By Maureen Clark
The friendship between a Southern lawyer, Jim Van Camp, and a young rancher, Hip Tillett, began with a handshake and a warm Montana welcome to the TX Ranch over thirty-five years ago. “I had seen an ad for the working ranch. It said ‘Don’t just go out West. Live it.’ I decided to give it a try,” Jim Van Camp remembers. He arrived in Montana on his Harley with teenage son Richie in tow. “I was struck immediately with the romance of it,” the attorney admits. Today Van Camp’s V3Bar branded cattle are mixed into the larger Tillett herd on the over 8,000-acre ranch straddling the southern Montana border west of the Big Horn River along the Pryor Mountain Range. Over the years, the strong bond that grew between the Tillett and Van Camp families has served as a bridge from Southern Pines to the West.
Rattling off names of friends he has encouraged to sign on for the TX drives, Van Camp got to fifty pretty quickly. Tommy Howe from Pinebluff, June O’Connell, Betsy and Larry Best, George and Mickey Wirtz, Reg Miller are just to name a few. No one, however, took to moving and working cattle with more heart than the beloved Southern Pines horseman LP Tate. “I liked going out for the last drive of the season (taking the herd to a winter range in Wyoming),” Van Camp explains. “Hip would give me a call, then I would talk to LP. He would get on a plane and come every time.” Tate, who died last year, is revered locally as a founding personality of the Moore County equestrian community. Traces of his beautiful Starland Farm mark the golf course at Longleaf on Midland Road, a standing memorial to his part in the resort’s early history.
“That first year, it was just me and Richie, and three more guests,” Van Camp recalls. He was introduced to the TX Ranch from a generation that took Montana from land grants to cattle ranges the hard way. The ranch has been in the Tillet family over a hundred years. Hip’s mother, Abe, was part Lakota Indian and could cook from a campfire like Julia Child in a gourmet kitchen. She was known for her sticky buns and blueberry pies. His grandmother Bessie delivered mail in the territory on a mule and told stories of running from Indians on the Crow reservation. In fact, the Custer battlefield lies a touch north, then due east with no interruption except the flow of the Big Horn River. The Tilletts were instrumental in donating land and establishing the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range described on Montana maps.
Hip Tillett’s father, Lloyd, came up with the idea of guest ranching in the ’70s. Van Camp remembers the early setup. A few guests. No tents. They slept on the ground. No showers. “Once a week we took our horses out into the lake, about chest high, at the Beaver Dam and put our clothes up on the saddle. We bathed in the water. Put our clothes back on and rode out.” The conditions may have changed slightly, but the overall work of the ranch remains the same.
The Tilletts’ home base in Lovell, Wyoming, is near Crooked Creek, the winter range for their 1,000 or so head of predominately Black Angus cattle. (In Montana, creek is pronounced and spelled “crick.” Natives know.) In April, the herd is moved into Montana for the spring and summer ranges. Before the cold sets in hard, October or November, there is a drive back to Lovell. During the intervening months the cattle are worked, section by section, in a series of roundups based from one of two camps, Lone Wolf or Deadman. The daily work involves first finding the cattle, who are happily spread out across the countryside, and then gathering them together for branding, tagging, castrating or inoculations as necessary.
So what is the lure? How do the Tilletts draw “part-time cowboys” to their ranch, many of whom return year after year, for dust, hard work, long hours, a tent and outhouse, then ask them to pay for the privilege? A recent trip to TX with Van Camp’s daughter, Ashley, and his 14-year-old-grandson, Campbell Jourdian, provided insight. Ashley, the owner of the popular Ashten’s Restaurant in downtown Southern Pines, has been to TX more times than she can count. Son Campbell, an accomplished rider who fox hunts, and events, has been angling to go back all summer. “I don’t know how to explain it,” Ashley says. “But you’ll see. That outdoor shower (from the hanging, sun-heated plastic bag) will be the best shower you’ve ever had in your life.”
On day one, Hip and his wife, Loretta, tall, blonde and sparkling with kindness, gathered their recruits from various hotels in downtown Billings. The couple embody a characteristic President Teddy Roosevelt once noted in cowboys: “They treat a stranger with the most wholehearted hospitality, doing all in their power for him.” The group of eighteen that pitched their gear into the waiting vehicles were from Sweden, Britain, Montreal, Oregon, Indiana, Virginia and Brooklyn. Six were returning veterans. While Campbell vied for a seat next to Hip on the way out so he could start negotiating for a spot as wrangler, Ashley commented knowingly, “By the end of the week you are going to love these guys.”
Montana, like most of the western United States, is experiencing a drought. The ride from Billings, southeast to the range at the foot of the Pryor Mountains, took several hours going from a rustic two-lane highway to miles of dirt roads winding through gates and expanses of barbed wire fencing. Whorls of red dust marked the progress to Lone Wolf.
Camp was a gathering of tents tucked under a spread of squat, box elder trees, a stick-built corral, log cabin with dining tables and kitchen, a deep spring-fed water tank, two outhouses, a campfire and two beach-type outdoor showers. Importantly, a stone-framed root cellar, dug into the side of a hill, provided cool storage for the food supplies, a critical feature of every Montana homestead or ranch built in the outlands in the last century. The perimeter was fenced in barbed wire to keep horses in and maybe whatever howled or roamed at night out. No electricity. No indoor plumbing. No cell coverage.
The parallels to Billy Crystal and Jack Palance were inescapable, particularly as the group lined up the first morning to be interviewed by Hip and matched to a pair of horses that would be used on alternating days for the week. Campbell won his quest for the head wrangling spot. He slipped out of his tent in the darkness before dawn to bring the horse herd down from the pasture with the help of two outriders. By sunrise and breakfast an hour later, the herd would be thundering across the ridge and down into camp.
