Under the Big Sky

His camera captures cagey cowhands and sprawling skies.

This story appears in the October 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine.

"Do you ever feel like going away?" I asked.

It was a summer day in 1969. There had been no rain for weeks. The 17-year-old boy from a Hutterite religious community in Stanford, Montana, said you can tell it's really dry when a single rider can kick up a dust trail. We stopped with our horses at a stream. The water was cool and tasted of the earth. We drank carelessly, splashing our faces until our shirtfronts hung wet.

"You know—do you ever feel like leaving the colony?"

"No," the boy said. "It must be a pretty rough life on the outside, all alone, trying to make a living. Don't you think?"

We let the horses drink, and then rode on.

"Yes," I told him. "It can be all of that."

Since that innocent exchange, I've spent much of my life traveling the world. I've seen a lot of wonderful places. But it was the American West that never left me. It kept drawing me back.

Raised in Minneapolis, I didn't get my first look at the West until the mid-1960s, while on my first assignments for National Geographic magazine. I can still remember one early morning in Wyoming and the first light on high mountain meadows, the wisps of clouds within my reach. That look demanded another, and another, until I found myself seeking any excuse, any story idea that would lead me back from the East, where I had moved, to that grand expanse. Now I live half the year in western Montana.

I once knew an old Montana cowhand, now dead, who used to muse about times when the country was more open, with fewer fences and gates to slow a man down—restrictions in the land of the free. I suppose we all feel more restricted today. There seem to be gates in our lives that we never get open. But if we're lucky, we find a place special to us. Even though it may change with time, if we love it deeply enough, there is a part of it within us to the end. That's how I feel about the West.