Some Ways of Keeping ‘Em Down on the Farm
Each year millions of travelers crisscross this country by air. From 30,000 feet they look down on valleys and lakes and patterned landscapes, and here and there a ranch house with shade trees.
Ever wonder what life is like in those wide-open spaces with cattle and meandering streams and mountain peaks that loom behind fields of grain?
Long ago I learned that when I’ve had enough of traffic sounds and snarls and crowded sidewalks, it’s time to head for the refreshing welcome of a ranch or farm in rural America.
I leave my New York office and focus on New England or the Appalachians, the farm and lake country of the Midwest or ranches in the Rockies or the coastal mountain ranges. The choice of where to go is unlimited.
Last July I flew to Denver, picked up a car and drove through the magnificent mountains to Montrose and south to Ridgway (population 124) to the San Juan Ranch that lies in a valley surrounded by high peaks, many snowcapped even in July.
Following my host’s directions, I turned onto a gravel road leading past cattle to a lane that winds to a wide, grass-covered yard and stables, past a tepee inhabited by several fair-haired “Indians” (they looked to be about 10) and a fenced enclosure where turkeys, baby goats, ducks, chickens and lambs were receiving handouts from other youngsters.
At the entrance to the handsome ranch house I was taken to my quarters in a solar-heated guest house by Pat MacTiernan, who with her son, Scotty, runs the ranch with Scotty’s beautiful wife, Laura. Scotty, six feet and all cowboy, resembles the rancher-on-horseback pictured in national ads.
That first evening we gathered at the large arena where the wranglers teach guests how to ride, and where gymkhanas are held on Saturdays.
Practicing Cowboy Polo
But the event this time, in the full light of a midsummer evening, was a practice session in cowboy polo. It’s a somewhat impromptu game with rules made up more or less along the way. Brooms serve as polo sticks and a volley ball is the puck. Scotty and three of his wranglers were the San Juan Ranch team. Tomorrow they would play the wranglers at a neighboring ranch owned by designer Ralph Lauren.
It was worth skipping the trail ride the next morning to watch the match, and when I finally drove away from the ranch several days later, it was with memories of that match . . . of a lake circled by aspen high in the mountains where we caught the fish that Scotty stocks it with (“guaranteed trout or your money back”) and of long, leisurely rides.
Happiness is driving through a serene, uncluttered, uncrowded, semi-wild region where all’s well with the world. That is how I felt when I turned my car toward Sunlight Basin and the Seven D Ranch northwest of Cody in the Absaroka Range of the Wyoming Rockies.
I followed the long, rutted lane through aspen groves and pastures, past an old corral and log out-buildings to a wide, fenced-in lawn where I joined other guests at picnic tables, their shadows long in the golden sun of late afternoon.
Marshall Dominick, the gracious Seven D host, wore a shoulder-to-ankle chef’s apron and hovered over the barbecue pit where an entire sheep was roasting. His wife, Jane, was arranging bowls of salads, vegetables, fruit, pies, cakes and cookies at the serving table.
Sunlight Basin lies in the midst of high mountains that are just far enough away to give you the feeling of wide-open space and big sky.
Happy Trails to You
There are at least 25 trails to follow, and on daily rides I discovered the remarkable mix of mesas and mountains, meadows and rivers, red rock canyons and bluffs. If the Seven D had nothing to sell but scenery, it would be worth the trip. But it does have more: breakfast rides, supper rides, all-day rides, private fishing streams, everything that kids and parents could want.
The Dominick family (seven of them--hence the Seven D) settled on this old-time working ranch 30 years ago. They have kept it small, with tastefully arranged cabins for no more than 30 guests, and with an atmosphere where all become friends.
It would be hard to beat the variety and quality of rides at the Seven D. On a breakfast ride it took half an hour to reach a mountain clearing on Little Sunlight Creek below high limestone rimrocks. The cook got there before us, and the aroma of bacon and cowboy coffee greeted everyone.
Another day on an all-day ride we reached the top of 10,000-foot Windy Mountain with a 360-degree view. Our wrangler pointed out the Beartooth Mountains, the Big Horn Basin, the Absaroka Range and Yellowstone. We saw elk skittering up a slope as well as bighorn sheep. Deer peered from hiding places and a moose seemed unbothered as we rode past.
I learned to identify rough and blue grouse, red-tail hawk and prairie falcons, and in the distance a golden eagle wheeled in an incredible blue sky.
