Horses, His­tory & the Great Out­doors

Guests at this dude ranch recharge amid breath­tak­ing scenery.

Farm & Ranch Living - - CONTENTS - Story and pho­tos by Kelly Burns

Ride along at a dude ranch to ex­plore some of the coun­try’s most breath­tak­ing scenery.

Hello from the Gila (pro­nounced hee-la) Na­tional For­est. I’m Kelly Burns, and I work at Geron­imo Trail Guest Ranch, which is west of the Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide in the moun­tains of south­west New Mex­ico. This 20-acre ranch is in the mid­dle of the 3.3 mil­lion-acre Gila Na­tional For­est. We are four hours from both the Al­bu­querque, New Mex­ico, and the El Paso, Texas, air­ports, and two hours west of Truth or Con­se­quences, New Mex­ico. While the ranch’s of­fi­cial ad­dress is Win­ston, New Mex­ico, we are still 90 min­utes west of that point. This re­mote lo­ca­tion means we’re off the power grid. Most of our elec­tric­ity comes from so­lar ar­rays, and our wa­ter comes from streamfed wells. Even cell­phone cov­er­age stops 70 miles away.

Orig­i­nally a hunt­ing lodge in the 1980s, the ranch evolved into the Geron­imo Trail Guest Ranch in 2002. (The name comes from be­ing just off the Geron­imo Trail Scenic By­way.) Harry and Diana Esterly bought it in 2007, and to­day it is op­er­ated by their daugh­ter, Meris Esterly Stout, and her hus­band,

Seth Stout. Along with Meris, Seth and me, the ranch staff in­cludes a cook, Kathy Kitts, who will ar­rive March 11 to be­gin cook­ing for the spring sea­son. Be­cause Geron­imo Trail Guest Ranch is small, with a max­i­mum ca­pac­ity of 16 guests, my job in­volves a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing.

Get­ting the Horses Up to Speed

March 1 Cold nights hang on around here, since we’re 6,500 feet above sea level. That means the first task each morn­ing this time of year is break­ing ice off the horses’ wa­ter troughs. While Seth han­dles that, I feed the herd. We have 26 horses spread out among four pas­tures, but our util­ity ve­hi­cle al­lows us to zip around and feed them ef­fi­ciently.

Our first guests ar­rive March 12. We need to get the horses back in shape af­ter tak­ing the win­ter off. So to­day we did the ori­en­ta­tion loop, a 90-minute ride to help guests get com­fort­able with their horses.

March 2 Our spot in the Gila boasts abun­dant crys­tal clear warm­spring-fed streams. The Hoyt and Tay­lor creeks both flow into Wall Lake. You can al­ways find wildlife here, in­clud­ing bald ea­gles, red­tailed hawks, great blue herons, mule deer and elk. For to­day’s ride we fol­lowed Tay­lor Creek down­stream from Wall Lake, then through Tay­lor Creek Canyon. The wa­ter was higher and mud­dier than usual, but the horses did fine.

March 3 Feed­ing 26 horses re­quires a lot of hay. So ev­ery cou­ple weeks, Seth drives three hours away to get a trail­er­ful of it. While he was gone, Meris and I rode Shoot ’em Again Canyon. The name comes from a long-ago hunt­ing party look­ing for mule deer. When one mem­ber missed his shot, another hunter called out, “Shoot ’em again!”

March 5 Our re­mote lo­ca­tion means we take safety se­ri­ously. That’s why I signed up for a wilder­ness first-aid course this week­end. The two-day course pro­vided a re­ally thought­ful bal­ance of class­room in­struc­tion and sce­nar­ios, com­plete with stage makeup. But I hope we never have to put those skills to the test.

March 6 We prepped guest cab­ins this morn­ing by turn­ing the wa­ter on, turn­ing the heat up and wash­ing the bed­ding. To­mor­row we’ll clean the cab­ins, flip mat­tresses and test smoke alarms. We’re re­spon­si­ble for our own trash re­moval out here, so Seth hauled a horse trailer full of trash and re­cy­cling to a col­lec­tion cen­ter in Truth or Con­se­quences. March 7 Eleven mule deer ran across a meadow and leapt through the air as we left for our morn­ing ride. Such a beau­ti­ful sight. Then we con­tin­ued down Tay­lor Creek Canyon and rode through the Nar­rows—high­lights we love to show off to our guests.

