Montana – the big adventure.
This was the holiday of a life time. Three generations of our family: Mum (Lesley / Lellypops / Nana / Nana Lesley)…. Jessica, my lovely niece, and myself. Why the holiday of a lifetime? Well, the 3 of us have wanted to go away together to an American ranch for ages, and we were all being realistic, we would only be able to get Mum to do it the one time. So, this was it!
It was a long way to go for a week, however, Mum didn’t want to be away from her bairns for longer – that’s Molly, Morlich & Leacan…. Altogether now…. Awwww!
Flight details: Edinburgh – Heathrow – Denver – Billings. First one, fine, G&T to celebrate! Second ace, really quick (or it felt like it!) It helps watching movies! It was all going too well, wasn’t it? Sitting there at 9pm, in the departure lounge for the Billings flight only to hear… “Ladies & Gentleman, we apologise, however United Airlines have cancelled this flight”. (Oh FFS sprung to mind.) All of a sudden there was a stampede…. all the way to the customer services desk, which was all of 50 feet away. Alas, we were pretty much last in the queue, and sweating, seeing the people in front being told they would have to wait until 5pm the next day… Nooooooo! The girl that dealt with us must have detected the classic Scottish threatening look that we gave her, and Mum saying, “we are not moving from this desk until we have a flight to Billings in the morning…” helped. That worked.United put us up in a hotel, and gave us vouchers to have breakfast the next morning. Lovely comfy hotel, too.
On our way the next morning, early doors for a flight with Frontier – not United. Lovely, a prop plane – or ‘Vomit Comet’ as Mum called it. Jess passed out, Mum and I concentrated on keeping our breakfast down… In all honesty, I have to say I was fine, however, Mum was a bit green. The air steward who was going to give us our drinks actually handed out boke pokes to the majority of the plane before giving us our soft drinks. You didn’t dare place these on your tray either, coz they would have had a swift wobble, and been wheeched across the aisle to the unsuspecting sleeping people next to you, the ice dribbling down their clothes. The skill was keeping it in your hand and getting your hand and mouth get into sync before risking a slurp… It was pretty tricky, and messy! Never been so glad to land at an airport! The view flying to Billings was just amazing, space and lots more space, and very green. Not that I expected orange / pink / purple or anything, however, Jess was expecting tumbleweed!
We didn’t have long to wait for our lift, Pat collected us, one of the family, who’s other job when he isn’t looking after wannabe city slickers, is the county prosecutor. Keep on his side then! The drive to the ranch was stunning. What a welcome to Montana – blue skies (lots of) and big fluffy clouds. Pat made a good summary of the journey – lovely road, highway…. then a not so lovely road… then the ranch one, so needless to say, we started well! Some of the sights on the way were cool. They included a train with 100 carriages, yes, I counted them and the picture with the car was (sad to say) a woman: just in case you can’t work it out, it’s the petrol cap hanging out that caught my eye!
The views that were appearing in front of us were stunning, very high on the ‘wow’ factor. As much as Scotland is stunning, this really was miles and miles of nothingness and miles between ranches. Little did we realise the necessity to be organised with everything when it’s about 4 hours return trip to the local store! I don’t think we planned too badly though, the only things that I didn’t think to take with me was thermals! Who would have thought that I would have needed them in the middle of June in Montana!
Anyway, enough of this travelling lark… ok, it’s a long way, but boy oh boy was it worth it! 2 hours after leaving the airport, we were at Sweet Grass Ranch. The website pictures don’t really do the ranch justice. It’s much more beautiful than you can imagine. I will certainly attempt to give you the best selection of photographs that I can…. without posting the 900+ that I took! This is a family ranch, and they have been there a few years…. Bill, Shelly, Page, Pat, Erin and Conner are 3 generations of the family that stay up at the ranch, however, the rest of the family are not far away at all. The season at the ranch is a ‘short’ one – from June to September. I can now understand why it’s so short… it was pretty damn cold at some points in the holiday! The winter ranch is on lower level (not by much) where the whole family / horses / dogs all move for the winter season.
The feeling of peace really hits you when you arrive here. The road goes to the ranch and no further and you are right in the middle of the Crazy Mountains. The ranch itself is about 6,200 feet. Yup, that’s two Munros bundled on top of one another.
