A Glimpse of Cowboy Life and Cattle Ranching in Montana

April 2016 – During our stay with our friends in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, not only did I get a chance to ride a horse across glorious pastures and fields, but we both got to experience a different way of life that is a very special.

Fifth wheel trailer RV and a horse

We learned a little about ranching and horses during our stay in Montana!

For starters, we got to see how horses put on their shoes.

A horse gets new shoes in Montana

Snipper gets new shoes.

Snipper needed new shoes after he’d spent a winter running around barefoot in the snow, and his trusty shoe man, Jake, came around one morning to fit him with a new pair.

Horse gets new shoes in Montana

First, the hoof has to be cleaned and trimmed a bit.

He worked quickly and easily, cracking jokes the whole time. There are a lot of very funny things you can say when you’re working at the back end of a horse.

Horse gets new shoes on Montana ranch

Jake kept us all laughing as he went about his work.

In the bed of his pickup, he had an array of different size shoes and all kinds of tools for the job.


Tools of the trade for a horseshoer.

Watching him file down each hoof and hammer on a new shoe, we felt like we had been transported back in time to another era.

Measuring horseshoes for Montana horse

Horse shoes come in all sizes.

Suddenly, he suggested that Mark give it a try. He took off his chaps and gave them to Mark to put on. Then Mark lifted Snipper’s foot and tried to steady it between his knees. It’s not as easy as it looks!!

Learning to shoe a horse in Montana

Mark tries his hand at the job… not so easy!!

And what did Snipper think of all this?

Horse making a face

Snipper thinks this is all rather funny!

Of course, he’d rather roll around in the dirt and shake the dust off!

Horse shaking dust off his body

New shoes are nice, but a roll in the dirt is even better!!

Riding a horse was a special event for me, but it is all in a day’s work at Carl’s cattle ranch down the road. He and his hired man Jack and sometimes our friend Bob routinely round up the cows on horseback to move them from one field to another or to gather them all together for inspection or treatment.

Horse saddles and cowboy boots_

Stirrups and boots for cowboy work.

Every cow on Carl’s cattle ranch has a single job to do: deliver and raise a baby calf each year. In the summertime, a (very lucky) bull is brought to the ranch, and his job is to get all the cows pregnant.

The cows are already raising last year’s calves when this happens, and they keep them until October when the calves are sold and shipped off. This is a very sad day for everyone on the ranch, as the cows all mourn their loss and moo loud and long for a few days.

But they are happily pregnant, and in March, the cows all give birth to their new calves, and the cycle starts again.

Ranch life in the Bitterroot Valley Montana

We were fortunate to spend time on a cattle ranch where the cows are lovingly cared for.

When you have a ranch, you’ve gotta have ranch dogs, and two of them liked to catch a ride on the four wheeler whenever it got driven around.

Ranch dogs in Montana

The canine ranch hands get a ride.

But the alpha dog on this ranch is Taiga. She is a beautiful Australian shepherd that we met as a young puppy seven years earlier when she had been on the ranch for just a week. She has grown into an incredibly loyal and obedient and responsible dog.

Cattle dog on Montana Ranch_

Little pup Taiga is all grown up now.

I was floored when Carl yelled out to her, “Go get that calf!” and she did exactly that!

Calf on Montana ranch

A special baby calf.

This ranch is loaded with momma cows and their baby calves, and Taiga has a strong mothering instinct too. She sometimes mothers the calves a little bit.

Cattle dog mothering a calf on a Montana ranch

Taiga gives the baby calf a little lick.

Usually cows have just one calf each year, but this year two of Carl’s cows gave birth to twins. When cows live in small fields, they can keep track of their twins and raise them both. But on large grazing pastures like Carl’s ranch, the moms can lose track of two separate babies if they start wandering off in different directions and one disappears behind a hill or something.

So Carl and Jack hand-reared two calves this spring, one twin from each mother cow, and they bottle fed each of them a special calf formula twice a day.

Preparing to bottle feed calves on a Montana ranch

The orphan calves are bottle fed a special formula that gets warmed up a bit.

For Carl, bottle feeding a calf is a piece of cake, and he can do it one handed.

Bottle feeding a calf on a ranch in Montana

Bottle feeding a calf is easy, right?

He explained that sometimes an orphan calf can be given to a surrogate mom who just lost her calf for some reason. The easiest way to make the mom accept the baby is to tie the skin of her dead calf across the back of the new adoptee. The mother cow will recognize her calf’s smell and will readily accept the new baby and raise it as her own.

