Painting the sky

Charlie Russell's art is a window on Montana's Judith River Basin

The men's room at the Oxen Yoke Inn in Utica, Montana, wasn't exactly on the itinerary, but a knowledgeable local insisted we take the detour.

We were midway through the Charlie Russell Auto Tour, a one-hundred-mile swath through gorgeous landscape and cowboy history that at the turn of the century inspired the artist C.M. Russell to paint and sculpt more than four thousand works. Spotted with minuscule towns hushed in the aftermath of homesteading gone sour, the auto tour encompasses much of the territory Russell traveled in his horse-wrangling days.

It seemed that the stalls of the Oxen Yoke Inn offered something Russell-related, so into the tavern we marched, four women and three men. Bar stools rotated as we made a beeline for the men's room and pressed through the door like so many teenagers surging into a Pearl Jam concert.

It was hard to say what was more unusual, hugging a urinal in mixed company or the ceiling-to-water-tank reproductions of Charlie Russell's work. Still, the shattered buckboards and scattered horses were stirring even across these walls, and they were mercifully free of the standard unspeakables carved by restroom romantics. "It would be," underscored the tavern owner of the art, "a desecration to mess with it."

If local appreciation of Russell's work is deep-seated, it was matched by the artist's life-long love affair with this area known as the Judith River Basin. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Russell moved to central Montana in 1880 at age sixteen. After a disastrous attempt at sheep herding--he lost every last one--he landed a job as a night wrangler, making his days free to paint, sculpt, and explore.

Russell arrived in the Judith River Basin just a few years before the great cattle barons who ushered in the mythical era of the cowboy. Where the land had been wild and untamed, hundreds of thousands of cattle and wranglers would trample Indian hunting grounds and virgin forests. A good deal of Russell's work depicts the startling changes of this era and the extinction of the mountain men, the buffalo, and the Indian way of life.

Like today's visitor, Russell was awed by the country's three mountain ranges: the Highwoods, the Little Belts, and the Big Snowies. His work was nourished by the river and its mountain-fed tributaries that support miles of undulating meadows and water-sculpted limestone canyons. Blackfeet Indians to the north and Crow to the south often battled in this basin over hunting rights to the rich, fertile land.

"A man in the States might have been a liar in a small way, but when he comes west he soon takes lessons from the prairies, where ranges one hundred miles away seem within touching distance, streams run uphill, and Nature appears to lie to herself," wrote Russell.

Lacking both the spectacular peaks of the western ranges and their accompanying crowds, the basin continues to offer traffic-free sightseeing, good hiking and camping, and a palpable sense of life lived simply. There are just twenty-three hundred residents of the Judith basin. This is a place where modesty is an art form and a person's word is still as good as gold.

The auto tour, sponsored by a consortium of public and private agencies, includes twenty-five sites along U.S. 87 between Great Falls and Lewistown, with the option of another twenty-five miles on single-lane gravel roads southwest of Utica. Yellow signs indicating landmarks in Russell's work are helpful when the route traverses federal forest land. An informative tour booklet, complete with a map and interpretive text, offers enough detail for the alert traveler.

The logical starting point for the tour is the C.M. Russell Museum Complex in Great Falls. Containing the most complete collection of the artist's work, the museum also abuts Russell's house and studio. Full of the props and models that he used in his later work, the studio is an especially evocative place.

Heading southeast, the rolling hills, buttes, and limestone caves featured in much of Russell's work comprise the first three stops along the route. Many pictographs, or painted rock pictures, remain in the canyon entrances of nearby mountain foothills visible from the road. Russell used this backdrop to paint Buffalo in Winter and America's First Printer.

In and around the tiny town of Stanford, once a center for the cattle trade, Russell examined the practice of animal bounty hunters in his painting Roping a Wolf and the deadly battle between cow rustler and cattle owner in Paying the Fiddler.

Off Highway 87, the auto route proceeds from Utica along Memorial Way and Yogo Creek roads through an area rich in gem-quality sapphires. The Yogo Sapphire, renowned for its natural cornflower blue color, drew many a prospector to Yogo Gulch in the late 1890s. A plaque mounted into a boulder at tour marker 23 commemorates the entrepreneurial spirit of one Dudley Hawkins, who blasted through limestone to complete a direct route to the mine and then erected a tollgate to compensate himself for his trouble.

Perhaps one of the most beautiful spots of the trip lies along the middle fork of the Judith River in the Judith Game Range. While Russell painted The Elk at a time when the herds were being hunted to extinction, the establishment in 1938 of this protected winter range has boosted the number of these magnificent animals to a twentieth-century high.

The U.S. Forest Service has also restored the original ranger station here, a two-story log cabin erected in 1908 in a lush setting of lodge pole and ponderosa pine, Douglas fir and spruce trees. Not far away, a small campground overlooks the meandering tributary lined with buffalo and snowberries, sage, and horsemint.

Before the cowboys came to dominate the western landscape, a breed of men swift as the animals they tracked and as cunning as their prey tramped the territory's peaks and plateaus. One such character, Jake Hoover, befriended Russell his first year in country, and the two shared a two-room, sod-roofed cabin for two years on the south fork of the Judith River. It's still standing, number 19 on the auto route.

