Owning his sunrise
As the first rays of golden-red Dakota sunlight peered above the eastern skyline, stretching its warming embrace across the short grass prairies of the Tracy Mountain Ranch, Kim and Andrea Shade saddled their horses 'Scoot' and 'Marlin' in preparation of riding out to Lone Tree Butte - a natural landmark on their property — to tend to their cattle.
A culmination of 45 years of personal experience farming and ranching in Idaho and the Dakotas has marked Kim as a direct descendant of a tradition stretching unbroken to the Spanish Vaqueros who migrated to the Americas in the early 1500's.
Turning off the paved county road south of Medora and traveling along an 11-mile stretch of red dirt road, Tracy Mountain Ranch comes into view.
Passing a makeshift marker of standing petrified wood stacked high, the ranch home property appears. Nearing the home, where the driveway meets the property line, rests an old stagecoach peering out into the vast beauty of the neighboring landscape. It wouldn't be hard to picture a dusty and sun beaten driver cracking his leather whip and urging his team of cantankerous mules on a faster clip as they raced across the badlands, rounding treacherous mountain curves.
His wide brimmed hat shades Icey-blue eyes and a thick walrus mustache, his beige ranch shirt only slightly concealing a sturdy frame denoting muscles formed through years of physical labor. Kim is a Cattleman, or as most would know it — a Cowboy.
Rarely as romantic as the novels portray, it's often a work which involves scarce water, injured animals, long hours and oft broken tools.
The phrase "A hard row to hoe" takes on new meaning when your family's well being depends on gumption, a 1950 Oliver tractor and the temperamental climate — which in these parts of the country can be a unique challenge all unto itself.
"Welcome to Tracy Mountain," Kim says as he doesn't shake my hand as much as grip it, with a firm nod.
After a quick tour of the homestead and a big glass of iced tea, we moved into the F-250 and set off across portions of the 17,000 acres of the ranch.
"The story of our range is one of 4,500 years of silence, dotted by occasional wildfire, blizzard and thunderstorm. The Little Missouri River began cutting and eroding much of the Badlands views you see," he begins.
After a half hour of driving down dusty trails, we stop in a grassland prairie to view the various types of grasses supporting the Longhorn and Angus cattle the ranch operates.
"How long has your family been ranching these lands?" I asked Kim, assuming him to be a sixth or seventh generation cowboy in the Dakotas.
"Since 1993," he responded with a grin that appeared on his face as he realized my disbelief at his response. "Before this, I farmed and ranched in South Dakota and Idaho."
I tried to envision a man purchasing this land and building it to such a large operation in less than three decades — the same man who now walks before me pointing out the difference between porcupine and switch grasses. Such endeavors usually take lifespans, even generations to amass, but Kim had done it in a single lifetime with room to spare.
As he explained how the hodgepodge blend of wild grasses gave his cattle that special meadowlark beef flavor profile, I tried to understand the motivations and character of a man like Kim.
To understand his mentality, you have to understand his grit.
"I've seen both sides of how to do things and I think people are way too quick to throw out old ways," he says. "I once farmed 60 acres in South Dakota with a 6-horse mold-board plow just so that I could know how our forefathers coped with the frontier."
It's the love for this unique way of life which propels Kim forward each day. Much like the prairie plant roots common on their ranch, Kim and Andrea's way of life too are rooted deep in the earth.
Venturing further down the road, Kim hops out of the truck to open a gate into a wide pasture where some of the 330 head of cattle he owns were pastured.
Stretched tot, he opened the gate with an experienced ease before jumping back into the truck as we headed toward a dusty trail leading uphill between two bluffs. I could see more cattle in the distance as the land suddenly opened into a large green meadow hidden in a valley below.
I took a heavy breath, soaking in the absolute beauty of the surroundings.
Kim smiled understandingly.
Reaching the plateau of the bluff overlooking his ranch we sat quietly for a few moments as he pondered his next words carefully, and like a cowboy poet began speaking.
"I've always wanted to own my sunrise and sunset," The assurance behind his words led me to trust that his life was a living demonstration of that very statement. "I own the property from that horizon to that one," he said pointing east and then west.
Sunrise to sunset.
The words held deep meanings, both literally and in a proverbial way.
"I'm a blessed man," he said unpretentiously as we drove down the bluffs towards the far side of a neighboring pasture where cattle were lazily lounging and grazing. "It is so quiet out here that you can hear the rustle of two stems of grass against each other in the breeze over 50 feet away."
"These lands harbor western red cedar, chokecherry, serviceberry, ash, willow, elm and western cottonwood. The streams, ponds and small reservoirs in these places provide shade and refuge for our cattle and wildlife." He said as we made our way back toward the homestead. "The marriage between man, beast and mother nature come together here in a way that speaks to the soul."
When asked why his beef sold at market as "Meadowlark Beef," instead of Tracy Mountain Beef, he explained the significance of the name.
"The sweetness of the meadowlark's song can be tasted in our beef," he began. "Every ranch I've ever worked has had meadowlarks on them, it's something I've noticed over the years. I love their songs and shared affinity for ranches. Not to mention, it's the state bird."
As we rounded a final bend in the road, we came across a little known historical site, Initial Rock.
In the sandstone bluff, near the site of an old homestead, are the carved names of 7th Cavalry privates Frank Neely and William C. Williams, whose immortalized names have stood the tests of time since May 28, 1876.
Approaching the sandstone bluff, Kim began reciting a poem he wrote years before purchasing this land.
The poem, a somber limerick of Custer's men and the Battle of the Badlands, told a fantastical tale of Kim's distant relative who fought alongside the infamous commander who rose to fame as a young officer during the American Civil War.
"I wrote that poem years ago," He said. "Never knowing that one day I would own land that saw those same men travel through."
We enjoyed the shaded coolness of the cliffside for a few moments, the poem echoing across the wild grass prairies below, before hitching up and heading out.
Returning to the house I bid the rancher and lovely wife farewell, saddened that for me this serenity would quickly fade as I returned to the city. My mind filled with history, heart with hospitality and arms with fresh vegetables and famed meadowlark beef, I left the Tracy Mountain Ranch.
On the drive back to Dickinson I asked myself, what about the ranching lifestyle makes these men and women so happy? Why has every rancher and farmer I've ever met held a smile and a story to share despite the hardships of their way of life?
Then Kim's words returned to my mind and I realized.
Whether it's searching for cattle in a North Dakota blizzard, warming your belly with coffee and a campfire in the New Mexico desert nights, birthing cattle amidst a heavy rain along the Rio Grande or spreading manure on a Iowa corn field, these men and women know the secret to life — It's not work if you own the sunrise.