From Wales to Wyoming: A decade discovering the great American West

 

The New York Times – July 26, 2021

 

My horse’s ears were pricked, his muscles tensed and ready to bolt. A few meters ahead, a herd of wild horses stared back at us, unaware of our ascent from the valley below until that moment. Horned lizards shuffled in the sagebrush beneath us while my horse’s gaze remained locked on his untamed brethren.

Moments later, the stallion led his herd away, galloping at full speed along the flat mountain top – or mesa – dwarfed by the rugged backdrop of the towering Absaroka Mountain range. A herd of pronghorn watched from a distance, well camouflaged amongst the gold-tinted grasslands of the high-altitude plains of the Wind River Indian Reservation.

With little encouragement, my horse leapt eagerly into top speed in pursuit of the galloping stampede. As we fell in line with the back of the herd alongside the foals scrambling to keep up with their mothers, we were bombarded by chunks of earth flying from their thundering hooves. I squinted to keep the dust out of my eyes, but I failed to control my enormous smile of excitement, even as my mouth filled with dirt.

From galloping amongst herds of mustangs to bucking giant bales of hay and telling campfire tales until star-filled skies, one of the most memorable experiences of my life was having the opportunity to fulfill a childhood fantasy of working as a horse wrangler on a ranch in the mountains of Wyoming.

I grew up in a tiny village, or hamlet, in South Wales called Idole, where, from the age of four, my thoughts and dreams were consumed by all things equine. Growing up in the Welsh countryside, I’ve always felt most comfortable close to nature, drawn to the grit, solitude and awe-inspiring beauty of the natural world and the adventures it has to offer. Years later, it was my love of horses and the great outdoors that compelled me to pick up a camera.

While I was studying Politics at university in England, I had the opportunity to put my childhood passion to use at a remote guest ranch located near the town of Dubois in Wyoming. With a population of just over half a million, Wyoming is the least densely populated state in the contiguous United States, and Dubois one of its smallest towns with fewer than 1000 permanent residents.

Half an hour’s drive from Dubois, down the gravel East Fork Road off the highway, lies the Lazy L&B Ranch; a scattering of log cabins and horse corrals dotted amongst the cottonwood trees that line the bubbling East Fork River.

In the summer of 2006, I travelled from Wales to Wyoming to spend a few months working as a horse wrangler at the Lazy L&B Ranch. There, I was part of a team of seven wranglers, taking guests from around the world on exhilarating trail rides through rivers, valleys, forests, canyons and mountains, riding above 9,000 feet to find spellbinding views that stretch endlessly in every direction, with an almost absolute absence of any sign of human presence.

In retrospect, the time I spent in Wyoming inadvertently helped, in some ways, prepare me for the physical demands of working in a war zone years later. With over ninety horses to feed and take care of, ranch life was tough and physically demanding – much tougher than I’d anticipated – with few home comforts and countless hours in the saddle, navigating vast mountains and high-altitude deserts, often in extreme weather.

Once I’d adapted to my role as wrangler, I became extremely fond of ranch life and the rugged, authentic cowboy culture that surrounds it. Over the course of more than a decade, I visited Wyoming almost every summer, and sometimes more, exploring its diverse and dramatic natural beauty both on foot and in the saddle.

My experience of working as a ‘cowgirl’ was, of course, very different from the challenges and daily demands of America’s true cattle ranchers.

A stone’s throw from the Lazy L&B Ranch lies the Finley Ranch, a small traditional family-owned cattle ranch. John Finley has lived on his family’s ranch his whole life, leaving only once to travel during military service; an experience that made him realize how wonderful the place he calls home is. His grandfather Duncan travelled to the United States from Scotland over a hundred years ago, settling in the East Fork Valley of the Wind River.

Once running 300 mother cows, the Finley ranch has gradually reduced in size over the years since John was in his youth. In the 1970s, the family sold off some of the land and the majority of their cattle for economic reasons, cutting the herd to around thirty head. In the 1990s, a decade-long drought plagued the area, which impacted the grazing and led the family to further reduce their herd. Nowadays, John lives on the ranch with his wife Ramona – or Monie as she’s known – together with his energetic and fearless ranch dog Strider, four horses and sixteen head of cattle.

John has also become a renowned figure within the ranching community around Dubois, where the story of his run in with a grizzly bear in 2016 – and how his dogs Strider and Merlin helped save him – has made him something of a townsfolk legend – a story that seems to be endearingly enlarged with each telling.

The quintessential cowboy, not only is John the embodiment of authentic western culture, raising livestock and living off the land; he is also a skilled and accomplished artist, creating a broad range of artwork. From leatherwork and life size bronze statues to intricate wasp paper paintings, scrimshaw, and jewelry; his varied artistic creations reflect his unique talent and affinity with the natural world and its wild inhabitants.

Since my first visit in 2006, and with each visit thereafter, I have grown extremely fond of Wyoming, its people, culture, nature and, of course, its horses. It will always have a special place in my heart for sparking what has become my greatest passion turned profession – photography. There, I was greatly inspired to capture images of the beautiful horses set against the imposing backdrop of the Wyoming wilderness and the iconic Teton Mountain Range (part of the world-famous Rocky Mountain Range).

I always remember a casual conversation I had with the ranch’s head wrangler Heath, which had a profound and lasting impression on me. While sitting on the porch of one of the staff cabins dotted around the ranch grounds, drinking a cold beer after a long day in the saddle, I showed Heath some of the photos I’d captured on my point-and-shoot camera. A man of few words, he suggested I invest in a ‘real’ camera. The classic American cowboy – softly spoken, never without a cowboy hat, and the kind of natural ability with animals that movies are made of – Heath quietly planted a seed in my mind that took root from that moment. The rest, as they say, is history.