In the home stretch: Four men, 13 Mustangs and more than 3,000 miles.
When Western Horseman told me they wanted to send along a writer with us for a few days on the trail, my first thought was that they’d better be pretty tough. Ryan T. Bell, contributing editor, came to meet us near Emigrant, Montana. He showed up horseless to go on a pack trip, brought more gear than a fashion designer, took more pictures than a photographer in Yellowstone, and immediately decided that he wanted to ride my best horse. “Oh well,” I thought, lets just see how this goes.
The first day we got a late start but managed to get moving right in time for a big thunderstorm. After a couple hours of drizzle and rain the weather cleared for a beautiful ride up Big Creek in the Gallatin Mountains. Just before the sun set down we saw a mature Bull Elk on a timber-filled ridge standing on a rock outcropping—maybe this Ryan guy is good luck! We broke camp after 15 miles, an easy day, and we set up a tent to block the rain. Ryan decided to sleep under the stars and looming thunderstorm, which I thought was odd, but had more than a little respect when I noted how he laid out his bedroll using a mantie to block out potential rain. He’d done this before.
The next morning broke crystal clear and beautiful. When I rolled out of bed Ryan already had a fire crackling with coffee boiling, it was pretty nice really. After tracking a mile, I found the horses, brought them back to camp and noticed he already had his gear all laid out and ready to pack. He immediately grabbed my gray horse, Chief, and was the first one saddled and ready to go. He took at least 200 pictures by the time we poured out the last of our coffee. Interestingly enough he was wearing a saddle blanket with a hole cut out in the middle to stick his head through. Inquiring, I learned that it came from Argentina: he’d spent 3 years and three additional summers down there working cattle and horses. I began feeling like the amateur.
For the next couple of days we traveled through some gorgeous but gnarly country in the Gallatin and Madison mountain ranges. We rode up the raging Gallatin River for a mile and a half to avoid the highway, crossed multiple passes over 10,000 feet in elevation, looked at Bighorn Sheep below us, and got rained on every afternoon. I never heard a complaint out of Ryan and he lent a helping hand every step of the way. Turns out he’s pretty punchy. He’s worked cattle in Argentina, Russia, all over the West, and has packed extensively, including in some of the areas on our route. To say the least we hit it off, even if he did take my best horse.
Ryan is one of those guys who makes you want to do stupid things to get a good photograph, like swimming your horse into a lake to get a shot fly fishing off a horse. He stayed behind to get good shots, ran ahead to get better shots, and pulled more than his weight in camp. He has an open invitation to go with us any time and is a testament to why Western Horseman has great material and photographs. Here are a couple shots from that stretch.
Look for Ryan T. Bell’s “Unbranded” update in a winter issue of Western Horseman.
For more information on the ride, visit unbrandedthefilm.com.