Sad­dling up to a post­card-per­fect sum­mer

True grit gives way to life’s purest plea­sures on a dude ranch in Wy­oming

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY EM­MET ROSEN­FELD Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

“I hate trot­ting, too,” called James, our wran­gler, with­out a trace of irony.

He had turned half­way around in his sad­dle to en­cour­age me to cow­boy on de­spite my sore be­hind, and he some­how main­tained the pos­ture, with no ap­par­ent dis­com­fort, for most of a four-hour trail ride through Wy­oming’s Gros Ven­tre River val­ley. We were guests at the nearby Goosewing Ranch.

James was sim­i­larly good-na­tured with the end­less stream of ques­tions from my 11-year old son, Will, and my wife, Court­ney: What’s your fa­vorite kind of meat? (Snap­ping tur­tle, but you have to soak it for a week in clear wa­ter to clean the meat.) Is that your horse? (No, the

The big-skies view from atop Stillwell. Goosewing Ranch, in the Gros Ven­tre River val­ley of Wy­oming, of­fers two-,

four- and six-hour-long trail rides.

ranch rents their pack of 60 or so horses ev­ery sum­mer, but he had one back at home that just had a foal two weeks ago.) What did you do with your day off? (Went to church and “swam” a horse named Cow­boy in the river. Rid­ing bare­back, of course.)

My older son Jack and I were gen­er­ally more stoic — him be­cause he’s a 14-yearold boy, and me be­cause ev­ery time my stub­born roan, Stillwell, broke into a catch-up trot, my in­flamed pos­te­rior com­manded my full at­ten­tion.

Fifty miles or so to the south, the jagged gray crags of the Te­tons oc­ca­sion­ally came into view be­tween the gen­tler curves of the sage-strewn foothills through which we trav­eled. The Grand Te­ton it­self rose above the oth­ers, capped with snow. Th­ese ma­jes­tic peaks are the first en­vi­ron­men­tal fea­ture you no­tice when de­bark­ing the plane in Jack­son, as clear in the dis­tance as if they were at your fin­ger­tips. The sec­ond is the air it­self: also crys­talline, with­out a hint of hu­mid­ity.

The drive from bustling Jack­son to our dude ranch near Kelly, Wyo., took an hour and 15 min­utes, the last third of it over pro­gres­sively more rut­ted dirt roads that we were told be­come im­pass­able in the win­ter months. They were bone-rat­tling enough then, at the start of Au­gust.

Those rough roads were jar­ring us out of our wired lives into a world with a far slower rhythm, one that al­lowed us to re­dis­cover sim­ple plea­sures, like play­ing cha­rades af­ter din­ner in­stead of watch­ing TV, and to find new ones, like chat­ting on the trail with a real cow­boy. Not to men­tion zoom­ing around rocky twotrack roads in recre­ational of­froad ve­hi­cles and shoot­ing skeet with 12-gauge shot­guns.

The dude ranch ad­ven­ture was cour­tesy of my mother, who of­fered a few years back to take each of her kids and their fam­i­lies on a va­ca­tion of their choice. My twin brother, with his wife and two boys, en­joyed a tour along the rocky Dal­ma­tian coast; my culi­nar­ily ad­ven­tur­ous sis­ter took her fam­ily on a gourmet tour of Italy, com­plete with a cook­ing les­son in Rome.

Th­ese were lovely trips, but for my sons, some­thing more ac­tive, and less break­able, was in or­der. As for the rest of us, I had vi­sions of tro­phy trout leap­ing from iso­lated rivers at the end of my fly line; the horses did it for my wife, who had rid­den as a girl; and my mom was happy with a heated pool and the prospect of gor­geous walks on pic­turesque trails.

