Bryce Andrews, Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West
A Book Review – of sorts.
[Warning! Overwrought analogies ahead!! Please proceed with further reading at your own risk].
It is abundantly clear from the first few pages of this wonderfully rendered, modern Montana memoir that its author, Bryce Andrews, was born to be a writer. There is an effortlessness to the way he pulls words and phrases from the linguistic aether that belies years, if not decades, of dedicated practice to the keyboard, notepad, and pen.
It is also clear from the start that, while the author is indeed a gifted and gregarious writer, he is far from a natural born cowboy. And he would be the first to admit it. After all, most Montana ranch hands in the past didn’t grow up in relative comfort in the cosmopolitan port city of Seattle, a child to parents with careers in art galleries and professional photography that allowed them to travel the world in search of subjects and objects of desire. Most cowboys didn’t study at a liberal arts institution as nice as Whitman College (in Walla Walla, Washington) or later complete graduate studies at the University of Montana. And they certainly don’t get writers as acclaimed as Barry Lopez to contribute lavishly crafted blurbs on the backs of their books, either. If they even write books, period.
But if you think that Bryce Andrews is a fair weather, dude ranch cowpoke who barely got his well manicured fingernails dirty while watching cattle graze at a safe distance in softly undulating, waist-high grasses as he idly scribbled notes with a Rotring mechanical pencil into an embossed, leather-bound notebook that was gifted to him by a Pulitzer-prize winning journalistic mentor, well, you’d dead wrong about that, too. He’s just not that easy to pigeonhole, and that is part of his writerly charm.
The question for you to consider, dear Amazon reader, when deciding whether or not to purchase a copy of Badluck Way is not what kind of a cowboy Bryce Andrews is, but rather what kind of a writer he is and what it is about his life and times on a private, 18,000 acre mega-ranch owned by a retired Silicon Valley multimillionaire in the high elevation upper reaches of the Madison River Valley, just west of Yellowstone National Park, that demands your attention. And demand your attention he will, for Bryce’s tale is no ordinary one, nor he an ordinary narrator.
For one, he refuses to see the wolf packs and other large predators who visit the canyons, hills, pastures, draws, and vegetation-filled creeks that flow through the ranch’s expansive, fenced-in properties as dangerous threats to be thwarted by whatever means possible, legal or otherwise. But he’s not callous to the needs of the cattle he cares for, nor those of the hardworking cattlemen and women whose livelihoods depend on their herds growing strong, fast, and healthy so that they can be sold at auction for a fair profit.
As a memoirist, Bryce makes you feel as if you were shivering alongside him during winter’s deep freeze, luxuriating next to him in the abundant sunshine and long days of summer solstice, and experiencing intensely in realtime every other type of inclement or enchanting weather condition in between. He is skilled enough with his evocative palette of words that he can paint Bob Ross-like pictures in your mind with the imaginative power of a novelist but also pack it with the attention to detail and no-nonsense vocabulary of a private detective whose beat is the mean streets of Seattle, not the high, wide, and handsome landscapes of Central Montana.
Unlike the Bozeman-based scientific writer, David Quammen, or the investigative journalist, Nate Blakeslee, whose superb book, American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West, would make the perfect reading companion to Badluck Way, Bryce is willing to go where more conventional nonfictionalists generally fear to tread. In some sections of the book, he transports himself inside the heads of the wolves, whose hunger leads them to leave the relative protection of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness to seek out stray calves, mule deer, and migrating elk within the sizeable holdings of Sun Ranch with a ravenous and all-consuming fury, much in the way a West Coast surfer high on THC-rich cannabis might devour a plate of cheesy beef fajitas at the newly re-opened Taco Bell Cantina in Pacifica, California (which will now also serve Lagunitas craft beer as well as other alcoholic beverages, so get in line early if you’re interested).
Putting readers inside the heads of animals is fair territory for many writers of repute. Think of such classics as Jack London’s White Fang and The Call of the Wild, or Richard Adams’ Watership Down, for example. In Badluck Way, the author deliberately decides to blur the boundaries between different literary genres. He does so with a preternatural deftness of touch, like a brain surgeon who decides to take up scrimshaw engraving in his or her spare time. A lyrical cowboy memoir filled with the kinds of arcane terminology that only someone who has worked intimately with large livestock on horseback and while riding ATVs and aging pickups would know. A powerful ecological manifesto supportive of rewilding initiatives that seek to reintroduce apex predators like wolves and grizzly bears into their ancestral ranges. A tender and emotionally moving coming-of-age Bildungsroman composed with pitch perfect tonality. A valiant and Quixotic hero’s quest to uncover lost meaning that modernity and excessive urban living threaten to erase once and for all from collective human consciousness. A rapturous and racy Western love story, not with a woman or man, but with a landscape.
