Beauty meets bliss in Big Sky Country

The Montana phone book may sport a cowboy moseying along on horseback while yakking on a cellphone. But you don't have to be on the Triple J Wilderness Ranch here in Augusta long to realize that it's an optimistic image at best.

Ride up to the top of the canyon and maybe you'll catch a signal. Otherwise, communication with the outside world takes place tethered to a wall phone. Make that a conversation in the lodge, with others waiting for air time, and you start to realize - happily - that it's time to hang up on harried East Coast ways and try something different.

That's what my children, two of their friends, and I did one week last summer. We'd flown out of Massachusetts in search of a family-friendly vacation, far from the Disney crowd but near new activities and some spectacular scenery. Where 11- and 13-year-olds reared in an "I'm busy, therefore I am" culture could confront the notion of unstructured and computer-free time, and ambient noise came from something other than cars and MTV.

Three planes and a two-hour drive later, the 800-acre ranch we put to the test passed effortlessly.

Triple J - 25 miles outside of tiny Augusta and nestled up against the million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Area - was little more than a small hunting lodge when Max and Ann Barker bought it in the 1970s. They slowly built up the place, expanding as finances permitted. Today, son Ernie and his wife, Kim, manage the ranch - which now has six comfortable, modern cabins and a recently expanded lodge - with help from several wranglers and family members.

It doesn't take long to figure out that the main attraction here is horses. The ranch sports other activities: You can fish in three stocked ponds (if you can fool the jaded trout - which get thrown back - into nibbling instead of gazing blandly up at you through the very clear water).

You can take advantage of hiking, nontechnical mountain climbing, horseshoes, football, the small library in the lodge, or, for small children, the kiddie corral, a fenced-in area with swings and such. (The ranch also offers a children's program, as well as adults-only weeks.)

A heated above-ground pool provides fun as well, although the week we were there, the heater broke down and the arctic water temperature kept us away.

But this is really a place for riding.

Early our first morning at the ranch, we heard the pounding of hooves as the horses were rounded up from a weekend of free time and moved toward the corral. At the end of the week, we stood near the barn, bidding a fond farewell before our mounts returned to a well-deserved break. In between, we spent a lot of time in the saddle.

First thing Monday, Barker and the wranglers set each of us up with the horse we would ride for the week. We were a crew of 15, city slickers for the most part, ranging from graduate students to parents and children to empty-nesters.

The Barkers know their 70-odd horses well; unlike some due ranchers, they own, rather than lease, their steeds. We all ended up with pretty good matches, based on information about our riding ability that we gave the ranch. My daughter did switch horses after "Rooster" developed a dislike for traveling in company, but found a satisfying new match with the happily misnamed "Geronimo."

After saddling up, it was over to the corral for some basic pointers and questions. Then it was out for an hour's ride to get our trail legs and the initial lay of the land.

That was how we spent most of the week. After a hearty breakfast each day in the lodge, we headed to the barn to prep for whatever trail we would hit that day.

The environs offered endless opportunities to look out over grand vistas and saunter past wooded glens and mountain streams. A nice family bonus was that our rides allowed us to share an experience without being on top of each other or even talking for long periods.

Some rides were short; others took the better part of the day. On our second day, for example, we rode down the mountain, stopping along the nearby Sun River for a brown-bag lunch.

We then rode up along the narrow, rocky trails high above Gibson Lake, where our horses' surefootedness was appreciatively noted.

Later we stopped at a large meadow and took part in what resembled a high-energy game of Red Rover, cantering or galloping across spaces framed by strategically positioned wranglers.

Such moments were high points, especially for the kids. We had several opportunities to "run" the horses, as well as to play easy games on horseback. And to accommodate varying riding abilities, Barker occasionally broke us into groups that fanned out in different directions.

That friendly accommodation was characteristic of our week at this homey ranch. When we headed out on the all-day ride, Barker offered to drive my fishing pole to the spot where we planned to stop for lunch. Another time, after my kids and their friends expressed an interest in learning more about riding, one of the young wranglers - Barker's niece, Kate - spent the morning in the corral with them, offering tips and playing games that could teach them more about controlling their horses.

After calling off an overnight trail ride because of severe winds, Barker and company packed up the horses and took us down to the Sun River Game Range, where we took probably the most spectacular ride of the week.

We passed dramatic ridges and glimpsed bighorn sheep, all the while getting detailed narration from "Houston," our enthusiastic and well-versed wrangler.

All this, along with being tucked into a spectacular gulch and surrounded by people skilled in blending family and guests, made for a very happy week.

Maybe it was the relaxed, distinctly unglitzy nature of the camp. (About the most commercial thing we saw during our six days was a soda machine.) The ranch grounds were beautiful and natural.

At any moment, a horse wandering by might trip a wire and knock the phone out temporarily. A bear cub stopped outside our cabin for a while, a wonderful sight that we observed in virtual silence and from a safe distance.

Food was homestyle - fried chicken, corn soup, and bread pudding all dotted the menu - and served up in a folksy dining room. The Barker family joined guests at the tables and gave everyone a chance to get to know each other.

Evening entertainment ranged from a talk by a local fossil expert to a barbecue by the trout pond. Two excellent country musicians also taught roping technique to any takers, while the rest looked on from their perches on bales of hay.

These activities were all enjoyable. But most enjoyable was the immersion in a different world, where the rhythm was slower (at least for the guests).

The kids easily adjusted to different entertainment, hanging out by the fish pond, playing board games, making a silly home movie with our video camera in the cabin at night, wandering over to play with the barn kittens, or helping with the horses.

In the end, it was one of those vacations that went down in our books as virtually flawless. Despite small grumbles here and there, we all had a great time - and we each selected slightly different activities as the "best part."

Having the kids bring friends worked out very well, even though they all got in each other's hair a few times. But then, we were in Big Sky Country, and there was plenty of room to disappear for a while.

I wasn't sure at the outset how such intense family time was going to work. I needn't have worried. As we bumped our way back to the airport at the end of the week, my son asked, "Can we go back every year?"

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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