Yellowstone National Park

When I was thinking about this project, I wanted to move through the parks in as many different ways as possible: I figured that different activities – whether it be kayaking or climbing or whatever – would make for more interesting vantage points and perspectives and lead to a better appreciation of the lands I was exploring. Enter Nick Roach.

Nick Roach and I met in college, and have remained close ever since. While I spent my summers playing tennis, Nick was working in Montana as a wrangler and a backcountry guide with Hell’s A-Roarin’ Outfitters. And when he heard about my plans to visit the national parks this summer, he said, “Dude, we should get you on a horse in Yellowstone.” Fast-forward a few weeks, and Nick and I are boarding a red-eye flight into Bozeman, Montana. We landed around 1:00am, rented a car, and started driving down to Jardine, Montana: headed for the Hell’s A-Roarin’ Outfitters. At around 3:00am, we started up the dirt road that leads to the ranch, and we walked in under the light of the Milky Way. Montana really is Big Sky Country.

I can’t remember exactly how old I was the first time I rode a horse, but I know two things: (1) it was sometime before I was in second grade, and (2) it was my brother’s fault. I was on a family vacation, and we had a free afternoon. My parents told me and my siblings that we would get to vote on how we spent the rest of the day, and we had two choices: we could either (a) go horseback riding, or (b) go mining for diamonds. Now, I can’t say with certainty whether it was my love of shiny things, or whether I was just terrified of large animals, but I definitely voted for diamonds. My sister was hell-bent on riding horses. My brother, with the tie-breaking vote, said he was indifferent, which meant we were going horseback riding. I learned a valuable lesson that day: that all it takes for evil (my sister, in this particular case) to succeed is the absence of good (thanks, Kyle).

A few hours later, we were on horses. I was scared shitless. And, let’s not kid ourselves: I was probably riding a pony; we for sure weren’t galloping; I was for sure trying not to cry the whole time. And then, somewhere in the woods of Arkansas (I think it was Arkansas), my good-for-nothing horse bucked me off. I flew through the air, head-first, and landed on my neck. If I wasn’t already using the f-word, I probably started that day. For the rest of the afternoon, while the rest of my family “rode” through the woods on horseback, I walked. I’ve been disinterested in horses ever since.

Warren and Susan Johnson have run Hell’s A-Roarin’ Outfitters for about 35 years, now – but Warren’s father, Vern, moved out to Jardine, Montana back in 1932. The ranch is located in Jardine, less than a mile from the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, surrounded by the Absoroka Beartooth National Forest. It’s beautiful. And if the scenery isn’t enough, the staff of guides, wranglers, and cooks at Hell’s A-Roarin’ are incredible. When Nick and I woke up the next morning, it felt like we were visiting family. I can’t say enough about how kind and welcoming Warren, Susan, and their entire staff were to me. If you’re ever in the area, I’d strongly recommend linking up with Hell’s A-Roarin’ for a ride or a hunting trip. You can find more information on them, here.

Nick and I were planning to ride a couple days into the backcountry toward a remote camp in the Absoroka Beartooth National Forest, with Nick’s younger sister, Bernadette, who was working on the ranch that summer. Most of the people rounding up the horses that morning looked to be teenagers – a humble reminder that experience is more important than age in developing just about any skill. As the wranglers rounded up and saddled the horses and mule that we’d be taking on our trip, I was comically useless. When I hopped up onto my horse for the weekend, it became obvious that the wranglers had assumed that since I was traveling with Nick, I must have had some sort of meaningful experience around horses.

When’s the last time you were on a horse? One of them asked me, as I hopped into the stirrups.

What’s today? Friday? Then, I think it’s been about 20 years. I responded back.

The kid I was talking to couldn’t have been older than 15. He looked up at me, like I was an idiot, and said, “Good luck.” Apparently, most people get miserably sore from riding for just a few hours. And, here I was, getting ready to ride 45 miles into the backcountry for two days…

The pictures featured below are primarily from the days I spent riding with Nick and Bernadette. Shooting from horseback was definitely a new experience for me, but it was awesome. I owe a huge thanks to the Roach family and the people at Hell's A-Roarin' Outfitters for making a trip like this possible.

Matt Patterson

Seattle, Washington