Remember that scene in City Slickers, where Billy Crystal finds himself in a bit of a slump and says, “Do you ever reach a point in your life where you say to yourself, ‘This is the best I’m ever gonna look, the best I’m ever gonna feel, the best I’m ever gonna do’ … and it ain’t that great?”? His wife soon tells him, “Go and find your smile.”
Somewhere out west.
Personally, the west has always held a special allure for me; and for months, I’d been keeping my Pandora station on old western soundtracks (don’t judge). There was only one place to go, some place like … Montana. Upon the recommendation of some friends, I set my sights on the Metcalf Ranch. It’s here, on a fifth-generation, 4,800-acre working cattle ranch in the heart of south-central Montana, that a couple named Susan and Remi Metcalf offer guests an authentic cattle ranch experience.
While lots of cattle ranches advertise themselves as “authentic,” they’re usually staged versions of the real thing, topped with fake cattle drives. But the Metcalf Ranch, I soon found, really delivers on the boot-stomping goods. Remi really does pound posts, lead cattle drives and show you how to lasso, while Susan saddles up horses and makes you hearty home-cooked meals. The best part: You don’t have to rough it, unless you really want to.
The motto at the Metcalf Ranch is, “No Worries.” And that just may be what your city-weary heart desires. As ole cowhand Curly tells Billy in Slickers, “You city folk worry about a lot of sh*t.”
Here’s a bet: Whatever knots you’ve managed to tie in your rope over the past 50 weeks will soon loosen up once you hop aboard a gentle quarter horse named Shine for a ride to the Top of the World. That’s what I found as I embarked on a horseback ride across this 3-mile-long plateau, after waking up in a cozy cabin, where the first sight out my window was horses grazing. Can’t beat that.
Heading out on horseback, go ahead — cowboy or cowgirl up, Susan won’t judge. It probably helps that hospitality runs in Susan’s family. Susan’s dad, Glen, ran a lodge between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks for more than 20 years. His parting words to guests were always, “Tap ’er light.” No goodbyes here; just see you later.
The big allure of the Metcalf Ranch is just how relaxed it is. No boxed-in, mass-market-ranch experience where you’re shuttled from one group activity to the next; no fake cattle drives; no faceless wranglers leading you around while you wonder if you’ll ever meet the ranch owners. Nope, the Metcalf Ranch is all about the personal touch, from the moment Susan and Remi pick you up from Bozeman or Billings airport.
First thing’s first, grab a pair of boots; you’ll want to dress the part, and a pair of Ariats will do just fine. Then hit the road with Susan, who lets guests design their trip based upon their own interests — a day trip to Bozeman, an outing to Yellowstone, a rodeo show in nearby Wilsall, MT, and a powwow in nearby Cody, WY, were among the places we visited.
Passing rolling hills and the surrounding Crazy Mountains, Susan keeps the radio on low, to the latest country music. But the real sweet sounds are the unfolding conversation about what this stretch of Montana, first inhabited by the Blackfeet Indians, means to her family. While Montana has lured many a millionaire transplant, like Tom Brokaw, locals like Susan and Remi go back generations. That sense of rootedness, in a nation of movers, is something you can’t help but appreciate.
One of the neatest places to visit is the very first Metcalf family homestead, a 1,600-acre family farm in the Gallatin Valley that Remi’s great-grandparents started, after coming out from the Midwest on the heels of the Homestead Act. The homestead has remained in the family all these years, with its founding date, “1914,” affixed to its main red barn.
You can get a feel for Montana ranch life any time of year, as I did in June. Or in late May, when it’s branding season, and in late July, when the Metcalfs embark on a 2-day mountain cattle drive. Whatever time of year you visit, factor in a ride to the Top of the World, and go find your smile.