Book review: ‘Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West,’ by Bryce Andrews
Special to the Daily
When most people think of the Colorado high country, what first comes to mind is the culture of skiers, bikers and hikers. But equally vital to the mountain communities are the many ranchers who call home the wide valleys nestled in among the peaks. This year’s Colorado Mountain College Common Reader selection, “Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West,” by author Bryce Andrews, pays tribute to that ranching way of life that is synonymous with the ethos of the pioneering spirit of Colorado.
Ranching has been a part of the history of the West since mining and homesteading times. With the arrival of the railroad, and the more permanent settlements that followed, ranches grew larger, their cattle herds sustained by the billowing expanses of prairie grasses that flourished across the swaths of land claimed by the settlers.
Reading “Badluck Way” evokes a strong sense of nostalgia for Colorado’s many acres of ranchlands that spread from its four borders, north, south, east and west. Though his memoir is set in southwestern Montana, Andrews captures scenes that resemble communities all along the Continental Divide. Named for the gravel road that was the ranch’s main entrance, “Badluck Way” is written from Andrews’ own experiences as a young ranch hand on the Sun Ranch, not far from Yellowstone Park.
The book arouses the senses, depicting the wildness of nature, with its different temperaments and colors, from the languorous warm tones of a hot summer day to the cool evening colors that seep in with reluctance. Within the first pages of the preface, lovers of the West will find some descriptor that awakens a sense of places familiar.
When Andrews signed on as a seasonal laborer for the Sun Ranch, he was following up on many summers of time spent on ranches in Montana as a kid. Growing up, when he was home with his family in Seattle during the year, he found himself dreaming of Montana’s wide-open landscape, and each time he went back, he sensed the dust of Montana settling a little more deeply into his bones.
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Though Andrews shares a great deal of the day-to-day trials and tribulations of working a ranch, the heart of the book is given over to the magical presence of the recently reintroduced wolves who call the nearby mountains their home. A protected species, the wolves represent a challenge to local ranchers, who face the daily chore of having to protect their valuable herds from culling by the resident predators.
Serving as interludes to his own voice of novice ranch hand are poignant depictions of the wild lands as seen from the perspective of the wolves. Stripped bare of artifice and all things man-made, these pauses from the main narrative have a spiritual bent, projecting how deeply in tune Andrews was to the presence of the wolves — and how deeply moved he was by them.
Luckily for the resident wolves, the Sun Ranch had given itself a mandate of living in symbiosis — as much as possible — with the natural inhabitants and was deeply committed to the conservation of the ecosystem and the wildlife that was crucial to its stability.
At Sun Ranch, cattle vacated the lands from October until May, so all 18,000 acres became wild again, allowing deer, large herds of elk, the lone cougar and the wolves to dominate the hills and valleys until spring. With the warming weather came the arrival of the herds of cattle, and the crux of the work on the ranch began in earnest. There were miles of fences to be repaired and maintained, and the health and well being of the cows became the ultimate goal.
Andrews writes of the daily schedules of caring for the animals, monitoring their pastures and providing them steady access to water. The work was hard and started early, but in the midst of it all, Andrews recalls being stopped in his tracks by the beauty of his surroundings. His gaze always lingered on Badluck Canyon, which was where the wolves had their den. He felt an inexplicable primal urge to explore it.
Even beyond the canyon, there was a perpetual presence of the wolves, and soon he was longing to see one. He found their scat, their prints and the remnants of their prey scattered across the meadows and in the shadows of the trees, so it was a matter of time.
The reader gets the sense, as Andrews’ stay on the ranch inched through summer, that he and the wolves were engaged in a sort of primitive dance, eerie and beautiful, with an inevitable encounter on the horizon.
There is sadness and grace when it does happen, and the wolf that has lurked in his imagination enters his mind, haunting him with the memory of its power and wildness. A captivating pathos dominates the simple narrative of “Badluck Way,” which acknowledges, with a mournful nod, the ways of both man and wolf and the bitter spaces where they intersect. The scenery and the sensibilities of Andrews’ writing will remain long after the book is read, and it serves as a fitting tribute to a way of life that lingers in the last few outposts of the West.