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Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West

Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West

4.1 8
by Bryce Andrews

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“Much more than a coming-of-age story, Badluck Way is an important meditation on what it means to share space and breathe the same air as truly wild animals, and the necessary damage that can occur when boundaries are crossed” (Tom Groneberg, author of The Secret Life of Cowboys).

In this gripping memoir of a young man, a wolf, their


“Much more than a coming-of-age story, Badluck Way is an important meditation on what it means to share space and breathe the same air as truly wild animals, and the necessary damage that can occur when boundaries are crossed” (Tom Groneberg, author of The Secret Life of Cowboys).

In this gripping memoir of a young man, a wolf, their parallel lives and ultimate collision, Bryce Andrews describes life on the remote, windswept Sun Ranch in southwest Montana. The Sun’s twenty thousand acres of rangeland occupy a still-wild corner of southwest Montana—a high valley surrounded by mountain ranges and steep creeks with portentous names like Grizzly and Bad Luck. Just over the border from Yellowstone National Park, the Sun holds giant herds of cattle and elk amid many predators—bears, mountain lions, and wolves.

In lyrical, haunting language, Andrews recounts marathon days and nights of building fences, riding, roping, and otherwise learning the hard business of caring for cattle, an initiation that changes him from an idealistic city kid into a skilled ranch hand. But when wolves suddenly begin killing the ranch’s cattle, Andrews has to shoulder a rifle, chase the pack, and do what he’d hoped he would never have to do.

Called “an elegant memoir” by the Great Falls Tribune, Badluck Way is about transformation and complications, about living with dirty hands every day. It is about the hard choices that wake us at night and take a lifetime to reconcile. Above all, Badluck Way celebrates the breathtaking beauty of wilderness and the satisfaction of hard work on some of the harshest, most beautiful land in the world.

