the Front on Highway 89, dog right past the Kingsbury Hutterite Colony, and you’ll find that not much has changed in Valier, Montana, either. Not at least since farmer and rancher Gene Curry’s father hitchhiked north from the Musselshell in the late ’30s to help on his brother-in-law’s farm. The family name still hangs on the side of the grocery store, which Curry’s parents bought from the local co-op in the early ’50s, which Curry’s sister bought from them, and which Curry’s daughter now owns.
On a cloudy Tuesday afternoon, Curry grinds away with an excavator lifting a pair of rusted cattle guards and digging away the dirt and frost beneath with surgical precision. He’s got a narrow window for the work. He shares a driveway with the town dump, and the town dump is closed on Tuesdays.
“I always thought I’d rather outthink ’em,” Curry says with a playful grin, his long Carhartt-clad legs dangling from his truck’s tailgate. “That’s been my challenge to myself whenever there’s a confrontational situation, because emotions get ahead of your brain most of the time. If you can control your emotions, you can keep your brain functioning fairly well.”
Emotion too often wins out in political discourse today. It’s sparked violent scenes at campaign events and in social media fights too numerous to count. Republicans chastised Sen. Michael Bennett, D-Colo., for a fiery outburst over the government shutdown earlier this year. And when one of Trump’s own supporters mailed pipe bombs to Trump critics in 2018, the president laid the blame on journalists via a Twitter feed followed by nearly 60 million people.
Like Crary, Curry’s grounded by a humble, live-and-let-live nature. He was raised to treat others as he’d like to be treated, and no one likes to be yelled at or degraded or belittled, he says. He grew up tough, got his hands caught in the belt of a hay baler west of Browning at age nine but not so bad he can’t still use them. He’s known tough times, too, like when the stock market crash of ’73 dragged beef prices into the ditch and he entered the trucking business to keep his family afloat. But while he’s always kept a cool head, he’s had plenty of opportunities not to.
During the 2015 Montana Legislature, as president of the Montana Stockgrowers Association, Curry noted the animosity toward the state Department of Livestock stemming from a host of administrative and fiscal problems. He worked hard post-session with a bipartisan group of leaders from various ag organizations to craft recommendations for the Montana livestock board. Curry presented them and by 2017 they managed to get the department’s budget through in good shape.
“I try to offer solutions,” Curry says, trying not to take too much of the credit. “When I was going to those board of livestock meetings, I had no vote. I had no reason to be there other than trying to help, for myself and for the Montana stockgrowers and livestock producers in general.”
As much stock as some people put in political allegiance these days, Curry’s not sure he could tell you who anyone in Valier voted for, besides his close friends. He doesn’t really care. He could walk into the local Panther Cafe and, with few exceptions, sit down next to anyone and gab for half an hour over coffee. Like Crary, he chalks it up in large part to size. Folks have to think about working with folks in rural communities, he says. Republican or Democrat, if you find yourself in a bind, you need your neighbors.
“You don’t really own the land. You’re just here taking care of it.”
The mud-brown waters of the Clark Fork heave against a grassy bank west of Frenchtown, fed by yet another spring squall that’s two-parts rain, one-part snow. A fence crew wades through the gumbo outside Joe Boyer’s log cabin before calling it quits around noon. Inside, Boyer nurses a busted-up ankle amid dozens of mounted deer racks, stuffed waterfowl and the soft white pelt of a wolf shot in northern Canada. He laughs with a deep, wet rattle as he talks about the old days out here. The days before Smurfit Stone’s pulp mill went up in 1957, before the subdivisions that followed. The days when he’d work the farm with his old man, when he’d trap mink and muskrats for his money, when he worked a grader on the Ninemile for $1.99 a day under the foremanship of a young Dennis Washington. You want to talk change? Boyer will talk change.
“In that stretch from Mill Creek to Six Mile, there was maybe half a dozen people, and they were farmers,” he says. “You could always get along, work something out. There was no big problems. But when the people moved in: bang. That was the end.”
Boyer’s friendly, no-nonsense manner bubbles up from a wellspring of cowboy-style confidence, the byproduct of deep roots in the Missoula Valley. His great-grandparents came to Frenchtown from Quebec in 1863 and, after two years working a local sawmill, bought a ranch west of town. They continued ranching the same spread through the generations, doing whatever they could to scratch out a living. Boyer’s father would sell milk on contract to the community creamery, and head south into the mountains to mine gold. All the money got poured back into the ranch. Boyer’s father and mother, who are both buried on their spread, reared him to take care of the land, own up to mistakes and not ask why in the face of hard work. When it came time to pick up the family torch, Boyer didn’t know anything else.
The Boyer Ranch, at more than 1,200 acres, is one of the largest remaining family ranches in the Missoula area. These days Boyer leases the operation out, but his familiarity with the land and its wildlife still nourishes a quiet confidence in the way things work. Boyer’s fought tooth and nail to protect it, too, despite a population increase that’s already altered his corner of the world. With the help of Five Valleys Land Trust and others, Boyer put more than 800 of the ranch’s acres under conservation easement between 2009 and 2012. He did so, he says, knowing that his death could have led to a cherished place getting cut up at the expense of wildlife.
“You don’t really own the land. You’re just here taking care of it,” Boyer says. “I don’t think I could stand to see houses all over them ranches over there. I wouldn’t want to see it.”
When it comes to confrontation, Boyer sees little to gain from engaging. He recalls one night at Charlie B’s, the longtime watering hole in downtown Missoula, when two University of Montana students working on a thesis about wolves approached the seasoned rancher. The way he figures, they were looking to set a trap for him, saying he must hate wolves for the threat they pose to cattle. Boyer “outfoxed ’em,” turning the talk to wolves driving out the coyotes and foxes that kept his gopher woes in check. Most of the time, however, Boyer adheres to a rule of not discussing religion or politics. Better to focus on what unites us than run the risk of arguing.