But none of Carl’s cows lost their calves this year, so these little guys were orphans. One had a brown face and one had white patches on its face, and both were very hungry and eager to gulp down their milk.

A calf gets bottle fed on a Montana ranch


Carl asked if we’d like to try bottle feeding the baby calves, and we jumped at the chance. Just like the horse shoeing, though, it was a little more challenging than it looked. The calves were very cute, but towards the end they had milk all over their faces and we had to clean up a bit too!!

Bottle feeding a calf on a ranch in Montana


These two little orphans needed special care and couldn’t go through the summer on the ranch without a mom to watch over them, so they needed new homes and went off to an auction while we were there.

Calves at a livestock auction in Missoula Montana

The little calves go to the Livestock Auction.

We hooked up with them at the Livestock Auction in Missoula. We saw a few hogs get sold, and then a blind calf and his mother cow were sold, and then our two little bottle fed calves came up for sale.

Calves at Livestock Auction in Missoula Montana

On to new pastures!

The auctioneer began his wildly fast patter and sang out the virtues of each calf and their weights and starting bids. He continued in a blast of unintelligible chatter until suddenly one was sold and ushered out of the pen. He resumed, and moments later the other was sold and scampered out of the pen too.

Hay bales on a ranch in Montana

From horses to cows and calves, we loved our Montana ranch visit.

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Montana’s Bitterroot Valley – Elk, Horses, Ranches & More!

April 2016 – After towing our fifth wheel through the beautiful backcountry roads of northern Utah into southeastern Idaho and on up along the Salmon River, we continued on US-93 into Montana’s beautiful Bitterroot Valley.

Bitterroot River Bitterroot Valley Montana

Montana’s Bitterroot River

In Montana we got out on our bikes and toured some of the winding dirt roads. What peace and tranquility we found!

Mountain biking Bitterroot Valley Montana

Our bikes took us on some beautiful back roads.

This is cattle ranching country, and we had a chance to visit with some cows along the way.

Mountain biking with cows on a Montana ranch


Special friends of ours live in the Bitterroot Valley, and they took us on a driving tour of some of the scenic back roads.

Cows grazing Bitterroot Valley Montana

Beautiful scenery in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana

Farms and ranches dot the very scenic landscape.

Ranch land Stevensville Montana


Cows grazing Bitterroot Valley Montana


Spring trees were in full bloom.

Spring flowering trees in blossom Bitterroot Valley Montana

Trees were covered with flowers.

Garden flowers were also in bloom, and we saw some wonderful tulips.

Spring tulips in bloom in Montana

Tulips greet the day in a pretty garden.

We have visited the Bitterroot Valley before, and one of our favorite towns is Hamilton. Four years ago when we were in Hamilton, we stopped at the Big Creek Coffee Roasters and met the owner, Randy, who, at the time, had just left a successful career as an attorney and Justice of the Peace to start his own coffee roasting business. What a wonderful change of pace!

He had been in business for only a month way back then. So, we were thrilled to see he was not only still in business today but that his business was thriving.

Big Creek Coffee Roasters Hamilton Montana

Big Creek Coffee Roasters has quite a following and ships nationwide!

Unlike most little coffee shops, Big Creek Coffee Roasters actually roasts their coffee beans right on the premises, and Randy knows an awful lot about coffee. He had told me on our first visit four years earlier that the best way to brew a fine cup of coffee was to use a Melitta coffee brewer and Melitta filters and to pour almost boiling water over the grounds.

This is the way I had always made coffee — my family brewed it that way when I was growing up — and it is a great way to go if you live in an RV off the grid on solar power because it doesn’t require any electricity.

Big Creek Coffee Roasters Hamilton Montana

A great spot for coffee in Montana!

This time around, Randy taught me about coffee storage containers. I’d always kept my coffee in whatever bag it came in. Randy suggested I try an Airscape Coffee Cannister which has a double sealing system. There’s an airtight inner seal that you push down onto the grounds to squeeze out all the air, and there’s an airtight lid too. It holds about 2 lbs. of coffee and it has been keeping the delicious Barrister’s Blend of coffee I bought from him very fresh!

Airscape Coffee Cannister keeps coffee beans fresh

The inner lid (left) gets pressed down against the grounds inside the cannister.
The outer lid (right) makes a second airtight seal at the top.

While we were there, a group from Ohio walked in the door for a cuppa joe. It turned out they were enthusiastic mail order customers who had fallen in love with Big Creek Coffee Roasters while on vacation in Montana years back!