Editorial Reviews

"Andrews paints the rural landscape with such precision that the land becomes its own character, and his story [is] a finely tuned love song for the West."
University of Montana Camas: The Nature of the West
“Lyricism draws you in close; blunt, raw honesty holds you there… For Andrews, the mystery, grace, intelligence, and humanness of the wolves is palpable in his encounters… Badluck Way recounts in visceral detail what it means to make a ‘living from a hard place’ and the immense privilege and sorrow accompanying the work. It’s a celebration of the merits of hard work and a tribute to a livelihood… Badluck Way succeeds as a portrait of stubborn grit and hard choice."
The Oregonian
“Andrews' … poetically rendered portrait of the wolf pack working the edges of the ranch provides a counterpoint to the humdrum reality of his daily chores. His extended meditation on the pack is also the scaffolding for the book's design. The wolves' tale is in italics, providing a visual voice. Badluck Way is a beautiful book.”
Mountain West News
“Andrews gives a thoughtful, haunting view of the business of ranching and the harsh realities of living in tandem with nature.”
Missoula Independent
Badluck Way is also a story about a search for an identity, one that readers can identify with even if their own adventures were not quite so gritty. It’s about labor, and finding one’s purpose in it… His story reaches its crescendo when a pack of wolves start to prey on the cattle he’s bound to protect… Andrews offers a fresh and complex perspective…”
Temple Grandin
“This book will make you have deep thoughts about our relationships with the land, nature, and animals.”
Peter Stark
“In Badluck Way, cattlehand and writer Bryce Andrews takes us on a fascinating ride through one of the most beautiful landscapes and thorniest issues of today’s American West—how can the newly reintroduced wolf and traditional cattle ranching coexist? Badluck Way is by turns an adventure story of a young man on a sprawling Montana ranch, a thoughtful reflection on the ranching life, and a visceral exploration of the cruel amorality of the natural world. Beautifully written, Andrews’s book delivers a powerful emotional punch.”
Craig Lesley
“In this unforgettable memoir, Bryce Andrews conjures the modern West with all its grit and conflict. At core lies the old grudge between livestock protection and predator control. This fine memoir contains meticulous details of onerous ranch work—the unexpected violence of herding cows, the backbreak labor of building fence. Haunting and lyrical, this marvelous work belongs on everyone's bookshelf alongside other Western Classics.”
Tom Groneberg
“An important meditation on what it means to share space and breathe the same air as truly wild animals.”
David Horsey
“One could find no better guide than Bryce Andrews for a journey along the shifting border between the wild and the tame; a daunting frontier filled with unsettling truths, blood and beauty. His wonderfully crafted prose is lean, yet rich in the telling details of seasons spent on a Montana ranch overseeing a shaky co-existence between cattle and wolves. Andrews is a keen-eyed ecologist, a skilled ranch hand and, best of all, a self-examining student of life with a young man’s inclination to push past fear and caution toward an embrace of risky, life-altering experience. In Badluck Way, Andrews shuns both cowboy romanticism and environmentalist sermonizing and illuminates the inescapable conflict between human economic imperatives and the compulsions of animal instinct. His book is a gripping tale of the West, raw and real.”
Jana Harris
“This memoir of life as a contemporary, ecologically minded Montana cowboy is heartfelt. Andrews' language often sings. Told in a refined version of a campfire ghost story, his narrative took my breath away.”
Patricia McConnell
“Exquisitely written and unflinchingly honest, this haunting memoir about one man’s complex relationship with wolves and the wild will stay with you long after you finish it, oh so reluctantly.”
Great Falls Tribune
"An elegant memoir."
Seattle Times
“A taut depiction of ranch life that balances ranchers’ concern for their domestic animals with his own appreciation of the wild ones nearby.”
“Haunting and elegiac… Andrews honors the men, the land and the animals that populate the Sun Ranch... Beautifully written and viscerally honest, Badluck Way introduces a powerful new voice in environmental writing.”
The New York Times Book Review - Leigh Newman
Andrews describes well the oddball challenges of rural living…But the beauty of this book is how such a personal story reflects larger issues about the American West—not just the politics of wildlife and real estate, but the strange, conflicting impulses engendered by such landscapes…
Billings Gazette
“Montana rancher captures the old and new West in memoir… Captivating… Andrews’ lyrical style effortlessly floats from one page to the next with exquisite poetic interludes comparing his own journey to that of a lone wolf….Andrews' transformative journey is captured with vivid sensory details of the harsh and beautiful realities of living on a Montana ranch while trying to coexist with a local wolf pack. He meticulously weaves the lives of the wolves and the lives on the ranch, provoking the reader to empathize with both parties. From one chapter to the next, Andrews transports the reader to the majestic Montana landscape with prosaic imagery…. honest and eloquent testimony creates a thought-provoking tale of a life-changing experience. This commemorative memoir illustrates a contemporary spin on the West while capturing the inescapable brutality of the hard work that shapes what it means to be a cowboy.”
Library Journal
Hissing winds, wandering wolves, the harsh squall of magpies, herds of elk, barren hills, and crystalline nights. Andrews's hauntingly beautiful memoir chronicles the year he spent working on Sun Ranch in southwestern Montana—a transformative time marked by toil, sweat, and hard choices. (LJ 10/15/13)
Kirkus Reviews
A coming-of-age memoir that illuminates the pleasures and problems of running a conservation-oriented sheep and cattle ranch. After college, with no clear direction for his future, Andrews took a summer job as a ranch hand on Sun Ranch, a 25,000-acre property in Montana. The ranch "straddles one of the most important wildlife corridors in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem." The farm animals cohabitated with grizzly bears, massive elk herds and, more problematically, wolves. The guiding idea of the venture "was to integrate ranching into a functional, natural ecosystem." The reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park in 1995 presented a recurring threat to the cattle and therefore the economic viability of the ranch. Park officials tracked local wolf packs with radio collars as they tracked elk. The local pack grew in numbers, and in 2003, when the elk sought higher ground, the wolves began preying on the hundreds of sheep being used for weed control. The USDA gunned them down from a helicopter, but a new wolf pack replaced them. Andrews looks back on the painful task of dealing with another pack of wolves that was picking off the cattle. The ranch was owned by a millionaire whom the author describes as "a well-intentioned conservationist and an avid fisherman." Neither he nor Andrews, who was born in Seattle, were native to the area, but both loved it passionately. The problem was that even after combining ranching with ecotourism, the venture was a money-loser. The only way for the owner to make up the difference was to sell a portion to developers. Andrews spent a year on the ranch, toughening up in the process and finding his vocation as a writer on outdoor subjects and as a conservationist ranch manager. An evocative, poetic account of rugged terrain, the men and animals who inhabited it, and the complex realities of sustainable agriculture.