Wrangling involves moving horses, not cattle. The Tillets keep about fifty-five horses shod, using about twenty each day. There are over one-hundred additional horses on the ranch in various stages of breeding, training and rest. With the herd stirring up dust in the corral, one by one Hip made his matches. Moving down the line, Hip, a permanent twinkle in his eye, and a curb on his ready wit, focused on pairing riders and horses. The man has what you might call Montana mettle, a steel and grit beneath the polite surface, that has been tempered by years of dealing with the elements. This year it is the drought. Last year it may have been an early winter, flood or injury.
The first difference between Crystal’s film version and TX reality was the high comfort level of the riders with horses, although each came from a different equestrian background. And, secondly, the high quality of the horses in the Tillett herd. Sporting no-nonsense names like Cash, Gus, Biscuit, Chicken, Splat, Moose, Marble and Dirt, the horses did not bolt, kick, bite or display anything less than solid behavior all week. A smattering are named for Southern Pines friends like Russell (Tate) and Tommy (Howe). A number of the horses came from Jim Van Camp, who enjoys going to the horse sales in Billings, the largest in the nation.
Southern Pines native and Wyoming transplant Sam Morton, in writing about the horses of this area in southern Montana and northern Wyoming in his book, Where the Rivers Run North, describes them as “the best horses in the world. The grassland grows strong-boned, hard-footed, and long-winded horses. The horses raised here are tougher; they are fed from the land their ancestors grazed, and watered from the melted snow that flows from the mountains.”
Hip assigned a different section of the range each day for rounding up cattle. Some destinations were a three-hour ride. Campbell, trading his cowboy hat for a baseball hat turned backward, always took the longer rides and generally rode with ranch hand Pancho (Ryan Moody). By early afternoon, one or two o’clock, a large, milling herd was assembled. Lunch arrived by pickup truck. Then the work of branding, ear tagging and inoculating the younger calves began. First, however, the skittish critters had to be spotted, roped and thrown down. Hip’s daughter, Des, tall like her mother, beautiful, and a masterful roper, worked her way through the herd snagging calves by the back leg. Campbell teamed with a teenager from Oxford, England. Together, they would grab the tail, push the calf off balance, then hold down both ends for the work at hand. The task was proportionately difficult according to the size of the calf. The boys were matched in the dirt wrestling matches by the laughter, enthusiasm and pure spunk of two college coeds, Anna Paseka and Grace Littlefield, from Brooklyn, New York, appropriately dubbed the “A Team. “
The heat is dry, and a day on the range feels like slow baking in an oven. Several days the wind blew on the flats where the cattle were herded powdering every surface — faces, hats, horses — with a thick red dust. The functioning reason for every piece of cowboy garb and equipment from hat to spurs became explanatory. There was no shade during the day. A cowboy hat is a mini umbrella throwing down the only shade in a circle as wide as the brim. The bandannas keep sun off your neck, sweat off your brow and dust out of your nose and mouth.
The long, needle-sharp thorns of hawthorne snag and untie a laced boot but not the western version. The thorns also rip shirts, cut hands and pierce blue jeans. Dense copses of hawthorne are the favorite hiding places of sneaky cattle. They stand still and you can ride right by. Flushing them out requires voice intimidation, then stick threatening, and lastly crawling under the thorny branches to chase them out. Unless, of course, the herding dogs are nearby, then life is sweet. The Tillets have three border collies and two Australian shepherds that are absolute wizards.
Spurs, the clanging, boot clinging symbol of a cowboy, are also essential. Once the cow and calf are out of the underbrush, they can turn and sprint right back unless a horse can move quickly to cut them off. A touch of the spur signals the message quickly. Ashley believes that the sound of spurs clanging also serves to scare off bears when a cowboy has to step into the woods.
The younger folks, in the evenings around the campfire, would practice roping. They roped chairs, rocks and each other in preparation for a chance to rope from horseback at week’s end. They all proved capable when the time came. The surprise superstar of calf roping, however, turned out to be a French dressage rider from Montreal, Brigette Charbonneau. Although she looked like a model who had walked right out of a western Ralph Lauren ad, she took instantly to roping. The seemingly impossible of catching the back hoof of a moving calf, hiding behind mom in a milling herd mixed with restless bulls, came easy. Throughout the dusty afternoon, the call of “Got one” consistently came from Brigette. Encouragement for all efforts at roping came from those on the perimeter, often in the form of cowboy trash talk. The laughter, the effort, the fun and pulling for each other bound the group together. Ashley was right.
Like her father she is captured by the romance. Explanations of the magic are frustrating. The terrain is an opportunity to experience a breathtaking vista in every direction. The beauty is overwhelming with the Pryor Mountains on the horizon, hills and plains rolling toward the Big Horn in the other. The panoramic views are beyond the scope of a camera lense and words. The closest comparable in North Carolina would be the vast view of the Atlantic Ocean from the height of Jockey’s Ridge with a 360-degree spin around.
Maybe, in the end, in a place where everything is big and awe inspiring, the sky, the horizon, the hills, the herds, the vistas and the land it is really about the small things after all: a warm shower, a good horse, a cowboy’s hospitality, the glow of a campfire, the time to make a friend, laughter and a steaming cup of coffee. “It’s a way of life,” Van Camp reflects. “And it is very real.” The most poignant memory from his years at TX was the funeral of Hip’s father, Lloyd Tillett. “He was the last of the real cowboys,” he said. “I will never forget that simple pine casket with handles made from turned around horseshoes. The TX brand was burned into the wood and tumbleweed was by his hat. It was so beautiful.” The little things. PS
Maureen Clark is a frequent contributor to PineStraw Magazine.