Early each morning, long before it was time for coffee, we kept hearing the familiar and haunting call of a California Quail. These guys’ cousins, the Gambel’s quail, are common in the Arizona desert. We were surprised that some California Quail now live in Montana!

California Quail Stevensville Montana

Hey, what are you doing here??!!

It was a thrill to see a little California quail in Montana, but an even more thrilling animal encounter awaited us as we drove down the highway one afternoon. Out of the corner of our eyes we saw a herd of elk circling each other in a frenzy by the side of the road. Curious, we turned around and pulled over to see what was up.

Suddenly, the herd bolted across the highway.

Elk on road Bitterroot Valley Montana

Wow, look at that!

Luckily, the cars in both directions stopped and let the herd pass.

Elk crossing road Bitterroot Valley Montana


They crossed the bike path and then began jumping over the fence into a farm field.

Elk jumping fence Bitterroot Valley Montana

The fence is no problem for these high jumpers!

What a magical sight it was to see them leaping over the fence one by one!

Elk herd jumps fence in Bitterroot Valley


Finally, they’d all gotten over the fence, and they started running at full tilt across the field. What a sight!!

Elk herd runs across the Bitterroot Valley Montana

And off they go!!

Our friend Bob is a longtime horse owner, and while we were visiting he wanted to make sure I got out on a horseback ride.

We had tried this once before, with mixed results, and we were both eager to give it another go.

Horse and owner in montana

Bob and his beautiful horse, Snipper.

The first order of business was to make sure I looked a little like a cowgirl with a proper hat.

Cowgirl in Montana

Can this cowgirl ride a horse?

Bob has two horses, Snipper, who stole my heart, and Little Buck, who is very calm and good for a rank beginner like me to ride. Bob showed me how to steer with the reins, and Little Buck responded to my every movement. It was like steering a car. How easy!

I laughed out loud at what a cinch riding a horse was and inadvertently squeezed my legs together. Oops! The horse took off like a shot! Don’t nudge a horse with your feet by accident, because that means Go!

Horseback riding in the Bitterroot Valley

Ready to ride!

Once I showed Bob I could do a U-turn and go and stop as needed, we started off on the most beautiful horseback ride together.

Horseback riding in the Bitterroot Valley


The pastures stretched to the horizon where the mountain peaks reached up to touch the sky.

Riding horses in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana

What a place to ride!

My extremely patient horse tolerated all my miscues and mistakes, and we threaded our way through a forest of ponderosa pine trees. We got all the way through to the open fields on the other side without losing either me or my hat!

Riding a horse in the Bitterroot Valley Montana

I think I’m getting the hang of this!

I can totally understand how people fall in love with horses and riding. This was really fun!

I also now have a huge appreciation for John Wayne’s horsemanship skills. How he managed to tear across the desert at a full gallop with the reins in his teeth and guns firing in each hand is beyond me!!

horse love in Montana Bitterroot Valley

Snipper loves attention, and I loved giving it to him!

If you are traveling through Montana with an RV, I can’t guarantee you’ll see a herd of elk running across the highway or that you’ll have a chance to ride across the pastures on horseback, but US-93 through the Bitterroot Valley will take you past some wonderful towns and some beautiful scenery! More info and links below…

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Darby, MT – Fun Surprises in the Bitterroot Valley

Hamilton, MT, farmer's market eggs

Nita sells colorful eggs

Late July, 2012 – Right on the heels of our wonderful Bittersweet Guitars factory tour came the Hamilton, MT, Farmer’s Market.  Nita was selling her colorful eggs from her many egg-laying birds: turkey, duck and goose eggs were mixed in among chicken eggs, and her carefully hand-written sign explained that if you got a bad egg she would happily replace it with a good one.

Kids at the Hamilton, MT, Farmer's Market

Belle of the Ball

Nita was a fun old gal to chat with, but the real belle of the ball that morning was a little girl not quite two years old.  She already had the looks and style of a high fashion model.

Fun kids at the Hamilton, MT, farmer's market

Mark and Savannah play with the camera

Mark enjoyed hanging out with the two-year-old set for a while, and little Savannah loved making faces and then looking at her picture in the back of his camera.  This market is a family affair and the whole place was filled with kids.  What fun.

Flower at the Hamilton, MT, farmer's marketFrom Hamilton we made our way to Darby where we found the Pioneer Memorial Library filled with treasures from bygone days.  Ned was our tour guide there, and he pointed out an axe cover that his granddad had made from an old cowboy boot and a scale used for weighing buffalo.  Most intriguing was the telephone switchboard.  Ned’s mom had been a switchboard operator on a unit just like the one on display.