When I can get away from the city for a week, or even just a weekend, it is worth it to fly to North Carolina just to drive down the interstate to a village named Maggie Valley and take the cutoff to the Cataloochee Ranch. Once I round the crest there’s a breathtaking 100-mile view in all directions. And just down a slope stands the ranch with its attractive main lodge, stone-and-wood horse barn and log cabins scattered across a large grassy bowl that is set in a sea of blowing meadows. At 5,000 feet, the property is surrounded by mountain peaks, the summer temperatures never exceeding 80 degrees.
The Cherokee word for “wave upon wave” is cataloochee, and the ranch is well named. Its 1,000 beautiful rolling acres adjoin Great Smoky Mountain National Park, a wilderness area of half a million acres. How good to find all of this barely three miles from busy Interstate 40 and only a few hours from New York. From the moment of arrival, the peace and tranquil beauty of the mountain scene take over.
Alice Aumen grew up at the ranch, and she and her husband, Tom, have developed it with impeccable taste so that it now houses 70 guests. From the ox yoke chandeliers to reading nooks and a small library, an atmosphere of graciousness prevails.
Meals are served family-style, for which three vegetable gardens provide a continuing supply (recipes for relishes, preserves and pastries have been handed down in Alice’s family.)
Guests return year after year--generation after generation. I asked a guest at my table why he and his wife and two young children come to Cataloochee every summer. He spoke of the trees and wildflowers and many birds, the congeniality at the ranch, and the cozy yet spacious cabins with their antique furnishings.
He was also enthusiastic about the rafting and canoeing close by. As I joined the others on an all-day ride the next day, the idea of having my own second home at Cataloochee crossed my mind. I tucked it away for reference.
I recall another trip: It was mid-September with frosty nights and brilliantly sunny Minnesota days, and the leaves of the maples and mountain ash were a glorious red. The whole region seemed ablaze with color and light. I had visited my childhood home in Duluth and reluctantly turned my car east toward New York and my office.
I drove through town as far as the old railroad station when I made a U-turn and headed up the north shore of Lake Superior toward canoe country. Playing hooky from the office for another several days was an irresistible urge.
I can’t remember when I’ve had a more elated drive along the sparkling lake to Grand Marais and the Gunflint Trail to a favorite spot for people who love the North Woods, the Gunflint Lodge operated by the hospitable Kerfoot family.
Bruce Kerfoot’s grandfather came here nearly 60 years ago and with the Chippewa Indians built a few log cabins and opened a fishing lodge. During the Depression the Kerfoots moved in permanently to live off the land as did Indians before them, canoeing and fishing in summer, and using snowshoes and dog teams to hunt wild game in winter.
A Smorgasbord Delight
The smorgasbord that evening included wild game, roast turkey, baked ham (the lodge smokes its own) and venison. Indian bannock bread and five other homemade breads shared space on the serving table with fish, pastries, an extensive salad bar, wild blueberry pies and baked Alaska.
Year after year, guests return for the hiking, the climbing, the magnificent waterfalls; they explore abandoned logging roads, pick wild raspberries and go canoeing.
The lodge borders the famous Boundary Waters Canoe Area with more than a million wilderness acres and 1,200 miles of canoe trails. It’s a life of exploring, portaging from lake to lake and watching landlocked salmon or northern pike or bass for campfire dinners, hearing animals at night, the song of waterfalls and breathing air scented with the freshness of pine.
I walked back to my cabin that first night under a sky where a million stars twinkled. To the north was a radiant glow with shafts of yellow light changing to green and mauve--the Northern Lights, so bright that they cast a reflection on the lake. The chilly air, the water lapping over the rocky shore, and the call of a loon across the lake flooded my senses with nostalgia for my childhood days in this North Country. How wonderful it was to be experiencing it all again.
Whenever I’m driving through rural America, I feel an urge to write a letter to city dwellers that would go something like this:
Out here in the uncomplicated countryside you will discover the friendliness, the peacefulness of woods and mountains and lakes, brooks and rushing streams. There’s quietness mingled with the distant voice of a coyote and the eerie cry of a loon.
You will run into millions of acres of uncluttered country and uncrowded roads where you can hike or drive or ride or walk or fish. You’ll share carefree days with other nature seekers, or there’s room to be alone to study lakes and forests, streams and cattle--all this with farm and ranch hosts who will be waiting with a genuine welcome.
All these refreshing, revitalizing, rural delights are yours for the asking, so come give them a try. . . .
The San Juan Ranch
2882 Highway 23
Ridgway, Colo. 81432.
The Seven D Ranch
Cody, Wyo. 82414.
Maggie Valley, N.C. 28751.
Grand Marais, Minn. 55604.