An intimate exploration of Montana’s southeastern landscape.
WORDS AND PHOTOS BY ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY
It was 5:30 a.m. on the winter solstice. A thin blanket of snow from the night before coated the ground, but otherwise it was pitch black outside. And cold. As I turned onto Nick’s driveway, I could see my headlights reflect off his horse’s eyes.
When I opened the screen door, it creaked loudly and banged closed behind me like it always had, no matter how quietly I tried to walk into the 100-year-old ranch house. The kitchen light was on but Nick wasn’t at the table. I knocked softly
at first and then a bit harder. I opened the door a crack and stuck my head in.
“Nick? It’s me.” I stepped into the kitchen.
I saw a light on down the hall, so I walked toward it and saw Nick sitting at his desk, hunched over his old laptop, squinting at the screen. He was wearing his outside clothes: a wool cap, a Carhartt jacket with rips and tears, work pants and boots, like he had just come in from feeding the cows.
“Nick?” He didn’t hear me. There was a small radio on his desk playing some old-timey music I didn’t recognize. I couldn’t remember ever hearing the radio in Nick’s house. I didn’t even know Nick listened to music.
“Nick.” I put my hand on his shoulder. He turned to look at me.
“Well, hello young lady. What are you doing out so late?” For a moment, his question made me wonder if it actually was night.
“I’m going to take some pictures, Nick.”
“Oh, you doin’ one of those night shoots again? You’ll need a place to stay though. The room upstairs is ready.”
“No, it’s going to be dawn in a couple of hours and I want to be in a good place by sunrise.”
For a moment he looked confused.
“Well, stop by when you’re done.”
Five and a half years after that solstice morning, I’m driving on a two-track across Nick’s ranch with my cameras in tow, probably for the last time. Dust kicks up behind the pickup and I find myself relaxing with the familiar smells of sage and grass. The prairie is not for everyone, but it is definitely for me.
When Nick passed away more than a year ago, I knew this day had been coming. His kids left the ranch years ago, like many ranch kids do, and it was inevitable that the ranch would be sold. I knew the price tag would put it out of reach for anyone from the local community. No one can make that sort of land payment just by selling cows. I figured it was going to be bought by someone from out of state who wanted the ranch for an investment property and a private hunting reserve. Those folks don’t usually let prairie-loving photographers wander around their ranches whenever they feel like it.
I had met Nick when I was organizing to stop a proposed coal mine in the nearby Otter Creek Valley. Nick had been involved in coal mining issues most of his life. We would sit at his kitchen table and talk about the first coal mining boom in southeast Montana. I wanted to learn everything he knew, so I could be as effective an advocate as possible for the land and its people.
“The Big Sky country of Montana offers some of the best ranches you can find. And for the first time in 75 years, a historic ranch on Rosebud Creek is for sale.” – Golder Ranch real estate listing
I hop out of the pickup to open a gate and remember a particularly beautiful day I spent photographing the ranch. Rainstorm bursts had passed by, one after another, through the valley. After years of drought, the sunlight’s rays shone through the clouds that day and lit up the tops of the hills striated with red, yellow, white and black layers, geological phenomena I never took the time to learn about.
The rain pulled the clouds closer to the ground. There were yucca blooms as far as I could see. I had been enamored with the landscape on this ranch for so long that sometimes I felt there was no other place worth photographing. It was the reason I had bought an expensive camera and taught myself how to use it.
“This legacy property checks all the boxes on your agriculture, conservation, recreational and investment property list—all within a serene setting rarely available in Montana. It’s easily accessible location allows for an authentic Western experience.” – Golder Ranch real estate listing
On my last day here, I want to visit all of my favorite sandstone rock formations, sentinels keeping watch over Rosebud Creek. They are surreal, graceful and imposing; a manifestation of an ancient conversation between wind, water
and sun—a conversation that will continue on for billions of years, outlasting not only me and Nick, but all the future landowners of this place, people I hope will cherish it as much as I do.
One rock looks like an ocean wave hardened in mid-crest. Another also bears resemblance to the sea, but this one is calm with smooth, gentle waves. Another has a narrow passageway that you can scramble up to on top of the rocks, over 50 feet high. The vantage reveals wildflowers, grass and little gnarled pine trees growing in the pocket of soil that has built up over hundreds of thousands of years. Other rocks take the shape of owls, hawks, even penguins.
“Recreation opportunities abound throughout the ranch including hunting, horseback riding, hiking, ATV and UTV riding and searching for artifacts that are both man-made and fossils. Remnants of earth’s first visitors have been discovered in the area and on this ranch, providing a glimpse of past events. You could spend years exploring this Ranch and you may just uncover artifacts” – Golder Ranch real estate listing
Petroglyphs carved by people from the Plains tribes adorn many of the south- and east-facing walls on the rocks. One of the most striking carvings is of a bear. It has keyhole-shaped eyes, prominent claws and lines in its gut that look like arrows. Behind the bear is a warrior with a shield, tall and skinny. There are other carvings nearby: warriors bearing shields, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, disembodied faces, snakes.
This rock has seen tens of thousands of years of human life in the Rosebud Creek Valley. Native Americans lived, hunted, gathered, and held ceremonies in the valley for tens of thousands of years, and the Northern Cheyenne people still live here. The rock witnessed the Northern Cheyenne and Lakota as they prepared to battle the U.S. Calvary in their desperate fight to save the lives of their people and their way of life. It also watched Custer and his troops ride to their deaths at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. I guess those are the “events” to which the real estate listing is referring.
I sit at the base of the rock for the last time, my camera in my lap, my border collie, Hula, by my side, and imagine everything this rock has seen. I tell it to watch for me on the highway; I’d wave when I was in the neighborhood.
Nick hung the very first photo I had ever taken of his ranch on the wall in his living room. It wasn’t the best picture I’d taken of his place, not even close, but it was the first. He had been moving cows up a valley in late fall, bringing them closer to the house before winter set in. I remember the light that day, late afternoon golden rays that lit up the land like no other. After that day, and over the course of 15 years, I would take thousands more photos on his ranch, the place that inspired me to be a photographer.
I take the photo off the wall, wrap it in bubble wrap, and box it up with the rest of the art that still hung on the walls of his house. I grab the box of Nick’s books his son had given me, and walk out for the last time. The screen door bangs closed behind me.
Alexis Bonogofsky is a writer and photographer who works and lives on her family’s ranch outside of Billings, MT. She also manages the Sustainable Ranching Initiative in the Northern Great Plains for the World Wildlife Fund.