A working Big Sky vacation

When a rancher opens his bunkhouse to visitors, city folk from all over the world pay him to labor there.

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When a rancher opens his Big Timber bunkhouse to visitors, city folk from all over the world pay him to labor there. Photographs by Erika Larsen/Redux
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BIG TIMBER, MONT. (FORTUNE Small Business) -- Rick Jarrett has lived in the foothills of the Crazy Mountains for all his 59 years, and he knows well their pleasures and perils. On a recent afternoon he allowed his flatbed Ford (F, Fortune 500) to creep near the edge of a cliff. "Don't worry," he said with a mustachioed smile. "The brakes still work."

I'd brought my 7-year-old daughter, Livia, along on a four-day "bunkhouse vacation" at the Crazy Mountain Cattle Co., Jarrett's 2,500-acre ranch about an hour's drive east of Bozeman, Mont., the nearest commercial airport. We enjoyed a horse-riding, cattle-herding, "tagging along with an actual rancher while he worms sheep" adventure.

That first afternoon, Jarrett gave us a tour of the homestead. He wore his short-brimmed cowboy hat, which looked as though it had been run over a few times. He pronounced "creek" to rhyme with "slick," "corral" to rhyme with "hurl." We rumbled along a narrow ridge teeming with mule deer and muscular antelope trotting effortlessly along steep, rocky draws and gullies that drain (on the rare occasion when it rains) into Duck Creek. The creek, a long green finger flowing south to the Yellowstone River, is surrounded by sagebrush and wind - lots of wind, which, as Jarrett would explain later, is a good thing. To our north towered the Crazies, an extension of the Rocky Mountains. In the distance to the east, our cliff top fanned out into an arid square mile of Indian grass, prickly pear, and more sage. Jarrett leases 8,000 acres near Yellowstone Park and another 1,500 on the Boulder River for grazing.

"You see that big, flat-topped hill over there?" he said, pointing west. It was less a hill than a gigantic anvil jumping out of the mountain range. "That's mine," Jarrett said. "We've got a wind anemometer up there."

He pointed south across the Yellowstone River valley to a tiny dot of willow and aspen that seemed to explode in brilliant yellows against the backdrop of prairie tans and grays. "That's Jarrett Creek," he said. "And that over there is Mendenhal Creek."

The Jarretts and Mendenhals were his grandparents. They homesteaded the region in the late 1880s, before Montana became a state. His family has been raising cows and sheep for 100 years in Sweet Grass County, whose seat, Big Timber, was once a center of the American wool trade. Rick is the fifth generation of Jarretts to live in the Yellowstone valley. He may be the last.

Jarrett needs roughly $20,000 a month to run his ranch, which often exceeds his monthly revenue from all sources. He owns 300 heifers and 350 ewes and breeds about 250 calves and 250 lambs to sell each year. Livestock prices are rising, but not as rapidly as the costs of labor, electricity for irrigation, and liability and fire insurance. His bunkhouse vacations help defray the expense of two summer ranch hands. He charges $220 a day for adults, $175 for teens, and $110 for kids under 6.

"Unless they're too young to ride," he says. "Then I don't charge at all."

Jarrett hopes that Coyote Energy, in Great Falls, Mont., will push him into the black. The alternative-energy developer may someday make the wind that blows over his land pay handsomely.

But for now, as he approaches retirement age, Jarrett faces a common ranching predicament: His children can't afford to keep the land. Several of his fellow ranchers have sold to wealthy out-of-state buyers, many from California, who want a piece of Big Sky country. One of Jarrett's new neighbors is Whitney MacMillen, retired president of the agribusiness giant Cargill. Another is a Texas oilman who paid $44 million for 45,000 acres five years ago.

The rise of the part-time landowner has made ranching harder, not just lonelier. Cattle need massive quantities of grass and water: One cow consumes the equivalent of four acres a month.

"People say I raise cattle," says Jarrett. "What I really do is grow grass."

With the land so arid, he spends a lot of time tending to the system of irrigation ditches that run through the property. Back when most of his neighbors were full-time ranchers, they used to keep costs down by sharing equipment and manpower. But these weekenders aren't interested in working the land together.

"They don't control the weeds or ditches," said Jarrett, referring to irrigation. "They don't like it when cows go on their property. And they don't like hunters, so we can't cull the wolves attacking our livestock."

These days Learjets fly in from California on summer weekends to the small municipal airport in Big Timber (pop. 1,600), and drive-through espresso stands have popped up in Bozeman, the nearest metropolis, which some now call "Bozeangeles." Jarrett does his best to adapt. To compete with imported beef from other countries, he has assembled a marketing group of 80 ranchers dedicated to boosting the cachet of Montana Branded Beef. His bunkhouse vacations are another way to advertise Montana's ranching traditions.

