One of my earliest memories of Montana was shortly after moving here was when I was 11 or 12. My father, my great uncle, and I had just finished a day of pheasant hunting in eastern Montana. I had seen my first real cowboys working cows on horseback, a rattlesnake, and plenty of wild pheasants. We were all exhausted from a day of limiting out on our shares of birds and pulled up to the middle-of-nowhere-bar that seemed that night to serve as the center of the universe.
The street was full of flatbed trucks– there were a surprising number of vehicles given how high the county number on the license plate was (in Montana, county numbers are displayed on license plates and the number correlates to the population of the county. The higher the number, the fewer people). We pulled open the windowless bar door and were met with a jubilant sea of cowboy hats and old foam truckers. Men (and women) in Wrangler peal snap shirts embraced each other. Quarters were stacked on the jukebox where a queue of upbeat country songs played–no sad songs tonight. We had stumbled into a shipping party– and apparently, it was a good year for beef. We found some seats at the bar and bellied up. I sat between my dad and great uncle, the youngest person there by far. Shots of Wild Turkey were passed around the bar as the celebratory ranchers took turns buying rounds. I sat there absorbing everything and drinking soda. Every detail and story I heard grabbed me. Now, my life more or less looks the same. I can frequently be found post fishing or hunting at antiqued saloon bars watching people in cowboy hats twirl around the dance floor. I settled down in Livingston, Montana, and took up a career in fly fishing, working at the Yellowstone Angler. I am a storyteller at heart and working in the fly fishing industry has given me the perfect lifestyle to pursue the tales of the West. I embrace the modern American West and the tradition that still lives on here. The West is a dynamic creature, full of people who live their lives dependent on the landscape– from cowboys to fishing guides, to artists. Everyone needs the land and has their lives shaped by its ebbs and flows. Hard winters, hot summers, good bug hatches, rivers rising and falling with spring runoff, the livelihood of the people here depend on it all.
I believe in the power of a good cowboy hat, have faith in bird dogs, and have learned to listen when rattlesnakes give you a warning. Lessons learned and stories heard on the bow of a boat, the seat of a saddle, or on a creaking barstool are often the best ones. The heart of the American West is still alive and well and for those who are preserving it, it is more than just a place.