Sweetgrass may well be the last real Western. Simply put, Lawrence Allestad and family were among the last of the traditional sheepherders of the American West. Under a public grazing permit that had been handed down in his Norwegian-American family for generations, Allestad was the final rancher to drive his herds into Montana’s rugged Absaroka-Beartooth range north of Yellowstone to fatten on sweet summer grass. The family members and their hired hands conducted the drives much as their pioneer forebears had — on horseback, with dogs for herding and guarding, and armed with rifles to frighten away bears and wolves. Over the years, better gear — walkie-talkies, four-wheelers and cell phones — took some of the edges off a hard life, but still the work remained exhausting and dangerous for both men and animals.
By 2001, Allestad realized not only was he the last old-time sheep rancher, but he was also about to make his last old-time sheep drive. He proposed that “someone ought to make a film about it.” Luckily for anyone interested in the American West or traditional ways of life — or the sheer beauty of mountain wilderness — two adventurous filmmaker-anthropologists, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, decided to take Allestad up on his suggestion.
Sweetgrass offers an unprecedented record of a cowboy way of life at the moment of its disappearance, and a magnificently filmed portrait of a world in which nature and culture, animals and humans are on intimate terms — and sometimes violently at odds. Indeed, the filming proved almost as punishing for the married filmmakers as the drive was for the hired hands — grizzled veteran John Ahern and the younger Pat Connolly, who drove 3,000 sheep on the highest and hardest part of the drive. While Barbash filmed in Big Timber, Montana, where the Allestad spread is located, Castaing-Taylor, riding and hiking with camera gear in tow, followed the men and animals into the mountains, where he was charged by grizzly bears — and he came down 20 pounds lighter and in need of double foot surgery. Without narration, Sweetgrass lets the camera, often at sheep-level, reveal the drama of the formerly yearly endeavor.
In Big Timber, the film discovers the seasonal work-a-day world of sheep ranching. Under the watchful eyes of family patriarch Lawrence, his wife, Elaine, and son, Billy, in winter the herd nuzzles through the snow in search of feed. In spring, the sheep are shorn of their thick winter coats. Lambs are born and ewes have to be enticed to nurse offspring that are not their own. Other lambs have to be hand-fed. Raising sheep remains an intense, hands-on business. Humor, though, is often invoked to help pass the time: Billy tells joke about a guy shopping for new brain. He’s shown banker’s and lawyer’s brains, which he turns down. Then he sees a brain on the shelf costing the most — $2 million. “That’s a cowboy brain,” he’s told, “never been used.”
Until the summer, the work is a family endeavor, with kids, grandparents, neighbors and even passersby all pitching in. But after the Fourth of July, when rodeos, dog trials, shooting competitions and haying contests break out all over Sweet Grass County, the hard and lonely work of an old-time drive into the mountains begins in earnest for hired hands Ahern and Connolly. It’s a grueling 250-mile round trip climbing high into the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness — on hoof the whole way — that lasts from July until September.
The grass is sweet, but getting a herd of sheep to it while staving off predators is no picnic. For Connolly and Ahern, who are escorting a virtual buffet on hooves, encounters with bears or wolves are inevitable. The team’s dogs often bark at night, as coyotes and wolves howl, keeping the herders awake and bringing them out of their tents to fire rifles to scare off the wild animals. One night the dogs fail to bark, and the herders begin to lose sheep.
On the trail of the herders and their livestock, Sweetgrass opens up on an untamed wilderness, awesome in both its vastness and its details. Castaing-Taylor captures the beauty and unforgiving ruggedness of the landscape, and also the slow, difficult rhythms of the drive and its daily grinding work, punctuated by strange incidents and sudden crises. In one of the film’s most startling moments, Connolly, driven to tears by the long hours, the rainy weather, the stupidity of the sheep, the wear on his dogs, horse and himself, plus the inescapable sense of lurking danger, breaks down in an emotional phone call to his mother.
Ahern, with the weathered looks and few words of a man who’s seen it all, seems to take everything in stride. But when some of the sheep, in a tight spot, simply go over a cliff, it’s difficult not to sympathize with the exasperated herders. On the way down, joined now by Lawrence Allestad and other hands, the men emit raucous whistles, shouts and hoots, as they call the dogs and drive the sheep, and the usually taciturn Ahern breaks into an old song: I was born up in the mountains, up where the snakes they have legs / The hoot owls speak in English and the roosters lay square eggs.
The last Old West sheep drive — a family’s hundred-year tradition of work — comes to a simple conclusion, with only a hint of nostalgia. In a pickup truck on the way back to the ranch, Ahern is asked what his plans are. “I wasn’t going to worry about it for a week or two,” he replies. In fact, the ranch and most of the sheep were sold in 2006.