Product Details

Atria Books
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5.50(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

Eastbound to the West

One way to say how I ended up on the Sun is that my life in Walla Walla, Washington, where I’d stacked basalt, poured concrete foundations, and waited for a girl to finish her last year of college, ended. The door slammed shut and I just kept moving, out of desperation more than anything else. I went home to Seattle, slept on the floor in a friend’s house in Fremont, and knocked around miserably in bars. Then I joined up with another buddy, who lived on a sailboat that was thirty years old and twenty-eight feet long, and sailed that tub up to the San Juan Islands in a January storm. I was at the helm when the boom snapped in half and threw us broadside to the swells. As I fought the wheel and Bill cursed his rickety diesel inboard motor, I thought about how small the warmth of my body was and how endless the chill of water. I thought of how things thrown in the ocean sink down beyond the reach of the sun. Waves broke over the bow and it was raining so hard that I breathed through my nose to keep from choking. In spite of oilskins, rubber boots, a plastic hood, and neoprene gloves, I was soaked to the skin.

When the motor finally kicked over, Bill folded the sail into a packet no bigger than a bedsheet, and we limped against the storm back toward Port Townsend. Veils of rain hid the Olympic Peninsula, so it seemed the world was made of only water. I tasted the ocean. It flooded my eyes. I watched it rise into jagged topographies that passed like mountain ranges on the move. When we docked, I had to pry my hands from around the wheel. I stepped onto dry land and thought: Enough.

Getting lost was easy. One day I went down to the Amtrak station and slid out of Seattle on a pair of steel rails, traveling three unwashed days down the coast to San Diego, where I surfed poorly and did chores for my grandparents. My grandfather was on the mend from his first go-round with cancer. Though we couldn’t walk the beach together, he was optimistic when he left me at the station.

I took trains that rattled across the Southwest: Phoenix, Tucson, San Antonio, and a hundred map dots in between. I got a hotel room in New Orleans for my twenty-third birthday, did what everyone does there, then ran north to get away. From D.C. and New York to Chicago, where clinker ice hissed against a concrete breakwater, I was quick and free. My feet had barely touched the ground since California. I bought a southbound ticket and one week later crossed into Juárez, Mexico, in the middle of the night.

It makes a difference when your money runs out, especially in Mexico. I ate tacos of dubious provenance, scraped through the twisting innards of the Copper Canyon, and hitchhiked up Baja in a propane delivery truck with no starter and no brakes. After crossing back into the States at Tijuana, I spent three days retching in my grandparents’ bathroom, and went home to Seattle feeling as though I could handle just about anything. I looked for work, and the first good thing I found was a summer ranch job.

That’s one way to explain how I got to the Sun.

Another way to say it is that, ever since I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with the West. I grew up in Seattle, the son of a professional photographer and an art director. My father started running the University of Washington’s art museum when I was four and kept the job for twenty years. He must have had a touch of my own mania, because when I was seven he organized a show called The Myth of the West. While the curators installed it, I played with balls of wadded masking tape in front of Albert Bierstadt’s lightsoaked picture of Yellowstone Falls and practiced my quick draw facing Andy Warhol’s duded-up Double Elvis.

Dad brought home crowds of artists from work to eat at our long kitchen table. I was six when Pat Zentz came to dinner and kept everyone up with stories until night gave way to morning. In Seattle’s art scene, Pat was something different. He hailed from a ranch outside of Billings: a two-thousand-acre spread of dryland wheat, old homestead buildings, Black Angus cattle, grass, and sky where he built sculptures and worked like hell to keep from losing the land. One of these summers, Pat said, we should come out and see it.

