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The View from Dunrovin: Gunslingers, cowgirls and jetplanes – and a few happy donkeys

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By Jeff Taylor/for MISSOULA CURRENT

A passenger jet rumbles overhead, beginning its final approach to MSO. For a moment, I stop digging this fine posthole, watching it descend into Missoula. From her nest high above, Dunrovin’s resident osprey scowls; nothing with wings should make such a commotion. But then, Harriet always seems to be scowling. It’s an osprey’s game face.

In 2014, I said goodbye to my old life in Dufur, Oregon, and came up into the Bitterroot Valley to finish my novel. This grueling work is best done at night while the world sleeps quietly, and I wondered what kind of day job I’d find to support my writing habit. It had to be outdoors, definitely around other people, to balance long hours alone in a small room, tapping out a book on a keyboard.

Sometimes people ask me, “What’s it about?” “Oh, it’s about half-done,” I tell them with a weary sigh; it’s about the inevitable triumph of the human spirit in the face of insurmountable obstacles. That shuts them up.

Every Montana ranch has lots of moving parts, and so does the magical Dunrovin in Lolo. Fences need mending, gates won’t close, hinges squeak, barn doors sag. Horses like to gnaw on wooden rails as much as their close cousins, the Oregon beaver. My days here are spent fixing things, or building them. I was born to do this work, when I’m not writing books.

Scratch any writer and you’ll find a weird resume. For entire summers in my teens, I raked asphalt on Iowa freeways or bucked hay on my uncle’s farm. In 1974, I served nine months inside the world’s biggest (and most notorious) meat-packing plant, an icy dungeon made infamous in Jeremy Rifkin’s book, “Beyond Beef,” and further denounced in two literary journals by my own essay, aptly titled “Carnal Knowledge.” Even more surreal was a short stint as an armed bodyguard and chauffeur for a Western writer’s widow, traveling from Iowa to Indiana. But for most of my working life, I’ve been a simple carpenter.

Now in the sixth decade of life on this marvelous world, I work on a guest ranch in Montana. This was my first career goal since the third grade, and Dunrovin Ranch exactly fits my childhood definition of an ideal workplace.

In the gulags of elementary school, I was invisibly chained to a chair to See Spot Run nowhere, or learning how to duck and cover under my desk in case the Russians nuked our school. Robert Frost’s poem, “What Fifty Said,” describes it best: I suffered like a metal being cast. To this day, I would not sit in another classroom for a million bucks and the governorship of Hawaii.

Eons passed like a kidney stone, until the blissful freedom of Saturday morning when I got paroled to study half-hour cowboy shows on television. In the mid-fifties, before cartoons ruined Saturday morning programming as surely as disco killed the sixties, Sky King flew over his own huge spread, The Flying Crown, and spangled Roy Rogers sang cowboy tunes on The Double R Bar. My favorite show was “Fury,” about a jet-black stallion roaming the range at The Broken Wheel. These thrilling adventures of yesteryear all took place on guest ranches.

Obviously they were guest ranches, because new guest stars appeared each week: troubled lads from the inner city, ditzy spoiled rich girls who always fell off their horses, gruff rustlers, grizzled prospectors leading sad donkeys, even a few dark-jowled bank robbers on the lam, disguised in gray fedoras and trench coats to blend in.

The actors were different, but the ranches were basically the same, featuring horses, saddles, guitars, Colt .45’s on wide gunbelts, friendly dogs, rail fences, campfires, branding irons, little dogies getting along, snowy mountains in the distance, big black birds wheeling overhead, and sometimes even pretty cowgirls.

Minus only the six-guns and branded dogies, thank God, Dunrovin has all the rest, and much better scenery. The donkeys here are happy, and some days it’s just teeming with cowgirls, all of whom are expert riders and supremely un-ditzy. Too bad that none of Dunrovin’s guests are rustlers or bank robbers, but that’s all right. And those circling birds on TV were just plain old buzzards; I consider ospreys, owls, eagles, and big old jet airliners to be a definite avian upgrade in the big blue sky of Montana.

Jeff Taylor is the author of “Tools of the Trade: The Art and Craft of Carpentry,” and “Tools of the Earth: The Practice and Pleasure of Gardening” (Chronicle Books). The View from Donrovin appears weekly on the Missoula Current.