We all got what we wished for, ex­cept my mom. The spot where we ended up had views in all di­rec­tions that made you feel like you’d been plopped into a post­card, but the rough ter­rain was bet­ter nav­i­gated by horse or jeep­like UTVs (util­ity task ve­hi­cles) than on foot. Mom made the best of it, prov­ing her­self the rootin’-est, tootin’-est 77-year-old cow­girl on the ranch. Along with pool time, so­cial­iz­ing with other guests and a cou­ple of rub­downs from the in-house mas­sage ther­a­pist, she stepped out of her com­fort zone to ex­pe­ri­ence a num­ber of firsts: She shot both bil­liards and a .22-cal­iber ri­fle and rode up a rugged trail in a UTV on a 26-de­gree morn­ing to catch the sun spread­ing across the Gros Ven­tre River val­ley. We even got her on the back of a gen­tle pony for an hour-long les­son.

“You should have adult-only hours at the pool,” she told Fran­cois, the French owner of the ranch. “And more walk­ing trails.”

“Bar-ber-a, thees is not for walk­ing,” he replied, ges­tur­ing across the val­ley. But I’m pretty sure he was think­ing about how to mark out a few trails for fu­ture guests as he said it.

Fran­cois was a gruff but ex­cel­lent host. Over the decades he’d owned the ranch, he had de­vel­oped it from a few di­lap­i­dated struc­tures into a cozy com­pound cen­tered on a well-ap­pointed guest lodge com­plete with a gazebo and pool. Nes­tled next to the lodge was a pretty lit­tle pond and lush lawns where one could throw horse­shoes or just take in the breath­tak­ing views. Strewn across the grounds were 10 guest cab­ins and a sprin­kling of out­build­ings and ac­tiv­ity ar­eas — think hatchet-throw­ing into log chunks and rop­ing saw horses near a teepee.

And, of course, there was the cor­ral. The heart and soul of the Goosewing Ranch is equine. On our first night, this was il­lus­trated at cock­tail hour with an ex­cit­ing event called “run­ning in the horses.” Guests are herded to a spli­trail fence sur­round­ing the pas­ture, and from the di­rec­tion of the tack barn, a few faint yells can be heard. Soon a cloud of dust arises, and from a gate at the far end of the field thun­ders a herd of horses, moved along by fu­ri­ously gal­lop­ing, whoop­ing wran­glers. The sheer speed and aban­don of the cow­boys and cow­girls makes you tin­gle with ex­cite­ment. It doesn’t hurt that most of them are good­look­ing and about 20 years old.

The rid­ers — your guides and in­struc­tors on the rides to come — even­tu­ally pull up along the fence and smile down from their horses, in­tro­duc­ing them­selves and en­gag­ing in small talk in both English and French. The ranch draws guests from across the coun­try and be­yond, France es­pe­cially. At meals, we heard French spo­ken as of­ten as English, and we rubbed shoul­ders with fam­i­lies from Texas, Canada, Ger­many and the Nether­lands.

Re­gard­less of where they are from, guests on the ranch quickly em­brace the cow­boy vibe. Stetsons and pointy-toe boots are stan­dard at­tire. The full-time ranch hands are easy to pick out, of course: They’re the ones with the fancy belt buck­les and grips of iron when you shake their hands, even the pint-size teenage girls. And then there’s Wayne.

I sup­pose ev­ery ranch has some­body like Wayne. He’s pulled hard win­ters mind­ing lonely herds of horses in the moun­tains and done just about ev­ery back­break­ing job on a work­ing ranch there is to do (not to men­tion a stint in the spe­cial forces in Iraq that he doesn’t like to talk too much about).

Wayne is big­ger than ban­tamweight, but not much. Teeth that look like they may have been kicked once or twice, and a big black hat. Stan­dard cow­boy fa­cial hair and craggy fea­tures, Tony Lama boots, a Texas twang and a glint in his eye. He is as pa­tient with giggling 8-year-old girls as he is with an un­bro­ken colt. Less so with the staff in his charge: “Be gen­tle on his mouth there, James,” he scolded one day as our guide rode one of Wayne’s fa­vorite horses, “or I’ll smack you so hard your brother’ll feel it!”