The auto tour concludes near a slice of the Nez Perce National Historic Trail. Russell, who counted many Indians as his friends, painted a portrait of Chief Joseph, who led this non-treaty tribe as they fled one thousand miles northeast from Oregon to Chinook, Montana, only to be trapped by federal troops.

There are lots of ways to approach a place like Montana. Seeing a piece of it through the eyes of a painter who lived through an extraordinary time helps a visitor understand the peculiar myth of the cowboy. Wrote Russell, "It put me in mind of the eastern girl that asks her mother: 'Ma,' says she, 'do cowboys eat grass?' 'No dear,' says the old lady, 'they're part human.'"

Montana's fertile soil gives rise to a bumper crop of cowboy poets

A horse rolled over on Oral Elser the day before he was scheduled to perform at the Montana Cowboy Poets Gathering in Lewistown. Said he felt a little stiff.

Big deal.

Sandy Seaton broke her neck team-roping a few years back, and she ambled up to the microphone with all the suppleness of a mountain lion. Life on the range isn't for sissies, and, listening to the poetry of these ranchers and sundry cow and horse people, it's clear you either hop back up on that pony or grab a bus out of town.

More than anything else, this August reunion of wranglers and buckaroos is a celebration of the culture and conservative values that dominate what humorist Baxter Black calls "the cow economy." While for many outsiders the West has come to mean Hollywood, national parks, and legalized gambling, poets understand this place differently.

Performers and audience members alike are mostly cowboys and ranchers who favor hand-rolled cigarettes to "ready smokes" and as little government regulation in their lives as possible. Their work is physically demanding, and their rewards mostly spiritual. In the ranching west, land still isn't worth spit unless a herd is grazing it.

It may seem ironic that weather-toughened, manure-slogging, beef-barbecuing cowhands are enamored of poetry. But these are a people inclined to few words. Moreover, everyday life on the range is ripe with the physical experience and animal emotion essential to short verse.

Most of these bunkhouse balladeers find their rhythm in rhyme--which works most of the time. Subjects range from branding to calving to cabin fever and the love of a good woman. Old dogs and favorite horses figure prominently. Many poke fun at big-city folk, and media czar Ted Turner, who has a ranch here, isn't exactly a hero.

While men dominate the festivities, women are making their voices heard in greater numbers. Their poetry seems to evoke less of the adventure of ranching than its heartache. But every male and female buckaroo alike seems to have at least one poem that is so sweet with comedy, listening to it about breaks your ribs.

Not all of the performers are from Montana, but most are from tiny specks of towns that boast no more than a bar and post office--places such as Nye and Emigrant and Thunder Hawk. Lewistown, with a population of eight thousand, is big for Montana. This is a state of huge ranches, small cities--the largest, Billings, has just eighty-one thousand residents--and some eighty towns with fewer than one thousand people.

That makes for some pretty shy and reclusive poets. Some, like Gail Burton, are scared to death to get up on stage. "I found out last night that when I stand up my brain sits down," he remarked to an enthusiastic audience stuffed into the Mountain Rooms at the Yogo Inn on East Main Street.

Others are seasoned veterans who make a living from their poems. Mike Logan, a popular photographer-poet from Helena, commands anywhere from $300 to $1,000 to read his work, and he gives more than one hundred readings a year.

With a little help and some practice, most of these poets end up enjoying themselves when they enter the spotlight. Of the first Montana gathering she helped found a dozen years ago, Gwen Peterson, a rancher from Big Timber, recalled that the "cowboys were too scared to go on stage alone. But once they got there you couldn't get them off."

Given the personality of the work, the poems seem best heard rather than read. Many of the performers have audiocassettes for sale in addition to chapbooks. The prairie prose is also evident in the lyrics of a host of musicians who perform old-time music poolside.

There is also a western arts and crafts show that features lots of great stuff--especially if you own a horse or two. The merchandise includes silver spurs, sheepskin chaps, fancy bridles, bits and quirts, beaver-felt hats with the price tag of a small ranch, and porcupine-fang earrings. Like their customers, the members of the sales staff are low-key and polite.

While the gathering of poets has doubled in size over the years, it remains a family-oriented, cooperative presentation of the work of friends. Says Sandy Seaton, who leads pack trips into Yellowstone when she's not writing poetry, "It's still a lot of good ol' ranchers . . . no real political statements . . . just old-time conservative values."

There's fear, too, about the passing of the old ways. Movie stars are buying up Montana ranches as trophy homes; cheap grazing and mining rights on federal land are being challenged. While some, such as Mike Logan, long for a return to the days when "fathers still knew best," others say they'll settle for something a little more practical. Writes Canadian cowboy poet Allen Schattle,

So listen up, all you old ranchers! It's up to you who'll be the dancers It's up to you to save tradition And be remembered as men of vision. So keep in mind when you retire Don't always sell to the richest buyer!


If you go to Montana . . .

If you go to Lewistown . . .

Mieke Bomann, a member of the Bulletin's Contributing Writers Group, lives in Seattle, Washington.

Back to Top