Our first visit to the Zentz Ranch, when I was seven years old, lasted only a couple of days. We pulled spotted knapweed with Pat, his wife, Suzie, and their three boys and helped move a few cows on horseback. My mother photographed every skeletal cottonwood and disintegrating outbuilding she could find. On the last evening, we drove out to a high bluff that Pat called Martini Ridge and watched the sky grow dark above the Crazy Mountains.

Emergent stars seemed closer than the horizon. When we left I pressed my face to a dusty backseat window and cried.

I came back the next summer—stayed longer, worked a little bit harder, got paid two bucks an hour. I learned to roll up rusty, ground-bound strands of barbwire. In the summers that followed, I built fence, fixed fence, moved cows, and learned how to catch and tack a horse. I drove a 1978 GMC High Sierra on tracks so rough my forehead smacked the steering wheel. When the work was done I lay faceup on the truck’s roof looking into the deep blue bowl of the sky. Thunderstorms rose in the southwest, raged a short while, and then blew east to die in the Badlands. The smell of wet dirt followed.

Every summer until I turned eighteen, I returned to the Zentz Ranch to work for nothing, or next to nothing, finding recompense in the little calluses on my palms. Whenever I went home to the damp claustrophobia of Seattle, I would dream about big, dry, lonely country. I pictured it each time I bought a ticket to anywhere or filled up the gas tank on my truck.

After returning from Mexico, when I sat down in front of my parents’ computer to look for a job, I could not put the idea of ranching from my mind. I found a job announcement on the Montana State University website. The first paragraph read: The Sun Ranch is located on the edge of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, in the upper Madison River Valley of southwestern Montana, about 30 miles south of Ennis. It encompasses approximately 25,000 acres of deeded land and grazing leases. The Ranch is committed to conservation and improving the health of the land for wildlife and livestock through progressive management.

The position was seasonal, a six-month gig beginning on the first of May. The job title was Assistant Grazing Technician/Livestock Manager. Of the nine traits listed as the “Successful Applicant’s Qualities,” six were unremarkable, couched in the narcotic jargon of human resources, but the last three were different. I read them slowly and more than once: “Common Sense, Adaptability, Gumption.”

I did a little research and found that the Sun Ranch straddles one of the most important wildlife corridors in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, providing habitat for grizzly bears, wolves, lynx, and wolverines. Elk herds numbering in the thousands move across it. The ranch was at the vanguard of a movement to rethink the way agriculture is practiced in the West. Large herds of yearling cattle grazed the ranch each summer. The movement of these heifers and steers across the landscape was carefully choreographed to complement, rather than hinder, the systems of the wild. Simply put, the idea was to integrate ranching into a functional, natural ecosystem.

The Madison Valley, and especially the south end of the Madison Valley, was my father’s fishing heaven. He’d taken me to the river as a teenager, and we’d leapfrogged up the pocket water near Three Dollar Bridge. From my time on the Zentz place I knew a bit about the work described, the fencing and herding, anyway. I had gumption, or thought I did, so I called about the job and was hired.

On my last morning in Seattle, I packed the back of my truck with jeans and work shirts, a few cooking utensils, sheets, and food that would keep. I scuffed my cowboy boots against a curb so they wouldn’t look brand-new and drove out of the city on wet streets, weaving through the morning rush.

Interstate 90 led toward the west slope of the Cascades. Ahead the clouds snugged down around Snoqualmie Pass and its attendant peaks like a gray skullcap. The forest pressed in from either side of the freeway—firs, cedars, and elephantine blackberry tangles.

I charged up and over the pass. The walls of greenery blurred and then, somewhere after Cle Elum, disappeared.

I had practiced this departure many times, and as the irrigated fields and scrubland of eastern Washington unfurled in all directions, everything felt right. I was headed away from my youth and home, a place where the clouds spat water through a lush, evergreen canopy. Ahead, the horizon was wide and empty, and the sky a clear blue. I was eastbound toward the West, to become a ranch hand in the high country of Montana. I never even glanced at the rearview mirror.

