24 Hours on a Montana Cattle Ranch
Photojournalist Lynn Donaldson is the woman behind the stunning Big Sky scenes and food images in the Open Range cookbook by Patrick Dillon and Jay Bentley (who developed the recipe for Bison Tri-tip with Chimichurri in our June issue). Here, she shares her stories from the shoot.
That scene we show on page 101 of Open Range is a day I’ll never forget. We were at J Bar L Ranch, a working cattle ranch that raises grass-fed beef in Montana’s Centennial Valley between Twin Bridges and West Yellowstone, which is very remote. It’s covered with lupine and sagebrush, and every step we took kicked up these amazing scents. It was just an exhilarating, blue ribbon day until…
…a snowstorm hit. It was a raging blizzard with giant, fluffy flakes (which melted upon landing—it was early July!). The cattle were soaking wet and a little freaked out, and the cold water in the Red Rock River didn’t look too appealing, so the cowboys got off their horses and tied their 60-foot lariats together to make a “fence” so the cattle couldn’t turn back. (They jokingly named this the “Patented Hurst Rope Trick” after cowboy Bradeon Hurst, the ranch operations manager, who thought it up.) Eventually, the herd crossed. The cowboys (and cattle!) were soaked through-and-through. Then they started driving them back to a pasture near the main lodge.
They got the cattle in the pasture, and the cowboys took off for the barn. Then it was back to the main lodge (I stayed in the room upstairs) for cocktails and dinner. Bryan manned the grill, but they have a chef. The cute girl in the plaid shirt, Joy Hurst (wife of Braedon), was guest manager at the time and she also helped in the kitchen.
Then the guests sat down for a real ranch supper of green beans, steak and potatoes, and berries and angel food cake for dessert.
When dinner was over, I snapped the sun going down on the Centennial Mountains…pink alpenglow. The only thing you could hear were crickets and frogs. It smelled so good after that wet snow, like after a heavy rain: soil, sage, and lupine. Glorious!
P.S. Here’s the scene from my window the next morning. The ranch guys were busy roping calves to vaccinate them. It was another gorgeous day in the Centennial Valley.