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Lewis & Clark Legacy Still Relevant for Montana Ranchers - 2004-05-19


As Meriwether Lewis and William Clark continued their journey across the North American continent, they traveled through, what is now, the northwestern state of Montana. There, they saw a wide variety of terrain, including mountains and open spaces, which today are home to many ranches. VOA?s Deborah Block visited Francis and Sandi Blake, a husband and wife who own a cattle ranch by the Lewis & Clark trail in Big Timber, Montana.

A state slogan in Montana says ?It is the last best place to live? and Sandi Blake of the small town of Big Timber, Montana couldn?t agree more.

I like the people here - are very honest and decent - they?re very good to each other," she says. "And I like the open spaces here. I like the fact that we don?t have any traffic lights, very few stop signs. It?s a very pleasant way to live.?

Francis makes money selling cattle. Over the years, the price of cattle has declined, making it harder for him to make a living. Sandi operates a nursery where she sells trees and plants and provides landscaping services. It?s the only nursery within 150 kilometers. She specializes in native vegetation.

"The plant we?re looking at here is what we call Rubber Rabbit Brush," she explains. "It was collected by Lewis and Clark during their expedition. They had never seen this plant before.?

Francis says work on the ranch never stops, from moving cows and repairing equipment, to making hay. This bull broke his leg in a fight with another bull and a cast was put on his leg. Today Francis has placed on the ground blocks of salt containing minerals that helps the cows better digest the grass they eat.

"It?s a lot of hard work. And certainly people from other parts of the world who are in agriculture understand that," he says. "But some people think it?s a very romantic life. It?s a good life. It?s a great life. But it certainly isn?t romantic in any way.?

The Blake ranch is close to the Lewis & Clark trail in southern Montana. From this ridge on the ranch, you can see the place where William Clark continued his journey out West by exploring the southern part of the state, while Meriwether Lewis headed north. Here, stones form a circle ? left behind by an Indian tribe which lived in the area long ago. This Vision Quest circle, as it was known, was part of an initiation rite for young Indian men.

"They would stay in these circles for three days and three nights and they would fast," explains Sandi Blake. "And during that time they would hope to have a vision, so this was called a vision quest. And this vision was a very spiritual thing. It would tell them a lot about who they were and what they were meant to be in the future.?

Sandi is part of a group that searches for sites mapped in William Clark?s journal some 200 years ago, which includes Indian settlements. Today, next to this river, the group is looking for a place where the explorer said he camped. Sandi reads part of his journal about a berry called a currant that he found in the area.

"I found great quantities of the purple, yellow and black currants ripe. They were of an excellent flavor. I think the purple is superior to any I have ever tasted,? she says.

Francis hopes to find the campsite using this receiver which is tied to a satellite-based navigation system known as GPS, or global positioning system. He enters data obtained from William Clark?s maps into the receiver to calculate the location of the campsite. Information sent back from the satellites, as well as a description of the campsite from the explorers? journal, helps pinpoint the location.

"I think it?s right in here,? he says.

"I think they camped where they could get good, fresh water,? Sandi adds.

Sandi says even though today the spot is near a main highway, it probably hasn?t changed much over time.

"You don?t hear that noise and you don?t see the traffic and its almost as if you?ve rolled the clock back 200 years or before,? she says.

Some people on this excursion were born in Montana. Francis says some natives still consider he and his wife newcomers even though they?ve lived in the state for 30 years.

"If, for instance, we wanted, you know, to run for office, or something like that, I think that there?s enough old timers around that we?d probably have very little chance of being elected,? he says.

Francis says despite difficult times, he has no plans to give up cattle ranching. Sandi?s nursery business continues to grow, helping support the ranch. The Blakes say they knew ranching wouldn?t be easy, but for them, there?s nothing else they?d rather be doing.