At Home On The Range

How photography helped me find a renewed, deeper appreciation for my home on the edge of wilderness
Panoramic image above R Lazy S ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

In the springtime, R Lazy S ranch and surrounding Jackson Hole valley erupt in multiple tones of vibrant green.

The sliding glass door in my parents’ room began to rattle, bowing and flexing inward toward their bed. Champ, their elderly Australian Shepard and lover of all animals, let out an uncharacteristic growl that turned into a whimper as the window above her continued to bend and shake. My dad awoke and sleepily clicked on the porch light, which exposed the silhouette of an enormous standing bear, his face and paws pressed up against the window, which was putting forth a valiant effort of defending the house from outside invaders.

Windows and doors, however, only succeed when they are closed, and it was at that moment that my parents looked at each other, wide-eyed, remembering they had left every window in the living room open to help cool down the house on this warm summer evening. Racing into the hallway and past my bedroom, where I slept peacefully and oblivious to the drama, they began hurriedly shutting the windows before the furry prowler realized what opportunities awaited him on the other side of the house. On the last window, the crank handle snapped off entirely, sending my dad on a frantic hunt for a screwdriver. Finally, just as he successfully forced the window shut, my mom tapped on his shoulder and whispered for him to look up. Out of the darkness, two beady eyes materialized as the great bear stood up and pressed his nose up against the glass.

I later awoke—unaware of what had happened in the night—to my parents sitting quietly in the kitchen, staring outside, their eyes dark and puffy. As my sleepy vision began to focus, I realized why they were so tired. Every pane of glass bore large, smudgy bear prints from where a visitor had tried repeatedly to break in. “I think you’re going to be late to school today,” said my mom as she poured herself another glass of tea and pointed outside, where the large bear, worn out from his evening exploits, sat lazily munching on hawthorn berries between the front door and our car.

Just another morning on the ranch.

Photo of a building during winter at R Lazy S ranch.

Winter on the ranch is a different world. The people are gone, and the animals move silently and softly. Our horses go to the desert a few hours away, and the barn sits under the snow, waiting for their spring return.

Growing up on a ranch in Jackson Hole was an experience like no other.  Everything revolved around the outdoors, and dinnertime conversations were rarely guided by the activities of the day but instead by the animals we had encountered. A walk around the ranch was like stepping into a safari where an incredible population of wildlife could be found without an arduous search. Whether it was seeing a herd of 300 elk thunder across the Snake River, hearing the eerie call of a wolf echo through the November fog or watching fox kits emerge for their first spring from beneath the barn porch, animals were part of my daily experience, and interactions with them were as commonplace as getting up in the morning or eating a meal.

While living in a place surrounded by natural wonders and visited by millions of people each year was an incredible experience, the reoccurring wonders occasionally dissolved into the routine of everyday life, and it wouldn’t be until years later that photography helped me rediscover and reconnect with the uniqueness of my home.

R Lazy S

Bull elk at R Lazy S ranch.

A bull elk stands among vibrant fall foliage in my parents’ front yard. He had just finished chasing a harem of females and briefly strutted against some incredible color as the sun set behind him.

Resting at the northern end of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, the R Lazy S ranch is situated in an oasis of lush aspen groves, cottonwood stands and sagebrush flats bordered by the Snake River to the east, the Teton Range to the west and Grand Teton National Park to the north. All that separates us from the national park is a buckrail fence. This inanimate boundary holds no conviction to the herds of elk, deer, moose and occasional bison that migrate over, under and through it each season. The territory has no border, and to the animals, our ranch is part of a seamless ecosystem that begins near the town of Jackson and stretches all the way through Yellowstone National Park nearly 50 miles to the north.

The ranch currently operates as a guest ranch and maintains a tradition of inviting visitors to experience the “wild west” in a fashion that has remained unchanged for nearly 80 years and predates my family’s involvement. My great grandparents first visited Jackson in the 1940s during the heyday of western Americana, when people flocked to Wyoming in search of the idyllic cowboy culture that was portrayed in Hollywood movies and amongst the pages of Owen Wister’s The Virginian. At that time, the R Lazy S operated in Grand Teton National Park, about 10 miles north of its current home.

