A Mailbox on a Corner in Wyoming

My family and I have always lived in small communities with all the conveniences of modern life.  The small towns I lived in had a well developed social support structure, a police presence, an educations structure and town government or competitive private business to take care of the utility framework. Hospitals were always close and Emergency Medical Services were a few minutes away. There was always a hardware store and a Kmart nearby.  Groceries were easy to get and usually there was a selection of good sized grocery stores around.  All that changed when in 1999 my family moved from the flourishing tourist town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming to a remote ranch on the Wyoming/Montana Border.  Set your watch back a few decades and come along with me as I compare and contrast ranch life with a more conventional existence.

Our ranch is considered small locally at only 3000 acres but by accident of geography is split equally between the states of Montana and Wyoming.  We live about 64 miles from the nearest town of significant size.  Another much smaller town, 45 miles to the north, has 600 or so residents along with all the infrastructure that brings. Closer, there is actually a small well stocked general store out by the asphalt road 15 miles away though.  It has all the necessities and the family that owns it works like heck to supply the local community with what they need. That being said.  How many of you shop in a facility that has the oil and air filters in the same aisle as the bananas and apples?  We love our local general store.  You can get almost anything there, not cheaply but it is close.  Where the local merchantile leaves off, a trip to town fills in. After the hour and 15 minute one way drive south where you might pass 5 or 6 trucks, you get to civilization with all of the stores you could need.  You have to plan a trip to town though so you can get all the errands done in one trip. You know, hit the Feed and Ranch Store/Tack Shop, a pharmacy stop, get a car serviced, hit WalMart, service a tire and hit the grocery for the next week or two’s grub. We generally go at least every two weeks whether we need to or not.

The rat race that is Americans modern society has not hit out here yet.  City folk have a self image based on many factors but key among them is the size and type of house you have.  Out here, you tell how rich a ranch is by looking at how big and nice the barn is.  While the house will always be a smaller old ranch homestead or a double wide trailer set on a slab.  The barn will be a state of the art Morton Building with in floor heat and garage doors big enough to put a semi-trailer rig in.  The house will have a dated 1970’s kitchen with shag carpeting on the floors.  Everyone wants newer accommodations but buying that pure bred Angus Bull had priority. Of course you need the barn to work the Angus and store your equipment in. Trailers are very popular because of the difficulty of getting a crew to build a house.  Having your carpenters driving 60 miles one way to work adds to the expense of building a custom built house.  It is much easier to have a slab thrown down and set a double wide on it.  At least the county requires the septic tanks to be inspected now.  No more will the pipes be run into an old buried automobile for a tank. (Really!).

City folk also have a love affair with their cars. Porches, BMW’s and Volvo’s are all status symbols.  Out here, a new Ford Super Duty with 10 ply tires is the mark of success.   When ever I go back to central Illinois (where I was raised), my daily driver is always the oldest and most lifted on the highway.  I drive a 1994 Grand Cherokee (100 thousand miler) with everything done to the suspension that can be done to make it more capable off road.  I would never even consider buying a new vehicle but I would spend many thousands getting a good used truck back road ready.  I understand that that BMW cost a hundred thousand dollars.  Heck, we have tractors that cost that much and only drive them a few weeks a year.

Most city based 4X4 SUV’s never get off road and folks around here think it is funny that city folk need 4X4’s.  We live 14 miles from the nearest asphalt road on fairly well maintained gravel.  I say fairly because when the spring mud season hits, there isn’t a clean spot on any car inside or out. After an evening rain, by 7:30 am the next morning, the local roads have all been rutted, liquified and rerouted in some cases.  This does not matter to the High School 45 miles away where my son attends, he still has to arrive on time ready to go. (We live in Wyoming and my son goes to school in Montana.) He drives a 4X4 pickup too.  In fact, of the 7 vehicles we have, 5 are four wheel drive. One of the remainder is a brush fire truck and the other a dedicated fair weather tow vehicle. (more on the fire truck later).  Yes, I do own a 1999 Super Duty (my newest vehicle).  It is lifted, and has a Paxton Supercharger on it’s V10 fuel injected engine giving it 400 plus horse power.  (I used it once to pull a semi-truck and trailer out of a muddy ditch, enough said!) 

Lost travelers and solicitors are a rarity up here. Living here since 1999, I have had only one religious group show up on my door step trying to convert me to their point of view, one guy selling septic clean out and one bolt salesman call.  Heck, we have 10 car/trucks a day drive by the house on a busy day but we usually see each one twice so it is really only 5 different vehicles.  The good thing about living on gravel with cattle gates every so often, you hear traffic coming a ways off.  There are no surprise visitors unless the TV is on too loud. We had a wagon trail drive go through our ranch once during our stay but they used to be a regular occurrence since the old Texas cattle trail runs right through the operation.

