western front

words: kristopher rey-talley

photography: antonio santos

Sandwiched between the borders of West Yellowstone and Big Sky, the Nine Quarter Circle Ranch is a working dude ranch, a rustic collection of log cabins and stables cradled in a valley of the Rocky Mountains. Winters are brutal at high altitude, so the Kelsey family must herd their 120-some-odd horses to a lower-elevation pasture every fall, then push them back up in the spring. They pride themselves on their adherence to this 70-year-old ritual. In the face of modernization, they work together to keep the cowboy way alive.

Come early June, the Kelseys, along with a gang of wranglers, family, and friends, prepare for the three-day marathon of dust and searing sun. Kameron Kelsey, pictured, is a third-generation cowboy—his grandfather, Howard Kelsey, who purchased the ranch in the 1940s, was an actual Marlboro Man.

The finest riding horses are separated from the pack to be saddled up by the crew. When the gate of the corral is opened, the horses charge forward in a fury. Pack animal instincts kick in, and within seconds, they’re running full speed across the valley. It’s barely 6am. 

After crossing an expanse of Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch, the herd is at the mouth of the canyon that leads directly back to the property. It has been a brutal journey and the crew is exhausted. During a break for popsicles and beer, several riders fall asleep sitting up.