A Personal Travel Diary

If, dear reader, you have stumbled across my oeuvre in the past, you will be aware that I am a fantasist—one moment an Edwardian lady explorer, the next an F-35 pilot streaking over the Welsh hills—a veritable Walter Mitty in red lipstick. But, the potent combination of early exposure to reruns of Bonanza and The Big Valley with a recent dose of Yellowstone reawakened my inner cowgirl. Under the circumstances, there was only one course of action—dig out the Stetson and Go West!

I booked a stay at Lone Mountain Ranch in Big Sky, Montana, to get the hankering out of my system. And just as an F-35 pilot needs a wingman, so does a cowgirl. A quick call and my dear pal Davíd, a Ukrainian writer long domiciled in New York City, reported for duty. We rolled off the plane in Bozeman rearing to go.

To reach Lone Mountain, take Highway 191 south. A half hour into the drive, expect to lose cell service as you pass through the heavily forested mountainous terrain, the road winding alongside the rushing Gallatin River. After about an hour of impossibly breathtaking scenery, you’ll find yourself gaining the gates of Lone Mountain Ranch.

A green valley stretches toward the tree line, with log cabins, each boasting a porch or verandah, positioned to maximize privacy. The main lodge, with a reception area, shop, and charmingly cozy bar (pro tip—order a Big Sky Bramble), sits to the left of the driveway flanked by a beautifully landscaped garden. In the distance, smoke curls lazily from a fire pit. Further afield, at the crest of a small hill, sits the famed Horn & Cantle restaurant, a culinary hotspot drawing diners from as far as Bozeman. Our cabin, called Bighorn, stands on stilts over a fast-moving stream. Were it not already cold and damp in early September, I would sit on its verandah every evening. But the tranquil sound of water burbling over rocks can be heard from the cozy living room, and a wood-burning stove stands ready to banish any chill. The two bedrooms are spacious; one with a soaking tub and a shower larger than a New York City studio. I explore the minibar. Aside from a wealth of snacks and some fetching bandanas, one of which I don immediately, the hosts have thoughtfully included a few things we might need in the wilderness, including bear spray! I guess we really are in Montana.

Adventures await outside, luring us away from the charming cabin. First, we try our hands at axe-throwing. The competition is spirited, and we chivvy our guide, Devin Bieber, to join in. For one shining moment, I’m convinced that victory is mine. But in what, for me, is a humiliating rally, Davíd pulls ahead for the win. Later, promises Devin, I’ll have a chance to redeem myself—perhaps archery will be my secret talent.

Redemption is not forthcoming, but I do learn to use a compound bow. The target is off-putting. The likeness of a twelve-point buck, Bambi’s father no doubt, regards me soulfully and I abandon the bow. Aside from axe-throwing and archery, there’s award winning fly fishing, guided wilderness hiking, canoeing, a ropes course, paddle-boarding, and yoga (not very “cowboy” if you ask me, but maybe even cowboys need a namaste). And, of course, there is horseback riding, the main event for the wannabe cowgirl. One activity you must not miss at Lone Mountain is a tour of Yellowstone Park with one of the ranch’s knowledgeable professionals. Since time was limited, our guide, Courtney Derrington, focused on some highlights.

I typically do not enjoy tours. I’m a bad listener. I have control issues. I am sometimes wrong (outrageous, I know, right?). The tour was fantastic, and Courtney was impressively knowledgeable about the park’s geographic features and wildlife. We saw vast herds of bison grazing peacefully, a family of elk napping in the tall grass near a stream. We marveled at pools shrouded by steam and mud pits bubbling like a witch’s cauldron. The smell of hot sulphur and steam tickled our noses as we followed boardwalks winding through the Grand Prismatic and Fountain Paint Pots. The pièce de résistance—Old Faithful—burbled and spurted in short bursts until it reached its crescendo with a scalding fountain that leapt majestically skyward. Next up on our agenda was the Lone Mountain Ranch Rodeo and barbeque. First stop, food. We snagged a couple of Moose Drools, an American brown ale from Big Sky Brewing, and I heaped a paper bowl with Frito Pie, a delicacy not typically found on the East Coast.

