The summer sun hangs high overhead as Cameron Mayo patiently rigs the panniers on an ornery-looking buckskin pack mule. Dust puffs underneath his feet, the heat of a summer day stifling. The air is heavy with the inimitable scent of horses, sweat, pine, and dust.
It’s the scent of a Montana summer.
For Mayo, it’s just another day at work. He spends most of the year on the family ranch near Big Timber, Montana, working cattle and tasking through the endless list of any ranchman. A small dot on the Montana map, Big Timber’s claim to fame is the fact it’s the county seat for Sweet Grass County, and home to less than 2,000 residents, many of whom are ranchers or farmers. It only takes one pass through town on the main drag to see Big Timber is quintessential small-town America: a mish-mash of bars, feed stores, gas stations, cafés, and hardware stores, offering the basics for a working life in Montana.
Despite their small-town lifestyle, Mayo and his wife Lonny bring a business sense to their work. Mayo has hunted, fished, and guided in the U.S., Mexico, and Africa, and Lonny was born and raised on a Montana sheep ranch and has received the Guide of the Year Award from the Montana Outfitters & Guides Association. Big Timber has been home to her family for generations, and now the couple is raising their three children in the world of cattle, sheep, and backcountry packing.
This is no “put on the cowboy hats, the dudes are here” operation. Spend any time around the Mayos, and it’s readily apparent they live the lifestyle and have made the choice to share it with others.
When Mayo is not working the ranch, he can likely be found leading groups of hunters and anglers into the backcountry of southwestern Montana. The warm summer months often take he and his wife into some of the wildest land remaining in the Big Sky state: the high country of the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness.
The wilderness lies a mere eight miles north of Yellowstone National Park, but it feels like it’s a world away from the summertime tourist chaos of Yellowstone.
It’s here in the backcountry that the Mayos make their second home. This wilderness is harsh and wild; Yellowstone country as it once was. Lush green valleys collide and give way to craggy granite spires. Every season is harsh in its own way, from heated, bright summers too long, dark, and exceptionally snowy winters. Among the mountains dotting the wilderness is Montana’s tallest peak, Granite Peak, reaching nearly 13,000 feet into the famed Montana Big Sky.
Rivers trickle, animals range freely, and native Yellowstone cutthroat thrive in the rivers. It’s paradise, seemingly untouched save for the small outpost of Bull Moose Camp, where the Mayos base their summertime outfitting operations for Absaroka-Beartooth Outfitting.
It’s a scene that doesn’t come easily. The ride into Bull Moose Camp takes a full day, trailing through miles of forest before climbing and crossing over Hellroaring Divide at 10,000 feet, with a descent so steep riders dismount and walk their horses off the pass. The trail then drops into verdant valleys that look like they were scooped from the earth itself; little bowls of paradise. These mountains are old; they’ve been here for thousands of years, and it’s comforting to imagine they may stand for a thousand more. Eventually the sway of a steady horse carries riders into meadows and hillsides scarred with trees burned in the great fires of 1988. It’s a sobering reminder that the idyllic landscape resembled a hellscape only 30-odd years ago, and remarkable how quickly the landscape has recovered.
Contrary to what its name may suggest, Bull Moose Camp houses no moose. Wolves chased them out years ago. The valley, however, is still home to a variety of wildlife: wolves, elk, deer, grizzly bears, and a long list of smaller critters call this valley home. The river cutting through the valley is also home to an excellent supply of native Yellowstone cutthroat trout, a species that draws aspiring anglers from around the world.
In the backcountry, it’s easy to surrender to the rhythm of camp. The camp is ruled by Pat, the steadfast camp cook. Over 70 but looking younger, Pat has the gravelly voice of a career smoker and the efficient cooking ability of a seasoned camp chef. Life at 7,200 feet is no easy feat, but it’s clear Pat is in her natural element.
She’s charged with providing three hearty meals a day for both guests and wranglers and leverages ingenuity developed in her many years of travel and work to ensure life runs as smoothly as possible at Bull Moose. Her nonsense scale is low, but her food is hearty and good.
Pat is always up early, working in a battered tank top and jeans, despite the cold mountain mornings. Coffee is made, and eggs are prepared with efficiency. In those early hours before camp begins to wake up, things are gloriously companionable and quiet. Once guests start rousing, eggs are ready to be cooked, and the heavy smell of cowboy coffee and woodsmoke hangs in the air. It’s a new day, and in the backcountry there’s no shortage of ways to fill it.
Outdoorsmen come to Bull Moose in the fall months to hunt. The summer is for anglers and general adventurers; people wanting a taste of the way Montana used to be. The cutthroat here encounter very few anglers—it’s work to get this far into the backcountry—and therefore are easy to fool. This is textbook dry fly fishing: gin-clear water, fish who are obliging, and plenty of terrestrials and hatches to keep the fish looking up.
Perhaps the best part of the experience, however, is the commute to the river. Instead of a truck or a hike to the water, horses are saddled, rods packed, and anglers ride to the river. When fishermen get tired, it’s back to the horses and back to camp; no long, high-altitude hikes. And for travelers who may have gotten their fill of saddle sores on the ride into camp, the three forks of Hellroaring convene within shouting distance of Bull Moose Camp, which means there is plenty of water to fish where you can still hear the dinner bell at the cook tent.
Mayo is always keen to join in on the day’s adventure. Dressed in his weathered cowboy hat and a well-worn Simms fishing vest, he is a force to be reckoned with in the mountains. Excited to share his favorite fishing holes and showcase productive runs, Mayo’s jovial, laid-back personality shines in the backcountry. He’s been known to bring along a rod of his own and take a few casts from horseback.
After a day of fishing or riding, it’s time to reconvene back at camp. With the forest as a living room, the mountains as entertainment, and an open-air kitchen housed in a worn wall tent, it’s easy to imagine life in camp would be a little rough-edged. But that’s certainly not the case. Strong, roomy wall tents are outfitted with sturdy cots, offering shelter against cold mountain nights. Pat’s kitchen is stocked with snacks, including a bearproof bin of chocolate for when the mood strikes. The outdoor shower offers an option if the river’s not to one’s taste, and a tented pit toilet overlooks a lovely meadow.
It’s a scene that’s hard to beat within an urban environment.
As in many camps, the heart of the place is the campfire. This is where stories are traded, the day’s adventures shared, and new friendships cemented. S’mores and whiskey present in a tried-and-true combination, and everyone cuddles around the fire, sitting on stumps, logs, and on the pine needles lining the forest floor.
The pink-orange of a Montana summer sky fades to a rich, velvety purple, then finally to black, broken only by the wheeling constellations overhead. The Mayos trade stories of years past, the wranglers interjecting with their own tales. It’s easy to imagine we’re 100 years in the past—maybe more—and that the chaos of cars, buses, tourists, and cell phones doesn’t exist 100 miles in any direction.
At Bull Moose, it’s easy to step into the way life once was. A simple rhythm of sunrise, breakfast, breathe mountain air and explore, lunch, nap, dinner, camaraderie, then bed. People often sleep deeply when they are in the backcountry. Sure, it’s most likely due to the fact they’ve been outside playing or working all day. But perhaps it’s due to the fact we’re slowing down, living life as it once was, and finally giving ourselves breathing room to be human again. To return to our roots; roots sometimes we can only find out in the backcountry.
Bull Moose is the West as it was and Montana as it should be.