The main ranch house is lovely. Homely, warm, welcoming and some of the most divine home made food. All the ranch guests eat together with the family, served ‘family’ style and complimented with some marvellous home baking, home made bread, cakes…. I know, its just as well we were going to be doing shed loads of riding. Don’t go there expecting a choice for dinner. If you have a dietary requirement, make sure you tell the family before you go. I have to say though, in traditional Scottish fashion, us girls pretty much scoffed the lot. I drew the line at celery. You couldn’t force me to eat it, even if it was the very, very last thing available to eat on the planet. I think I would eat the tyres off my car first. There, that’s my opinion on celery! Breakfast was at 7.30, lunch 12.30, dinner 6.30. Guaranteed you were ready for it every time!
The first night, after dinner, we filled in the indemnity forms and let the family know how much riding we had done, our experience level and what we looked for in a horse…. blimey…. 4 legs springs to mind, and better be strong ones to carry me around for a week! They then had a wee debate amongst themselves and decided which horse would suit who!
The next morning we met our partners for the week…. my pal was called Trinket, a beautiful blue roan, with the softest eye and the kindest nature. She was a stunning horse and the most amazing colour. Mum, she had Dixie a chestnut mare, Jessica had Bailey, who was a cheeky monkey a lot of the time….. Our first ride gave Pat and the Wranglers Andrew and Chase a chance to assess our riding and see how we felt in our saddles. To be honest, my stirrups were really uncomfortable, so at lunch time I had the boys change the saddle for me. Sorted.
What followed was the most amazing week of the most fantastic trail riding. Stunning views to literally take your breath away. The company was just excellent, and over the week, we all bonded pretty well and had a great laugh! To mention one or two: Chris, his dad Ken and Chris’ daughter, Abbey; Mary Ann and her nephew John; the dafties Tim and Julie (joined us later in the week). Everyone I have to say by the middle of the week were getting on really well, and it was there was always a wee giggle going on somewhere!
I have to say, never have I spent a week on holiday and voluntarily get up before 7am every morning. The latest rise was 6.45am and the earliest rise was 4.45am…. a couple of times I was up at 5.30am to take photographs of the horses being brought down to the coral. The one above of Chase, was one of those mornings when I was in bed and heard the clatter of the horses coming over the bridge, I leapt out of bed, still in my nightie, threw on a fleece, and took that photo. It must have been some sight -with my usual ‘bed head’ and looking like a Pacer…. remember those white & green striped packs of minty chews that were around in the 1980’s?
It’s little wonder that 9pm to bed was late!! The days structure was: wake up, eat, ride, snooze, eat, ride, snooze, eat (drink), sleep…. and then do it all over again. What a bummer it was! 10pm was unheard of…. only on the last night did we manage a ‘late night’!!
Our cabin was mega comfy…. we should have ‘got the hint’ though when we first arrived, there on top of the log store were two things, shaved wood, soaked in lighting fluid and a 3 pack of mouse traps. Hmmm. One morning, it was very, very cold indeed. I had been up taking photos and went back to the cabin to find Jessica all cosy and warm, all curled up in bed.
The next thing we knew, Jess had jumped out of bed shouting, “There’s something in my bed….” threw back the covers to see a healthy fat mouse sitting preening itself, after taking a nibble at Jess’ leg! You can imagine the shrieking that went on…. I didn’t manage to get that photograph. 🙁 it sprinted to the nearest exit…. We did see it again that night on our return from dinner…. him / her and three other pals…. obviously feeling brave…. It was the country after all, and pretty cold outside…. if I was a mouse I would be jumping in Jessica’s bed too!
We had other furry neighbours other than the horses, the wood chucks above were sooooo cute. Fat little critters! We also had a lot of deer visit the cabins… damn, didn’t have the camera handy…. Wild turkeys lived up in the woods behind the ranch, what a racket they made! It was lovely just sitting outside the cabin, reading a book, drinking a diet pepsi and listening to the birds tweeting and twittering and the horses snorting and neighing. It was incredibly peaceful, and so good for the heart. The ranch had three dogs who were regular visitors to the cabin: Jack, Sadie and Mouse (lovingly known as ‘Tripod’ because she has only 3 legs). They would come with us on the trail rides too, which must have been lots of fun for them, but boy, a lot of ground for a horse to cover, never mind a dog!
