There can be few better antidotes to the stresses and strains of modern life than beating a retreat to Montana’s classic American landscapes. Bay’s Nick Smith packs his note books and cameras and heads off to a good old-fashioned ‘dude ranch’ in the ‘Big Sky’ country
At the end of the day, the golden sun dips over the snow-capped Pintler Mountains while horses are being ridden home along the trail. Tucked away in the rolling foothills, surrounded by miles of farmland, a fast shallow river runs past the Ranch at Rock Creek through the lonesome pines and rustling cottonwood trees. Inside the Granite Lodge a fire crackles and frosty beers are served to the saddle sore, the trail weary and those who have spent long hours trout fishing and are about to spend longer hours telling fishermen’s tales. All around there is memorabilia from the old days of the great railroad hotels, hard rock quarrying and the ghost towns of the silver mining boom years. There’s a frontier, pioneer-ing, gold rush spirit to the Ranch at Rock Creek that propels you back into yesteryear with a nostalgia that is at the heart of one of America’s grandest traditions: Americana. Perhaps in other states, it takes the form of apple pie, baseball and blue jeans. But here in Montana it’s about livestock, country music, American blue-birds, rodeos and Old Glory. It’s vintage Dodge cars and pick-up trucks, cowboy boots and Stetson hats. Oddly enough, it all seems genuine and authentic.
I think one of the reasons I slipped into life on the ranch so seamlessly was because my journey there would have made Dante’s descent into hell in The Divine Comedy seem like a pleasant stroll around Singleton Park. Come to Montana, said the press release festooned with images of prairie para-dise, and go wild in the country (or something like that). Tempted and curious, I stepped on an airliner at Heathrow, final destination a miniature airport at Missoula in Montana, a state that’s more than twenty times the size of Wales with only a third of the number of people. In fact, America’s fourth largest has only four times as many people as Swansea. Maybe the marketing copywriters weren’t exaggerating when they said that in Montana you could really ‘take a walk on the wild side.’ Unfortunately, my first experience of roughing it was a disagreeable night spent sleeping on the floor at some miserable airport hub in somewhere like Chicago where, having missed my connection to Missoula because of an entirely predictable snafu in London’s aviation infrastructure, I was left with little alternative but to wait a day for the next flight out. But that, I reminded myself is what life on the road is like, especially when you’re going from a big airport to a small one. By the time I’d bundled my-self out of the plane at Missoula I was ready for some landscape therapy. But as I drove down the fabulously named Pintler Veterans Memorial Scenic Highway, I realised that nothing – not even those famous antique photographs by America’s most venerated landscaper Ansel Adams – could prepare me for just how wild and free and open and empty Montana is. I drove past a small town called Philipsburg (population 914) and spotted a sign for the Granite Ghost Town.
I made a mental note to come back here.
I checked into the ranch and took a deep breath. Here before me was the huge, jagged landscape of the bones of old America, where the sky is blue, the grass is green and everything else… well there isn’t much else. Just space. Montana gets its name, with some justification, from the Spanish for ‘mountainous country.’ But it is also the ‘Big Sky Country’ and, absurd as it may sound, this is a region of the world that seems to have been blessed with a disproportionately large canvas of ever-changing cloud formations. As I spend my days fishing, riding, shooting and hiking, the sky is a constant source of amazement. If you climb to the Top of the World – a vantage point on the ranch that no photographer can afford to miss – there are sweeping, uninterrupted 180-degree horizons. This is something you don’t get in the city. And this is what attracts the advent-urous to Rock Creek. I unpacked in my cabin called ‘Cutbow’ – all the cabins are named after different types of trout to be found in the ‘blue ribbon’ creek – and sauntered off to meet Mike, who was to be my guide in the mountains over the next few days. Something of a legend as a local photographer, he’d been assigned to help me scout the best locations for a shoot I was doing for a luxury London business magazine called Canary Wharf. I supposed that the editor’s idea would be that these high-powered financiers working on the Isle of Dogs would want to spend their hefty bonuses at what’s sometimes called a ‘dude ranch,’ getting back to nature in expensive style.
