It is really, really easy to be really, really happy at the VX. You’d have to be crazy to ever leave here.
But we never said we weren’t crazy.
Our little Blake family will be moving back to PV Ranch headquarters, 40 miles to the south of the VX, at the end of this month. Though Beau and I believe the move to a position in ranch management is the next right thing for our family, we are still reluctant to leave our cow camp. We have been here just shy of two years, and we have loved every day. We have valued the solidarity, the days on end of nobody-but-our-family. We love the sparse scenery and the challenge of remoteness. At a cow camp it’s easy to see what our job is: there’s this big chunk of land and we steward it. There are these cows and we make sure they’re happy.
Down at headquarters, where our view will be mired by the feedlot with farm fields stretching beyond, where the mama cows will be “out in the hills,” where other people will need my husband, where the feed truck will rumble by our living room window at 7 a.m. every morning from October to May… it can be harder to keep your head wrapped around the reality that you’re working for the greater good of a cow/calf operation.
Yes, the move will take us closer to “opportunities” for our growing kids. We go cautiously; nearness to civilization can have its benefits… but its downfalls too.
This closeness our family has enjoyed here at the VX, sealed off from the temptations and troubles of the real world, is a treasure. Where we’re headed, there will be a lot vying for Daddy’s time, and mine too: feed salesmen, feedlot contracts, coworkers, bosses, 3,700 cows, and the schedule of the entire ranch. We may be successful as we assume more leadership — I pray for that. Our energy and ideas may take the ranch into a new era of wonderfulness — I pray for that. But above all I pray for our family life to be a resounding success.
My parents, long-time managers at the PV, recently moved to their own home on their own property about five miles from ranch headquarters. While Dad is NOT retiring — he will continue as the PV cowboss of legend he has always been (yes, he did break his collarbone and ribs and puncture a lung back in June, but he’s been horseback again for about three weeks now) — Mom IS retiring. Mom has been doing the paperwork for the ranch for many years: weigh tickets, brand inspections, bills, payroll, monthly cattle inventory, you name it, it’s been her job, and now she’s ready to call it quits. Beau will be her replacement.
So we’re moving into my folks’ old ranch house, the same one I grew up in, as soon as a little remodeling is finished. We’re also turning the nearby guest house into an office for Beau. (He’s even getting his own ranch computer!) And Beau will commence learning the business inside out from the lady who runs the place from behind the scenes. He’ll still be riding and working outside as time allows — no one is exactly sure how many hours it will take to replace Mom’s efforts — and helping Dad with all the details and human management it takes to keep the place running.
The first few months — years? — will be spent trying to figure out who’s in charge of what, in that same ol’ story any multi-generational outfit encounters. Beau and I have talked long and hard about the power struggle we already know well, about how I tend to refer to HIS job as OURS, about how the ranch is long on wannabe Chiefs that threaten the place’s ability to run efficiently (check out Straw Boss to see how I have always ridiculously assumed I would be running the place some day). So we move down there with the agreement that I personally will be in charge of four things:
1. homeschooling the kids,
3. my blog, and
4. my ranch rodeo.
Yes, I will likely also pick up many of the odd jobs Mom has always seen to: running to town for vaccine. Picking up horsebackers waiting along a gravel road somewhere. Christmas parties. Directing wrestlers to branding traps. Tidying up around the place (if I had a dollar for every stray piece of twine I’ve seen Mom pick up in my lifetime, we’d be working for ourselves.) The list of small, thankless jobs that need done on a ranch is endless.
No doubt Beau’s tasks and mine at the ranch will overlap to some extent. But Beau and I are both hopeful that The List of Four Things I’m In Charge Of will be enough to preoccupy my mind and keep me out of trouble!
How I Pray
It goes without saying that Prayer Warrior ought to be my first title. See, we know not the challenges that lie before us. We are walking into fog. Even though I grew up there and we’ve lived there before, roles are changing this time. Will our new roles be rewarding? Fulfilling? Nourishing to our family? Leaving the VX — where each Blake is content and at peace — for the busyness of ranch headquarters, and having no way to predict what the outcome will be, is a little bit scary.
