Just Back from Montana

Fodor's Copy Chief Linda Schmidt (along with husband and husky) spent much of August driving from New Jersey to Choteau, Montana, and back. Linda then returned to the Rocky Mountain Front for the month of November to work as the cook at the Seven Lazy P guest ranch outside of Choteau, on the eastern side of the Rockies about 80 miles northwest of Great Falls.

Why Choteau? The scenery and the people. Nothing puts your priorities in order like this landscape (you: small, earth: big). Western Montana looks like two planets: east of Choteau, plains stretch to the horizon; west of town, the Rockies erupt out of those plains and march south into Idaho and Wyoming and north into Canada. For somebody like me, who grew up among the green hills, deciduous trees, and limited vistas of the East, all this space can be a little unsettling at first. Now I can't get enough of it. And Choteau's gracious, welcoming people make me feel at home in the giant landscape.

What surprised you? What always surprises me here---how quickly I shed my workaday self. I can't look at the mountains and their wildlife and still worry about whatever I was worrying about when I got on the plane to start my vacation. Whether I'm following my husband up a hiking trail, or having dinner with friends at the town diner, or engaging in a mutual staring contest with a bunch of bighorn rams, or walking my dog by flashlight through the woods and back to our tent for the night, I stop caring about deadlines, calendars, and time in general. When I drive west from town a few miles toward the mountains, my cell phone stops working. Yours will too.

What was your favorite part of the trip? I was given a rare opportunity to work as the cook at a guest ranch, the Seven Lazy P Ranch, outside of Choteau. Of course not everyone wants to spend a vacation cooking for large groups of people, but I did, and I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. I was thrilled to feed the ranch guests and staff (10 to 25 people on any given day) for about a month and to become completely immersed in the day-to-day life of a place where I've been a pampered guest several times. Working with and getting to know the ranch staff and guests was my favorite part of the trip.

The Seven Lazy P has a charmed location, a few miles into a canyon at the foot of the mountains, and has been operated since 1958 by Chuck and Sharon Blixrud, who know just about everything there is to know about the Rocky Mountain Front. You can take guided day rides and multiday pack trips on horseback directly from the ranch into the Bob Marshall Wilderness complex, a 1.5-million-acre expanse that straddles the Continental Divide and the Canadian border. No motorized vehicles are allowed in the complex, and consequently it is one of the last (and largest) unspoiled places in the continental U.S. and a vital corridor for wildlife. If horseback riding isn't your cup of tea, you can hike this same territory from the ranch.

Advice for others? Don't be shy about talking to the people you meet---in stores, on hiking trails, wherever you're staying. I have yet to meet a Montanan who wasn't ready to give honest, friendly advice. This is how you?ll find out the best way to do whatever it is you come here to do, whether you want to ride, hike, fish, watch the snow-goose migration, look for dinosaur bones, or learn about the history of the local Blackfeet tribe. By talking with people, you'll also learn a bit about what it's like to live here, in such a lightly populated state, in a place where weather and the environment make so many decisions for you, decisions that urban and suburban dwellers are used to making for themselves regardless of what's going on outside. Chances are that the life of a lucky resident of Choteau is worlds apart from your own.

Also, make it a point to watch the sun set behind the mountains as often as you possibly can. Pull over on any road leading west from Choteau or a neighboring town at dusk and enjoy the show. It's different every day.

You can email the Seven Lazy P Ranch at sevenlazyp@montana.com.

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