Review: The Ragged Edge of the West

Against the iconic background of southwest Montana, Bryce Andrews lives out a dream of working cattle on the massive Sun Valley Ranch. In this memoir, the goals of balancing human activity with conservation face a harsh test.

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Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West. By Bryce Andrews 2014. Atria Books. $25. 256 pages

A place for everything, and everything in its place.

You’ve always believed that keeping your possessions where they belong is the right thing to do. Putting away tools has saved you frustration. Packing gear in one place has saved you time. But as you’ll see in the new memoir Badluck Way by Bryce Andrews, there’s also a wrong way to stow your stuff: a man’s boots, for instance, do not belong beneath a desk.

Ever since he could remember, Bryce Andrews was fascinated by anything Western. He’d loved Western art, spent summers as a kid on the spread of a family friend, had learned to ride a horse and mend fence. So, following a broken heart and a few wandering months around the country, he took a job at a Montana ranch.

The 25,000-acre Sun Ranch sat at the edge of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in southwestern Montana and was owned by a Silicon Valley millionaire. Wildlife was plentiful there, and conservation was important, as was managing livestock so that cattle could graze and thrive alongside native elk and wolves that came over from Yellowstone.

Starting the first of May, the job consisted of moving cattle, fixing fence, caring for livestock and cleaning water tanks. It was a life Andrews grew to love again: he spent his days doing chores, learning from the two other ranch hands, and exploring wherever the four-wheeler took him: through grassland and canyons, past pugmarks and bones, beneath Big Sky and stars.

Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West. By Bryce Andrews

The first time he saw a wolf, he was stunned. He’d been told to haze away any wolves he stumbled across, but he couldn’t do it then. It was a decision he’d later regret.

By early fall, Andrews and the other hands began finding heifers with horrendous injuries. They contacted Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks and, knowing that wolves were to blame, the men started sleeping with the cattle in the grasslands. With winter coming, elk were moving down closer to the cattle and bringing the wolves with them.

Cattle were easier prey for the wolves than were elk – which made wolves the prey of humans.

“Badluck Way” is a poetic book – too poetic, at first, because author Bryce Andrews sets the tone by using a lot of ten-dollar words and directional descriptions that scrambled my brain. I almost quit this book twice before I plowed past the introduction.

I was glad I stuck around.

As it turns out, there’s beauty and awestruck lushness in the words. Andrews, who obviously cherishes both the land and the lifestyle, eventually relaxes into his story (as did I) as he transports us into canyons and grasslands, near elk herds and death. I shivered as he described snowstorms. I cringed every time he found a wolf-ravaged heifer.

The more I got into this book, in fact, the more I loved it. And I think if you’re  conservation-minded or if your heart is on a ranch, then you will, too.

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