Telephone switchboard, Darby, MT

Telephone switchboard

I’d only seen these things in the movies and was surprised at how small it was – room for just one person.  There were Missoula phone books from the 1920’s and 30’s on display too.  Almost every family listed in the phone book was at an address given vaguely as “ranch N of Darby” or “ranch S of Hamilton.”  No street names!  The phone book also touted the ease of using the telephone, saying how friends and family were “right beside you.”  It explained in detail the sound and purpose of the busy signal.

1930's era Missoula, MT, phone book

1930’s era phone book

Reading that and thinking about my project of migrating our website to WordPress, integrating it with “social media,” and wanting it to look good on a smartphone made me laugh.  What would the people of those days have thought (as they read their little phone books telling them that the sound of a ringing bell in their ear-piece meant the phone was ringing at the other party’s house) if you had told them what was to come?  Of course many of them are with us today, romping around on the internet with joyful abandon.

Behind bars at the Darby, MT, Sherriff's office

The Darby, MT, Sherriff has a sense of humor

The Sherriff in Darby is a history buff, and he oversaw the renovation of part of his offices to replicate an old-time Sherriff’s office and jail.  Mark and I jumped behind bars for a quick pic.

Darby, MT, Logger Days

Darby, MT, is known for Logger Days

Darby is well-known for their Logger Days festival in July, and the preparations were in full-swing.  Rows of log towers had gone up for the log climbing competition, and a pool was being filled with water for the log rolling competition.  We missed the actual events, but folks in town kept asking us, “Have you seen the library?”  This seemed like something we definitely shouldn’t miss, and sure enough, when we stepped inside we were really surprised.

Darby, MT, library

Darby Library

For a town with a population of less than 750, the little library would do a much larger town proud, both for its construction and for what it says about the community.  Lots of people retire to the Darby area from scientific careers launched with PhD’s years ago (GlaxoSmithKline and NIH have large research facilities in the area), and grant writing and philanthropic giving are second nature to them.  At the same time, one of the challenges facing the local logging industry is the plethora of small-diamater timber that is clogging the woods.

Darby, MT, library is made from small-diameter timber

Vaulted ceilings in an unusual structure

Winning a grant from the National Forest Service and its Madison, WI, forest products lab (along with other grants and gifts), Darby built a library that is uniquely engineered and is the first of its kind, showcasing a clever construction technique that takes advantage of under-utilized small-diameter timber.  Rather than using single fat logs, the posts and beams in this library are made with groups of four skinny poles, and the visual effect (and physical soundness) is terrific.

Darby, MT, Library: unique use of small-diamter wood

Unique use of skinny poles

Groups of tourists from all over the world have come to admire the construction of what the locals affectionately call the “Sistine Chapel of Small-Diameter Round Wood.”  What a beautiful, sun-filled space this special library is for a quiet morning of reading or computer work.

Cyclist in Darby, MT, rides from OK to CA

Long-distance cyclist Mary McDaniel

The Bitterroot Valley is also a popular thoroughfare for cyclists on long-distance adventures.  We saw dozens of cyclists loaded down with panniers.  Mary and Kurt McDaniel had spent the last 7 weeks riding from Oklahoma, and they were on their way to San Francisco by way of Canada’s Jasper National Park.  These cycling travelers often group and re-group with each other on the road, and a young fellow from Korea had joined the for a leg of his travels that were taking him from Atlanta to California.

chipmunk in Gibbons Pass, MTThe cyclists urged us to drive the nearby wildflower-filled meadows of Gibbons Pass.  Out on this pretty road we saw a brown sign saying, “Hogan Cabin,” so we took the turn, expecting to find a historic cabin.  Nope!  An elderly couple emerged from the cabin as we pulled up and said to us, “We sure didn’t expect any visitors!”  Huh?  Wasn’t this public property owned by the NFS or another government agency?  “Oh sure, but we rented it for the night.  $35!  Shhh – it’s the best kept camping secret around!”

Hogan Cabin, Gibbons Pass, MT

Hogan Cabin, Gibbons Pass

Wow.  We had no idea that the NFS rented out cabins!  This was an old ranger’s cabin and inside was a wonderful pot-bellied stove and bunk beds.  We sat outside with our newfound friends and enjoyed the late afternoon sun.  It was as if they’d invited us to stop by and visit them at their own personal mountain retreat.

