Oxygen is overrated. This chest cold had taken up residence in my lungs, and my asthma was not exactly happy with the redecorating it’s done in there. Thank goodness we left the higher elevation of Arapahoe County, Colorado.
We drove from Denver via Highway 59 straight north to Miles City, Montana. Along the way we had to get Montana health certificates because this was a last-minute destination. And it turns out that no one ever looked at them. We didn’t enter Montana via an interstate, so we were never stopped. Sigh.
I swear, these health certificates are some kind of joke. When the paperwork has been requested, not a single person has actually checked to see if the horse I am transporting is the horse on the certificate. Nor has anyone even cared to check to see if my Phillip is even a horse. Hell, I could be bringing a camel across state lines for all they care! Anyway, getting down off that soap box for now…
I hunted at Miles City last year, the first year that a foxhunt ever set foot there. Renee Daniels, MFH and huntsman of the Big Sky Hounds in Three Forks, Montana, (about five hours west) sold hay to Terry Haughian for years and asked if he would let the hounds run over his family’s land. Terry, whose Irish family has had the same ranch in Miles City for five generations, jumped at the idea.
I asked Terry how big his family’s ranch is, and in typical western fashion he didn’t tell me outright. (I’ve since learned that it’s about 100 square miles.) He said, “Well, I don’t exactly know how many acres, but I can tell you that it takes me about three days to ride across it.” His section of the Haughian ranch is so rough that no vehicle can cross it. Miles City is on the edge of the famous Badlands in South Dakota.
Small cactus and sage brush are everywhere, and the ground is full of cracks, gullies, ditches, ravines, canyons, cliffs, bluffs, lots of rocks and the dreaded “shifter holes.” Shifter holes are sink holes that have eroded away all the soil in pockets except for the top layer of soil. So when your horse steps on one, the hoof breaks the thin top layer to go into the open space underneath. You can’t see them. Can’t avoid them. At a gallop, where you are already jumping all the open areas of the ground that you can see, it’s no fun to fall in a shifter hole. I spent all last year hunting with one hand on my neck strap that I had brought from Tennessee. Last year’s hunting really was a blast – once we realized that we had indeed all survived the day! It remains the most treacherous county I’ve ever galloped across.
Last year we had more than 20 foxhunters from Big Sky in Montana, Cloud Line in Texas, Mission Valley in Kansas and Red Rock Hounds members from Nevada descend upon Miles City, and let me tell you, those cowboys were not prepared for us!
Next to our hotel was the Bucking Horse Saloon. On our last night last year, when 20 or so ladies from foxhunts across the country had descended upon the saloon, a local cowboy was overheard on his cell phone. He said, “Dude, you got to get to the Bucking Horse. The place is full of cougars!” We had the little bar packed by night’s end.
So when Angela Murray, MFH and huntsman for Red Rock Hounds, agreed to leave Burwell, Nebraska, a few days early to meet us in Miles City last week we all jumped at the chance. When I walked into the Bucking Horse on Monday night Terry immediately recognized me. Either I’m just that memorable, or it may have had to do with the fact that last year I stood on top of the bar to buy everyone a drink.
Terry told us he had new ranches for us to hunt on with easier country. More rolling hills and meadows along the Yellowstone River, so no shifter holes this year. However, while last year it was very dry, this year Miles City was drowning in snow and rain. Montana has gumbo mud—which is mud that packs up like potter’s clay and won’t wash off.
I’ve ridden in the buckshot mud of the Mississippi Delta, which is the worst mud I’ve ever encountered. If you let the buckshot mud dry on your truck, then it will take the paint off when you hose the mud off. I call it “weapons grade” mud. Montana gumbo mud is a very close second to the worst God-awful buckshot mud you’ve ever imagined.
Bogs almost belly-deep are something that Phillip and I have ridden through but always on the river flats. Imagine deep bogs while climbing a steep hill, or sliding off a cliff to sink right into a bog before you hit the bottom of the hill. I was right next to Rosie Merle-Smith when we were trying to find a way around a deep ravine and instead found a knee-deep bog of white mud. The incline was steep, and since we were traversing the cliff face I could feel Phil work hard to keep himself from tilting too far sideways. Rosie was downhill of me and started to turn straight up the cliff. I was convinced that it was too steep to climb, but Rosie knew better than I that if we’d continued going sideways we would surely have fallen. So I turned Phil, and somehow he climbed up that cliff in that bog.
We made it out, but the real miracle was that our horses kept all their shoes. The mud that collected in Phil’s thick tail was so crazy that I just cut his tail off. There was no washing it out.
The hounds had a few short runs on the first day of hunting, but Angela was only hunting with half her pack. Her hounds had hunted for 21 miles in Nebraska two days prior. On the second day (with Angela hunting the other half of her pack), we stayed closer to Custer Creek and the meadowlands of the Yellowstone. But it was raining, so we were all in the best rain gear we had brought. The ground was indeed firmer on the second day, but the cold rain was pretty miserable. The hounds didn’t have any more luck than the day before, but honestly, with the crazy mud I was happy not to do that much galloping.
When we pulled out of Miles City on Thursday, we were about 15 hours ahead of a huge storm system that created a blizzard with hurricane force winds that dumped a huge amount of snow for April. We raced the storm east for two days. I think those last two days we went about 2,000 miles. By the time we hit Georgia after midnight on Friday, I had topped 10,000 miles from my home in Tennessee.
I would absolutely do this trip again. I made so many new friends, made so many great memories with old friends, and found a new list of favorite places to return to hunt. This was a once-in-a-lifetime trip that I will figure out how to repeat again. One of the best memories I have is all the times, when our traveling circus would pull into a new place, a local would ask the group, “OK. Which one of you is the naked lady?”
Gretchen Pelham joined the Masters of Foxhounds Association’s Hark Forward Western Tour for a once-in-a-lifetime trip across the western United States. About a dozen hunt members from all over the southeast converged at Belle Meade Hunt in Georgia to begin a month-long caravan that will cover about 10,000 miles and travel to Mission Valley Hunt Club in Kansas, Caza Ladron and Juan Tomas Hounds in New Mexico, Grand Canyon Hounds in Arizona, Tejon Hounds and Santa Ynez Valley Hounds in California, Red Rock Hounds in Nevada, North Hills Hunt in Nebraska, Arapahoe Hunt in Colorado, and finally, Red Rock Hounds in Montana. The Hark Forward initiative consists of friendly competitions and events nationwide to connect foxhunters, celebrate all aspects of the sport, and to raise funds for the renovations of the MFHA’s new national headquarters in Middleburg, Virginia. You can read previous installments here.