Can you imagine 170 head of loose horses galloping full bore along your town’s Main Street? Everybody in the town of Gardiner, Montana (wintertime population: 875 friendly souls and maybe two or three ol’ soreheads) knows all about such an event. Summertime populace increases to an unknown tally due to Gardiner being the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Tourists flock.
On the Saturday before Memorial Day each year, summer visitors and native inhabitants alike line the sidewalks of Gardiner’s Scott Street to watch as the herd of horses comes thundering along. Cowboys and cowgirls turn ‘em at the juncture where a road — with more twists, turns and bends than a drunken snake — takes off up the road toward Jardine, Montana, an old mining town, perched six miles up on the side of a mountain.
The drovers halt the bunch at Eagle Creek meadow to rest the horses (and themselves). They’ve been fast-trotting and galloping for miles. It’s a hot day. Once rested, the herd is driven onward up a spooky white-knuckle road sporting frequent hairpin twists with steep drops on one side and a wall of mountainside on the other. Destination: Hell’s A-Roarin’ Outfitters Ranch. Situated at 7200 feet above sea level, the ranch is a half-mile from Yellowstone National Park and surrounded by National Forest.
Warren and Susan Johnson, owners/operators of Hell’s A-Roarin’ offer a variety of horseback activities — Yellowstone Park pack trips, trail rides, overnight camp trips, hunting trips and more. Warren makes sure Hell’s A-Roarin’ Outfitters has the best string of horses and mules available for guests. The bunch winters on pasture on a ranch in eastern Montana, then is trucked to the rodeo corrals in Gardiner.
The tradition of trailing them up to the Jardine ranch started in 1982. Hell’s A-Roarin’ had just gotten going. Warren had only 14 horses, but no horse trailer. Driving the bunch has become an annual event that draws a crowd like bees to a flower.
This was the first year the public was invited to come up to the ranch. For a reasonable cost, people enjoyed an awesome feed, a no host bar and an evening of fun. Montana Rose dance band set up their equipment in one corner of the outdoor pavilion and the entertainment began with cowboy poetry by Sandy Sallee and Gwen Petersen.
Sandy just happens to be Warren’s sister-in-law and therefore Susan Johnson’s sister. She also just happens to be, along with husband Scott Sallee, another outfitter at Black Mountain Outfitters, an equally fantastic outfitter business offering summer adventures to guests. Gwen lives near Big Timber, Montana along with horses and a few uninvited varmints. Proceeds from ticket purchases go to benefit Gardiner Chamber of Commerce.
Because of the white-knuckle road to the ranch, Susan arranged for buses to bring up scaredy cats at the beginning of the evening and return them back to Gardiner after the dance. The weekend finished on Sunday with Cowboy Church held at the rodeo grounds, an all-day Arts & Crafts show and live music at Arch Park and at 3:00, the annual Roughstock Rodeo at the rodeo grounds.
Next Memorial weekend, mark your calendar and plan to attend the festivities! Participating in or watching the traditional Horse Drive will leave you with the feeling that… well, one of Hell’s A-Roarin’ guest hunters summed it up this way:
Regardless of the passage of time — time in which the world and/or humankind sometimes changes in ways beyond comprehension, there are those who are steadfast in their refusal to allow certain historical traditions to wane and within them, the heartbeat of America can be found.