I sped through wheat fields and orchards, slept in a ratty Coeur d’Alene motel, and crossed into Montana by way of the Idaho Panhandle. By four in the afternoon I was at the foot of the Norris hill. If the Norris hill were someplace flatter than southwest Montana, it would be considered a mountain. Here, though, it’s unremarkable, and probably wouldn’t even merit a name if it weren’t for the fact that Highway 287 climbs it to a saddle from which the whole Madison Valley is visible.

The view on the far side is distracting enough to cause a wreck. I pulled to the edge of the road to take it in. Two mountain ranges strike south from the hill, keeping roughly parallel to each other.

In the foreground they are at least ten miles apart, but farther off the ranges bend inward, pinching off the valley like an hourglass waist. Though the valley is symmetrical in shape, the mountains that flank it could not be more different.

On the east side, the Madisons leap suddenly toward the blue sky. Sharp, sheer, and rocky, at first glance they seem to cant forward and overhang the valley slightly. My map named some of the peaks: Fan, Helmet, Sphinx, and Wedge. From the top of the Norris hill they look like a solid wall with broken shards of glass along the top.

The map also named a few of the Gravelly Range’s westward mountains, but I could not match them to the landscape. While the Madisons form a line of glinting canine teeth, the Gravellies are a many-shouldered swelling of the earth. The fallen-down range humps up from the floodplain grass, rising into a maze of timbered ridges, flecked from bottom to top with open meadows of various sizes.

Rangeland begins where the foothills end, and the valley is wide enough to hold an ocean of grass. From atop the Norris hill, the landscape resolves into a series of descending benches, regular enough to look from a distance like a massive green-carpeted staircase connecting the mountains to the river.

The most striking part of it all was the Madison River, which reflected the afternoon sun and drew a golden line through the heart of the valley. Curving smoothly across the floodplain like a snake navigating stony ground, the river issues from the south and is flanked on either side by dark thickets of willow.

Traffic roared behind me, pulling my attention back to the early-season tourists and long-haul truckers topping the hill and accelerating down into the valley like roller-coaster cars. A little convoy of them dropped out of sight on a curve and reappeared on the far side of the town of Ennis. After Ennis, the highway crosses the Madison and veers south, running straight toward a little smudge in the grass called Cameron, population forty-nine.

According to my map, Cameron was fifteen miles from Ennis, and the Sun Ranch fifteen miles farther up the road. I stared south, following the twists and turns of the Madison River upstream to where the mountains squeezed in tight around it, trying to imagine how the ranch lay upon the land.

When I arrived on the Sun for the first time, Jeremy was standing in his front yard, waiting. For a long time I wondered how he had pulled that off, since I had given him the day, but not the time, of my arrival. No doubt he’d heard my truck clattering over the frontage road washboards or seen a dust trail rising. At any rate he was ready and I found him leaning against a low chain-link fence, looking like the boss in a broad straw hat and a sun-faded blue shirt.

“Glad you found it,” he said, and shook my hand.

I thanked him for taking a chance on hiring me, and he laughed like I had told a good joke. Up close, Jeremy looked younger, almost baby-faced except for a light goatee and a pair of round photosensitive glasses. Under the high April sun, those glasses turned dark enough to hide his eyes entirely.

We talked in the yard, orbited by a pair of black border collies. Sometimes the dogs trotted up close to measure me with quick, inquisitive sniffs.

Jeremy took me on a walking tour of a cluster of buildings adjacent to his house. We looped through a machine shop, corrals, and a handful of old livestock sheds in slump-roofed subsidence.

Because of the eponymous stream that ran behind these structures, the little settlement was known as Wolf Creek. In addition to the compound we were walking through, there was another clump of buildings in the dead center of the ranch, which included the owner’s house, an old barn, the ranch office, and a sheet-metal building full of heavy equipment. Those constructions were scattered along a watercourse of their own, and were therefore called the Moose Creek buildings.

