Roundabout Sisters - In the Bitterbrush


Last updated 6/22/2022 at Noon

If you’re like me, you might be feeling a little withdrawal now that the Rodeo is over. Of course, you could saddle up and head over to Prineville on June 23 for the Crooked River Roundup with a $67,500 purse. Or maybe plan an Independence Day weekend at the St. Paul Rodeo and it’s whopping $285,000 purse.

Or, save a whole bunch of $5 gas and find your way to Sisters Movie House today for “Bitterbrush,” which has scored an impressive 86 percent at Rotten Tomatoes.

Emelie Mahdavian’s sweeping documentary follows Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline, range riders spending their summer herding cattle in remote Idaho. Completely off the grid with only their dogs as companions, Hollyn and Colie brave harsh weather and perilous work conditions, all the while pondering their futures.

A portrait of friendship, life transitions, and the work of two skilled young women in the isolated and beautiful landscape of the American West, “Bitterbrush” is an intimate portrayal of a way of life rarely seen on film.

The 98-minute film, an official selection of the 2021 Telluride Film Festival, has earned rave reviews from critics. Variety calls it “Magnificent, a picturesque documentary that embraces the sweeping tradition of the American genre.”

IndieWire says it’s “Sublime. Packs a hell of a punch.” “Gorgeous. A subtle portrayal of non-sensational humanity,” is how The Playlist describes it, while The Hollywood Reporter says “Immersive.” (I like that word).

It could just as easily have been shot right here in Central Oregon. The scenery will invoke territory as familiar as our own big back yard at once startling and breathtaking.

Hollyn and Colie are essentially freelancers under contract to bring range cattle in for the winter. They’re generally the only two humans visible for miles, and their “West” isn’t a metaphor. It’s a workplace with open skies and rolling mountains, and a cabin to bunk down. Logistics is most of the job, how to get hundreds of cows (and the herd dogs that accompany them) from point A to point B before being snowed in, along with an interlude to “start” a colt.

The music, by Bach surprisingly, performed only with piano, works remarkably, hauntingly so. The whole thing is calming in an otherwise worldly storm. The two friends have no cell reception and no working toilet, an unbearable thought for many of us.

It’s a deeply immersive (that word again) experience. They spread tuna from single-serving packets onto white bread flattened during the ride, and wash it down with Pepsi. They warm up corned beef hash in the can on a gas stove. They mend barbed wire fences. With the help and companionship of a half dozen or so dogs, they herd cows through vast prairies, up mountains, into forests, and across a highway. At the end of arduous days, they nurse dog paws. There’s no romanticizing “Bitterbrush;” this is life, real and hard.

The story is brilliantly told punctuated with careful editing and penetrating photography.

In some ways, “Bitterbrush” piggybacks on the runaway success of “Yellowstone,” the Kevin Costner drama built around a Montana ranching family. Both seem to fill a longing in our COVID psyche for the true grit of the West as compared to the grittiness of life on the mean streets in our urban centers.

Outside the Movie House the desert is in bloom. The forest, too, but I expect things to grow there. This is the time of the year to change directions, go eastward, away from public lands managed by the Forest Service and onto those run by BLM.

Just a few miles puts you onto some splendid, flowering trails and our very own bitterbrush, its blossoms bursting in yellow. My favorite paths among them? The Tumalo Canal Historic District system. In 1903, lands in this area and the planned Columbia Southern Irrigation Project were advertised throughout the U.S. and abroad, promoting settlement in Central Oregon.

Construction began on a 72-foot high earthen dam and an extensive network of canals to deliver water to 27,000 acres. The project failed in 1915 when Tumalo Reservoir, filled nearly to capacity, began to drain through the geologic fissures and cracks. The historic dam is located 7 miles to the southwest on Sisemore Road, just north of Couch Market Road.

Relic canals, like those that form the trail system in this area, are still visible today throughout the area at a 3,200-foot elevation. Some of these relic canals are near or connect to still-operational Tumalo Irrigation District ditches. The interconnecting trails will take you as few or as many miles as you want.

No rodeo. No worries. Make your own adventure from the comfort of a movie theater or on the trails. Alas, “Bitterbrush” ends its one-week run June 23. Sisters Movie House is the only theater in all of Oregon where it was available. Here’s hoping its strong word of mouth will make it possible for it to return.

Find a way somehow to fill your tanks with this captivating and meditative look at two intrepid women in a male-dominated endeavor.


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