“You ever known anyone that’s won a battle talking about that?” he says. “It’s a waste of time … That’s the way I look at it.”
“You’ve gotta be real,” she says, “because then you’re trustworthy. If you’re not who you are and you don’t trust yourself, then how can other people trust you?”
A cluster of low log cabins sprouts from the earth above the Big Blackfoot River, not far from where the colder rushes of the Clearwater empty out on either side of a tall crag of rock. The cabins surround a two-story log lodge with wings that end in half-hipped roofs. The lodge went up during the Depression, Juanita Vero explains, to replace the one that burned.
Vero grew up on the E Bar L Ranch, a dude ranch that didn’t exactly start out as such. Her great-grandfather first came through the area in the early 1900s as an MIT-bred engineer and surveyor for the Northern Pacific Railroad. After meeting and marrying in Seattle, he gave Vero’s great-grandmother a choice: settle in western Montana, or travel to the Middle East on another rail job. They chose Montana.
Through two world wars, one Great Depression and numerous decades since, Vero’s family has catered to outsiders thirsty for a taste of Western life. They still don’t advertise, Vero says. They don’t even have a website, instead letting their guest lists fill up with personal referrals and families who have been coming to the E Bar L for generations.
“There’s something about the place that holds us all together,” Vero says. “We definitely don’t all agree on things and have widely divergent political views. But man, we’re all here for this one mission.”
Vero is vibrant, funny, her soft eyes and dark complexion a reflection to her Filipino father Louie Vero, who was inducted into the Montana Cowboy Hall of Fame last year. She’s connected to this place, resting in her great-grandmother’s old cabin as she tells tales of riding her horse to the one- room schoolhouse in Greenough or getting picked up by her mother by way of dogsled. The tone and cadence of her speech radiate self-assurance, and her words testify to an open-mindedness that stems from her lifelong exposure to people from around the globe.
Here on the E Bar L, the days are too short, too busy for petty ideological squabbles to take root. Guests are up at dawn for breakfast, on horseback for hours, whisked away on a Blackfoot float and hurried back to dinner. Ranch hands have more work to do than daylight hours. But Vero realizes that the outside world is a nation divided and distracted. In discussing those ills, she cuts to the heart of Montana-ness with a single word: authenticity.
“You’ve gotta be real,” she says, “because then you’re trustworthy. If you’re not who you are and you don’t trust yourself, then how can other people trust you?”
Technology may very well be eroding our sense of self. Psychologists now posit that, beyond mere social distraction, smartphones constitute a real threat to our capacity for empathy. In 2017, researchers with Common Sense Media, a nonprofit group focused on children and technology, found that kids under 8 years old spend on average 48 minutes a day on mobile devices. Four years prior, that number was 15 minutes.
The outdoors can be a balm. A 2014 study published in the academic journal Computers in Human Behavior, found that after five days camping without phones or laptops, several dozen sixth-graders were more adept at identifying emotions and reading facial expressions. Turns out a few days of quiet reflection in the woods makes us far better at connecting with others.
If ranch kids have any leg up in the authenticity department, Vero gives all the credit to horses. To truly get along with these animals, you can’t bluff your way around them. As Western horse clinician Ray Hunt wrote in his book Think Harmony With Horses — a copy of which floats on Vero’s bookshelf — “… there’s away to communicate. We can learn to understand one another if we listen to one another, if we respect one another’s thoughts.” You have to be true with a horse, and you can’t read deceit into a horse’s actions because that doesn’t exist.
“Horses are a fantastic mirror,” Vero says.“We see it all the time here on the ranch when we have people who don’t get to spend time with horses. They come here and spend a week with us, it’s like you’re watching someone on the therapist’s couch. We spend four hours a day riding with them and they learn a lot about themselves; you learn a lot about them.”
“…and it’s because we sat down in the same room, eyeball to eyeball, shook hands going in and shook hands going out.”
For a man who reviles dysfunction as much as he says, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester has made a go at applying Montana horse sense in the halls of Congress. In some cases he’s found handshakes that were worth a damn, like the one he exchanged with Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, the Republican who has chaired opposite him on the Veterans’ Affairs Committee since 2017. They agreed not to blast each other, to have each other’s backs, to “disagree without being disagreeable.”
“That ended up in one of the most productive sessions ever for [that committee],” Tester says, “and it’s because we sat down in the same room, eyeball to eyeball, shook hands going in and shook hands going out.”
That Trump trumpeted those bills during Montana junkets in 2018 while trashing Tester still doesn’t sit well with the Farmer From Big Sandy. But a lifetime of hot-and- gritty farmwork builds a thick hide, and Tester still relies on his rural roots to keep himself grounded. “I bump my head on the frame of the tractor, the tractor don’t give a damn if I’m a U.S. Senator.”
It’s tempting to fetishize the West’s rural communities as some final stronghold of geniality and downhome decency. We forget that the political faults plaguing our nation, as well as the foot-out-the-door nature of modern conversation, runs downstream with the inevitability of spring runoff. As Crary puts it, Choteau isn’t Mayberry. Kids still walk around with two thumbs on their phones.
There is, however, a frankness in Montana, in the West, a lingering if unspoken desire to connect with one another. Some may opt to do so only within a zone of comfort. Others may lay themselves bare and find compromise where they can. If the Treasure State’s rural roots stand to teach us anything, it’s that identity is the byproduct of place and hands-on experience. The West wind can shift our collective mindset. We just need to be brave and vulnerable enough to let it blow over us.
Freelance writer Alex Sakariassen has spent the past decade penning long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout waters of the Rocky Mountain Front.