Kids learn a whole different existence here.  I mentioned my son went to school in Montana. The quality of the school and the level of competition is excellent there.  There is a lack of funds but the small class size makes up for it.  My son went to 6th and 7th grade with only 3 in his class.  Kids learn to drive early here and get their license at 15.  My son has been driving 90 miles a day for the last year and he is just about to turn 16.  No tickets and no accidents have occurred except for the deer he hit with me riding in the car. There has not been a fight in school yet this year and my son has never been in a fist fight.  It is even legal in Montana schools to carry pocket knifes up to 4 inches long.  This is because ranch kids all carry pocket knives and enforcing a ban would be ludicrous because of simple mistakes.  It was a hard enough thing to change the rules and keep guns out of cars in school parking lots as the changing federal laws required. Our kids live by different rules up here thank god!  Ranch kids are not destined to be social psycopaths or stoners by nature. Generally, parents take notice of their kids and you can’t get drugs here.  Alcohol is another issue but not as bad a problem as in a big town.  Of course there are problem kids and they are given help by the system.  Kids thrive here.

Utilities and services are an issue unto themselves:

Mail and delivery service is something that all city folk take for granted.  You know, a post office near by and daily service to your door.  Must be nice.  The closest post office to us is across the border in Montana 15 miles away and they don’t deliver here because of the state line thing. Our address is a town that used to exist but doesn’t anymore.  Therefore, our zip code is a corner 30 miles south.  Thank heavens that the post office does deliver to our mail box twice a week (whether we need it or not). Monday and Friday eventually come around. We have had some late pays on bills due to the time delay across the week along with the normally speedy mail service in the rest of the country contributing to the time lag.  Fed Ex Air kind of abandoned us a year ago but has made overtures lately to try to get us back.  Forget Fed Ex ground as they are 100 miles away and you can’t get here from there.  They just drop ship to Fed Ex Air and we have to go to town to pick it up. UPS has always been good and consistent with a great driver who laughs about the dusty roads and flats over a free bottle of water here when ever he needs it.  Any one of the delivery drivers know they are welcome to stop into our barn, use the facilities and grab a drink out of the walk-in refrigerator when ever they want.  We are the only rest stop for 60 miles on the Wyoming side.

Satellite everything is the rule these days.  Big Cities have Cable, DSL, Wireless and Movie theaters.  We have satellite internet (I use WiMax to connect remote buildings) and nearly everyone has satellite TV by Dish or Direct TV.  I go to perhaps one big screen movie per year and have gone years without doing so in the past.

Trash pickup of course is not available here.  We maintain our own sanitary landfill for building materials and all other items are burned then buried.  We do take more toxic materials to the county landfill to be properly dealt with. 

Water is supplied out of our own well (we have excellent water).  Our well provides our livestock and one of our neighbors via a system of buried pipe runs extending miles in three directions. A majority of the solar energy we produce goes to pumping water.

The electrical system has improved markedly in the last few years as a new substation has prevented the monthly over voltage surges and brown outs that plagued our first 4 years here.  The general unreliability of the grid requires us to have a 20KW generator with automatic transfer on a 1000 gallon propane tank for emergency backup.  I also have several other automatic generators along with spares using different kinds of fuel strategically wired into the headquarters operation.  We are literally on the end of the electric line in Wyoming.   

The telephone system is the same up here as anywhere else in the country.  Our lines are even buried underground.  We actually have cell phone service as long as I leave my cell phone plugged into a special booster and antenna on the roof of my house.  I use it up here when the main phone line goes down (monthly) to tell the phone company that we need repair.  Of course, if I go into town or on a trip I carry a cell phone.  I wish I had the minutes roll over though because I would pay for it a year then let it coast a year. Our advantage over city folk is that we use a business band radio system up here to connect me and others who work on my ranch with me.  It is a good system that has a repeater on a high hill that enables me to talk 50 miles in all directions.  The safety support network it provides is potentially life saving up here. I am also a licensed amateur radio operator with several stations established for truely long range communication should an emergency occur.  We maintain our own radio repeater on a high hilltop nearby.

Fire on the high plains is a problem.  We live on grass land which can ignite big time.  Dry thunderstorms during the summer months are natures arsonists.  The nearest volunteer fire department is across the border 15 miles away. Thusly we have our own ton dually fire truck with 750 gallon capacity, pumps, hoses and radio.  We keep it ready all fire season.  Self reliant is the rule and a necessity. 

Protection is not really an issue.  Crime is virtually unheard of up here.  This is big country and there are a lot of sharp shovels (so the saying goes) so no one in their right mind would break into a ranch house with someone home.  Bad guys know they will likely get shot!  No one takes their keys out of their cars (except when you go to town) and no one locks their doors.  This is not true of even the smaller towns around us but way off road it is typical and not the exception.  We figure that a lock will only stop your friends and if someone takes your car they needed it badly.  Police response time is measured in hours from either side of the border so most ranchers carry at least long guns if not pistols on their side. Trying to rob a rancher who drives fence posts into hard ground for a living and rides bulls on the weekend is a bad career choice. Having said that, I would indicate that I have not ignored traditional tried and true security methods and anyone testing my solutions might consider that I an instructor of such things. I always keep a few shovels sharp just in case.

This discussion has just touched on just some of the amazing differences we live in our daily lives compared to those of you enjoying urban residency. Having lived on both sides of the fish bowl gives me a perspective that neither local born or city folks understand. I am making no judgements here as to which lifestyle is better but I find myself increasingly uncomfortable in large population centers. I refuse to go to overpopulated areas unless absolutely necessary. It is difficult when you are in control of your existence, to let go an walk with the big crowds. I would rather listen to noise that the million stars in our sky make when they twinkle. “See ya all down yonder by the fence line”

Frank Bliss
Weston Wyoming
(A Mailbox on a Corner in Wyoming).