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The view from Dunrovin: starting guest ranch took leap of faith

Dunrovin_photo of horse overlooking river - web site
Dunrovin Ranch south of Missoula. (Photo courtesy of Dunrovin Ranch)

By SuzAnne M. Miller/for MISSOULA CURRENT

After over 30 years working for state and federal natural resource management agencies as a biometrician (mathematics as applied to biological problems), I abruptly changed course. With naive eagerness, I took what now seems like giant leap off a cliff and started a small business, a guest ranch.

Clearly, I failed to properly scout the territory ahead before leaving what was a comfortable and predictable landscape. Almost immediately, I found myself in unfamiliar terrain, facing unexpected obstacles, feeling like Sisyphus himself as I labored to push my boulder up a mountain.

Never have I worked harder. Never have I had to question and alter so many deeply held values and beliefs. Never have I sacrificed more personally, risked more financially, or been less informed or prepared. Only recently have my feet found some firmer, gentler ground and stood a flat surface where I can position my boulder without fear of it sliding back down the talus slope. Only now am I able to stop, take a breath, and access my new view.

SuzAnne M. Miller
SuzAnne M. Miller

In looking about, I see that my relationship with government has completely changed. Once participating in developing and implementing government regulations, I am now subjected to those same sorts of regulations, many of which seem arbitrary, nonsensical, and downright counterproductive. These days, I am the one questioning bureaucracies, often leaving with incomplete, inaccurate, and misleading answers. Instead of testifying before legislative and congressional committees, I have had to testify in court. Horrified, Missoula County nearly ruined me with two unsuccessful, financially draining, and totally irrational attempts to close my business. I will never understand why.

My social and professional circles have been churning. Some older, familiar faces have been drifting away, unable to comprehend my new world, repelled by my legal woes. Meanwhile newer, and mostly younger entrepreneurs have been migrating in, sharing my struggles and my accomplishments. A few former research and environmental conservation colleagues have turned a cold shoulder, uneasy with my commercial uses of public resources, deeming academic and scientific pursuits more worthy than business endeavors. It has taken me aback, this lack of understanding, this rush to judgment. Yet, with honest reflection, I must acknowledge that these are values I once shared and accepted as true.

Becoming a businesswoman has transformed how I move within the community. It has caused me to appreciate things I previously never even saw. It has made me something of a public figure and introduced to many wonderful people. It has also taught me humility, exposed my limitations, and quickly illuminated my mistakes.IMG_7082

Seeing a Dunrovin Ranch license plate on my car or truck, strangers on the street stopped to hug me and thank me for fighting the good fight with the county, to relay their stories of fun-filled afternoons at the ranch, and to encourage me. They fill me with a profound sense of community connections. What happens in the community directly impacts me, and what happens to me can directly impact others.

The contours of my inner, intellectual and emotional life have forever changed. For decades, data ruled my mind. In the name of scientific impartiality, I disassociated my mind and my emotions as I developed what I thought was a clear, fact-based understanding of the world. This limited perspective has been replaced with something akin to the American Indian way of understanding that there are no real facts, just stories told from different points of view, seen through a different array of senses, focused on different hierarchies of importance.

Emotions and relationships rule a guest ranch business. Animals are not just friends, but business partners whose welfare must inform every decision. Clients entrust us with their welfare, their dreams, their fears of stepping outside of their comfort zones, and their joys in learning new skills. Employees bring their creativity, ambitions, and passions – and, of course, their dogs – to work each day.

Our home is no longer a private family castle, but a place of business. This extremely unsettling shift has brought tensions and disputes to my family; yet the act of accommodating this new reality has also revealed the strength of our mutual bonds.

Undeniably, my world’s viewshed encompasses entirely new territory. I do not question my journey to this new, challenging and rewarding land. I embrace it. My hope is that by sharing my story, I can contribute in some small way to the conversations essential for building a community landscape where our people, our economy, and our incredible environment can all thrive.

SuzAnne M. Miller is the owner of the Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo. Her column appears regularly in the Missoula Current. Visit her websites at www.DunrovinRanchMontana.com and www.DaysAtDunrovin.com.