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Whether he is rustling up cattle on the plains or a juicy steak from the locals, Ryan Bell is on the move studying cowboy culture in Russia and Kazakhstan. A UM creative writing alumnus and assistant adjunct instructor, Bell is the recipient of a prestigious Fulbright-National Geographic fellowship for six months of travel to Russia and three months in Kazakhstan. The Montanan recently asked him to describe his adventure abroad.
Why did you come to UM to study creative writing?
In 2012, I was living in the small ranch town of Ennis, Montana, working as a freelance journalist. Mostly, I wrote for Western Horseman, a cowboy lifestyle magazine, but I wanted to make a career leap and write for bigger publications. To do so, I needed to push myself harder as a writer. When I saw that Judy Blunt taught creative nonfiction -- a woman whose ranching bonafides could humble Clint Eastwood -- it was game over. I packed up my saddle and was Missoula-bound.
How was your experience in that program?
During my time at UM, I felt like I was in one of those sensory deprivation chambers. You know, like where they suspend you in a dark swimming pool? The world felt held at bay. I’d grown used to hustling, traveling, and cranking out stories as a freelancer. The program gave me time to slow down and work more intently on making good pieces of writing. I also enjoyed being around people as enthused about reading and writing as me. It felt like being part of a club. We should’ve had a treehouse.
Who was your favorite professor? Why?
The aforementioned Judy Blunt, because I recognized in her the strength and compassion of ranch women I’ve met all across the West. They insist you take off your dirty boots at the door, and then sit you down at the table and fill you with food.
How did studying creative nonfiction at UM influence your approaches to writing and help prepare you for the Fellowship?
My Fellowship is an outgrowth of my M.F.A. thesis project, which was about a Montana rancher who has been helping rebuild Russia’s cattle industry. I’ve been reporting on this story since 2010. But in writing my thesis paper, I realized the story was incomplete. I needed to go back to Russia to see what became of this strange adventure. In looking for a funding mechanism that would take me back to Russia, I learned about the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. Applying for it was a shot in the dark. I’m still surprised I hit the mark.
How did you hear about the Fellowship?
A fellow M.F.A. student, Laurel Nagasaki, got a Fulbright to Nicaragua. While down there, she helped start a community poetry program. I’d always thought of Fulbright as a program for scholars and teachers, but Laurel’s experience showed me that it was also a good way for funding work in the humanities. The timing was good because Fulbright had just created a partnership with National Geographic to send five storytellers out into the world.
Could you describe the process of applying for the Fulbright–National Geographic Fellowship and coming up with a proposal idea?
A pool of ten finalists had been chosen from around 500 applicants, and we’d been flown to Washington D.C. to pitch our projects in front of a selection committee of editors from National Geographic, members of the Fulbright board, and representatives from the U.S. State Department.
If an idea is good, there’s not much “coming up with” to be done. It takes hold of you and demands your attention. What made my project proposal competitive was how deeply committed I already was to the project. I had a body of work about Russia to show them as evidence that I could pull it off. For the selection committee, they want to make sure they’re investing taxpayer money responsibly -- on projects that will succeed and are worthwhile. It also didn’t hurt that I was proposing to go to Russia, where the United States is in need of positive diplomacy.
What was your reaction when you found out you’d been offered the Fellowship?
At first, “Holy cow.” Then, “Uh oh.” If I accepted the Fellowship, it would have the effect of a meteor impact on my personal life. Which was why I kept the news to myself for a few days, savoring the honor I felt for having been selected from such a large field. When I told my wife, she bounded with excitement. We booked tickets for them to visit me for two months in Russia, that way the Fellowship could be an experience for all of us to enjoy. My daughter especially enjoyed the trip because she was spoiled rotten by every babushka she met, who gave her a steady stream of chocolates and candies.
How did you prepare for the Fellowship?
I rekindled a lot of my old relationships from past trips to Russia. For Kazakhstan, I just started networking through the cowboy grapevine, asking around if anybody knew any farmers or ranchers over there. My biggest concern, by far, was creating a plan for writing weekly blogs for National Geographic. I pre-reported several blog topics, so I could hit the ground running. I also honed up on my photography skills because I would have to produce all of my own visuals.
What does the Fellowship entail?
I travel a lot. Since my launch in September 2015, I’ve logged many weeks-worth of train travel across Eastern Europe and Central Asia. My time is split between six months in Russia and three months in Kazakhstan. Basically, I travel around visiting every farm or ranch I can find that has a cow or horse standing on it. Along the way, I write blogs and news stories for NationalGeographic.com. Miserable job, right?
How long will you be in Russian/Kazakhstan?
My program lasts nine months. In June, I fly home to my wife and daughter, who have made great sacrifices for me to have this opportunity. Their blessing was the best gift anyone has ever given me. My wife and I have agreed she gets the next nine-month vacation.
How did you become interested in cowboy culture?