Clean­ing Cab­ins and Greet­ing Guests

March 8 This morn­ing we took a ride up­stream through Dwelling Canyon, named for all the cliff dwellings in its walls. On our way we passed our neigh­bor’s herd of open-range

cows. We use the term “neigh­bor” loosely; his house is a 45-minute drive away. This neigh­bor—the epit­ome of an Old West cow­boy— has spent his en­tire 80-plus years in the Gila. As a re­sult, we learn some­thing new about the area ev­ery time we chat with him. March 9 We rode to the top of Ant Hill, 7,120 feet above sea level, where we thrilled to a stun­ning 360-de­gree view as far as the eye could see. See­ing that vista does make you feel as small as an ant. March 10 We rode dif­fer­ent horses to Ant Hill this morn­ing, which is an es­sen­tial work­out for them, and now they’re ready for our first set of guests. When we got back, we re­leased Sling­shot and Li­nus—two new horses from a Kansas ranch— into the pas­ture. They took off run­ning and had a grand time ex­plor­ing their big new home. March 11 I started my day early since the far­rier is com­ing to­day. She trav­els three hours to get here, so she usu­ally comes once a week for four weeks and han­dles six to seven horses in each trip. We also wormed all the horses. Most take it pretty well, but they do make the fun­ni­est faces. Seth picked up Kathy and then gro­ceries.

March 12 Guest-ar­rival day! We fin­ished clean­ing the cab­ins, and then Meris stocked them with tow­els, toi­letries, new pil­lows

and some of Kathy’s freshly baked cook­ies. We wel­comed a father and son from Texas and two friends from Michi­gan. Ev­ery­one got to know each other around the din­ner ta­ble as we feasted on ham, scal­loped pota­toes and cheesy bis­cuits.

March 13 The sun wasn’t even up yet when I went out to feed the horses. A full moon and howl­ing coy­otes made it an at­mo­spheric ex­pe­ri­ence. Af­ter ori­en­ta­tion, we mounted up, ad­justed stir­rups and headed out on the ori­en­ta­tion loop. While the guests re­laxed af­ter lunch, Seth, Meris and I wa­tered all the horses and pre­pared for the af­ter­noon ride. Since the Tex­ans leave Wed­nes­day, we took them through Tay­lor Creek Canyon while Meris took the two women on the Top of the World Trail. Af­ter din­ner, we ad­journed to the fire pit to gaze at the stars. March 14 We split up again for this morn­ing’s ride; Meris took the women through Cox Canyon while Seth and I took the men around Wall Lake (about a mile from the ranch) and up to Red Bluff. Then we all met at the Dwelling Canyon for a pic­nic lunch. We ex­plored some of the old dwellings—which range from rock out­crop­pings to deep caves—on foot. Once back at the barn, guests chose to try their hands at scoop­ing poop, which we ap­pre­ci­ated!

His­tory Lessons and Wildlife Sight­ings

March 15 The Tex­ans de­parted to go skiing at Taos. The two women from Michi­gan stayed on, so we de­cided to ride through the Tay­lor Creek Canyon. Next we tack­led Shale Trail, which ends at the con­flu­ence of the Beaver and Tay­lor creeks. This site is his­toric for two rea­sons. The Apache leader Geron­imo is be­lieved to have been born at the con­ver­gence of the Gila River’s East, West and Mid­dle forks—only 10 miles away—so this area may have been his child­hood play­ground. In ad­di­tion, this site was the bound­ary line be­tween the U.S. and Mex­ico prior to 1854’s Gads­den Pur­chase, a treaty that pro­vided land for a south­ern rail­road to go through.

March 16 Seth, our two guests and I rode to Hoyt Canyon, which called for a fair amount of bob­bing and weav­ing through branches. Seth dis­mounted sev­eral times to re­move trees that had fallen over the win­ter. It was a long day in the sad­dle, so a din­ner of ribs, beans, corn­bread and pecan pie hit the spot.

March 17 Meris’ par­ents visit the ranch once a month, and to­day her mom, Diana, joined our ride through Tay­lor Creek Canyon and the Nar­rows and up Beaver Canyon. We spied an owl and a bald ea­gle in flight, then passed through sev­eral herds of cows on our way to the pic­nic spot. We had to avoid rid­ing be­tween the moms and ba­bies so the cows wouldn’t be up­set.

March 19 When I walked out the door this morn­ing, I saw a rogue bovine in the ranch’s front yard. A neigh­bor’s cow wan­ders over to our prop­erty from time to time. I went to shoo her out the front gate

but she de­cided she wanted to go out the back in­stead.

March 20 It was un­usu­ally cloudy this morn­ing, at least by our New Mex­ico stan­dards. When you are used to see­ing blue skies ev­ery day, it seems odd to spot clouds above. Af­ter lunch we rode with our new guests, a Texas cou­ple cel­e­brat­ing their 35th wed­ding an­niver­sary, to the Nar­rows, and then home.