From the south end of the Bitterroot Valley we headed on towards Big Hole, Montana, where we found life-giving hot springs and gorgeous camping.



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A Craftsman’s Dream Fulfilled: BitterSweet Guitars in the Bitterroot, MT

Big Creek Coffee Roasters, Hamilton, MT

Big Creek Coffee Roasters

Mid-July – After enjoying some ranching and quilting fun in Montana’s Bitterroot Valley, we strolled the cute town of Hamilton where there is a high-end, ambiance-rich, specialty coffee bistro on every corner.  Our kind of town!  Wandering down one street, Mark noticed a guitar shop, and just had to stop in.  We got chatting with Cody, the young owner who, together with his wife Nichole, has taught guitar since they were in their early twenties and had recently purchased the store, Mountain Music Learning Center.

Mountain Music Center, Hamilton, MT

Mountain Music Center

The wall was lined with Taylor and Takamine acoustic guitars, both of which Mark has owned and liked.  But tucked in among them were another brand, BitterSweet Guitars.  “I make those,” a voice said behind me.  Our eyes popped open as we turned to see a friendly looking fellow with a mustache.  Really?  Hand-made guitars and the builder right here on a stool at the counter??  His name was Ken Rumbaugh, and it turned out his workshop was just outside of town.


Playing at Mountain Music Center, Hamilton, MT

Cody & Ken strum a bit

He took a guitar down off the wall, strummed a few chords, and then began jamming with store owner Cody.  What fun!  Next thing we knew, Ken was inviting us to come see his workshop.  What an opportunity!!  A few hours later our buggy rattled down some narrow lanes as we followed Ken’s directions.   The pretty Bitterroot mountains made a picturesque backdrop in the distance across farm fields.

BitterSweet Guitar Shop, Hamilton, MT

Ken shows off his sign

Then there it was, the ten foot tall playable guitar Ken had built as BitterSweet Guitar’s sign.  Hopping out of the truck, the first thing we noticed after the enormous guitar was a cool ancient truck parked out back and a nosy sheep that stuck his head through the fence to have a look at us.  As Ken led us into the workshop we passed a large bank of Outback solar charge controllers.  The shop was powered primarily by solar power!

But like all of us who live with solar power, there were limits.  Our fifth wheel’s 490 watts gives us everything we need in the buggy except air conditioning.  Ken’s 5,000 watts in his workshop gives him everything he needs but his big air compressor… This was the second commercial building we had seen using banks of Outback controllers (the first was the NOLS school in the Sea of Cortez).

Classic old car


Sheep head through fence








BitterSweet Guitar Factory, Hamilton, MT

BitterSweet Guitar Factory

The BitterSweet Guitar workshop was filled with a wonderful array of sweet smelling wood and sawdust, impressive power tools, and instruments in various stages of completion and repair.  Along with building guitars, Ken repairs stringed instruments of all kinds.

"Tater Bug" Mandolin, BitterSweet Guitar Repairs

“Tater Bug” Mandolin

Throughout our tour he kept returning to a lovely “tater bug” mandolin, whose neck was in clamps, to check on it, as it needed to move on to its next phase of repair once the glue had been at a certain temperature for four hours.


Side of a guitar, BitterSweet Guitars

Beautiful curvy side panel

Ken walked us through every step of building a guitar, from selecting and shaping the wood for the sides to creating the neck and headstock to attaching the front and back.  Who knew that every guitar’s front panel is rounded as if it were part of the skin of a 32′ diameter ball?

BitterSweet Guitar Headstock

BitterSweet Guitar Headstock

He showed us a BitterSweet Guitar headstock inlaid with beautiful, iridescent, abalone pieces in the shape of a flower.  Each guitar was crafted with carefully matched wood patterns, and he spoke warmly of his customers who each come to him with very particular requests for their instruments.

Building guitars at BitterSweet Guitar, Hamilton, MT

Fitting a side panel into the jig

Guitars emerging from this shop are works of art.

Ken learned his craft as a young man, hanging around the Martin factory that was near his home in New Jersey.  The workers were happy to share tips with him, and he dumpster dove behind the factory to pick up and study their cast off necks, bridges and headstocks.  Having sold his cabinet-making business after many years, he now builds guitars as a fun retirement job.  What a satisfying skill to have.

Hamilton, Montana

Ride ’em Cowboy!

A few days later we met up with Ken once again at the Hamilton Farmer’s Market.  This is a lively summer Saturday morning event, and Ken, along with his bandmates, made wonderful music on the green in front of the county courthouse where there is a marvelous wooden statue of a rodeo bronco.

