I liked to spend time on my aunt and uncle’s Montana ranch, about 30 miles east of Billings. We cousins dug in dry riverbanks for trilobites and other such fossils, and just generally got dirty every day. My cousin David knew of a great big dinosaur bone some miles distant. Three of us, David and I and another cousin, decided to dig it out. We took one of the pickups. It was no big deal. No one ever took a key out the ignition of any vehicle on the ranch.
David was the only driver among us then, and I don’t even know if he was officially old enough to drive. That’s ranch life. We bounced out to the spot in question. He parked at a sharp angle in one of the coulees and we proceeded to dig. And dig. And dig. No luck. That was a bigger bone than we imagined.
Discouraged after hours of this (it was getting late and we were hungry), we got back in the pickup. David had second thoughts about driving out. The angle was pretty steep, and he was afraid he’d roll the pickup if he tried. We decided to be prudent (probably the first time in this whole crazy venture) and walk home. That coulee was a long, long way from the house. It was getting dark when we saw Uncle Preston headed toward us in his pickup. David told him what happened, and Uncle Preston told us what he thought. He did give us a ride home – it was a large ranch – and then went back the next day and drove out the pickup.
I was the city kid, living with folks who swore not at all. Uncle Preston was colorful in his language. Later on, David told me that a team of paleontology students from [now] MSU-Billings got that bone out. It now resides in some museum or other. If Uncle Preston could have named it, it probably would be labeled Ol’ #^%*&-tch
Uncle Preston was a Genuine Article. Like most ranchers, he could do a lot of stuff, mainly because he had to. He decided to build an airplane and learn to fly. It was an easier way to look over all the acres, and he was a born tinkerer. He built the plane and learned to fly. However, he couldn’t pass the navigation portion of the test for a complete pilot’s license. He was permitted to fly, but he couldn’t take up any riders. I’m sure that relieved my aunt’s heart, but I know the rest of us wanted to see the ranch from the air.
Gee, I had fun on that ranch. Uncle Preston farmed and ranched it with his dad, Uncle Preston owning some of the land. When Grandpa Trask died, Grandma Trask sold Grandpa’s portion of the ranch to an outside party and moved to Billings. There wasn’t enough land left for Uncle Preston to continue, so he was forced to sell out. I may be off in my numbers, but I think it takes about 5,000 acres to support one so-so cow in Montana.
I know it broke my cousins’ hearts and it broke mine, too. My dad was a Navy man and we moved around frequently. Even then, I had few regrets about my vagabond life, partly because I always knew the ranch would be there. The land was my idea of permanence in an impermanent life. And then the ranch was gone. In some small part of me that continues to be irrational, I mourn the loss to this day.