And not just any landscape, mind you, but a mixed-use one in which humans and animals coexist in a dynamic state of disorder and temporary truce broken by violent periods of outright hostility and warfare. The landscape that Bryce loves is not cosmetically enhanced nor filmed in high definition digital. It burns. It melts. It rots. It decays. And it keeps you spellbound from start to finish. Montana, at its best, can be like that. Bryce knows it, and he is able to convey that magic and majesty with only a modicum of fancy, high-scoring Scrabble words. It’s really quite impressive! Hemingway, from a Sun Valley grave, is sitting up in the ground, taking a long and deep swig of rye like a lover kissing a flame a final goodbye, saluting Bryce for the performance, and then falling back asleep until the next great young Western writer appears on the scene.
Perhaps Bryce as a writer may best be compared by way of analogy to a crusading young war reporter intent on exposing the suffering of civilians and soldiers alike while also attempting to explain to his distant readers what triggered the fighting in the first place. Alternately, he may be likened to a conscientious, incorruptible referee in the boxing ring, making sure that the dueling combatants play by the rules but without placing his thumb too firmly on one side of the scale or the other. He’s like the Chief Justice John Roberts of Western ranch and wildlife writing, refusing to choose sides but not entirely impartial, either.
In the end, Chief Justice Andrews rules in favor of the inherent and primal wildness that constitutes the core essence of us all – rural Americans, wolves, bears, domesticated livestock, self-righteous city dwellers, and everyone and everything in between. The way all of us struggle to survive amidst a confusing and conflict-filled world of illusions, where glimpses of the truth are few and far between. The way each of us yearn for basic creature comforts, for devoted and loving companionship, and for a warm, dry, and safe place to call home. The way we marvel at the amethyst and rose quartz colors of a winter’s subzero sunrise while devoting equally rapt attention to the surprising speed with which a hot, steaming stream of our bright yellow urine melts through the frozen crust of a day’s old fallen snow. Nothing, however mundane, escapes Bryce’s literary drift net. He somehow makes use of it all and tosses nothing overboard. It all has value to him, and we as readers can only applaud the effort.
After spending more than a year ranching, writing, and repeatedly testing the limits of his body, mind, and spirit, Bryce appears to have taught himself the rare skill of approaching even the most complex and controversial of subjects by examining all possible sides without prejudging the outcome. And few subjects in today’s West are as controversial as our collective response to the instinctual and learned behaviors of large and highly intelligent carnivores like wolves, mountain lions, and grizzlies. Even Donald Trump pales by comparison.
Ultimately, our embattled author decides that the competing sides of the debate are so inextricably connected and bound up with each other in tangled knots and twisted pathways that they resist easy uncoupling, whether we – or the wolves, cougars, and bears – like it or not. Nor does he spare us as readers the burden of deciding for ourselves what to make of a place like the Sun Ranch and its annually repeated efforts to keep the wolves and other carnivorous critters at bay, so that the proprietors of Sun Ranch can help to produce Montana-raised, grass-fed beef and prime cuts of dry-aged steak to serve to the affluent, urban masses who will eagerly feast on them from the safety of a Michelin-starred restaurant in a tony coastal enclave far from remote and often dangerous places to live like the Madison Valley.
My only regret as an otherwise satisfied reader of Badluck Way is that the author wasn’t able to talk or otherwise wrangle his way onto Ted Turner’s sprawling bison ranch near the incomparably beautiful Spanish Peaks south of Bozeman. I am curious what Bryce would have made of the way things are run there, on the other side of the Gallatin Mountains from the Sun Ranch, by a philanthropic billionaire with famously liberal politics and a progressive vision for the West that includes wolves as well as large livestock other than beef cattle.
Such an addition would have bestowed an extra, fourth dimension to the narrative and elevated the storyline into the nonfictional stratosphere. But maybe that would be asking too much of any author, even one as talented as Bryce most certainly is. As written, Badluck Way flies pretty high already, and for all but the most demanding of readers, this should indeed be achievement enough. And a darn good reason to buy an extra couple of gift copies for children, grandchildren, and friends during the next holiday season. Very highly recommended!
This Amazon book review is dedicated to Amazon.com founder and Internet visionary, Mr. Jeff Bezos. You, sir, are a true American and worthy citizen of the world! Your parents and grandparents should be so proud. I feel it in my bones. And thank you, sir, for letting me share my thoughts with the millions of other Amazon customers whose buying and consumer habits you have changed irrevocably and forever. May the God in Heaven bless you and all who carry the name “Bezos” into the future!