Just east of Livingston, Montana, there is an entrance to the Absaroka mountains called Swingley Road, a 17-mile stretch of gravel twisting its way through grassy foothills and then into sweeping vistas framed by streams and dramatic peaks formed long ago by the ice age that swept through this breathtaking landscape.
Swingley was once a stage coach trail, linking the Yellowstone river valley to the Boulder river drainage and a legendary Crow tribe hunting ground.
It was my initiation into a magical corner of Montana laced with trout-rich rivers, robust herds of elk, mule and white-tailed deer and more antelope than I could count.
I was looking for property to accommodate my fly-fishing enthusiasm and to serve as a western base for our urban family.
When I crested Wolf Point, looking down into the vast mix of grassy swales, jagged peaks trimmed with Doug fir growths bisected by the West Boulder river I knew I wanted to be part of all of this.
I was headed to the WBR, a ranch originally homesteaded by Norwegian pioneers at the turn of the 20th century. A little more than four thousand acres of Montana bliss.
It was love at first sight and it became an essential part of the DNA of our expanding family of daughters, sons-in-law and grandchildren.
We decided early on we wanted comfort and proportion more than BIG “look at me” braggadocio.
We expanded the original farm house just enough to include a dining area and fireplace-warmed living room. We added a rustic “homestead” and improved the hill house to accommodate the next generation of Brokaws and their instant love affair with riding, fishing, swimming and target shooting.
Meredith and horses were meant for each other so up went a handsome log riding arena and a new generation of equestrians saddled up for long trail rides to a back country cabin once used during round-ups or into the wilderness for overnight outings.
Our days begin with Tom doing his polar bear stunt, jumping into the 53-degree waters of the West Boulder river that bisect the home place. Emerging, he catches up to the grandchildren gathering the overnight eggs from the hen house and checks the greenhouse for an assortment of vegetables for that night’s family dinner.
Meredith, daughter Andrea, and son-in-law Charles are already saddled up in the corrals next to the arena. It could be a leisurely ride to the Buffalo Head, a large boulder marking a favorite Crow tribe hunting draw—or joining a neighbor who is moving cows that morning.
I catch up on NBC News business and writing projects in my converted storm cellar office, a cozy log structure with all the bells and whistles of the digital age and rooms for my hunting and fishing gear.
Daughters Jennifer and Sarah are taking coffee in the spacious lodge kitchen, just off the dining area where over the years we’ve celebrated anniversaries, birthdays and family reunions watched over by cowboys and frontiersmen staring down from our collections of Western art.
Upstairs we like to gather for cocktails (margaritas are a house specialty) before a roaring fire and in front of a wall-sized television set installed for the Beijing Olympics. It was such a hit we thought we may have to set up cots for the fishing guide pals who arrived and didn’t want to leave!
Doug and Karen, our co-managers, are so accomplished in the kitchen and at the grill that our visitors and neighbors relish an invitation, not because of our company but for the chance to dine on grilled elk, antelope, garden fresh vegetables, home baked bread and corn muffins.
Karen is a master of killer deserts and Doug, a nationally known traditional bow hunter, keeps the freezers chock-full of wild game.
They are family and every ranch would covet their presence.
Our San Francisco physician son-in-law is an avid golfer and he loves the scenic and challenging nine-hole course in Big Timber, a half hour away.
It has spring creeks coursing through its lush grass fairways and thick brambles. I occasionally join Allen and we can play all afternoon for what it would cost for two beers in his San Francisco club or mine in New York.
My big attraction, however, is the West Boulder river 40 feet from my office door, a classic mountain stream with its origins in a high lake just north of Yellowstone Park.
It has more than two dozen holding pools favored by robust rainbow, brown, and cutthroat species that are at once challenging but also accessible.
The river is protected on both sides by private property so the only access is a long, difficult wade upstream from a county bridge. Very few anglers risk it and they know they have to keep moving.
The WBR—our shorthand for The West Boulder Ranch—is a big-game paradise in the autumn and, for me, an upland bird treasure.
We have a consistent population of Hungarian partridge and Sharp-tail grouse in grassy ravines and Hawthorne brambles.
One memorable weekend my friend Ron Olson, an uber lawyer from Los Angeles, and I were shooting after a fresh snow fall. We walked high onto the undulating foothills carved by ancient ice age invasions and suddenly felt as if we were in Jurassic Park.
On one hilltop, a large herd of elk—bulls, cows and their new calves; on another, an equally large herd of mule deer flanked by a skittery herd of antelope.
In those days we were raising bison and our herd watched placidly from a distance. Ron and I were speechless.
My faithful Labrador, Sage (known as the wonder dog for his peerless retrieving skills), joined us in a man-dog moment of awe.
For all of its natural attractions, the essence of the West Boulder Ranch has been its magnetism as a perfect blend of family and friend comfort in a setting of mountains, grasslands, wild streams, wild creatures and big skies.
We love watching our city friends shed their urban concerns as they dive into the two large spring-fed ponds we use for cutthroat breeding, swimming and canoeing.
The 62-degree water temperature gets their attention immediately and then they laugh in life-affirming hoots and watch in awe as bald eagles stand sentry, looking for a quick snack in a rising trout.
Visiting kids go cowboy instantly. Our grandchildren show them how to determine what a great horned owl ate the night before by going through the scat. They walk the river banks, looking for ancient bison bones washed ashore.
They now know the difference between an agate and quartz, a piece of petrified wood and a scarred piece of granite. They love the night sky filled from horizon to horizon with nature’s greatest light show with no urban fluorescent interference.
They know the best events at the Livingston rodeo and how to get a worn, but cool, jean jacket at the second-hand store.
They come from the cities of California and New York but for the rest of their lives they’ll always have a little West Boulder river in their veins, the taste of wild elk in their palate, the quick pull of a rein in their hands, the excitement of a striking trout, and, most of all, the serenity of a starlit night in the Big Sky.
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