Badluck Way is something of an enigma: it has political tension, a little blood, wandering and detailed prose and eloquent, precise nature writing, but this memoir about a 23-year-old Seattleite-turned rancher fades to grey against its vibrant Montana landscape. After graduating college, Andrews gets a job as a ranch hand on the Sun Ranch south of Ennis, Montana. There, he endures hard physical labor, from repairing barbed wire fences to hauling gallons of water across the ranch for thirsty cattle. But behind the recounts of physical strain and precise images of the Montana wilderness is a story of the tension between the conservationist movement in Montana and the ranchers affected by the reintroduction of wolves to the area in 1995. Instead of focusing the memoir on this fascinating discourse between a community of people trying to stay afloat in a sinking economy and environmental conservationists attempting to save a species, Andrews remains in the middle of the argument, delicately observing from all sides as part rancher, part city boy with a love for wildlife, part wolf sympathizer.
Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West
Atria Books (2014)
The Sun Ranch is the largest ranch in the Ennis area, owned by wealthy conservationist Roger Lang, who made his millions during the Silicon Valley boom in the ’90s. Lang thinks of himself as a minimalist; he keeps a small staff to run the Sun Ranch and wants to preserve as much of his land as possible by practicing conservationist ranching, an uncommon method in the area. Andrews describes these acts of conservation, like fencing off creeks to avoid damage from cattle, arming the ranch hands with shotguns that fire rubber bullets, and Lang’s demand that no Sun Ranch employee or townsperson hunt and kill wolves on the Sun Ranch. After the wolf reintroduction in 1995, packs have grown to dangerous numbers. They’re becoming bold and unafraid of humans, putting cattle in danger. Herds are attacked, and the danger of losing livestock creates growing tension between Lang and other Montana ranchers in the area. Neighbors of the Sun Ranch believe hunting and killing wolves is the most effective way to protect their livestock and the welfare of their ranches, and Lang, whose herd has yet to be attacked this year, does not.
Read more TBR Reviews. It is difficult to subscribe to the idea that Andrews has fully assimilated into ranch life throughout the memoir due to the fact that the owner of the Sun Ranch himself is so far removed from Montana’s ranching culture. Sun Ranch is a unique type of ranch for the area, and since Andrews is working on a ranch culturally regarded by neighbors as an “outsider’s ranch” with a conservationist agenda, Andrews does not endure the same lifestyle other ranchers in the area experience. Andrews has small revelations, like catching his reflection in a window and seeing a “cowboy staring back” and marveling at his torn and calloused “country-boy” hands after repairing a barbed wire fence, but, like Lang, Andrews still comes from a city background, removed from the landscape and culture of the area. Andrews and Lang both possess the ability to leave the Sun Ranch to pursue other goals, an uncommon luxury among Montana ranchers. His observations of the wolfing epidemic come from an outsider’s perspective, and Andrews carefully stays in the middle of the argument. He sometimes sympathizes with neighbors huddled around a table in the bar, wondering how their cattle will make it to next year, and sometimes aches for the wolves who are at risk of being killed entire packs at a time, yet he does not offer any suggestions for improvement or compromise. Instead, he tiptoes around the subject quietly as an observer until his own herd is attacked and he is required to take action.
The attack on Andrews’ herd finally forces him to confront this strange duality of Andrews-the-conservationist and Andrews-the-ranch-hand. This leaves him feeling emotionally conflicted for months as he and the other ranch hands continue to take action against the wolves. In earlier accounts, Andrews hardly spares a detail when describing the gore of a wolf attack, but even among the brutality he is conflicted about his own reaction: “In the midst of all that carnage and blood, I could not help thinking that the meat looked good enough to eat… I wanted the meat but felt a deep, vague sense of revulsion. I was not, I thought, a predator — at least not like the wolves… I was different, I told myself — a gentler creature.” Now, Andrews is tested on how far he will go to protect the cattle and still adhere to the Sun Ranch’s conservationist, bottom-line rules, and the results leave him even more torn than before.
This confliction could have driven the story emotionally, but instead the memoir recedes back to its languid pace, devoting too many pages to detailed topographic descriptions of the “hissing dry grass” and “blooming grey-bottomed clouds” of the Montana wilderness. While we understand that this is not a fast-paced action story, but rather a reflection of the tedium of ranch life, the narrative is overwritten and inflated at times, especially coming from a protagonist who claims to have assimilated into ranch life through a series of philosophical and emotional revelations. Andrews fails to acknowledge his presence in the wilderness as participation in nature throughout the narrative, instead further polarizing himself as an outsider stepping in to nature one day at a time.
Early in the memoir, Andrews leaves the Sun Ranch with another ranch hand named James to fix a fence. Andrews and James fix the fence faster than they anticipate, and decide to kill some time by hurling rocks off a cliff. Andrews recounts, “The whole business was as destructive as it was unnecessary. We smashed a lot of tree trunks, and couldn’t have explained why we did it at the time. But now, at a little remove, I remember the thud and clatter of falling stone and the simple joy of watching trajectories unfold… We were shaping the wilderness, if only by punching holes… And for a handful of ecstatic moments, it all felt like our dominion.” For the first time since arriving on the Sun Ranch, Andrews ventures away from the ranch to try to make a connection with nature, but instead of letting the land shape him, he shapes the land by detrimentally altering it. Andrews states that the land feels like his dominion, but fails to acknowledge that he is also a part of the natural world and that sometimes, as a rancher, the land has dominion over you. He commits a human act of destruction for destruction’s sake, separating himself from the nature he spends pages attempting to cognize.
This lengthy prose tends to conflict with the ideals of ranch life — much work done with few words spoken — and Andrews attempts to compensate for this by throwing in an expletive or two during a descriptive paragraph: “I mimicked Jeremy, moving slowly and carefully through the rest of the herd, adjusting my path as TJ stepped one way or the other. TJ stayed calm, even when I tripped over a pile of horseshit and staggered to the side.” This interruption is jarring juxtaposed with Andrews consistently poetic prose. He attempts to channel the essence of ranch life through both meticulous description and an interruptive curse every so often, resulting in long-winded paragraphs punctuated by disorienting language. It’s as if Andrews is attempting to bring his audience into the perspective of a true Montana rancher, but remains heavily planted in his own mind, resulting in a narrative that bounces between worlds too precisely.
Perhaps it is that word — precise — that makes this memoir so difficult to empathize with. Andrews writes about ranch life the same way a student would write a term paper, with constant academic clarity and analysis, as if ranch life is a quantifiable, achievable grade he can earn in post-collegiate life. Badluck Way would have made a fantastic short story, but stretching out this memoir into a 256-page book escalates the tedium into a long-winded account of one man’s single-minded philosophical journey through the Montana wilderness. Near the end of his year at Sun Ranch, Andrews considers staying on permanently, but decides he has to move on after the economic downturn and changes Lang implements at the ranch. He “[feels] his job, life, and purpose on the ranch sliding into obsolescence.” Andrews comes away from his year on the Sun Ranch with a new appreciation for the land — its violence contrasted with gentle calm — but still offers no conclusion to the political issues at hand. Instead, he leaves us with the image of finding a group wolf pups in a den, as he contemplates his hatred and deep sympathy toward them as they huddle in the pines. We are, once again, left wondering what will become of this great debate, trapped in the mind of a protagonist who fades into the background of the Montana wilderness.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.