Livia and I experienced one of those traditions on a high ridge at the edge of a cliff, in a truck driven by a man with a gleam in his eye. Jarrett put the truck in gear. I swore not to reveal what happened next (to surprise future guests), other than to suggest that a half-ton flatbed can be driven down damn near anything; that my life flashed before my eyes; and that we reached the river bottom in record time. After a fair amount of screaming, Livia looked at me and said, "Can we do that again?"

This sort of Montana icebreaker isn't for everyone. In general, Jarrett's bunkhouse vacation would not satisfy patrons expecting the trimmings of a fancy dude ranch. Nobody makes your bed at Jarrett's place, and the daily agenda is light on sing-alongs and cookouts. Instead, Jarrett provides a direct entre into the unvarnished daily life of a modern working ranch. The immediate vicinity of the ranch house featured old tires, the burned-out chassis of a '50s-era sedan, the bed of a pickup truck, propane tanks, and a defunct furnace. We slept in a refurbished outbuilding that contained a bunk bed, a bathroom, and a wood-burning stove. But if you don't expect a hotel experience (it's just Jarrett in his kitchen, cooking French toast in the morning or his own Montana Branded Beef for dinner, and you, poking around his refrigerator looking for the half-and-half), the Crazy Mountain Cattle Co. offers a weekend filled with real wonder and high adventure.

On our first day Jarrett drove us into an alfalfa field, got out of his car, and instructed us to sit still. Within minutes, several hundred Black Angus cattle had gathered around us like some huffing bovine council meeting. Livia was transfixed. Later we walked to an abandoned silo. From the top rafter, a great horned owl swiveled its head to look at us. Jarrett told us about the pet owl he kept as a kid and about attending grammar school in a one-room schoolhouse, which still stands on the property. (I visited that schoolhouse one afternoon. It contained an old piano, its keys frozen by time, and a lone desk in front of a chalkboard.)

Jarrett also introduced us to his horses: Big Bill and the colt, Little Bill, as well as Big Enough, Knute, and Sadie. They trotted up to us when called. Livia held out a few apples, which the horses gently ate from her hands. Big Bill lowered his head to nuzzle Livia's cheek, much to her delight.

She later remarked, "Daddy, I still have horse saliva in my hair."

"That's okay," I replied. "It brings out the luster."

At noon the following day we joined Jarrett and his daughter Jami, 37, on horseback. Livia and I had skipped the day's previous activity - an early morning horse castration (you won't find that on the agenda of a dude ranch) - in favor of a ride along the Boulder River through grassy bottomland rimmed with aspen. We could have fished there too. Livia rode confidently atop Big Bill, while Jami gently offered suggestions from alongside ("Hold your reins in, honey." "Go ahead and give him a kick when you want him to go.") and pointed out the sights: a caboose previously used as a fishing camp; old homestead cabins from the early 1900s, little streams.

That afternoon we embarked on a four-wheel-ATV cattle drive. Some lump ATVs in with snowmobiles - noisy intrusions on the natural world. Maybe they're right, but not today, not when your young daughter is steering much of the time and yelling "Giddyap" as you herd cattle from the high bench above the Boulder River down to the rich, well-irrigated pastures below. Dinner was Rick's delicious Black Angus steaks and burgers of home-grown Montana Branded Beef.

The next day we herded about 50 of Jarrett's sheep from a remote pasture to a barn, where each ewe had her teeth checked and received a dose of worm medicine. As the sheep passed through a chute, I grabbed a few by their muscular necks and pried their mouths open for Jarrett to check. Then I watched his two grandchildren - Jordan, 11, the only girl on her school's football team, and Jess, 8, the sheep-riding champ at Big Timber Rodeo - hold on for dear life as they rode sheep inside the corral. For our last dinner, Jarrett served up chicken stew with biscuits piled high on a plate. Livia fell asleep in her chair, as she had each night before.

Who visits the Crazy Mountain Cattle Co.? Deer and prairie dog hunters. British tourists fascinated by the American West. A few years back, two young women from North Carolina flew out for the rodeo in Big Timber. "Cowboy hunters," Jarrett said with a chuckle. One Hollywood screenwriter visited by herself and then returned with her son. Lodgers aren't required to work on this ranch, but most pitch in anyway, swept up by the sheer excitement of an ordinary working day on the range.

A magazine photographer wrote in the guest book: "Almost being killed and then killing, by stoning a rattlesnake, was pretty damned primal. Unforgettable." A Taiwanese television crew wrote poems to Jarrett, gave him a ceremonial Indian hatchet, and said that he'd changed their lives. A young woman named Melanie visited, along with her mother, on a high school graduation trip. Despite being vegan, Melanie apparently thrived in carnivore country: "I've jugged a ewe," she wrote, "and tubed a lamb, sorted, cut, and chased cattle, rode a most affectionate mare, watched a horse get spooked by her own fart, drove a tractor ... and got some new family."

Before we left, I asked Jarrett if he'd ever considered selling the ranch. "If I did that, I'd be a rich man," he said with a laugh. But for now, the Crazy Mountain rancher would rather stay put. To top of page

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