Photo of birds in sunrise fog on the Snake River in Wyoming.

One of my favorite places on the ranch is the banks along the Snake River just at sunrise. Before the sun has come up, it is as if the world is on pause. Animals stay quiet, everything is still, and the air is crisp. But the moment the sun peeks over the Gros Ventre Range to the east, everything changes, and the day quickly unfolds as geese take flight and herds of animals march across the quickly flowing water.

In the late 1950s, a large tract of pristine land along the Snake River was slotted to become one of the first large residential subdivisions in rural Jackson, a prospect that horrified my family, who couldn’t conceive how such a wild and beautiful place could be built upon. Without much of a plan, my great grandparents purchased the property for the sole purpose of preserving it. Thirty years later, in 1972, the original R Lazy S Ranch closed its operations and all the structures were picked up, moved and reopened by my grandparents on our property. The ranch was shortly thereafter established as the first private conservation easement in Jackson Hole, which would forever protect it from future development.

Conservation became an ethos on the ranch and for those of us who grew up there—both my family members as well as the families who visit every summer as dudes and have come to consider our ranch a second home. Being stewards of the land was not a conscious decision but rather an ingrained lifestyle.

Flat Creek begins high in the Teton Mountains before flowing down Granite Canyon and eventually into the ranch. As a kid, I would often innertube down the creek, floating next to baby moose out for an afternoon swim.

Today, the R Lazy S continues to invite visitors from around the world each summer to ride horses, experience the cowboy lifestyle and connect with nature. At its center lie historic log cabins nestled in the willows, a dining lodge placed amongst a sea of yellow dandelions and the barn, which provides a home to nearly 100 horses, including several mustangs that grew up wild in Wyoming’s deserts to the south. While the buildings, guests and horses may compose the beating heart of the ranch, its soul is manifested through an intricate relationship with nature and wildlife.

Reconnecting With My Home

I have worked professionally as a photographer, writer and archaeologist for the past 15 years. This suite of careers has taken me to over 40 countries and introduced me to an exhilarating and adventurous lifestyle that I would have never dreamt to be possible. I’ve dived on shipwrecks in the Black Sea, spent months hunting for prehistoric villages in Wyoming’s wilderness, photographed orangutans in Sumatra and ventured amongst remote pyramids in the Sudan. While my education and development as a photographer and scientist have been incredibly influential on my life, the majority of it has occurred away from my home.

Image of horned owl at R Lazy S ranch.

Most springs, a pair of great horned owls return to the ranch to build a nest and raise their young. Last year, this happened right outside our bedroom window. The mother, pictured here, would guide her young to wait in our front yard while she caught a gopher and then flew to the roof above our window with the hope of coaxing them to fly up and dine with her. After weeks of squawking, banging and plenty of flapping, the young owlets finally got the hang of it.

Before returning in 2014, I spent nearly eight years away from Wyoming, except for the occasional holiday visit or archaeological field excursion squeezed in between semesters at graduate school or work assignments. During those years growing as a photographer and scientist, I learned to take an interrogative approach to life—identifying, analyzing and connecting details to craft stories that could be explored through images. This was an outlook that had guided me around the globe, but one I had never fully experienced at home.

After moving back to Jackson, I took strolls around the ranch much as I had always done, but this time with a camera in hand. By seeking out animals and vistas to photograph, I explored the ranch with a fresh perspective and began to observe things about my home that I had overlooked in the past. As a result, I was granted access to small and amazing worlds that had always been there but were previously shrouded by familiarity, a powerful cloak that can subdue even the most vibrant details if not shaken free from time to time.

Image of a female ruffed grouse.

Each year, we have a female ruffed grouse who raises a train of chicks in our driveway flowerbed. We’ll hear their chirping and fluttering once they are a few weeks old and become brave enough to explore the yard. On one particular evening, we returned home to find the mom and her babies all over a hawthorn tree eating berries.

A few years ago, I got word from a family friend who lives on the ranch that she had spotted a baby coyote playing in the sagebrush near her cabin. I had seen coyote pups before, but as a photographer, I was now interested in more detailed questions about their lives that wouldn’t have previously occurred to me. How did they interact with their mom? Did the pups have different personalities? How would their relationship with one another change throughout the summer? Rather than simply being aware of and enjoying animals on the ranch, I found myself becoming more attached and invested by wanting to document their lives and wellbeing.

