Feeling a little lazy and sore from trail riding the previous day, I snuggled more deeply into my sleeping bag and watched through the trailer window. Only moments ago, the stars had been brilliant, but now they faded as the buttes dotting the landscape became discernable in the coming dawn. Very soon the eastern horizon turned pink, then brilliant red, and then, celebrating the coming of another great day, a chorus of coyotes saluted the lighting of this vast stage. High treble wails were punctuated by alto "yips" in a counterpoint that might've been envied by Bach himself.
We were camped in the middle of a huge eastern Montana ranch. Although our alleged purpose was involvement in a Theodore Roosevelt-style horseback hunt for antelope (I'm working on a book about our greatest conservationist president), we'd looked forward more than anything to riding our young horses in open country under the big sky. Before trip's end, we wondered at the fact that so few trail riders take advantage of the joys offered by riding on the millions of American acres sometimes called "the Big Open."
Discover the Open Range
The western halves of the Dakotas and Nebraska and the eastern halves of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado contain much land that bucks the current tide of subdivision and urbanization. Indeed, much of the Big Open is actually less settled than it was before homesteaders attempted to make a living on it. A great deal of this land is publicly owned. The Bureau of Land Management alone tends to a staggering 264 million federal acres, most of it in the western states, and most of it available (if not always easily accessible) to its owners, the citizens of the United States.
Additionally, most of the western states historically allotted one section of land (a square mile or 640 acres) of each township (36 sections) to the local school district, and such state-owned land is often available for recreation.
Since most state and federal land in the Big Open is leased to farmers or ranchers, you must sometimes gather information and make arrangements from the agencies and individuals involved. But if you yearn to ride your horse in country with the ultimate in "elbow room," terrific adventures await you and your mount.
Anyone who looks at such vast country and says, "There's nothing there" is missing a rich smorgasbord of nature in many cases less altered by man than that found even in the designated wilderness areas of the mountains.
During our recent few days on the eastern Montana ranch, Emily and I saw herds of deer and antelope, a sky filled with literally thousands of sandhill cranes warbling their way south in vast "V" formations, badger dens, and yipping prairie dogs.
There were deserted homesteads exuding the character of an earlier time, a time of isolation and hardship, but also of rewards. At night, there wasn't a single light to dilute the brilliance of the stars. And more than anything else, there was room to ride.