Ever fantasize about going to a dude ranch? Me neither. But my sister recently started riding and asked me to keep her company.
Since the heyday of the Reagans on their Santa Barbara ranch, I haven't thought much about horsey people in our area. My sister takes lessons in the Valley, and I know one can ride for an hour or so in places like Malibu and Griffith Park. But for a real dude ranch, we had to free ourselves from our little megalopolis and head out. Not to Wyoming or Montana. Our ranch was just a gallop up Interstate 5.
And so this is how I found myself standing in line, waiting to have lunch ladled onto my home-on-the-range-style tin plate.
The rumor was it was chili. It's one of my favorite foods, and one of the recipes in the sexy cookbook I'm writing. So I was food fantasizing: "I hope it has beans (and to hell with those meat-only 'purity' standards of the International Chili Society). Will it be beef or turkey, ground or chunked? Ratio of chili powder to cumin? Bite-sized vegetables or just flecks of color? And what will they give us with it?"
A young ranch hand was serving up the chili and sides. I ambled behind the other guests and felt the slight nudge of the plate belonging to the woman behind me.
And then I was standing in front of him with my plate held slightly forward. I'm sure my lips were parted in a hopeful smile, as my eyes met his in anticipation.
His were a deep brown. They caught and captured mine.
"I waited for you this morning," he murmured.
The woman behind me muffled a gasp.
My fantasy suddenly changed course. This morning? Was I supposed to meet up with this hunk of man-boy? Where? And why?
I racked my brain to remember the night before. First there was the wine reception on the patio. Pinot Grigio had flowed. As the sun sank, I felt the liquid gold move languidly from my mane down through my loins. Had he brought out that perfect guacamole? Did I say thank you, or something more?
Then there was the hayride to the barbecue. The sky was lighted up as the sun set, and I held the half-empty bottle between my haunches as the wagon rocked us along a dirt road. Had he been our driver, hitting a rut as he turned back to give me a meaningful stare? Did I hold his gaze and give a slight nod back to him?
The barbecue took place in a field under a canopy of cottonwoods. As we ate our tri-tip, chicken and corn, the sky turned dark, and a full moon moved higher through the trees. A breeze kicked up, and I had to put a blanket over my withers. Behind the grill were the shadows of the cowboy cooks, the low rumble of their voices. Was he one of them back there handling the meat? Did I imagine it, or did he slip me an extra ear of corn?
And why "this morning"? If we'd had a tryst, shouldn't it have been under cover of mysterious night? When I thought I heard a woodpecker in the pine tree outside my door, was that actually him tap-tap-tapping discreetly at my stall?
Maybe his work had continued late into the night. And maybe he had climbed the hill to the broken-down barn instead of going to his bunk. There by the old pickup was where he thought I would be waiting, pawing the ground, whinnying softly. We'd unlatch the barn door, slip out of our tack and ride to a lather on that sweet-smelling hay.
Hey! The woman behind me cleared her throat, nudging her plate a little more deeply into my flank. I turned one eye on her. She raised an eyebrow. But I could not just trot on without knowing.
Quietly I asked him, "Where did you wait for me?"
A screen door banged. He startled. In a loud voice he said, "Why, at breakfast, ma'am. I set a place for you and your sister. But you guys didn't come."
"Oh … yes … you're right. These ranch hours are a little early for us, ha-ha-ha!" I hoped I wasn't turning roan red as I continued to hold my plate out. He spooned me some chili, forked me some greens and cut me a piece of corn bread. As I thanked him, I saw that his eyes were already looking to his next customer.
I had seen this as a getaway with my sister. I was not particularly looking for a dude, and even if I were, he wouldn't be a ranch hand half my age. (Now if Jeff Bridges had turned up, well, that might have been a different story!)
But fantasy is marvelous. And it's intriguing — embarrassing, but also brain-teasing — how we can imagine that we're so on the same page with somebody else only to find out we're not even in the same book.
By the way, the chili had beans and was quite tasty. And even though I don't ride, I enjoyed my weekend at the ranch for many reasons, one of which was: Vive la dude!
Smith Hoggan is a Southern California writer and professor of health and human sexuality who blogs about food, sex and relationship at lickingthespoon.net.