The rides we went on covered what seemed like miles and miles…. One ride that remained quite close to the ranch was The Enchanted Forest. To start with there were defined paths, leading into the trees and the numerous creeks that were running through. It really was both peaceful and breathtaking, and for sure the wranglers leading us through must have had a compass on them to know which way was home…. We weaved in and out of the trees, and through creeks that were at some points up to the bellies of the horses. I rode in here twice, the first was during the start of a thunderstorm, and the second was on the last afternoon in 30 + degree of heat. It must be an amazing place in the summer, when it’s hot enough to go swimming in the creek. It looked fantastic in June, and very tempting to jump right in. I didn’t thankfully, however, did on the last morning have a wee paddle!
Not like Tim…. he volunteered to help John make the new bridge behind our cabin. I don’t know if the lads drew straws for who was going to stand in the creek, but Tim lost. The bridge was a bitty rickety to say the least, however, I have to say well done to John and Tim for a superb job…. very thorough indeed! I think that Pat, Bill and the family were having the biggest giggle… two guests, paying to stay at the ranch AND building a bridge whilst they were on holiday. Brilliant.
The amount of riding that you wanted to do was entirely up to you. The first couple of days, we opted for the half day rides, so, ride out in the morning and then again in the afternoon. We really didn’t want to ‘do ourselves in’ on the first couple of days. I also had ringing in my ears…. “Wear cotton, Fi…. even better, take padded shorts with you… the longer the better….” I obviously had a lapse in concentration though, and made the mistake of wearing the wrong ‘pants’ on a long ride. The first I knew that there was a problem was when I went to sit down on the sofa in the cabin…. ooh ya!!! Dear god, I burnt my bum. See, that’s what happens when you DON’T wear cotton. Luckily, I didn’t have to bend over and have Jessica apply ointment to my bum, I was fine… I have no idea how I managed it, but I got away with it. Actually, I made sure I was fine, I really didn’t want to have to apply any ointment…. or have Jess suffer that!!! eek! On this note, if there was anything in the entire holiday that could be better would be a nice padded cushion on the bench at dinner time!!!! *note to self – take your own the next time.
At home we really approve of the life around the kitchen table… especially Mum’s kitchen table. The atmosphere in the dining room of the ranch was lovely as you can see from the photos above. The lounge was full of atmosphere too, really nice to sit in there and have a blether with all the guests and family before and after dinner …. mind you, after dinner most nights, I was just ready for my bed!!! I love having a good read on holiday, mind you I like having a read at any time. I was that knackered after riding during the day, I think I only read one book during the week. Normally in a week, I would read about 3 books if I was on holiday. Any time we sat down (and we weren’t eating) we would fall sound asleep! That’s the thing about us Wilkie women…. we can literally sleep anywhere, any time…. Marvellous!
Still, the nicest part of the day was first thing in the morning, when the horses were wrangled from the pasture and herded down to the coral. It was lovely watching them cantering down the hill, being chased by Bridget, Chase or Andrew… The clatter of the hooves coming over the bridge behind the cabin was better than any alarm clock you could ever have. That was normally at about 6.30, or slightly before. Horses are natural herd animals, and it was really fascinating to see the group of Blue Roans hanging about together when you saw them in the field… and somehow they would always end up in the same part of the coral together.
To say which was the best day out was difficult. Going to American Fork was pretty amazing…. This was an all day ride, so the night before we ordered our lunch or ‘pack up’ (as Ellen calls it) which is a filled roll and some cookies. Oh boy, our picnics always tasted so good. I did take Cadbury’s Chocolate with me and Abbey did manage to get the Cadbury’s Caramel off me!! Damn! Going on the American Fork ride took us over the top of the mountain which is in front of the cabin…. quite a hike to the top for the horses, that’s for sure. The view were truly magnificent, with endless open space and peace and quiet. Even the wildlife that we saw that day were chilled out, and not really fussed having horses share their space.
