Wrangling Under the Big Sky

Wanda Wilcox is the real deal.

She has an elk-tooth wedding ring, rides bulls, and eats their, ahem, manhood (which she claims is tasty).

She’s the fifth generation of homesteaders who cut a trail from Oregon to “Big Sky” country — near present-day Bozeman, Montana. Her great-great-grandparents brought 4,000 sheep with them in 1873 and simply never left.

Today, Wanda’s still holding down the 15,000-acre fort at Barron Ranch with her own menagerie of 740 sheep, 100 cattle, 150 horses, and a handful of mules and llamas.

I first met her at the family dinner table.

“We just got back from the Mule Days down in Cody [Wyoming]. It’s a rodeo, but all the events are on mules instead of horses,” she said. “It’s downright hilarious to watch.”

Over grilled elk and baked potatoes, Wanda told me all about her lineage and the history of the ranch, and showed me snapshots of several smiling teenagers she’d unofficially adopted and raised as her own.

“I just cain’t help it,” she said. “When I meet a creature in need, human or otherwise, I have to take ‘em in. Give ‘em a lil’ leg up, ya know?”

At the table with us was Tini (pronounced “tiny”), her real-deal-cattle-rustling husband — a man of few words, but kinder than a lamb. He lent me a pair of his cowboy boots to use and made me feel like I was doing him a favor. “Maybe those’ll finally get broked in now,” he said and laughed.

I spent the first day getting acquainted with my horse, affectionately called Grey Mare, on a trail ride with views of the Beartooth Mountains, and getting ready for the next day’s activities (and the reason why I’d come): their annual branding.

I’d always had a City Slickers fantasy of doing a full-on cattle drive, but that takes days. The branding would give me a little taste of working cattle on horseback, in a shorter timeframe, so I jumped at the chance.

I quickly learned that running the ranch is a family affair: Wanda, Tini, their two sons Ty and Troy, Uncle Mike, and Aunt Debbie — everyone gets in on the action. I also learned that cow work isn’t for pansies. It’s hot, dusty, and backbreaking.

I got to do the easy part, rousing the cattle from their happy places in the pastures munching cud, and moving them all towards the pen the men had assembled earlier in the morning at the bottom of the hill.

My favorite was when a “sneaker” cow would break from the group and charge off in the wrong direction. Grey Mare had good cow sense and was on those renegades like stripes on a zebra, standing her ground until the sneaker gave up trying to go anywhere but the direction we wanted it to go.

Once we had the cattle penned, the boys got to work. One would sort, one would rope, another would wrestle them to the ground, and yet another would do the branding and snipping. Wanda was the conductor, overseeing the whole operation. It was a mesmerizing symphony to watch.

By the end of my stay, I felt like part of the family. Wanda has a way of making people feel welcome like that.

Part of her business is running overnight pack trips to the Beartooth Mountains, and the next morning when I was getting ready to take off, she mentioned she’d be leading a small group to one of her favorite spots in the middle of August.

I’ve already looked at plane tickets. The cowgirl in me just can’t resist.

Follow Shannon’s adventures on Twitter @CuriousTraveler and on Instagram @ShannonSwitzer

Shannon is photographing with an Olympus PEN E-PM1 and an Olympus Tough TG-820.