IN CENTRAL MONTANA — Tom Brokaw opened the back door of his pickup and invited Red, his yellow Labrador retriever, to jump in. This was on a recent day on Brokaw’s ranch, which lies nestled among undulating bunchgrass about a mile above sea level, with a crystalline river coursing through it and the Absaroka Mountains rising in the distance.
Happy to ride along, Red rocketed into the truck and soon crowded the nape of Brokaw’s neck as the retired NBC News anchor piloted the flatbed rig over a washboard-like gravel road, dust cascading behind in long plumes.
Earlier in the day, Brokaw, 74, had returned from New York City, where he is being treated for the cancer that was diagnosed about a year ago. Now, tired but buoyant, he was eager to see whether he and Red could put up a covey or two of the sharp-tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge that inhabit his 5,000-acre ranch.
Opening day of bird hunting was still weeks away. But Brokaw wanted confirmation that the spring and early summer nesting seasons had been productive.
“We should have good hunting this fall,’’ he said. “There should be birds around.’’
Though a son of the plains — he was born and raised in South Dakota — Brokaw might seem an unlikely candidate for the ranch and outdoor life he has long led, albeit largely out of the public’s eye.
As anchor and managing editor of the Nightly News from 1982 to 2004, and for five years before that, host of the Today Show, Brokaw has lived in New York City with his wife, Meredith, more than 35 years.
For much of that time, he not only didn’t hunt, he didn’t own a firearm, even though, as a young boy with a BB gun, he passed long hours plinking grasshoppers off fence posts. And he was a crack shot with a lever-action Marlin .22 his dad gave him when he was 12 and bedridden with pleurisy.
“I slept with that gun day and night until I recovered,’’ he said.
But in 1968, when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated, Brokaw got rid of his guns.
“There was so much violence in the country, I just didn’t want to own them anymore,’’ he said. “I gave them to a cameraman friend who hunted, two shotguns and a .22 rifle. I didn’t pick up another gun for more than 20 years.’’
Turning to other sporting pursuits, Brokaw cast flies to trout and backpacked widely with his wife on multiple-day wilderness trips, while also learning to mountain climb after meeting Yvon Chouinard, founder and chairman of the gear and clothing company Patagonia as well as a veteran alpinist.
“Rick Ridgeway was the first American to climb K2 (the second highest mountain in the world),’’ Chouinard recalled the other day from his Wyoming home, “and when Tom had him on the Today Show, he expressed an interest in climbing. So Rick suggested he go out to Wyoming and climb with a friend of his — me.
“I didn’t watch TV then and I still don’t. So I didn’t know who Tom Brokaw was. But he came out and we fooled around for a day. Then we climbed Grand Teton, and not by an easy route — by direct ascent.
“My judgment was then as it is now. Tom wasn’t out to prove anything. He just wanted to do it.’’
Fast friends, Chouinard and Brokaw subsequently scaled Mt. Rainier, “and not by a tourist route.’’
“I remember at one point we had a lot of rock falling on us, and we had to go across an area real fast. But I didn’t want to rope up because that would slow us down,’’ Chouinard recalled.
“Tom said, ‘What are we going to do here?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s going to be like trying to catch a cab in New York City in the rain.
“It’s every man for himself.’’
A life in the outdoors
“Red’’ and Jean Brokaw were working-class parents who bowed their backs deeply to provide for their three sons, Tom being the oldest.
This was in the early 1940s, when dust swirled across the Dakotas, the Great Depression had only recently wound down, and world war was pending.
To get by, Red once borrowed $40 to buy a brace of horses he leased for 20 cents an hour to a Bristol, S.D., road contractor, with another 40 cents added for Red’s handiwork with the reins.
“There I was making 60 cents an hour,’’ he once said. “Otherwise I was lucky if I was making 50 cents a day in that town.’’
Savvy with machines and a workaholic, Red Brokaw didn’t hunt. But other South Dakota men did, and come October, young Tom caught on with them, a Remington pump in his hands, his clothes from Army Surplus.