We settled into the stands as a rider bearing Old Glory circled the ring and Johnny Cash intoned “That Ragged Old Flag,” his voice rich with emotion. As the first notes of the Star-Spangled Banner echoed over the arena, the sun broke from behind a cloud. My Ukrainian wingman, now a proud American citizen, blinked back a tear, hat over heart. I hoovered up one last, quick mouthful of the Frito Pie. I was just so hungry. As the anthem soared, I clutched at my throat. A Frito had become lodged sideways in my esophagus. The pain was excruciating. Tears streamed from my eyes. Davíd looked down and smiled at what he interpreted as an unexpected moment of patriotic feeling. With a great hacking wheeze, I dislodged the Frito.
With survival assured, I was ready to enjoy the show. There was bronco riding, bull riding, and team roping. The horses and bulls bucked and writhed, doing their best to unseat their nettlesome riders, as the audience roared in approval. Two pickup riders, attired in lime green shirts, effected impressive rescues, literally “picking up” competitors before they were trampled or worse. I was heartened to see that one of the pickup riders, as well as several of the bronc riders, were women.

While the menu of activities at Lone Mountain is multitudinous, our last two days were devoted to the only one that really mattered to me. Lone Mountain’s stable sits behind the main lodge, and guests are encouraged to spend time with the horses and feed them treats. The ranch also has several Belgian drafts used for driving. Known for their docile characters, the Belgians play an important role in guest relations and gently accept carrots from the tiniest of hands.

The first visit to the stable starts with an assessment, each rider completing a form detailing their equestrian experience. Based on the criteria, which I considered generous, we are deemed intermediate. Our first ride is an hour on the trails with program head Landry Harris. I mount up on a sturdy chestnut gelding while Davíd scores a palomino with a flowing blonde mane. We keep the ride simple, at a walk and trot, and admire the beauty of the forested trail. Our next ride is much longer; the spectacular scenery includes a babbling stream winding through spruce and fir trees, with a backdrop of distant mountains. It is a cowgirl’s paradise. I nudge my horse into a trot and resolve to spend an entire summer in Montana.

To my delight, we also ride with an honest-to-God, cattle-cutting cowboy named Cade East. In a honey-rich Tennessee drawl, he regales us with tales of the rodeo and his family’s cutting horse business. All I know of cutting is a glancing familiarity with Metallic Cat, courtesy of Yellowstone. I pepper Cade with questions—I can feel another article coming on—and he patiently explains the competitive landscape. Once I have been thoroughly educated, he suggests we “bust into a lope” and we take off toward the mountains through a golden meadow, the wind in our faces. Perfection.

Post ride, Cade gives us a lesson in roping. Any discussion of Lone Mountain is hardly complete without asking that age old question, “What about meals?” All the exercise is a blessing, because one can eat and eat and eat. The Horn and Cantle restaurant offers fine dining that emphasizes local sourcing. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that there’s an emphasis on meat. Elk, Montana trout, and bison are all on the menu, as well as beef from the veteran-owned Little Belt Cattle Company.

The menu’s crowning glory is a 40-oz Tomahawk, which is spoken of only in reverent whispers. The adjoining Saloon offers one of the best burgers I’ve ever had, and the breakfast and lunch buffets are veritable banquets. Those eschewing meat can choose from elegantly garnished salads and a revolving selection of vegan dishes. My pescetarian wingman enjoyed some particularly lovely Faroe salmon.

Lest you think that Lone Mountain is only to be enjoyed during the summer months, you would be mistaken. Winter opens up a whole new world with cross-country and downhill skiing, sleigh rides, and snowshoeing all on the docket. Cozy fires, hearty meals, and even restorative yoga, warm body and soul after a day in the snowy mountains. Lone Mountain Ranch offers the perfect getaway any time of year, whether you’re living the cowgirl dream or reveling in the glory of Big Sky country.