Salt of the Earth

Cooking at old salt festival

A weekend at Helmville’s Old Salt Festival.

On an otherwise ordinary weekend in the Blackfoot Valley, the foothills come to life with more than the usual cattle and critters rummaging amongst the brush. Just outside of Helmville, west of Helena on the Mannix family ranch, the Old Salt Co-op hosts their namesake Old Salt Festival, coined “a Montana celebration of land and stewardship.” And it’s true—this festival indeed feels like a celebration, and in a way, every step feels like the first in a new direction.

Every year, the Old Salt Festival is driven by a few Montana-based ranches who joined forces with the shared mission of bringing meat directly to consumers—about as farm-to-table as it comes, short of raising the livestock yourself. Part of the festival’s goal is to create a space where folks from all walks of life can come together and foster kinship in their love for the land and the food that sustains us. Whether a rancher, meat-eater, outdoorsman, or music lover, there is a little something for everyone—as I found out last year.

Leaving from Bozeman Friday morning, after telling the boss I had a “meeting” up in Helena, I hit the road with my rig loaded up for whatever might be in store. I had my mountain bike, fishing rods, and camping gear all kicking around in the bed of my truck. And by “meeting,” I meant that I was meeting some friends at the South Hills mountain bike trails outside of downtown Helena. I arrived in no time, after a pleasant drive across the Montana plains, the Missouri River as my company. We opted for a ride on Mount Ascension and reluctantly talked ourselves out of another lap. We had more business elsewhere.

After loading back up in the car, we headed over McDonald Pass, and into the adjacent valley, trading in the amenities of town for the big-sky country and 360-degree views as far as the eye can see. It was clear that we now found ourselves in a different culture and community than that of the Helena side. On the east side of the divide, you can get by just about however you’d like: in offices, restaurants, or shops—you name it. But on the west side, you live in tandem with the ground and have a relationship with it—more than one can accomplish in the hustle and bustle of a city. As we made our way onward, and with one final turn off the highway, a dirt road greeted us warmly as we pointed our vehicle toward what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. The only reassurance that we were on the right path was the dust trails kicked up by similar-looking rigs—mountain bikes sticking out left and right—barreling toward the same destination: a new world within the grass and hay bales. The last sign of civilization was the Copper Queen Saloon, which hosted a few onlookers chatting amongst themselves (there’s no cell service here) as we passed by and took one more peek in the rearview.

The land we occupied was more than just a place where cows grazed.

Finally, we saw the white tents of the festival appear on the horizon. Next, a sea of vehicles and hundreds of people swimming around the grassland, music audible in the distance. Without haste, we found our camping spot for the weekend, and waltzed giddily towards the festival grounds and the beat of the instruments. Upon entering the gates, a new world opened up to us: a world of people and connection and hard-working hands. At first we felt a little out of place. Our sandals and raggedy mountain-bike garb clashed with cowboy boots and weathered denim. But our hesitation was quickly alleviated when one of the tougher-looking folks came over to ask how the trails were. “Great,” we responded, still a bit nervous. After a few more chance interactions, all positive, it was apparent we were all here for the same thing. Between the music, group meals, talks, and nature walks, it’s hard to say exactly what that thing really was—but perhaps that intangible element is what made it so special.

Looking around the festival on any given day, at any given time, there was much to behold. On the surrounding hills, bird-watchers waded through the sagebrush in search of sparrows and swallows. Curlews called in the faraway lowlands. There were fisherman heading out to the mighty Blackfoot, or perhaps alpine lakes, tucked away just out of view behind the foothills. Then there were the campers and glampers, the makers and musicians in every direction. All the while, a great feast was being prepared in the center of the grounds for everyone to reconvene around and share together. All the food was provided by the same ranchers that make up the Old Salt Co-op, and was prepared by some of the best chefs around. It was all starting to make more sense. The land we occupied was more than just a place where cows grazed. The otherwise entirely-overlooked origin of the meat we ate had a story, too. And that story was as rich as any. The festival was a celebration of our origins; a place where we were all family, even if only for the weekend.

Mountain biking helena

After we ate, we danced. And after that, some stayed up together around the campfire, finding ways to relate despite our differences. “Want another sip?” the same tough guy from before asked as he beckoned with a shiny flask, twinkling in the light of the fire. “Yes, sir,” I responded, this time with a little more pride.

On our way out of Helmville, after saying goodbye to our new friends and our little pop-up community, we stopped at the first gas station to refuel and stock up on snacks. We weren’t quite done in Helena yet. We had planned for one more ride, and made for the South Hills for a last rip on the trails. This time, however, we picked a trail off the Mount Helena side. Afterward, we stopped into Blackfoot River Brewing Co. at the bottom of the trails to extend the weekend just a bit longer. Sitting around the table, we recounted stories from the weekend and laughed about our most cherished moments, already making plans to return the following year.

According to Cole Mannix, president of the Old Salt Co-op, the 2024 festival is on the books for June 21-23, with tickets going on sale in March. Expect the same sentiments and themes as last year, but this time around it’s going to be expanded and more interactive. There will be music, food, vendors, and speakers; some familiar faces and some new. It’s sure to be another great time.