Montana-based writer and photographer Ryan T. Bell provides Western Horseman readers with tales of Russian cattle ranches and Mongolian adventures, and he is the magazine’s resident expert on all things backcountry. Readers often comment on the uniqueness of Bell’s life and express a desire to tag along on his adventures. Here, Bell talks about his background and what he hopes to write about in the future.
WH: Tell us about yourself and your background. Before you wrote for Western Horseman, what was your creative outlet?
I’m a product of the Rocky Mountains. I was calved in New Mexico, pastured in Colorado, and finished in Montana. Anywhere a Douglas fir tree grows, I feel at home. I was raised in the city, but have lived in the country since graduating from college 15 years ago. I owe my love of all things cowboy to my grandfather, a Presbyterian minister with a cowboy fetish. He did his best to brainwash me with gifts of cowboy paraphernalia for Christmas and birthdays.
I’ve been writing most of my life; well, ever since penning a love poem to a girl named Molly in the second grade. And I’ve been at it ever since. Really, I need a creative outlet from writing because when art is your profession, it can be all-consuming. My outlet is ice hockey. My fanaticism for the sport borders on neurosis. In Canada, there’s a long tradition of hockey-playing cowboys. I like the black-and-white photo of National Hockey League legend Bobby Hull bucking hay on his Ontario farm. I think cowboy work and hockey have a lot in common: fluid speed, reading the opponent, circular movements to corral an object (puck or steer), and fast action that culminates in a violent pinnacle.
WH: What about the Western lifestyle drives you to write about those living and working in it?
From the vantage of everyday life, the West may look fixed and rooted. But step back and you can see that the region is made up of many micro-cultures in a constant state of flux. By traveling to the West’s hidden corners, and writing about the people who work the land, I get a more complete sense of the whole. The key, I believe, is to revisit in order to see the faces grow old, new ones get born, and to hear the insights of those who’ve observed time’s passage. It’s journalism by strobe light.
WH: Many of our readers followed the “Comrade Cowboy” series (in the July, August and December 2011 issues) with interest. You have traveled to exotic locations, such as Russia and South America. What are some of the lessons you have learned traveling to those ranches, and is there a certain article you wrote that struck a chord?
Cowboying in Russia was a terrific adventure, and I enjoyed documenting this odd moment in Western history. My travels to Argentina and Mongolia were equally adventurous, but in a “foreign observer” sort of way. In Russia, we had this bizarre task of teaching Russian villagers the cowboy trade. It forced us to look deep inside ourselves, to ask what the profession was about, both in technical and philosophical terms. Of course, the Russians had their own technological and philosophical points of view. It was the definition of culture clash, and the resulting tensions made for such great storytelling that I’m expanding “Comrade Cowboy” into a book.
WH: Which of your articles has had the biggest impact on you, either personally or professionally?
The profile I wrote of Joel Nelson [for the November 2010 issue]. I admire him, as a cowboy and a philosopher. In nonfiction writing, biography is the master form because it presents the greatest challenge: capturing the essence of another human. Joel has lived an interesting life, which he communicates well through poetry and in everyday conversation. Writing that story, I felt like a rawhide braider with perfectly beveled strings. But the strands were too many to fit, without making a 100-plait rope. That article impacts me because it represents the potential for good storytelling. When I read it, all I see are the strings I left out—a fractional essence of the person I came to know over two days. It serves as a reminder to try my hardest on every article I write.
WH: Is there a country, ranch or subject you hope to write about soon?
My wish list is as long as it is odd. I have this harebrained idea of riding horseback through downtown Detroit, to learn about the survivors of a bankrupt city. I dream of training my own elephant and riding it through the Alps to retrace the route Hannibal’s war elephants followed when he invaded Rome in 200 B.C. It’d also be fun to ride with the camel trainers of Egypt and Morocco. Besides those, I kinda wouldn’t mind going to Oregon.
See Ryan’s latest feature contribution, “Coming of Age, Horseback,” in the September issue. You also can experience the West each month through his column, “Backcountry Insight,” in the Hands-On Horseman section.
For more information on Ryan T. Bell, visit ryantbell.com