Feature | Photo Gallery

The Land is Alive 

Having grown up on the R Lazy S Ranch, photographer and archeologist Matt Stirn knows the many aspects of its personality.

// Text and photography by Matt Stirn

I grew up on the R Lazy S Ranch a mile north of Teton Village. Nestled against Grand Teton National Park to the north, the Snake River to the east, and the Tetons to the west, our ranch is an oasis of lush aspen groves, cottonwood stands, and sagebrush flats. I often travel abroad photographing stories for magazines and working on archaeological excavations, but my home base is always the ranch, a place like no other. Strolling around it, I might see bears snuffling for hawthorn berries, large herds of elk thundering across the river, or wolves moving silently like shadows through the fog. 

Growing up in a wild place where everyday animal encounters rivaled the thrill of African safaris, I developed a deep fascination with nature and the love of capturing the world around me on camera. Summers, I visit coyote families as pups learn to play, photograph fledgling owls on their first evening hunts, and watch with amusement as newborn moose take their first wobbly steps. Exploring and photographing the same landscape day after day allowed me to see the land breathe and to get a special glimpse of its personality—something I’m convinced that every place has, but which we rarely stay long enough to see.

The ranch has always been a backyard made from a dream, and it has never been just my family’s. Since our first involvement, we have had the pleasure of sharing it with others. The R Lazy S has a long and colorful history as a dude ranch, continuing the tradition of inviting over 300 guests each summer to experience the “Wild West” on horseback. This summer is the R Lazy S’s 75th year welcoming guests. 

I’ve found myself reflecting on this important milestone, a milestone not just in my life but also in Jackson Hole’s dude ranching history. My great-grandparents first visited Jackson in the 1940s during the heyday of Western Americana, when people flocked to Wyoming in search of the adventurous lifestyle epitomized in the pages of The Virginian by Owen Wister, who happened to be one of the R Lazy S’s earliest owners (between 1911 and 1920). My great-grandparents’ vacations here were to dude ranches in GTNP—first to the Bearpaw Ranch; then, starting in 1948, to the R Lazy S, when then-owners, the McConaughy family, transitioned it from a private ranch to a dude ranch. Nearly a decade after my great-grandparents’ first visit to the R Lazy S, a large tract of pristine land along the Snake River came up for sale. It was to be one of the first large residential subdivisions in rural Jackson. By then, my great-grandparents had fallen in love with the valley. Without much of a plan for the land beyond preserving it, they purchased the entire tract. 

Twenty years later, in 1972, the R Lazy S Ranch’s lease in GTNP was ending and the McConaughys were ready to transition away from owning it. Instead of the R Lazy S closing its doors forever, my grandparents, Howard and Cara, purchased the business and the ranch brand, and, over a single summer, moved all of the historic cabins to our family’s property. My grandparents and eventually my parents, Nancy and Kelly, continued R Lazy S’s dude ranch operations at its new location. Recognizing that the valley was rapidly changing and fearing that soon both wild spaces and the cowboy culture that Jackson was founded on would disappear, in 1981 the R Lazy S’s 325 acres became the Jackson Hole Land Trust’s first private conservation easement in the valley; the easement ensured the ranch would never be developed. While trying to help preserve tradition and wild spaces has become part of my family’s culture, life on the ranch is forever changing and never ceases to surprise. 

A coyote pup babysits his siblings while hunting for ground squirrels nearby. I visited this coyote family once a week for an entire summer and had the pleasure of watching the pups grow. The one sitting up became comfortable and curious with my presence and would trot to greet me each time I visited their home. He still lives on the ranch today and frequently mouses at the far end of our backyard.
For as long as I can remember, we have had a healthy population of moose living on the ranch, and they have continuously played an active role in our lives. From sleeping behind the car so I couldn’t go to elementary school to visiting our doorstep every Christmas morning, the ranch moose have essentially become extended family members. A few years ago, this calf was born outside of our bedroom window (as magical and harrowing as it sounds), and it has grown up in our backyard. 
Horseback riding has long been the central theme of any week spent at the R Lazy S. We keep around 80 horses in our herd each summer; this allows them to rotate between weeks and stay healthy throughout the summer. Many guests have ridden the same horse for years and look forward to being reunited every time they return.
The cowboy gear rental room is on the first floor of the ranch’s haybarn. While many visiting guests arrive with riding experience and a love for horses, we welcome many families each summer who have dreamt of playing cowboy but never had the opportunity. 
Sunrise on the ranch in the early autumn brings me happiness—there’s something about the golden curls of steam that drift off Lake Creek, the haunting echo of elk bugles among the still aspens, and the subtle hints of the winter that is coming to the mountains. Pick any day of the year, and there will be plenty of wondrous and beautiful things to see on the ranch, but in the fall as the leaves shine brightly, the land seems to let slip its true personality.
The R Lazy S’s covered wagon catches the last hint of sunset during the final week of the ranch’s season. At the end of October, the crew leaves, the cabins are winterized, and the horses head to another ranch in central Wyoming (to return again the following spring). 
An aerial view of springtime on the ranch when the entirety of Jackson Hole erupts in multiple shades of green.
Buck, a West-Texas cowboy turned R Lazy S wrangler, leads a horse-in-training toward one of the ranch’s several riding rings near the barn. 
While we typically have a general idea about which animals are on the ranch, unexpected encounters continue to surprise us. One afternoon two years ago, an employee was cleaning a guest cabin when she noticed five pairs of grizzly eyes looking at her through the front window. It was the fabled Grizzly 399 and her four cubs. The family proceeded to spend three days on the ranch napping in the willows and swimming in our fishing pond. 
Every summer hundreds of elk move through the ranch. While we always enjoy having herds on the ranch, the autumn rut when the bulls bugle and spar is simply amazing. One of the best places to watch the elk rut is out of our bedroom window, where I snapped this picture. 
I’ve tried without luck to take pictures of hummingbirds across Central and South America. Little did I realize that one of the best places I would find was on my parents’ back porch. Every day during the summer, hundreds of hummingbirds visit their flower garden and feeder. With a cocktail in one hand and my camera in the other, I caught this rufous hummingbird as he paused to glance at his reflection in my lens. Why fly for 48 hours when this is right out the backdoor?
The main lodge is the centerpoint of everyone’s stay at the ranch. Built in 1928, it is home to the kitchen, dining room, kids’ room, and lounge. When the weather is chilly outside, relax with a book next to the lodge’s roaring fire. JH

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