Yes, I know the job we’re headed to very well; I grew up doing it alongside my parents. I know that we are about to encounter long days of Daddy gone with the crew and the rest of us home without him. I know that Beau and I will be dealing more now with a corporate office in Bozeman that at times seems pretty out of touch with ranch reality. We will be the ones sorting through opinionated employees and trying to discern whose complaints have merit and whose are best ignored. We will be the ones deciding which information to make public and which to keep private. We will be weighing the desire to keep folks happy and the reality that, ultimately, the happiness of an employee is mostly said employee’s choice. I know that we will be continuously contacted by various people asking various favors: some will want special hunting access. Others will want help finding their great-great-grandparents’ homestead out in the middle of Froze-to-Death. Some will want to hunt agates; some will be barn-wood dealers anxious to trade old wood for new wood. There will be grazing district meetings for Beau to attend. Ditch board meetings. Wells to pull. Beef to distribute twice a year to all employees.
Dealing with bosses, sticking to another man’s budget, feeling somewhat handcuffed by the hierarchy of decision-makers above us — all that will be challenging. Through the years, Beau and I have come up with many, many ideas for running the ranch better (mostly my parents thought they needed fewer ideas and more compliance out of us). Now WE will be in the same situation — everyone will want to share with us an idea on how something ought to be done — and we will have to learn to balance all that, to make coworkers feel like their thoughts are valued while at the same time establishing strong leadership, enjoying our own moment in the sun, and protecting our own sanity.
And so my prayer, as we prepare to move, is this: that God will protect our marriage from all the outside influences we’re walking into. That he will protect our family from the same; that we will remain us despite the pressures we’re going to encounter. In fact, that he will not only protect us from all the potentially bad endings, but that he would actually bless our family through the move. That the ranch would flourish under Beau’s leadership; that our visions for the great things that could happen actually do happen. That Beau will be a leader of character and integrity. That we will both be satisfied in our roles. That the kids will flourish. That every member of our little family will feel a part of a group effort to continue and improve upon the legend of a historic Montana ranch.
Also, that God and his angels would just help us to get there — I mean physically get there. There is a lot to do between now and October 1, and so many little hands “helping” us do it.
And finally, that the change isn’t too hard on my own dad. That we can honor him as we try not to crowd him in his longtime position.
Ch-ch-changing is not easy for Dad
There’s no doubt: Beau and I have this opportunity because of my dad. Dad and Mom both, actually, deserve full credit for setting us up here. Beau and I have this opportunity — to be near the top of a big cow outfit, to keep great traditions and make new ones, to test our own potential — because my folks have invested a lifetime into working on the PV. Because they raised me here and allowed my love for it to bloom. Because Dad has provided employment for Beau. And because he hired us back even though we left, twice, trying to figure out where we ought to be.
That said, we are not going back to headquarters because my dad has always really wanted us to “take over” some day. I think what he really wants is for it to be 1970-something again, back before his body was broken, back when the men he respected and admired were still alive, back when things were simple.
I think he just never expected to get to an age where he couldn’t do everything himself anymore. Yet Life and Time have played their tricks on him, and here we all are. Here he is knowing he can’t do it all, knowing that things will be Different, with a capital D, as my husband assumes more leadership. Dad has softened ever so slightly, though, recently, and perhaps we are easier for him to take as some of the idealisms of youth fall away from us, and so here we are… probably the only option he sees right now. We may seem a dismal option indeed: as far as he’s concerned, I still need to be reminded of how to start a diesel pickup and can’t tell one pasture from another!
It’s silly, but I’ve always felt like I was born for this job we’re about to tackle. Beau must’ve been, too, because it’s probably no coincidence that we found each other from Alabama to Montana. A bit more grounded than I, Beau has assumed for a few years now that he’d someday step into a role of leadership at this corporate ranch of our employ.
