Who was that man on the tractor? (A Trip to Sweet Grass-Part 4)

Monday dawned. After taking Annie (my Aussie) for a stroll, giving the ranch dogs some treats, and savoring a cup of coffee while enjoying the views from the cabin, I packed my parents and Annie into the car and we headed into Big Timber for breakfast at Big Timber Bakery. The bakery ended up being our go-to place for breakfast and lunch several times during our stay. Even if you’re just passing through, be sure to stop by. Amazing baked goods, generous breakfast and lunch plates, and they bake pizzas too. Later that week, we ordered one to-go for dinner. Delicious!

Big Timber Bakery is located on McLeod Street which is the main street of town. We stayed on McLeod and headed south out of town where the road becomes state highway 298 and rolls through the Boulder Valley towards the Absaroka mountain range.

I hadn’t been on that road since August 1997, when my dad and I drove along it the day before Jennifer and David’s wedding. On that long-ago day, we had several hours of free time to explore Big Timber. Instead of turning south onto McLeod, we turned north and ended up at the Sweet Grass County fairgrounds. The first thing I noticed was a small, roofed show arena painted white with black lettering that said: Sonoma County Fair, Santa Rosa, CA. My dad and I exchanged a confused glance. What the heck was that doing in Big Timber, Montana? See, I’m a fifth-generation Petaluma girl. Petaluma is in Sonoma County, California. A passerby solved the mystery. The arena was a movie set. Robert Redford and crew were in the area filming The Horse Whisperer.

“They’re filming at a ranch on the Boulder River,” he said. He gave us directions. “You can see it from the main road.”

I’d recently read the book and was excited at the possibility of seeing Robert Redford or one of the actors. At the time, I didn’t know who was in the movie.

So, away we went!

Twenty-two years later, I couldn’t recall the ranch’s exact location, but I knew I’d recognize it when I saw it. The photos my dad took back then showed rows of movie trailers and a tent. Here’s how it looks now.

This was the main setting for The Horse Whisperer

I can’t find enough words to describe the scenery we experienced throughout the day. Several times that day and throughout the week, my parents or I would say in a reverent voice, “THIS is Montana.”

We live in the Flathead Valley, close to Glacier National Park. Yes, the scenery is amazing there too. But the population in the Flathead has soared in the last decade with box stores cropping up virtually overnight along with more traffic lights and road lanes and congestion.

Before my first visit to Montana, I had pictures in my head of what it was like. I’m sure many who’ve never been to the Treasure State have similar images in their mind: spacious, wide-open land, rolling foothills leading to spectacular mountain ranges, a vast blue sky, rumbling rivers…

Yes, THIS is Montana.

We continued along the road, oohing and ahhing. Grasslands merged into forest. We entered the Gallatin National Forest and stopped at the Natural Bridge and Falls. There were only two other vehicles in the parking lot, each towing ATVs. When we got out of the car, a man approached us.

“You don’t want to walk down there right now,” he said, pointing to the trail leading to the falls. “There’s a grizzly.”


“Yeah. Someone [I can’t recall if he said ranger] in hunting gear with a rifle warned us. Says the griz is about twenty yards away.”

We stayed glued to the car for a few minutes. The man and his friends were about to head up the road on their ATVs. From this point on, 298 is unpaved road.

But nature called, and we dared a trip to the outhouse.

As we were returning to the car, my mom said, “Look!”

There, on the other side of the river, a football field’s length away, stood a grizzly bear. It sniffed the air but didn’t look in our direction. Then it began to move.

I’d never seen a grizzly bear up close and personal. I had NO idea they could run that fast. Good thing there was a river between us and the animal. We scrambled into our SUV quick!

We decided to drive a few miles farther. As we rounded the corner out of the parking area, motion to my right caught my attention. There was the grizzly bear swimming across the river. Amazing and beautiful and scary. By the time I fumbled with my cell phone to capture the animal on video, it was already out of sight.

More spectacular views greeted us for the next few miles. Until the bumpy road got just a little too bumpy and we turned around. The two couples on their ATVs who passed us by were having a blast.

The day before, Bobbie suggested we take West Boulder Road from 298. The road would bring us to Livingston. “A beautiful drive. You don’t want to miss it!”

Well, Bobbie didn’t tell us just how rough that road is. As we bumped across the washboard road at a snail pace, my back-seat-driver dad agitating about the shock absorbers, I worried the drive might take twice as long as I estimated. But, in the end, it took about an hour and half. And none of us regretted the detour. Jennifer told us several famous people lived or had lived out that way. I saw why. I also saw why many of them didn’t live there too long. Only TOUGH Montanans can drive this road on the daily.

I do have two regrets from this trip. One of them is not stopping to chat (and get a photo) of The Man on the Tractor.

About twenty minutes in to our drive on West Boulder, we approached a big ancient-looking tractor rumbling alongside the road ahead of us at half the speed we were going – which was about ten miles an hour. As we came alongside, I took a glance at the man on the bucket seat and my chin dropped. He looked like he’d dropped out of the sky from the Gold Rush era, an ancient miner with a weathered face framed by a grey beard falling to his belt buckle. He gave us a friendly wave.

During lunch with Jennifer on Wednesday, I mentioned the man and the feeling we’d all sensed of having taking a step back in time.

“Oh, that’s Johnny.”


“John Hoiland. He’s lived there forever. He wouldn’t have minded if you stopped to talk with him.”

Oh, I wished I’d stopped the car.

I did a YouTube search on John and discovered this gorgeous video made in 2012. He doesn’t have the long, shaggy beard here.  I’d love to sit at the kitchen table with him and hear his stories.

As we continued our trek, we happened upon a black bear and two cubs snacking on a chokecherry bush on the side of the road. When we were visiting Yellowstone National Park the following day, we overheard park-goers complaining they hadn’t seen any bears. My parents and I exchanged knowing smiles. On our “Boulder Valley Adventure”, we saw a Grizzly and three black bears in the space of two hours!

I was right. That bald eagle that swooped in front of us on Sunday morning had been a good sign.

Here’s a photo my dad took during our drive on West Boulder Road towards Livingston

One thought on “Who was that man on the tractor? (A Trip to Sweet Grass-Part 4)

  1. Shari says:

    Your Blog captures me as much as reading your books. I enjoy the photos as you tell about your adventures and the YouTube was awesome – what a talented artist. John probably would have had some good stories to have told you all if you had stopped to talk with him. A big fan of all your books! Shari

    Liked by 1 person

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