We hung around the Bitterroot Valley area a while longer, and returned to the Mountain Music Learning Center guitar shop briefly so Mark could learn the opening strains of a song shop-owner Cody had played so easily when we were first there (White Lion’s “When the Children Cry”).  And eventually we moseyed down to the small town of Darby, MT, where we found a unique library and ended up behind bars.

Music at the Hamilton Farmer's Market in Montana

Music at the Farmer’s Market








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Bitterroot Valley, MT – Traditional Roots in the Modern Age

Barn in the Bitterroot Valley, Montana

Barns add color to the scenery.

Mid-July, 2012 – When we left Mesa Falls, Idaho, and its glistening rainbow behind, we crossed into Montana to visit friends in the Bitterroot Valley.  This is a valley rich with the spirit of another time and place, where ranching still plays an important role.  Yet at the same time we heard rumors that some of the most astronomically rich, like the founder of Intel, own mammoth estates in the hillsides, giving the area a certain mystique.

Christmas in July

Christmas in July!

Our life on the road is far from grandiose.  In fact we have a hard time buying any kind of mail order goods, as not all things can be shipped to “General Delivery” at some post office somewhere.  Knowing we were headed to a real address, we went a little crazy mail ordering things we had wanted for ages.  Our friends Bob & Donna Lea very kindly became good buddies with the UPS and FedEx delivery people who brought a year’s worth of our shopping to their doorstep.  Donna Lea put bows on all the boxes and we celebrated a very fun “Christmas in July.”

Ranchers in the Bitterroot Valley

Cole and Bob get ready for work.


Their neighbor Carl is a rancher, and he invited us to come over to his ranch to watch a small “cattle drive” as he and his ranch hands moved the herd from munching on grass in one field to dining on another.  I had gotten caught up with computer work and missed the fun, but Mark enjoyed a fabulous morning among horse hooves and snorting cows as the ranchers rounded them all up.

The cows

The cows are about to be moved. Do they know?


Cattle roundup

Ranchers on horseback in the Bitterroot Valley, Montana

Cole, Bob, Jack & Carl pose for pics!

These cows are well loved and are more obedient than most, I imagine, and in no time the two dogs and four mounted ranchers had persuaded the stomping and mooing group to move on to greener pastures.

Our ranching host

Carl, our ranch host.

In these parts there is often a trade that goes on between ranching and non-ranching landowners.  There’s a lot of value in having a herd of cows take care of your mowing, especially if you’ve got a lot of acres to mow.  At the same time, the cost of feeding a large group of very large animals can be a bit steep.  So just about the time that a herd of cows needs fresh greens — and just about the time that a non-rancher’s land is beginning to look a little overgrown — the two neighbors get together, shake hands on the trade, and the herd is moved.

Computer driven sewing machine

Computer driven sewing machine!

This is also an area where traditional crafts are treasured, and one morning I joined Donna Lea and her daughter Diana on a trip to the local quilting show.  I love handcrafts, needlework and all things to do with fabric, thread and yarn, so this was a real treat for me.  What a surprise it was to discover that quilting has gone high tech.  The sewing machines were incredible: huge and computer driven with electronic displays where you can select stitches and sizes and everything else.  The fabrics are out of this world as well with photographic quality images of everything from animals to mountains printed in all sorts of hues.  The days of hand stitched geometric designs made of calico patterns are long gone.

Spinning wheel

The old way…

Fortunately the roots of needlework are still valued, and a woman sat at a spinning wheel in the center of the room explaining the old fashioned techniques to an audience of young kids that buzzed around her.


Modern quilt designs are beautiful.

Best of all, though, was the exhibition of quilts hanging in rows along one end of the hall.  There were historic quilts with notes saying this like, “This quilt was owned by great-aunt Betty in 1927,” and there were traditional quilts made in the old style.  But my favorites were the modern ones that have unusual designs and motifs you would never expect in a hand-made quilt.

The Bitterroot Valley charmed us for two weeks, and we soon discovered more fine craftsmanship in the town of Hamilton, Montana at BitterSweet Guitars.



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Stevensville, MT – Real Ranching and Grass Fed Beef!

Salmon Idaho hat shop

Hat shop in Salmon, Idaho.

Salmon Idaho cowboy hat shop

Trade-in hats from loyal customers.

Lemhi County Fair Idaho

Lemhi County Fair

Lemhi County Fair Idaho

Cowboys watch the rodeo.