If a dog hunted alongside, it was an untrained mutt. So Brokaw and his pals would call out as they hiked, “Up bird, up bird,’’ hoping to put roosters to wing, and hoping also their aims were true, because at day’s end, the value of the meat needed to exceed the cost of shells.
Now, steering his pickup from the gravel road toward a vast fenced pasture, Brokaw asked a passenger, “Can you get the gate?’’
In the back seat, Brokaw’s Labrador paced excitedly, wanting to scour the nearby hawthorn and sage for “sharpies’’ and “Huns.’’
This was on ranchland that Brokaw has worked hard to prove up since purchasing it in 1989, ridding it of toxic leafy spurge and fencing off the river to keep cattle from beating down its fragile stream banks.
He’s also planted food plots and otherwise managed the property for the birds he now pursues with the same passion he did as a boy.
A hunting dog acquired serendipitously helped rekindle that interest — and prompted him also to restock his gun case.
“Our youngest (of three daughters) had left for college. We were empty-nesters, and Meredith thought we needed a dog,’’ Brokaw said.
A female Labrador puppy was purchased, and every day during the eight or so months the Brokaws were in New York City — most of their summers are spent at the ranch — they exercised their new friend, named Sage, on the sidewalks of Manhattan.
In time, a trainer proclaimed the dog fit to hunt — her naps on the Brokaws’ bed notwithstanding — and for a dozen or so autumns thereafter, Sage and Brokaw descended on South Dakota to chase ringnecks and, for Brokaw, to reprise old times.
All the while, the flip side of his life as the anchor of NBC Nightly News continued apace, and on any given day, he might interview Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, or Vladimir Putin, or the Dalai Lama. Or write one of the shelf full of books he has contributed to or authored, including the bestselling “The Greatest Generation.’’
The writer Tom McGuane ranches not far from Brokaw’s place, and the two are fishing and hunting partners.
“Tom’s love of the outdoors never disappeared under the pressures of a celebrated career,’’ McGuane said, “and in fact contributed to its gravity.
“One always felt with the public Brokaw that he also had a life.’’
Keeping active, optimistic
Parking his truck high against a slope whose lush grasses will yield to whirlwinds of snow in coming months, Brokaw followed Red toward a descending draw thick with foliage.
Optimistic about staving off his cancer, multiple myeloma, Brokaw nonetheless has been challenged the past year fighting it.
“Emotionally, physically and intellectually, Meredith has been a rock for me,’’ he said.
Continuing downslope, Brokaw and Red would put up birds — if not on this day, then on another, or another still.
For Brokaw, getting out is the thing, feeling his legs beneath him while watching his dog vacuum the ground ahead, all of it reminiscent of past days afield, and those yet to come.
In an aspen grove overlooking the river that bends through the Brokaw ranch, Sage, the old dog, is buried, along with Abbie, the Labrador the Brokaws added to their clan while Sage was aging.
Now it’s Red’s turn to work for their common master, and Brokaw has ordered a recoilless 28 gauge he hopes to shoot; a shotgun that won’t bruise bones made tender by the cancer.
When Brokaw and Red returned to the ranch, a small remuda of corralled horses swished their tails metronomically beneath a late afternoon sun.
In time, the phone would ring. For Brokaw, it always has.
Still under contract to NBC to produce documentaries, with a score of other irons in the fire and friends worldwide, he remains in demand.
And in perpetual motion.
“One of the best things about fishing with Tom, besides catching fish, is the great, great conversation,’’ said the actor Michael Keaton, a Montana neighbor who has appeared with Brokaw on the Outdoor Channel’s fly-fishing show “Buccaneers and Bones.’’
“We’ve probably missed more fish while yacking than we’ve caught,’’ Keaton said. “We need to work on that. In fact, sometimes I can’t wait to get back in from fishing so we can sit down for more good conversation, be it about life, journalism, his dog Red — man, I’ll talk about dogs all day long.
“But I’ll do that with anyone. Just don’t tell Tom.”