Firm as they may be with the mounts, the wran­glers are noth­ing but ac­com­mo­dat­ing with guest rid­ers. Al­though Court­ney and Will had some rid­ing ex­pe­ri­ence un­der their belts, Jack and I were green. We all lis­tened to “Horse 101” — this is a bri­dle, this is a bit, and so on — then took our in­tro­duc­tory les­son in the arena. That same day, they took us out on a two-hour trail ride, and each day there­after, there were op­tions for two-, four- or six-hour rides.

I’ll never for­get the ride we took that first day. On our way home the tem­per­a­ture dropped 20 de­grees and a cold rain lashed our faces. The horses put their ears back and trudged into the wind; our hands clung numbly to the reins. Our cheer­ful guide, Darby, called over the howl: “If you don’t like the weather around here, just wait 10 min­utes!” Sure enough, that evening we were back in short sleeves, en­joy­ing drinks on the deck as we watched the sun set.

Mid­week, sad­dle-sore, we de­cided to take a break from ranch life and make our way into Jack­son for a day. We took full ad­van­tage of the ski town in sum­mer, cram­ming in white-wa­ter raft­ing on the Snake River, an alpine slide run on Snow King Moun­tain, and a night at the lo­cal rodeo be­fore head­ing back to Goosewing. Mom subbed a his­tor­i­cal walk­ing tour for the raft­ing and was left with a sense of awe for the early settlers who had some­how forged the town from a wilderness that then, as now, could see as much as 800 inches of snow in a win­ter. All in all, Jack­son was pretty cool. But I’d take the sim­ple plea­sures of Goosewing any­time.

One of those plea­sures, for me, was fly-fish­ing for wild trout — be­gin­ning with tak­ing the UTV along the rut­ted roads to find spots that Fran­cois had marked on the map. And those spots were doozies.

The first day, I hit a trib­u­tary of the Gros Ven­tre called Fish Creek, and my sec­ond cast into a bub­bling pool be­low a clus­ter of boul­ders pro­duced a spir­ited 12-inch brook trout. That was the first of dozens, all on big yummy “at­trac­tor” flies that the sel­dom-an­gled­for trout couldn’t seem to re­sist. This fish­ing wasn’t ex­actly for be­gin­ners: It re­quired long casts to the tail of pools, with lots of skinny wa­ter in be­tween. But once I’d cracked the code, I was in an­gler’s heaven. I ad­mired each of those orange-bel­lied brook­ies as I re­leased it.

The next day was more of the same, only on the Gros Ven­tre it­self. This sin­u­ous river even­tu­ally feeds into the mighty Snake, fa­mous for “hogs,” two-foot-long rain­bow and brown trout that fish­er­men dream about. The Gros Ven­tre is home to a more del­i­cate fish, the na­tive cut­throat trout. Named for the del­i­cate streaks of red along its gills, the cut­ties ran a lit­tle big­ger than the brook trout and were a tad tougher to catch. But when I hit the right pool with the right fly, they ex­ploded from the wa­ter like they were au­di­tion­ing for an Orvis cat­a­logue.

At one point, as I trudged the banks I came across a catcher’smitt-size track in the mud that looked like it could have been left by a dog with re­ally long claws. In the sun, I felt a quick chill know­ing that a lo­cal wolf had stalked here maybe just a few hours be­fore me.

At a camp­fire cook­out on our last night, with the sun paint­ing the clouds be­hind him and horses whin­ny­ing in the dis­tance, Wayne spun cow­boy tales about Bill Cody and some lesser-known but equally col­or­ful char­ac­ters (ever heard of a for­mi­da­ble pros­ti­tute named Big Nose Jane?). It made for a mem­o­rable trip en­der, im­mers­ing us in the his­tory of good guys and bad who set­tled the rough coun­try that is home now to the truly com­fort­able Goosewing Ranch.

A cloud of dust arises, and from a gate at the far end of the field thun­ders a herd of horses, moved along by fu­ri­ously gal­lop­ing, whoop­ing wran­glers.




Above, Kelly, Wyo., is home to the Goosewing Ranch, whose heart and soul is equine, and guests nat­u­rally em­brace the Stet­son-and-boots vibe. Top, cow­boys warm up be­fore a rop­ing event at a rodeo in Wy­oming.

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