BItterroot Mountains Montana

Beautiful barn and ranch in the Bitterroot.


Little Buck eyes me up.

Horseback riding

He did exactly as my reins told him.

BItterroot Mountains Montana ranch

A peaceful but busy ranch.

Ranching in Montana

Calves come barreling down the chute to be


Ranching in Montana

They are held in a small pen for their shots.

Ranching in Stevensville Montana

That's a mighty big syringe!

Ranching in Stevensville Montana

Two quick shots.  Some calves barely seemed to


Ranching in Stevensville Montana

And off they run to join their waiting friends.

Ranching in Stevensville Montana

Sunset casts a warm glow on the Bitterroot mountains.

Kootenai Creek Fire Montana

A wildfire had burned for a month in the nearby hills.

Mountain biking Bitterroot Mountains Montana

Carl shows us what ranchers do in their free time.

Mountain biking Bitterroot Mountains Montana

The views became more and more

grand as we climbed.

Mountain biking and hiking Kootenai Creek Montana

New growth from the wicked 1910 blaze to the left and

new charred scarring on the right.

Mountain biking and hiking Kootenai Creek Montana bark beetles pine trees Montana

Beetles bore into the tree bark

and the tree responds by oozing

thick sap.

cow dog Montana ranch

The newest ranch hand.

Wild turkeys Montana

Wild turkeys pay us a visit.

Just a few feet to one side and we'd have had a good sunny

glimpse of the family.

Bambi deer Montana

Bambi trots across the grass nearby.

Cows on a Montana cattle ranch

The cows come when called.

Cows on a Montana cattle ranch

Yum, freshly mowed grass!

Cows on a Montana cattle ranch

That's something to moo about.

Cows on a Montana cattle ranch

The moms circle us.

Cows on a Montana cattle ranch

A few treats to lure them in, and they know the next

step is a romp in a new pasture.

Cows on a Montana cattle ranch

This guy was hopeful mom still had some milk for him.

Cows on a Montana cattle ranch

And they're off to greener grass on the other side of the fence.

Stevensville, Montana

Late August, 2009 - We left Stanley, Idaho and continued traveling

north towards Montana, following the wonderful twists and turns of the

Salmon River as it descended down the mountains.  During two days of

leisurely driving along the river's edge, we watched the terrain gradually

change from tall pines on steep mountainsides to rolling, barren hills that

seemed to have been shaped and smoothed with care.  We slowly

began to feel the mood changing from fly fishing in fast-moving streams

under cool trees to ranching on the wide open range under the big sky.

Stopping in the small town of Salmon, Idaho, we found a shop filled with

cowboy hats.  The new ones on the racks looked very crisp, but the

ones with real character were the crumpled ones the customers had

turned in.  These hats lined the tops of the walls in the store.  Each hat

was crinkled and worn in a different way, and each had the owner's

name under it.

Outside of town we found the Lemhi

County Fair in progress.  There was

all kinds of horse activity going on,

and we watched a little as the riders

competed with each other to be the

fastest one to sort out a single cow

from the herd.

It was more fun watching the

cowboys watch the event.

Some of the ranches and farms we passed were beautiful properties.  One red barn in

particular caught my eye, and later I found that this same barn

was featured on a glossy Montana calendar.

We went to Stevensville to visit our friends Bob and Donna Lea.

Before we'd even said "hello" to them, we met their horse Little

Buck.  He was carrying Bob's ranching boots on his back.

I got a chance to try my legs at

riding a horse.  This was just the

third time I'd been on a horse

since my first outing on a pony at

the church fair when I was five.  I

managed okay, but I got the

signals crossed for turning right

versus left and consequently had

to duck under a very low branch.

Bob had work to do at his

neighbor Carl's ranch, and we got

a fantastic inside view of what

ranching is like.  This was the day

the cows and their calves had to

be inoculated with two vaccines

and sprayed with an anti-fly

spray.  I had no idea what to

expect, but I loved the sights and

smells and busy activity on the


First the calves were sent down a chute to a single-calf sized holding

pen.  There they were held in place with a clamp on either side of their

neck so they could bob their head up and down but couldn't wriggle out.

This made it easier to give them their shots.  They didn't seem thrilled

with the idea, but they didn't protest too much.  A scratch on the head

helped the medicine go down.  Next, two ranchers lined up with the

shots.  The syringes were pretty good sized.  Bigger than I'd want,


Then the vaccines were injected and

the calf was released to run off to his

friends down the hill.  There was all kinds of mooing going on in the distance, as the calves and

cows had been separated from each other for this project, and they kept calling to each other

from their separate pens.