As we passed the various ranch trucks, parked in a neat line, Jeremy pointed at a massive white one-ton flatbed Ford.

“You’ll share that one with James, when he gets here.”

He left me at a low wooden bunkhouse, not far from the machine shop, with instructions to get settled in.

“See you in the morning,” Jeremy said. “We leave at seven.”

I had arrived.

Meet the Author

Bryce Andrews was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. He studied at Whitman College and the University of Montana, and has managed several cattle ranches in the West. He lives in Montana.

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Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A most interesting read.  Andrews really draws you into the daily life of a ranch hand today and uses beautifully descriptive language to paint a vivid picture of the land and  the very real interaction between people and animals both wild and livestock.  An informative look at ranching today from a very real perspective
judiOH More than 1 year ago
the west has often been made to be a romantic place with cowboys, and ranches, and horses, etc. this is a book that looks at what the west is really about. it's about man co-existing with animals that are not tame. trying to raise cattle for a profit and losing them to coyotes, wolves, and bears, making a life that is rough. on the other side of the coin, the world around you is beautiful. huge mountain peaks, rolling hills, plaiins full of grass. the scenery is beyond the best in the country. but then one has to realize the 'other side' of the coin. bryce andrews puts togeether a story that encompasses both of these worlds. this type of story is n ot what i would usually read, but i found mysself drawn in, and learned a lot about the west that most people never realize is there. a very good read, and i hope he follows it up.
MarianHB More than 1 year ago
Liked this book very much.  Descriptions of the landscape made it very easy to picture and admire.  Wonderful how interesting good story telling of daily events can be.  So good to be reminded and to know about the challenges facing people on the front lines of conserving land and wild life.  
Lark11 More than 1 year ago
As we continue to evolve towards a digital society, I find myself appreciating the cover art of books. The cover art of Badluck Way perfectly captures the story to come, showing a metal fence in the foreground and untrammeled wild land beyond. This book truly does take place on the "Ragged Edge of the West", where civilization and wild places meet. At its heart, the book examines whether wild and tame can peacefully coexist. Bryce Andrews tells it well.  The book started off a bit slow for me, as Andrews, appropriately, wants to set the stage for the reader and do justice to the natural beauty and wonder of the Sun Ranch in Southwest Montana. No easy feat and, for me, the imagery seemed a bit forced. I didn't end up with a very good mental picture of the layout of the ranch or a strong emotional feeling for the natural beauty of the land. The book, however, picks up steam when it moves away from description of the environment and towards everyday life on the ranch. In addition to the overarching story of man vs. wild, there are a number of interesting tidbits about ranching and/or The Sun Ranch that serve to add further depth and substance to the story. These tidbits include a description of the two interrelated principles that govern the herding of cattle, a description of the unusual nighttime hunting habits of an unnamed Hollywood star who had previously owned the ranch, and the physics underlying a certain type of barbwire fence. Those tidbits really added value to the narrative. As for the overarching story of civilization and wilderness, Andrews handles it well. It's appropriate that the story centers on wolves, as they have always been a representative "wild animal" in the public conscience and the mere mention of them are likely to create some manner of emotional response, either "beautiful, noble creatures" or "savage, unrelenting predator." Andrews has a great deal of respect, and a certain amount of awe, for the wolves. Eventually, given the nature of his job responsibilities, he is left to make some very difficult choices with some very real consequences. He conveys the emotional weight of those consequences very effectively to the reader, making the book emotionally affecting. Overall, Andrews has crafted a very fine story for anyone interested in those few wild places still remaining on the map and the interaction between civilized man and wild beast. A highly recommended read. 
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a good book. My only knock is that its a bit dramatic. Growing up in western Nebraska, working hard is just expected, and you just do it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
EnjoyreadingKB More than 1 year ago
This is a rather short book at under 200 pages but a very worth while read. Mr Andrews describe his experiences working on the Sun Ranch in Montana and the struggle to provide space for both wildlife and an ever growing human population.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book.