Heartbreaking news from the foothills of the Big Belt Range in Montana
Updated: Aug 3
Eleven years ago, I brought my daughter Rose, then a feisty wisp of a kid still learning how to thrive with cystic fibrosis, to the Hidden Hollow Hideaway Cattle and Guest Ranch outside Townsend, Montana. I did it because she was cultivating an interest in horses. We've now been there a total of six times; today Rose is an accomplished equestrienne about to head to Michigan to compete (for the second time) in the North American Youth Championships, a premier dressage event. I am certain that Kelly Flynn, owner of the HHH, had a big hand in helping Rose feel happy and skilled on horseback; he knew how to motivate girls because he raised two daughters.
Now it's 2021. Rose and I spent a fabulous week at the HHH in June. The second photo shows Rose the super-confident horsewoman of today, helping to move the HHH's several hundred cattle from one pasture to another. (Believe me, there were many experienced cow-hands around too, just outside this cleverly framed picture.) How inspiring and joyful it was to see how successfully Kelly's family, including the aforementioned two daughters, and their stalwart ranch hands, were keeping the place going since Kelly passed away in March.
The next photo -- which I am borrowing from my HHH friend Rusty Ruchert (without asking first, earnest apologies) -- shows what the Hidden Hollow Hideaway looks like now, after the Woods Creek Fire came through the other day.
To me this is an unfathomable loss. I'm so thunderstruck I can barely work, and of course I cannot claim to have thrown my heart and soul into the stewardship of this land for decades and decades as my friends the Flynn Family have. I hope it helps them to know that, given how many guests they have welcomed to their ranch over the years, their grief is felt the world over.
Here's a bit of what Rusty had to share this morning (again, with apologies for quoting him without asking first): "Kelly said, 'There are a lot of dead trees up there Rusty. One day it’s all gonna burn …. It won’t be in my lifetime, but it will happen in yours.' I wasn’t ready for him to pass and I wasn’t ready to see the mountain burn, but life and death come and go; ready or not. The land will not look the same in our lifetime but it will recover and we will do our best to help it along as temporary stewards of the land."
I'm taking this hard, as I did with Kelly's death (even though there was plenty of advance notice; Kelly successfully wrangled cancer for more than three years, like it was an errant bull in the wrong pasture). And I find myself wondering about that, and worry that maybe I am overreacting and thereby dishonoring Kelly's family who have seen so much of their lives go up in flames. I'm mighty comfortable, after all, writing from my desk in Concord, New Hampshire; there is no soot or sweat on my clothes.
Maybe I have reacted this way because I have two generations ancestors buried in the Jewish cemetery of Butte, not far away. For me, going to Montana is a way of connecting with and paying homage to the courage and fortitude that caused these forbears (from the Rafish Family) to uproot themselves from eastern Europe in quest of something better: freedom and prosperity, for them and their descendants. Because of that, I exist. Butte, and the Hideaway -- it's a vacation I've taken six times now since 2020. Except that it's not just a vacation for me.
Or maybe it's because there's been so much upheaval for me these past eleven years. Not too many constants for me over that period, but the Hidden Hollow Hideaway has been one of them, along with the great family and ranch hands who keep that place going. Many, many's the time I have thought my way out of a problem, at work or at home, by asking myself: What would Kelly do?
Here's a last image, of me and Rose just a few weeks ago. Unlike the other photos, which show the foothills of the Big Belt Range, this time the camera is pointing west toward Canyon Ferry Reservoir. It is a breathtaking place; I intend to be there again and I hope Rose will come with me.
Thank you for reading.