So, Montana, was it the holiday of a lifetime? Yes, it was and I can’t wait to go back again. To be honest, I will be going back for two weeks the next time, because one week was not enough. I want to enjoy that peace again, the magical views, and the beautiful horses. The family at the ranch are just superb, and make your stay very special indeed. The highlight of the holiday was the last day’s rides. We were going to ‘help’ the neighboring ranch move their cattle to summer pasture. The biggest drawback was having to get up at 4.45am…. we were in the saddle an hour later. We rode over the hills together as a group – all the guests and Pat, Page, Erin and Conner making sure we all were behaving under the watchful eyes of the wranglers.
To be honest, when you are riding across to meet the cattle, it goes through your head “Aye, what use will I be?” You are put to use, that’s for sure. All of us in our little way helped out, and I believe Mum got a well done for chasing down a stray calf. It was pretty hard work all told, the cattle got to walk on the pathway, however, Trinket and I spent most of our time off track and in the trees. It was ace though, by this time, I watched the cattle, and Trinket watched where she was putting her feet, and choosing the best line through… The way these quarter horses have been trained is truly amazing. They are so sure footed.
Along the way we had to stop to let the cattle ‘Mother-Up’ where the calves are given time to find their mum, and have a feed. It’s amazing… so noisy to start with, lots of moooooooooing……. then the silence. That’s when you know they have all matched up again. All is calm.
Then the cowboys after the last Mothering session had to split the herd in two…. This was done just behind the ranch, and oh, for a video camera. As much as we all had sore bums and were dying for a drink of anything, it was amazing watching the proper cowboys lassoing the calves. One determined calf managed to wrap the lasso around the cowboys’ horses legs, and I believe one of them had to bale out from her saddle – the option was landing in the creek, which was probably about 5 degrees at the most! One cowboy had to chase a rebel cow which was hot-footing it back to the main herd…. just outstanding how the quarter horse will stick to that cow like glue even when there are 60 other black cows looking just the same! Eventually, the herd was split in two, and we escorted our half of the herd to its pasture.
I had officially spent the longest time in the saddle in my entire 42 years. From 6am until the back of 1pm… holy cr@p. Lunch had never tasted so good, and the bench in the dining room all of a sudden felt very soft! Never mind, buck up, and get back on yer hoss! Yup…. the debate went on through lunch, will I or won’t I go out for a last ride. The point I knew I had to go was when I thought to myself “If I don’t go, I will regret it”. Chris helped…. I believe his comment was “How can you not, it’s our last ride…” Us adults headed off through the Enchanted Forest again, a nice chilled ride with lovely company. The ‘kids’ went for a mental gallop up the hills. I just had to draw the line, I had already spent 7 hours in the saddle, so a low level 2 hour ride was just what was needed. It was about 30 degrees when we were out. Holy moly, it was hot. Another reason to wear a wide brimmed hat on holiday, not only does it stop you getting your eyes poked out by a low branch, but also stops your nose getting burned! I know the horses were relieved to get into the river up to their bellies in water!
It was sad though, heading out with new friends, knowing that it was the last ride of a magical holiday. I don’t think though that it will be my only visit to Montana! I would pack thermals the next time, and I will probably leave the ipod at home. I would probably invest in some longer length cotton pants and hope that the Bawbags crew have invented wimin’s ones by then!! I would also make sure that we didn’t get our duty free confiscated at the airport. That was a major tragedy. See, when you enter into America and collect your bags for customs, make bloody sure you pack your booze into your main bag. There’s good advice for you.
It was sad the last day, especially the last ride through the forest… I didn’t wipe the smile off my face though, but was really, really close to tears saying the last thank you to Trinket, giving her very large appreciative hugs…
There were so many other things I could write about, however, it’s taken me this length of time to publish this as it is. That’s the thing, you really just have to go there to get the whole experience, the feeling of peace and well being…. meeting fantastic people and feeling like one of the family for a short moment in time. I hope that I will be going back there next year. For me, it certainly hasn’t been a one-off holiday, it was too much fun and too good for the heart. I would say anyone could go…. even if you haven’t done much riding, riding Western is pretty cool and you feel you are in an arm chair compared to English style riding… not that the saddle is more comfortable, it’s just easier for learning, I think. Before you go though, get plenty practice in…. get your ass in gear, literally, as it’s a lot of work, and you will find ‘ouch’ bits that you didn’t know existed before!! I have to say thank you Sweet Grass Ranch, it was an adventure of a lifetime. I will see you again soon, I am sure.