Our tim­ing was per­fect. It didn’t start sprin­kling un­til we un­sad­dled the horses.

March 21 Yes­ter­day’s spe­cial ar­rival— Colleen from the Dude Ranch­ers As­so­ci­a­tion (DRA)—left to­day af­ter break­fast to visit another ranch. To be a mem­ber of the DRA, your ranch has to be in­spected and ap­proved, so her visit was a big deal. Seth and I rode with our re­main­ing guests to Dwelling Canyon. A coy­ote trot­ted in front of us. But he looked pretty healthy, so I de­cided he was just in search of a drink from the creek.

Back at the ranch we were greeted by Ned, a 36-year-old horse, rov­ing the yard. It al­ways makes me smile to see him wan­der­ing around like a big dog. Dur­ing din­ner we saw more wildlife—10 elk be­hind the back gate and a mule deer graz­ing by the so­lar pan­els. Liv­ing in the mid­dle of a gor­geous na­tional for­est cer­tainly has its ad­van­tages.

In­ter­net Ac­cess, Pot­tery Shards and Pre­cip­i­ta­tion

March 22 One of the sac­ri­fices of liv­ing off the grid is poor in­ter­net ser­vice, so we were de­lighted to see the in­ter­net in­staller ar­rive to­day to han­dle our up­grade only two days af­ter we placed the or­der. March 25 Seth and the short-term guests rode through the Nar­rows be­cause it is a “can’t miss” spot. Meris and I took the other guests on our Lake Loop Trail. She and I got back ear­lier than Seth, so we did yoga stretches in our jeans and flan­nel in the barn. Do­ing yoga ev­ery day re­ally helps with my flex­i­bil­ity.

March 27 Last night we cel­e­brated a guest’s 60th birth­day with cake and then singing by the camp­fire. This morn­ing we got back to business by ready­ing eight horses for to­day’s ride. Seth took two guests to the Top of the World while a new group of six women went on the ori­en­ta­tion ride. We spot­ted a great blue heron— the first one this year.

March 28 Sleet started fall­ing as we pre­pared the horses, but it cleared up in time for Seth and Meris to take the six women to Dwelling Canyon. I took our other guests to the Pot­tery Mesa. That’s our name for the Twin Pines arche­o­log­i­cal site, an an­cient Mim­bres vil­lage where the ground is lit­tered with pot­tery shards. We spot­ted all kinds of pot­tery—black and white, red and white, plain red, and cor­ru­gated—and some re­ally cool rocks. Af­ter ad­mir­ing an­cient pic­tographs on a rock wall, we headed back to the ranch. Hail started fall­ing as we ate lunch, fol­lowed by light­ning and thun­der. March 29 We made quite a posse on the trail to Beaver Canyon to­day be­cause all of our eight guests rode to­gether. One of them later said that rid­ing through the Nar­rows was like “heaven on earth.” Com­ments such as these make us love what we do at the ranch even more.

March 30 It was so cold this morn­ing we saw a hard frost on ev­ery­thing, even the horses’ manes and tails. But it didn’t stop 10 mule deer from frol­ick­ing in one of the pas­tures— a re­ally cool sight. I spent the day dig­ging into of­fice work, but I was in­ter­rupted when Seth came in and told me the horses got out. We had for­got­ten to latch a gate, so they were graz­ing wher­ever they liked. Thank­fully, it was easy to round them up and put them back where they be­longed.

March 31 It was sad to say good­bye to our guests af­ter a week of their com­pany. But as soon as they de­parted, we started pre­par­ing for the next group.

I hope you en­joyed learn­ing what it’s like to work on a guest ranch. We’d love to meet you on the trail some­day!

Seth Stout and Cle­men­tine the Cat find the mount­ing plat­form makes a nice nap spot (above) af­ter a trail ride. One guest called the ride through the Nar­rows (left) “heaven on earth.” The Shale Trail of­fers wide views of cat­tle graz­ing in Beaver Canyon...

Tay­lor Creek is a pic­turesque spot to pause while the horses get a drink.

Meris and Seth Stout man­age the ranch Meris’ par­ents bought in 2007.

Antlers mounted on a barn re­mind vis­i­tors that Geron­imo Trail ranch be­gan as a hunt­ing lodge.

A trail ride un­der soar­ing blue skies is a daily ac­tiv­ity at the Geron­imo Trail Guest Ranch in New Mex­ico.

Board games are another evening pas­time at the ranch. This Ap­ples to Ap­ples game got quite lively.

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