But I do think I’m the only one in my family who’s assumed it was meant to be. Though he’s never said it, I’m sure life would’ve been easier for Dad if I’d finished school, moved far away, and made my own life somewhere else. I could’ve left him in peace that way, unbothered by my own peculiar ideas and on pleasant, holiday-only terms with this husband of mine who takes a whole different approach to ranch management and life in general.
Instead, I have plunged my pitchfork deep into the heart of this ranch where Dad and Mom raised me and I have refused to leave it, for reasons even I don’t understand.
Our situation, I would imagine, is representative of many family agricultural operations. (The funny part is, of course, that the PV doesn’t belong to our family; it’s just that we all work here.) Beau, the born-in-the-Deep-South son-in-law, possesses an internal clock that runs at about half speed of Dad’s born-on-a-Minnesota-dairy-farm internal clock. Horses, hunting, family time, you name it, the two of them just look at life from opposite ridges. (For the record, I agree with both of them, depending on the subject.)
So it’s all just little stuff. Little stuff that, if you think about it too much, makes our family “partnership” uneasy at certain hours of the day. There will be Moments, with a capital M, during this transition at the ol’ PV. There will be many times when we Blakes’ll wonder what Dad — who prefers to keep communication at a minimum — would say if he were to speak up. But if there’s anything I know about both my husband and my dad, it’s that they’re both almost infallibly polite. And their politeness, their self-control, will be what keeps us all afloat in the months and years to come.
The Life We Almost Had
When Beau and I moved our family to this cow camp in 2014, we were assuming our corporate manager would okay a remodel of the main ranch house here. When we moved, we even unloaded most of our stuff at the main ranch house, while camping out (temporarily, we thought) in a modular down the road. Long story short, the remodel fell through, and much of our stuff has remained over there at the main ranch house… and so there has always been a boding sense that our stay here at the VX was not meant to be permanent.
A cow camp like the VX is a great place to be, but the meat of the ranch business — no pun intended — is down at headquarters, at the feedlot. Two years ago my folks were still figuring out where we Blakes fit into that ranch business. And so Beau and I jumped at the opportunity to move away from the feedlot and come to the newly-acquired VX and explore its boundaries… though we did so figuring we’d go back to the feedlot eventually. Even though moving is a pain, it was so wonderful for our little family to be here at the VX, even for a short 22 months… to take time to focus on what really matters, to totally ground ourselves. The VX has allowed us the privacy to be us.
In an ideal world, the VX ranch house would’ve been fixed up to our specifications, and that would have made it even harder to leave here. This place would be very close to perfect. But it wasn’t meant to be. Still, we have been comfortable. We have enjoyed the heck out of our time here and will always be thankful for it.
If Life Was Simple…
… we’d stay here at the VX forever. Yes, we’ve had some water troubles with our neighbors to the south since we’ve been here, and yes, all the trees within sight on Porcupine Creek are dead. But even those issues have not overshadowed our sunny time at the VX. Life just doesn’t get much better than life at a cow camp. It’s so basic.
What to miss about the VX? We will miss zipping over the hill in the Ranger to visit our neighbors the Newmans. We will miss the moonlit drives home on the Cohagen Road, flying low over dirt roads with rabbits endlessly darting in and out of the headlights. We will miss the pillowy sandrocks. Acorn Creek. Porcupine Creek. The central air conditioning here in the modular. The hum of birds on the creek greeting each sunrise. The feeling that you could walk around without your clothes on and no one would ever know. We will even miss the wild critters that help themselves to the dog food on our back deck, that approach us just as though we were meeting at the very junction of civilization and wilderness.
We will miss being from Ingomar. There is just a sense of justified westernness that comes with telling folks you’re from Ingomar.