Eventually everyone got their shots

and later they all got their spray.  We

had a chance to go through the

calving barn to see where and how

that is done (in March when it is zero

degrees and snowing).  As I looked at

the apparatus for handling a breach

birth and for nurturing a sickly calf, I

was amazed at how much biological

and medical knowledge a rancher

needs to have.  I missed most of the

scientific words Carl was throwing


Yet there was a cozy intimacy to this family enterprise that brought a new group of calves into

this world each year.  I felt like I was peeking in on a James Herriott story.  In the distance that

evening the mountains were lit with a momentary splendor, adding a special glow to this world of

Montana cattle ranching.

A wildfire had been burning in the

nearby mountains for a month.

During the day you could smell the

smoke, and at times the fire danced across the mountainside,

sending up a ribbon of smoke first from one area and then another.

A few days into our visit a torrential rainstorm came, dropping an inch

of water on the mountains and valley (along with a thin layer of pea-

sized hail).  That doused the fire long enough for us to take a

mountain bike ride up to a nearby peak to get a closer look.

Our new ranching friend Carl showed us that ranchers don't just raise

cattle.  They mountain bike too.

Once we got up in the hills a

few miles we had an

expansive view of the

Bitterroot Valley below.  We

met some US Forest Service

rangers at the crest of the

mountain, and they told us that

the fire was subdued but not

quite out.  As we looked out at

the charred hillside in the

distance (on the right side of

the photo below) we could not

see any smoke just then, but

in later days it returned.

The modern wildfire fighting method is to let them burn, as fires are natural in this part of

the country.  The hillside on the left of the photo shows the forest's re-growth since the

1910 inferno that roared from Washington state across Idaho and into Montana.  The shorter, even trees covering most of the hill

are the regrowth and the taller, darker ribbon of trees that lines the ravine going down the hillside are the original pre-1910 trees.

One hundred years later and the evidence of that fire is still plain to see.

Hopefully the burnt areas from this year's fire will grow back

a little faster, as the fire was not hot enough to sterilize the

ground (like the 1910 fire did).  All the fire talk aside, it was a

good moment for a photo op.

The fire was working its way across many healthy trees, but

we found ourselves in a stand of beetle infested trees.  The

beetles bore into the bark and the tree tries to repel them

with thick sap.  This gives the tree a pock-marked look.

Some trees are able to stave off the infestation, but most

eventually die

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Carl had just acquired an

adorable new cow dog.  She was all cuddles and goofiness,

just settling in to her new home before learning the ropes of

her ranch job.

Out in the "wildlife sanctuary," a portion of the pastureland allowed to grow

wild, two families of wild turkeys showed up.  They had been in the area all

summer and at one time numbered two adult females and 17 chicks.

We counted 15 chicks with

the moms, but couldn't get

them to stand still or pose for

us in the sunshine for a family

portrait.  They ran across the

road in the shadows instead.

In the midst of taking way too

many photos of these

turkeys, I looked up and saw

Bambi running across the

field, white spots and all.

A few days later, Carl invited us

over to see a "cattle drive" at the

ranch.  This wasn't the big round-

up you might imagine, but a simple

walk-through from one pasture to

another.  The cows had made

short work of all the grass in their

current field, and when Carl called

to them, they came running.

He presented them with some

freshly mowed grass and they got

very excited.  The mooing was

tremendous, and each cow came

bellowing over to us, calf in tow.

They all stood around us in a circle,

expectantly.  He hand fed a few,

telling me some of the stories behind

each one.  The bulls were lounging

under the trees in another pasture

way down the hill.  It was like a boys

school and a girls school with each

waiting for spring time when they

could finally get together at the prom.

Each May he puts two bulls in a

pasture with 50 cows for 70 days.  By

the end just about every cow is

pregnant and the bulls have a

lot of notches on their belts.

Some cows had been on his ranch

for 13 years, and others for just a

year or so, but each had a history

and a personality.

This big guy was still nursing (a

little old for that, perhaps!).  He

spent quite some time going round

and round from teat to teat, quite

sure that there was something

there for him, but not finding what

he wanted.  Finally momma just

walked off.

Carl led the cows and calves through the gate, and they went running down

the lush green hillside.  They were delighted with their new digs.  The grass

was tall and soft, and the view was superb.  The cattle on this ranch have it


We said goodbye to Carl, and took off with Bob and Donna Lea for the

annual Labor Day Helmville Rodeo.