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Ami Vitale: Growing Up in Big Sky Country

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Andy Anderson, exhausted, lies out on his mother's truck after he spent the day helping her hard cows during calving season. The days can be 16 hours and go long into the night in the Spring during calving season.

Montana isn’t home to a lot of people but we do have millions of acres of wilderness, bear, elk, moose, and healthy numbers of horses, sheep, and cows. Incredibly, we still have the same species that were here when Lewis and Clark came through more than 200 years ago. It is the only state that can claim that distinction, and much of the landscape they saw then remains unchanged.

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Layla Messerly sits on her horse Buster at the Matador Ranch in eastern Montana. She has been riding Buster since she was 5 months old.

The folks whom I have gotten to know here are hardworking and honest. It is not an easy place to live, especially in the winter. It takes a special kind of person to survive our long dark and cold months. And if you are a rancher, every season after winter is backbreaking and filled with 16-hour days. By the time spring rolls around, everyone is up to something. The planting season is short and folks waste no time in working the land. Trailers are moving everywhere, hauling cows and horses to summer pastures, calving is in full swing, and families are preparing to come together with their neighbors for branding.

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Andy Anderson helps his mother Hilary Zaranek brand calves at J-L ranch in southwest Montana.

Since moving to Montana four years ago, I have had the opportunity to spend time with several families living and working on ranches around here. They have a strong bond with the land and a deep connection to what lives and dies here. But what has fascinated me most are the kids. Almost from the moment they are born, they are taught to survive in a tough place and how to be handy around livestock and horses. Here people seem to measure worth by how comfortable you are around animals and they are around you. I have seen young toddlers on horseback nestled between mother and mane. By two, they are nuzzling calves—by four, they can rope one. And by six, they are in the middle of a coral carrying irons for their parents amidst the hoof and horn melee of branding. Kids here can throw rope before they can talk.

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Elle Anderson snuggles Butch, an orphaned calf, in her front yard.

Andy is one such kid. One evening around midnight Andy’s mother, Hillary Zaranek had to rescue a cow who was having trouble calving. Andy responded like any responsible young man, pulling on his boots, grabbing a flashlight and slipping out into the cold dark night to lend a hand clad only in his underwear. Each time I saw Andy over the season he was either working with his folks throwing hay off the horse carriage or learning to drive a truck. Andy was about 4 years old then.

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Andy Anderson helps his parents with a cow who is having trouble birthing a calf.

Later that year, I met Charlie Ulring, who was out on his pony Sparky helping his father herd cows. He was also just 4 years old. It seems that children here have very little interest in sitting inside watching television when they can be outside helping their parents. There is work to do and they want to pitch in.

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Libby Ulring checks on her son Charlie as he and his horse Sparky herd cows with his father Bryan. Sparky runs away when an adult tries to catch him. The pony only trusts Charlie.

Jolynn Messerly, who lives out on the Matador ranch in eastern Montana with her three daughters, notices how genuine all the children seem to be here and believes it is because its rare to be in groups in such a remote place. So when they get together, they are eager to share their stories because they don’t do it all the time. The culture is to work right alongside the adults.

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Thatcher Marquis, 3, learns to rope with his friends on the Oxarart Ranch near Malta, Montana in June 2013.
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Aaron Anderson, 9, pets a horse on the Barthelmess Ranch near Malta, Montana in June 2013.

I cannot escape the feeling that children here are shaped as much by their parents as by the land itself and they in turn help shape the land. There is a saying often used that applies well here; that it takes a village to raise a child. Here it’s not
just the community that pitches in but the land itself.

See more of Ami Vitale’s work on her website.

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