There’s so much here that we still wanted to do. As we hustle about this month taking care of all that has to be finished before we move, or at least what we wish we could finish (we’ve known with certainty for months now that we would be going, yet, inevitably, have delayed as long as possible), and as we endeavor to gather up all our stuff (we seem to have a desk stored in every outbuilding here) and steal a few VX treasures too (I mean, I just can’t leave those old trunks and cream cans behind)… we realize that there are a lifetime of projects to do here at the VX. I could be content here for a lifetime. On my kids’ behalf, I would gladly squander team sport “opportunities” in exchange for horseback sunrise opportunities. And I keep telling Beau that we just might come back here when we retire. If we don’t make it to retirement, well, I kinda hope that heaven looks a lot like the VX… 60 sections of gumbo all to ourselves.
So… Uh… WHY Are We Moving Again?
Though there will be great challenges with the job down at headquarters, there are great opportunities for our family too.
There is always the fear that if we didn’t take the job left open as Dad slows down, the corporate office would bring in a manager from the outside (we joke that it would be a graduate fresh from the MSU school of ag; no offense to MSU school of ag alum — ha!) who would change things and drastically affect our lifestyle and the lives of all our coworkers. The history of the place would be lost, we would likely lose privileges we’ve gained (and, in reality, probably our job too), Mom and Dad might not feel comfortable at the ranch in their golden years, and the change would simply rock the worlds of other faithful PV employees we care about.
The job looming before Beau and me now is the sort of thing you look forward to for years, but once it finally gets close, it seems Big and Scary. Today we’re trying not to look at it through the dark glasses of our grown-up, 30-something reality… but instead with the anticipation and excitement we’ve known previously. We have to go back down there because we have to try. We owe it to my parents and our coworkers to keep traditions going, yes, but mostly we owe it to ourselves to see what we’re capable of. And if it doesn’t work out, well, you can look for me somewhere north of Ingomar.
I have to admit, for all my love of remoteness, there are other reasons to be at headquarters in the Yellowstone Valley. For one, the beautiful green lawn at the house I grew up in is going to be awesome for the kids compared to the crested-wheat-stubble-and-cactus yard we have here at the VX. And the feedlot’s proximity to the interstate will make it so much easier for us to get Asher to theater class and Emi to dance class and our whole family to church. It will be easier for us to be a part of things as our nephew and niece march headlong into junior high. We will be closer to the few acres we ourselves own. Closer to many of our friends.
Furthermore, as our kids grow old enough to learn through working, we’re discovering that Asher thrives on being with the crew. Just us here at the VX? Eh, he’d rather stay inside and draw all day long. But if the crew’s here? He dons full cowboy regalia and is the first one at the barn! And we’re very thankful that our coworkers are folks we want our kids to be around. Though we love being sealed off from the temptations of the world here at the VX, these kids of ours will no doubt benefit from time spent with the right people as they grow. Still, as we transition from the wilderness to civilization, an obvious first step for us is home-schooling. Our vision for homeschool is that they will learn as they work alongside us, as in:
Math: averaging weights on the loads of calves that come to the feedlot in the fall.
History: Listening in as the cowboys reminisce around the lunch table.
P.E.: Learning discipline and courage from some of the fine horsemen we are honored to work with.
Engineering: Riding with Tawny in the loader as she expertly constructs the Taj Mahal of straw bales.
Geography: Studying maps of the place.
Social studies: Meeting the truck drivers who pull in every spring to haul fat yearlings to Wyoming.
Shop: Donning a welding mask alongside our coworker Bill.
English: Well… I guess that’s my job.
The reality is, the feedlot is not a bad place to grow up. I grew up there, and I loved it.
“Again” Being the Key Word There
You know, the house we’re about to move into will be the eighth house we’ve lived in since we were married 13 years ago. Beau and I have wandered in life as I’ve tried to figure out my place in the world. My heart has always said my place is the PV; the world has reminded that that isn’t true according to the paperwork, and anyway, I know hearts can lead you astray. Adding to my confusion: my dad, in an effort to protect his own position, has for years kept us perched uncomfortably on the very edge of his nest, leaving us unsure of where we belonged in the grand scheme of things. A few times we flew from that nest, trying to discern the right thing, only to come fluttering back breathlessly:
1. When we first married, we lived at Horse Camp on the PV for 2 years. We loved it there, though I did struggle in the transition from Cute Li’l Tagalong to Adult.
