“What have you gained during this lockdown, and what has been irrevocably lost?”
It was an early evening in late September, and I was seated around the dinner table with two friends who’d recently joined me in Wyoming. We were headed for Big Sky, Montana, the next morning, after seven months of respective lockdown (hence the philosophical pondering).
I could easily identify what I’d gained: A newfound obsession with Michael Jordan (the real heartthrob of the 80s, 90s, and today), slavish devotion to Bravo podcasts, and thrilling nihilism towards all my prospects—romantic, financial, and otherwise. (Which was liberating in a way: My own version of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, without all the literary accomplishments).
As for the losses, lockdown had proven Elizabeth Bishop right: “The art of losing isn't hard to master.” And the past few months, I’d practiced losing harder, losing faster. My dedication to appearances (already tenuous, in hindsight) had given way to a reluctance to ever wash my hair. And, on a larger scale, my belief in the goodness of humanity (a job requirement as a travel writer, reliant on the kindness of strangers) had eroded into a begrudging pessimism towards my fellow man.
Everything, in short, felt hopeless. So, what did I decide was irrevocably lost, never to return? The answer was devastating and precise: My sanity.
Wide Open Spaces
Hiking in Big Sky, MT (Image provided by the author)
Of course, I was unaware I’d be recovering said sanity in the most unlikely of places: A dude ranch in southwest Montana. I’d later learn this getaway was the perfect post-lockdown retreat: refreshing, relaxing, and restorative. But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
That very next morning, we hit the open road (a vital component of any proper adventure) and headed northwest through Grand Teton National Park up towards Yellowstone. We were setting out into the great wide open (in the eternally relevant words of Tom Petty, and I felt myself appreciating the wild beauty and diversity that truly makes America great. The drive from Jackson Hole to Big Sky is only three-and-a-half hours, though you will want to linger at the canyons, emerald pools, and glacier lakes you’ll discover along the way. Yellowstone is almost entirely devoid of cell reception— a welcome reprieve from the ungodly screen time habits I’d acquired during quarantine. I had no choice but to be present—after all, you can’t truly venture into the wild if you’re continually scrolling Instagram.
Yellowstone Nat. Park (Image provided by the author)
We drove 18 miles beyond Yellowstone’s northwest border to check into Lone Mountain Ranch, a 148-acre guest ranch tucked into the Montana Rockies. The historic homestead (established in 1915) is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World. The retreat was the perfect quarantine vacation, combining the amenities of a luxury hotel with the privacy of your own home. Social distancing comes naturally in Big Sky Country, and our accommodations at Big Horn Cabin were picture-perfect. The ranch boasts a variety of cabin sizes—from 1-bedroom to 3-bedroom, and an entire house, as well.
Big Horn Cabin (Image provided by Lone Mountain Ranch)
The 2-bedroom Big Horn cabin overlooked North Fork Creek (a la A River Runs Through It, sans Brad Pitt), and the interior design epitomized western chic—antlers, cowboy hats, et al. The accommodations were perfect for my fellow adventurers and me—I was accompanied by a friend from Berlin, and another from Newport, Rhode Island. Neither had met before, but we found the trip to be perfect in that it provided the ideal amount of time together and apart. We could do our own things, or we could convene on the wooden deck or the cozy living room for cocktails.
The Cowboy in Me
Horseback riding (Image provided by the author)
It was here that I spent the next few days pretending to be the last cowboy in the American West. And Covid-safety compliance only amplified my outlaw aesthetic: the bandanna mask completed the look, giving the impression I could rob a bank or steal a horse. Or, at the very least, ride a horse (the latter of which I could actually do). Ranch Hands were available at every turn for guidance—whether I was meeting at the Barn to go riding or the Outpost to venture out exploring. The experience was a total (welcome) reset from the claustrophobic, mundane reality of my days spent in voluntary civic house arrest.
Lone Mountain Ranch Hall (Image provided by the author)
I spent my afternoons hiking and horseback riding and rode horse-drawn wagons to barbecue dinners replete with country music (and plenty of whiskey). The ranch provides an endless array of activities, boasting an Orvis-endorsed Fly Fishing Lodge and 80 miles of some of the country’s best nordic skiing. You can go on Sleigh Ride Dinners in the wintertime, while the lively ambiance at the farm-to-table Horn & Cantle and the Western music at the Saloon is available all year-round.
In a cabin with friends (Image provided by the author)
Is the cure to the lockdown blues country music, horseback riding, and overpriced turquoise accessories? I felt I'd found one of the last wild places in the Wild West—though, of course, indulging your inner pioneer spirit comes with a certain price tag. It turns out, all I needed for a (momentary) mental reset was a touch of luxury and a whole lot of nature. During my stay in Montana, I felt like I could finally breathe. The vastness of Big Sky Country was the perfect antidote to the claustrophobic isolation of lockdown. I felt the landscape impact my outlook, as I suddenly had some perspective—and that perspective was of my own insignificance: Life existed before me, and it will exist after me, and this too, shall pass. Perhaps the Dixie Chicks were right about those wide-open spaces after all. And, seeing as my friends also had a wonderful time on our journey, it’s the perfect vacation to take with fellow restless travelers who are eager to explore the outdoors post-lockdown. Not only was the trip beneficial for our collective mental health, but our friendships as well—some new, some old, all revived by a venture into the wilds of Big Sky, Montana. Giddy-up!