A rather silly journey in search of a very special place

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Dispatches, May 1998

If We Told You, It Wouldn’t Be a Secret, Would It?
A rather silly journey in search of a very special place
By Bill Vaughn

Few things are as delicious as a secret, and nothing is as objectionable as not being included in one. So when I heard that Robert Redford was zealously guarding the location of the Montana ranch where he filmed The Horse Whisperer, which opens on the 15th of this month, I immediately drove off to find it. Word had it that the film — adapted
from Nicholas Evans’s novel about a love affair between a man with a preternatural ability to tame horses and a woman who seeks his help after her daughter is injured in a riding accident — was shot on an unusually remote and unblemished stretch of real estate, a breathtaking spot hard against the jagged peaks of the Absaroka Range. But Redford’s production company would
disclose only that the movie was shot in “a river valley near Livingston.” Thanks for nada. That’s like being told your grandfather’s bullion is buried under a Taco Bell in Texas.

I checked into Livingston’s venerable Murray Hotel, where movie people stay. Night manager Dona White told me that Livingston, despite its large celeb population, has long had a love-hate relationship with Hollywood. “We love the crews, we love the excitement, we love the money. What we hate is what happened after A River Runs Through It.”

What happened was that hordes of nouveau fly fishers came to whip the trout streams into a froth; mind-boggling numbers of tourists descended upon the town, playing the bull to Livingston’s quaint china shop; and yet another wave of tycoons began snapping up land and building elaborate summer palaces. “But Mr. Redford is a complete gentleman,” White added. “After he asked me
about the book, I told him I didn’t like the ending. He came back later and said the movie will be different. He has a house in town, you know.” So where is the mysterious ranch? “Oh, it’s over by McLeod. I can’t remember the name,” she said, walking away, “but I suppose I could take you there.”

Stephen Matlow, managing editor of the Livingston Enterprise, told me that his paper didn’t really cover the movie because it was filmed on a closed set, with gates, guards, and special passes. But did he know where the ranch is? “Well, it’s up the Boulder a ways,” he said, scratching his beard. “It’s kind of hard to give directions. But I could take you there.”

At the Mint Bar & Liquor Store I talked with Shorty and Dugey, who were admiring a car seat they’d built for someone’s baby. “Don’t quote us,” Shorty declared. I pointed out that he hadn’t said anything yet. “OK,” he replied. So where’s the ranch? “Ask in Big Timber,” Dugey advised. “Someone will take you there.”

The next day I stopped at the Conoco in Big Timber, 30 miles east. The woman who filled the tank told me the name of the ranch right off and suggested I stop in McLeod for directions. So I did. The wind was blowing so hard you’d never be able to get a horse’s attention by whispering. The map said population ten. I saw two small people and four large dogs. In the post office, a
nice lady reading Tom Clancy pointed the way. A short while later I found the ranch, right where she said it would be.

You’ll know you’re on the right road if you pass the Aryan Nations ranch. Slogans like ASPIRIN WORKS BECAUSE IT’S WHITE are scrawled on cutouts clipped to the barbed wire. But if you drive by a gate that says WALL STREET RETREAT, you’ve taken a wrong turn. Anyway, go another eight miles, and then … oh, the directions are too complicated.

But I could take you there.

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