2. Then I got the opportunity to hire on as editor of Agri-News. Beau went to work at Goggins’ Pryor Creek Ranch outside of Billings and we lived there for 8 months.
3. Before long Beau went back to work at the PV, this time at headquarters. We lived at the Rancher Ditch for over 2 years; he commuted 11 miles to the PV and I commuted 60 miles to Billings to work at the paper.
4. I quit the paper in 2008. Beau quit the PV. Still trying to figure life out, we moved to a ranch atop the Wolf Mountains outside of Lodge Grass and were there 1 year.
5. Still lost, we road-tripped to Alabama with three horses and a pregnant dog in our horse trailer. In Alabama we lived in an old trailer house near a pond full of croaking bullfrogs — just a few miles from Beau’s folks — for 5 months.
6. Back in Montana by the 2010 branding season, we fixed up and moved into the cookhouse at PV headquarters and were there over 4 years. Asher and Emi were both born when we lived there.
7. As soon as the PV finalized purchase of the VX, we counted down the days ’til we could move up here. We’ve been here since December 2014; Marsi was born the following March.
Our long list of moves might indicate disfunction to you. But who says humans were meant to stay in one place? We have been many places — just outside the city, in the mountains, by the river, to Alabama, and in three houses on the PV, not counting the house I grew up in, which is the one we’re moving back to. Our life has been full of disruption, yes, but it has also been exciting and interesting. We have learned much and made many friends and we’ve had good times no matter where we’ve gone, and I don’t regret where all we’ve been, because all those roads brought us to where we are today. Along the way, and though we married at the ages of 21 and 24, Beau and I have truly grown up together.
I know this much. Through all my searching, my patient Beau has always known where his place was: with me. But I have wrestled with my internal compass trying to find my North. And my internal compass has always pointed me back to the ranch I grew up on. I don’t know why. I don’t know if it’s right to feel that way. I don’t know if it’s wrong.
Which Way North?
The kids make it easier for me to see now that Beau was right all along. Above all, this little family of ours is my home. Home is not a house or a ranch… but a family. This next leg of our journey — and it’s likely to be a longer one — will challenge the glue that holds us together. We will have to choose every day, every week, to put the ranch first OR our family first. I hereby resolve that I choose my family.
Here at the VX we have been unbothered by the troubles of the world. Where we are headed, the speed of life will greatly increase. We will be bombarded, and we will have to be purposeful about staying grounded.
In our constant efforts to balance one another, and in the way that people make big plans beforehand that tend not to materialize clearly when the everyday new normal confusion is assumed, Beau and I think our roles at PV headquarters will look like this: though he has always been the one to call me his home, Beau will be the one with the ranch job. Though I have always been the one to return to the ranch like a homing pigeon… I will be the one focusing on our family. I will be the one taking the kids out to the weaning corrals so they can see Daddy in the daylight, even if it’s only for a half hour. And I will be the one staying home with them when the laundry needs done or when it’s too cold or too long a ride.
What I mean is, I am going to put myself, and my obvious ability to ramrod the whole outfit, aside in the interest of our family now. Ha!
But it will truly take both Beau and I working together to make sure our family stays connected in the years to come. Can we do it? We shall see. I’m officially declaring an evacuation plan, to be used in an emergency: if we get lost down there, I want to return to a cow camp. If we find ourselves in a consumed-with-work bog in a few years and can’t find a way out, you, dear reader, may remind me of our back-up plan. If we lose our direction in that slow, unseeable way that folks tend to do — one of my greatest fears — please call us back to who we are.
Ranches will come and ranches will go. But this family… it’s forever.
They are my new North.
© Tami Blake