Real Life in the Real West

Out at the "7-Bar-V" ranch in eastern Montana, 40 miles from a paved road, there's a fax machine and a TV satellite dish to connect with the modern world. But other than that (and maybe the pickup trucks), life here in Brussett is barely removed from the 19th century.

The work is hard and often dangerous. Economic stability is more hope than reality to those here. Wildlife is an ever-present element in the food chain (predator as well as prey). And life depends on an essential support system of neighbors - except for those neighbors who join the freemen or another anti-government gang.

It's that way across much of the rural West. Not like the fancy ski resorts or tourist-packed national parks that most Americans associate with the region. Nor like the cities that keep making the "most livable" lists and therefore attract a stream of newcomers in cowboy garb ("more hat than cattle," is the saying out here) that pushes the population growth rate much higher than the national average.

Get a few miles off the interstate highways that carry one quickly through the wide-open spaces, and much of the landscape and daily routine has changed little over the past century.

The 7-Bar-V is home to the Childers family: Ross and Kelly, their 13-year-old daughter, Nolan, and 15-year-old son, Chan.

Theirs is a 22,000-acre ranch, which sounds like a big spread but is fairly moderate in size for this part of the arid West. About one-third of the acreage (which is divided into three parcels) is leased from the federal Bureau of Land Management or the state of Montana; the rest is deeded. In this hard, dry country where the winters can be severe, it takes that much acreage to support 400 cows bearing the 7-Bar-V brand.

There are three houses clustered around a small lake on what's called the "home ranch." The oldest is a one-room log-and-mud structure dating back to before the time when Ross's parents acquired the place some 60 years ago. Ross lived in that home with his parents and sister until he was into grade school. It's used to store ranch gear now.

The second house belongs to Ross's mother, Peg, whose family homesteaded here. The third is where the Childers live. The houses are plain, functional dwellings.

Everybody works here. Peg (a tiny woman who weighs about 75 pounds) takes care of the vegetable garden and egg-producing chickens. Ross and Kelly manage the ranch together, as well as an outfitting business for out-of-state visitors during hunting season. And the kids have plenty to do when they're not in school. The other morning, Nolan and Chan were up at 4:30 (before it got too hot) and set off on horseback to find a heifer that had gotten out of its pasture.

Work on horseback can be rough. Everyone here has taken bad falls or been kicked. Kelly is still recovering from a recent "horse wreck," as she calls it.

"I don't know, I guess you just take a lot of chances in this business," says Kelly, who's always got a beverage ready for visitors. When the wind-chill factor once hit 48 below zero, remembers Nolan, "We didn't go sledding at all."

Hearing this, her mother laughs and says, "These kids are tough!" They also are very intelligent and polite in conversation with strangers.

The ranching business has always been iffy, particularly for family-owned operations around the West (which have an average annual income of about $25,000). The family worries constantly about losing calves to freezing weather, predators, or other threats. In March, the temperature dropped to 30 below zero. And this spring, the Childerses lost 21 calves and five cows. And now, the North American Free Trade Agreement has opened the United States to Mexican beef, which has helped drive down the price of domestic cattle.

The relationship with animals here might strike a city-dweller or a suburbanite (certainly a vegetarian or an environmentalist) as paradoxical.

The safety and even comfort of calves is closely looked after, yet they soon will be sold for slaughter. Dogs and cats are enjoyed for their companionship, but it's clear that their main purpose is herding cattle and keeping down the mouse population.

Wildlife (deer, elk, antelope, bighorn sheep) are much admired on the hoof, but the ranch house and log hunting lodge are filled with the work of taxidermists. Animals are regularly shot for sport as well as a source of meat, and stuffed heads peer down from every wall.

Though it's hard and sometimes unpredictable, ranch life seems as regular as the seasons. But it's inevitably changing as social, economic, and environmental values evolve.

"With inflation and all, you have to have more and more land," says Kelly. "And when the kids get out of school, their parents aren't ready to retire, so they go off and do something else."

Who knows whether this 19th-century style of life will make it very far into the 21st.

*The original, longer version of this essay appears on the electronic edition of the Monitor at: http://www.csmonitor.com

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