A few years ago, while on a trail ride in northwestern Montana, we had the good fortune to meet a charismatic rancher by the name of Wayne Cross. After visiting for a while, he casually mentioned that he'd be rounding up cattle in a few weeks, and that we'd be welcome to join him and his friends on his ranch.
The Cross Ranch is family owned. Cross' great-grandparents bought acreage in this beautiful section of northwestern Montana in the early 1900s. The responsibility of caring for this 6,000-acre ranch, and the challenge of making a living from it, has fallen on Cross' broad shoulders.
During summer months, Cross' cattle graze in the upper elevations along with deer and elk. Ranchers place salt blocks and provide water tanks if water isn't accessible.
When fall rolls in, riders move out and herd cattle down from the hills. We accepted Cross' kind invitation to saddle up and join in the fun.
A Hardy Group
We arrived at Cross' ranch the night before the scheduled roundup with our 11-year-old friend, Jake Rapp, and his mom, Kristi Rapp. As we drove up to the ranch, we could see cowboys silhouetted against a flaming campfire. These long-time friends and neighbors of Cross' welcomed us warmly.
Out West, ranchers have traditionally helped one another with big seasonal jobs, such as cattle roundups and branding. In northwest Montana, this tradition is alive and well. Friends and neighbors had come from all around to help Cross. One woman, Cheryl Burt, rode her horse from her home on the other side of a small mountain range.
We spent time visiting around the fire, listening to stories that may or may not have been true, but enjoying them all the same.
Early the next morning, we had coffee and breakfast by the fire and listened to what was planned for the day. This was mostly for our benefit. The 20 to 30 folks present knew what to do; they'd been helping with roundups for years.
We eagerly saddled our horses and headed out. However, our cattle-herding distance was cut short! Because of drought, the amount of graze in the hills had become scarce, thus causing the Black Angus cattle to be exceptionally accommodating: The older steers led the younger ones down to Cross' holding corrals.
Still, we got to be part of a Western experience. There was the Big Sky backdrop, mountains looming in the distance, and a black mass of slowly moving cattle. Our job was to maintain a perimeter and help guide the herd toward the corrals. However, these cattle didn't really need our "guiding." They'd spotted the huge hay roll Cross had in his front loader and were happily heading toward him.
The final scene in every cattle roundup involves looking for strays. That's what we did the next morning. Other groups found a few strays and spotted a herd of elk. One group even glimpsed a mountain lion.
We didn't find anything except a couple crumbling homesteads to explore. Later, Cross told us that John Bonner, an early Montana governor, had lived in one of these cabins when he was a little boy.