Mike left the bar with the reminder that he’d see me at first light to kit me out for fly-fishing at dawn while I stayed put, playing pool with a couple of young guys called Zac and Dylan who were at the ranch on vacation with their family and friends. As we got talking, Zac told me that they didn’t have a camera between them, and wondered if I’d take few shots of them when they went out riding in the mountains the following day. A few more beers persuaded me that I could see no harm in it, and we decided to meet the following afternoon. “You know who that is?” said one of the regulars at the bar after I’d scurried into the shadows to avoid the karaoke competition. “Yup,” I said. “Some bloke I just took ten dollars off. Don’t they know how to play pool in America?” Zac, it turns out was none other than Zac Efron, Hollywood movie star, platinum disc recording artist, five million followers on Twitter and goodness knows what else. That’s as maybe, thought I, as I wandered back to Cutbow in the starlight, but he sure as hell can’t play pool. And this got me thinking about what it must be like to be rich and famous. Just imagine how horrible it must be to have literally millions of people wanting to know your every move, grabbing photos of you all day long, never giving you a minute’s privacy. It can’t be much of a life being famous, I reflected, and I felt a bit sorry for Zac for all his millions of dollars. Where I wondered, listening to the river peacefully sliding past my cabin door, could you ever go on holiday? Then it struck me. You come here to Montana, where your nearest neighbours are fifty miles away: woodsmen, hunters and survivalists who probably have no technology more evolved than citizens band radio, and who know little and care less about who you are. Over the next few days, I took a handful of pictures of Zac’s party out on horseback. He wanted to pay me, but I reckoned I’d already taken enough of his money at the pool table and said that he couldn’t afford my fee. When I got back to the UK, I emailed him some prints. He sent me a snap of one he’d had framed, which he’d hung above his grand piano in Los Angeles. He wrote me a polite note that read: “Hey Nick. Thanks for the photos. You rock, man. Zac.”
I divided my days between fishing and riding, getting to know the mountains and taking photos at dawn and dusk. One morning as we were saddling up, Mike informed me with a clear sound of excitement in his voice that it was Friday, which could only mean one thing: staff pizza night. This confused me until I realised that he was inviting me along as one of the gang, which seemed like an honour too rare to turn down. “We need to get off the ranch from time to time,” Mike said, before explaining that they all drive in a flatbed down to the big city lights of Philipsburg more than an hour away. And although I couldn’t quite see what the excitement was about, I was keen to see the town and so I joined in, telling my-self not to be so judgemental. “Of course,” said one of the women in the truck, who was rather confusingly also called Dylan, “there’s no actual pizza restaurant as such. The old lady who owns the laundromat cooks them for us and we eat them on her porch. It’s the highlight of our week.”
As we munched thick cheesy triangles, Mike told me the history of Granite, a deserted 19th cent-ury silver mining town in the hills just behind Philipsburg, testament to the boom-and-bust years that brought colossal wealth to the area in a bonanza yielding more than $40,000,000 (around $1,200,000,000 in today’s money), making it the most profitable silver mine on Earth. Then came the Silver Panic in 1893, in which the price of the metal dropped like a stone making the whole business at Granite unsustain-able. One minute there were three thousand miners, and then there were none. We finished our pizzas making plans to return the following day to explore the deserted buildings of the uninhabited silver mining town.
Then we crossed the road to go to Bricks Pub. If you’ve seen the opening sequence to Northern Exposure, where a moose wanders around a town oblivious to everything that’s going on, then you’ll get the picture. Philipsburg is like that: colourfully painted storefronts and ancient automobiles, wide streets and traffic lights that flicker from red to green without a car passing for hours on end. I mention this to Mike, who says there might be moose by the river if I want to photograph them. Mike was right. There were moose by the river, and we were able to watch them from our canoes that we’d paddled for an afternoon down the creek, slowly gliding past the cottonwoods that make a strange kind of whispering sound as the breeze passes through them. We saw bison in the sunset, eagles and hawks, and we even thought we heard a mountain lion, although Mike was quick to point out that this might be a case of wishful hearing because there’d been no confirmed sightings in these parts for a few years.
Although I’d expected to meet plenty of city slickers at the ranch, there were few. Perhaps these days the idea of spending your precious free time pretending to be an authentic American – riding along the trail, toasting marshmallow s’mores over an open fire, singing Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie to the plaintive strains of an acoustic guitar – is no longer attractive to the inhabitants of a frantic urban digitalised world. But I did get to meet lots of actual Americans, who just wanted to reconnect with the land their grandparents grew up in. As I rode up to the Top of the World, I saw a woman sitting at an easel painting in watercolours, and I asked her where she was from and why she’d come here. “Oh, I just come for the air and the light,” she said in an American accent that I couldn’t pin down to any particular part of the country in the way you often can’t. All I could tell was that she wasn’t from New York or California. It turns out that she was from neighbouring Wyoming. “I like to come here to paint,” she told me. “This is where I meet my friends and spend a little time in nature. I like to paint the sky here. There’s so much of it. You know, they call it the ‘Big Sky’ country.”