I was raised in the city. Both of my grandfathers worked in agriculture. One was a Wyoming cowboy, and the other a Pennsylvania farmer who thought of himself as an Arizona cowboy. The first time I rode a horse, in my teens, I felt something buried deep in my DNA come to life.
What aspect of researching cowboys in Russia/Kazakhstan is most fascinating to you? Why?
The food. I agree with Anthony Bourdain that the best way to travel is through the stomach. Just as there’s nothing better than eating barbeque somewhere in the American south, it’s pretty awesome to eat borscht in Russia and beshbarmak in Kazakhstan.
Could you describe the cattle industry you helped start in 2010 in Russia?
When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, collective farming ground to a halt. People lost their jobs. Farmers sold off their cattle herds to pay off their debts. It was like a beef apocalypse. By 2010, Russia and Kazakhstan were spending billions importing red meat to feed their people. To fix the problem, these governments provided loans for their farmers to buy breeding cattle, ranching equipment, and cowboy expertise. I worked for a Montana rancher who was starting one of the first Western-style cattle ranches in Russia. We brought 1,450 Black Angus cattle from the ranges of Montana to the Russian steppes. We saw the cattle through their first winter, spring, and summer, training a group of villagers to become cowboys along the way.
What is a typical day in the life of a Russian cowboy like?
The rhythm of life is similar to the American West. They’re at work by 7 a.m. and finish twelve hours later. Day-to-day chores depend on the season. Right now, it’s springtime, so there are a lot of cows giving birth. The Russians have to make sure the calves are healthy, vaccinate them, weigh them, give them numbered ear tags, and then move them to pasture.
What are some differences between cowboys in Russia and American cowboys?
Where Americans have a love affair with horses, Russians love their tractors. That’s because it was the position of highest esteem (and pay) during the Soviet Union. It’s taking them a while to see that horseback work is a lot of fun, plus it’s a better, more humane way to work with cattle.
What has surprised or intrigued you most about the people and culture of Russia?
Russians mask their emotions behind blank stares. For Americans, who spend most of their waking hours with an expression on their faces, it’s a big culture shock. What’s interesting, though, is that once you establish a connection with a Russian, the emotions come pouring out. Still waters run deep.
Why do you believe studying cowboys in Russia/Kazakhstan is so important for your readers and for the world?
We’ve stopped seeing the humanity in each other. Our governments do a less-than-terrific job of getting along. That road goes two ways. But there’s an alternate route, and that’s for the peoples of America, Russia, and Kazakhstan to meet each other face-to-face. I expected some anti-Americanism, but found that people are hungry to meet a real live American that can show them something different about the U.S.A. than the lousy stories they see on television. Also, the horse is a powerful unifier of people. In the saddle, people become one, no matter what passport is in their wallet.
What is the biggest adjustment you’ve had to make abroad?
Train travel. I promised my wife I wouldn’t fly on planes during my trip -- Russia’s air safety record isn’t good. I love trains, and they rock me to sleep like a baby. But on overnight trains, you’re forced into close quarters with strangers. It has pushed my comfort level, in a good way, especially for practicing my Russian language. But it’s exhausting. I sleep more than I should on a train, and come off somehow more tired than when I began.
What are some other challenges you’ve faced?
Photography is difficult in Russia because there is a deep-seeded distrust of cameras. People do not like having their picture taken. I get turned down ten times for everyone one person who's willing to participate in a photograph.
What do you do in your spare time abroad?
Sit in trains.
What is something you hope to learn more about within the next few months?
My last two months are in Kazakhstan. I’m really curious to learn more about how Kazakhstan is reasserting its own cultural traditions, now that the Soviet Union is out of the picture.
How did you get into travel writing/photography?
Curiosity. I want to see what’s over the next rise. I’m a writer first, and a photographer second. But I’ve come to appreciate how the camera forces me to really “see” my subjects, and to think about how I frame a scene that I will write about later. Also, pictures make great source material when I sit down to write a story. I’m always going back into my archives to see what the person was wearing, the exact time of day, the setting, and to find hidden gems that were in the scene which I hadn’t noticed at first.
What is some advice you would give to aspiring photographers, writers, journalists?
Always have a side project. The successful creative people I know are always surprising me with some new side project that they’re working on. By pushing and exploring, their work stays fresh. And for your customers -- editors and readers -- it builds a sense of mystery about what you’re working on next. Keep them wanting more. And keep wanting more yourself.
What is a topic you’d like to study next?
That’s between me and the editor I’m pitching the story to. Sorry.
What is next for you? Do you plan to come back to UM to teach?
I’m already an assistant adjunct professor for the English department. I teach Intro to Creative Nonfiction, through UM Online. It’s fun engaging with students. They keep me young and excited about the world of creative nonfiction. But I don’t have plans to teach full time, yet. There are too many countries to explore, and too many horses to ride.
—Interview by Courtney Brockman