When I arrived, I found not just one but six coyote pups frolicking and wrestling on a patch of dirt near one of our horse pastures. Not wanting to disturb them, I set up my telephoto lens and began to take pictures of the puppy playtime unfolding in the distance. What happened next, though, caught me by complete surprise. I heard a noise to my left and looked over to see an adult female coyote, the mother of the pups, lounging lazily in the grass only 30 feet away from me. I immediately recognized her by the distinct coloring of fur on her neck as the same coyote who would frequently mouse in our front yard unperturbed, even while we worked or sat outside. I knew her, and I believe that she recognized me as she laid down to continue lounging, entirely carefree, while her puppies pounced on each other nearby.

Coyote pups at R Lazy S ranch.

This was the first portrait I captured during my initial encounter with the coyote family near my house. The one on the right with the frown became comfortable and curious with my presence and would trot to greet me each time I visited their home. These two still live on the ranch today and frequently mouse at the far end of our backyard.

As she watched, the youngest and smallest of the pups, a male with an animated frown, trotted up to my tripod, yipped and ran back to play with his siblings. I realized at that moment that I had been granted permission to observe and photograph this family. I returned several times throughout the rest of the summer to continue documenting my newfound neighbors. On each occasion, the curious pup with the frown, just a little bit older and just a hair bigger, would run to greet me on the trail before trotting back to join his family.

Since the summer of the coyotes, I have had a few other opportunities to watch and photograph intimate stories of animals on the ranch. I watched as a great horned owl learned to hunt near (and occasionally on top of) our house. I photographed groups of young elk taking their first steps in the back pasture, and I documented a family of six long-eared owls who would gather around the bathroom window each morning to watch ranch guests shower and shriek in surprise. On each of these special occasions, just by looking through the viewfinder, I found myself wondering and learning new things about animals I had always thought I understood. I have long believed that a camera and an idea can offer the freedom to experience a familiar place as if visiting for the very first time. By heading out to explore my childhood home and document stories that had always been there but sometimes went unnoticed, I discovered that this mindset couldn’t be truer.

Something Worth Saving

Places, just like people or animals, have lives that can be observed and experienced. They grow, change and foster relationships with each other and the environment. Places also have emotions, but you have to look long and hard before being granted a glimpse into their personalities. Returning to my home as a photographer allowed me a special opportunity to reconnect with a place I loved and appreciated and to see it under a new light. Conservation was always an underlying part of my life, but I became more aware and attached to the concept as I began to watch and photograph the animated lives of the many animals here. They were no longer just actors who moved and grazed stoically across the field but instead were integral characters in a complex story that involved my own life as much as theirs.

Over the past decade or so, we have noticed an increase in the number of animals who migrate through the ranch during the change of seasons. Elk sometimes number in the hundreds, and higher numbers of moose, deer and occasional carnivores like wolves or mountain lions also move through each year. While this is a wonderful spectacle for those who live at or visit the ranch, it is not exactly how it should be. Jackson Hole is growing, and with that change has come a decrease in the amount of accessible land throughout the valley.

Every spring and fall, hundreds of elk pass through the ranch on their annual migrations. Once here, they often spend several weeks settling down, having babies or participating in the dramatic fall rut. One morning, I was woken up by a racket and found two juvenile elk sparring in the field beyond our bedroom window. They would rear up, box and then playfully bounce and chase each other through the trees.

As houses replace quiet aspen groves and golf courses busy once-open fields, animals are becoming drawn to places that still feel wild. My great grandparents started a legacy, and I am honored, along with the help of my family, to continue their dream of conserving the natural wonder we are able to call home. A few nights ago, in the midst of writing this, I looked up and noticed two adult coyotes mousing just on the other side of the fence. As they trotted past the window, I smiled as I thought I saw a distinct frown on the smaller one in the back. I don’t know what life will be like for the coyote family, or what antics the young elk will get up to this spring, but I am excited to find out, and will eagerly await with camera in hand to see what story next unfolds on tomorrow’s walk around the ranch. 


See more of Matt Stirn’s photography at mattstirnphoto.com.