Because of the isolation, childcare can be a fulltime job and bus rides are long, but these children also have plenty of room to roam.
At nine years old, Emmy Oberly is learning how to put tire chains on a truck by herself. Dylon Allestad, a 10 year old, can drive a four wheeler on her own.
The two girls know rural living, and the solitude and freedom to roam that comes with having more cows than people as neighbors. Their families are accustomed to getting stuck in the snow, meticulously planning grocery runs, and keeping water buckets full should the electricity or plumbing fail. Their daily activities are often dictated by the weather and a trip to town is always multipurposed.
These families are self-sufficient out of necessity.
Dylan was born to parents living in the tiny town of Opheim, Montana, a dusty, backwoods stop on the Hi-Line—the roughly 100 miles of Montana that lies south of the Canadian border adjacent to U.S. Highway 2. With a population hovering around 90 people in 2016, Opheim consists of a post office, bar, church and a 35-student K-12 school. Dylon’s parents moved north from Big Timber to start a cattle operation in the early 2000s, leaving behind family and friends for a fate unknown.
Without extended family close by, Dylon’s mom, Britt Allestad, says childcare for her three children is a fulltime job. “All of our kids do everything with us,” she said. “There aren’t grandparents, there’s no nannies or babysitters. … They’re with us day in and day out. They have learned to adapt, they’re flexible. They understand work, and they themselves work.”
While the kids do put in their time, they say it’s more fun than a chore. “I love helping when I’m able to,” Dylon said. “I’m proud I know how to saddle up my horse and go and help.”
In the early years, Dylon and her 7-year-old sister, Tenley, attended a preschool in Glasgow, where their 4-year-old brother Tate still goes two days a week. The trip to Glasgow is about 65 miles from the ranch, and Britt uses it as a supply run since Opheim doesn’t have a grocery store.
Britt says preschool was especially valuable for Dylon, before she had her sister and brother. “We felt it was really important because she didn’t have any interactions with other kids.”
Dylon and Tenley go to school in Opheim four days a week and are one of two families that use the school bus. Living 40 miles apart, the parents tradeoff between using the bus and driving the kids, rather than make the children sit for so long.
While still several years down the road, Britt said that deciding where the kids go to high school will be difficult.
“We have amazing elementary school teachers, but high school staff turns over much more quickly,” she said, adding that there aren’t sports teams in the Opheim district either, because they would have to travel too far.
Many families in the area send their kids to high schools in Glasgow or Scobey, which are both over 50 miles away, she said. These families usually buy a house in town to live in during the week and then go home for the weekends.
“It’s in the back of my mind, but I really want nothing to do with living in town during the week and coming to the ranch on the weekend,” Britt said. “I love ranching and I love what we do. Our ranch is like heaven to me.”
Dylon says she loves it too. “We have our family and don’t get bothered by the city. We’re in a spot where we can do what we want.”
“It takes a whole community to grow kids. If it wasn’t for family and friends, it would be very hard.”
Emmy, her brother Anson and parents Amber and Charles Oberly, live between Livingston and Big Timber. From their home, set among a network of houses belonging to Emmy’s grandmother, aunts and uncles, a narrow dirt road runs downhill, through a creek bottom and back up to the wide plains before reaching the interstate and the 25-mile jaunt to Big Timber. In the winter, the dirt road becomes impassable without chains and in the spring and fall, mud grabs at the tires.
Whether its carpooling to get the kids to school, trading off on childcare with the neighbors, or having someone to call in an emergency, a support network is critical for the Oberlys.
“It takes a whole community to grow kids,” said Charles, who grew up in Big Timber and now works as a Montana hunting outfitter. “If it wasn’t for family and friends, it would be very hard.”
Often, the Oberlys coordinate with the neighbors in planning after-school activities so that they can carpool together. Some of Emmy’s favorite activities include riding horses, rock climbing, playing soccer and performing in the Missoula Children’s Theatre when the traveling circuit comes to town. She and Anson also play outside, no matter the weather.
“I like training my goat and feeding the chickens, and watching the ducks swimming in the pond, and riding my horse,” Emmy said, adding that her favorite aspect of where she lives is having the space to ride her horse for miles at a time.
Emmy had just started kindergarten in Big Timber when Anson was born. She was in school when her parents took him to Billings for a 30-day checkup, where they learned that Anson’s aorta, the body’s main artery, was unusually narrow and restricting blood flow. In a matter of hours, Amber, Charles and Anson were on a plane to Denver for emergency heart surgery to remove the narrow section of the aorta.
“We had the clothes on our backs, that was it,” Amber said, adding that the experience would have been nearly impossible to endure without the support network in the area.
Charles’ parents took care of Emmy, and Amber’s mother cared for the livestock and animals at home. The worried parents had no idea how long they’d be gone, and Charles had to cancel a client’s hunting trip.
Fourteen days later, Amber flew home with her recovering child. Folks from the community sent notes of support, offered to help in any way they could, and one family even sent money in the mail. “I couldn’t believe that,” Amber said, her eyes softening as she smiled. “It was everything.”
A freelance writer and Bozeman native, Jessianne Wright enjoys telling the stories of the West.