You can't drive 20 miles in western Montana without seeing a number of old horse barns in various stages of decay. In the horse days, they were the hub of every ranch, but now they're rotting, unneeded anachronisms.
They're abandoned and relegated to the role of common sheds, if they're used at all. The stalls that once held big, vigorous teams of good saddle horses now have old bed frames, tattered recliners and other junk considered too good to throw away.
The barn on the place where I was raised is an anomaly in that it has a good roof and a solid foundation. It's an immense barn, built before 1900 with milled lumber, which is unusual in itself. It's more than 50 feet tall, with 8,000 square feet of floor space if you count the loft, which is bigger than a basketball court.
It was a perfect place for kids, and we made good use of it. The horses were gone by then, so we had hiding places and forts in the eight double stalls. We shrieked and whooped our way through the old building almost every day of every childhood summer.
The 12 milking stanchions were turned into lambing jugs for our farm flock of sheep. We kept chickens in the old stud pen and rabbits in what was once a carriage house.
The barn and the pond behind the house were the centers of our summers. If we weren't at the pond swimming or catching toads, we were in the barn, climbing and hiding. In our teen years, we played basketball in the loft, and one winter I spent hours wrestling my bicycle up the stairs, so I could ride all year. That was special.
I'm almost the only person who goes in that barn now. Three years ago, I adopted an old feral tomcat that I've seen only a half dozen times. Every day I take him some food, and as I go up the stairs to the interior of the barn, I always glance down at the second step. When I was about 10, I tried to lead a little horse up those steps, but she broke a riser and caught a hind leg.
I had been cautioned numerous times not to take a horse through that door, but I was a kid then and knew more than any adult. It took me some panicked minutes to get the mare out, but she escaped with only some deep scratches and a limp.
It proved impossible to lie myself out of the situation. I tried my best, but the lame horse and the broken step betrayed me. I never took a horse up those stairs again.
Once in the barn, I walk past the lambing jugs that once held so much life, then I turn the corner and see the empty stalls. The stairs to the loft are rarely used anymore, and the gigantic area, with its 40-foot cathedral ceiling, holds only a pair of great horned owls that must be on the third or fourth generation by now. This summer, there were two adults and three fledglings living in the rafters, and it was nice to know that the old barn had something to shelter.
Further in, there's a small tack room that I fixed up when I was in high school. It was perfect – with places for a half-dozen saddles, plus a work bench and special hooks to hang bridles and other tack. It gave me a lot of pride back then, but now it holds only a cheap old saddle that's missing an entire stirrup leather, a few chicken feathers and a lot of dust. I think there's an old saddle pad that I won when I was 10 or 12, but it can stay there, where's it's been for more than 50 years. The tiny room was wonderful in its time, but I don't go in there any more. There's not enough room for an old man and his memories.
I leave the food for my feral cat and stare at the stalls where we saddled horses, remembering the assertive thumps their shod hooves made on the planks when we led them in and out. There's no other sound like that.
So I leave the barn to a pair of ancient owls, a decrepit old tomcat and the echoes of the children who abandoned the barn to pursue their respective dystopian futures.
I stuck my head into the loft this morning. The owls were there, so life is good – or at least it continues.
Richard Geary is a rancher in Helmville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.