Solitude in Yesterday's World

Times Travel Editor

The first thing that comes into focus is the red ranch house with the St. Bernard asleep on the porch.

Someone described San Juan Guest Ranch as a Rocky Mountain post card painted by Grandma Moses, and that after this it came alive with the dog and the chickens and a horse corral beside it. A river hurries by its door and Rocky Mountain peaks tower over a peaceful valley that's alive with deer and elk and cattle that graze in pastures framed by aspen.

If there is a ranch in all the West that bids the guest a warm welcome, it is the San Juan. A gravel road twists to a gate and a yard with shade trees and grass as green as the spruce that surrounds the Uncompahgre Valley.

This isn't your ordinary dude ranch with too many guests and too little chance to relax. The San Juan is special, which is particularly true of the setting. Only five miles south of the mining town of Ouray, which fancies itself "the Switzerland of America," the San Juan Guest Ranch reaches out to the vacationer seeking solitude.

Rather than a structured program, proprietor Scott MacTiernan and his mother, Pat, provide a week of relaxation for vacationers weary of the treadmill. Guests ride when they wish, explore ghost towns in the Rockies, picnic in alpine meadows, go riding in a surrey with the fringe on top--or just hang back at the ranch and read a book or cast for trout in a river or a pond that reflects the Colorado sky.

Scott MacTiernan, who resembles Tom Selleck with the rugged style of the Marlboro man, taught skiing at Aspen before he and his mother got into the guest ranch game. The San Juan is small, with an intimacy that's contagious. Logs blaze in a huge fireplace and guests help themselves to pitchers of tea and lemonade. In the kitchen with its old-fashioned goodness a sign reads: "Welcome my friend--you will find joy and love within."

It is no idle boast.

Everyone leaves the San Juan ranch reluctantly.

My search for a small guest ranch with a family atmosphere ended at the door through which 20 guests filed for an evening meal of beef, garden-fresh vegetables and home-baked breads and pies.

Among them were a schoolteacher from Missouri, a couple from Indiana, a businessman and his wife from Florida, a high school counselor from Chicago and a young British mother with her 5-year-old son whose dream of the American West no doubt will last a lifetime. For two weeks, pint-size Jaime Barrett and his mother, Amanda, rode horses, attended rodeos and explored old mining towns.

Amanda Barrett confessed to her dinner companions that she'd spent years saving for her holiday, and that it had been two weeks of enchantment.

"I loved everything," she said as the day of farewell arrived.

Jaime left wearing a cowboy shirt, boots and jeans. His mother wore jeans also, and a sweat shirt emblazoned with the name of the little Colorado town she'd found so infectious. She didn't want to leave but Amanda Barrett wisely chose to return to England while the dream was still real.

Evenings at the San Juan are spent around campfires listening to wranglers play the guitar. Occasionally a group will run off to see the movies in Ouray. Or to what one cowboy described as a "dirt bag saloon" in Ridgway where locals play billiards and drink beer out of the bottle and plug coins in a jukebox offering such sentimental favorites as "Wishful Drinkin' " and "Working Class Man."

Even "non-riders" saddle up at San Juan Guest Ranch where Scott MacTiernan is reputed to be the finest riding instructor in the Rockies. An overnight trip is offered to a high meadow called Charlie's Place with wildflowers and a trout pond and tents already set up.

On occasion, MacTiernan slips out of the saddle and into a van to chauffeur guests on shopping tours to Telluride and Ouray and a ghost town high above the timberline where snows remain year-round and winds howl through broken windows and shutters bang against sagging walls in what once was the largest alpine settlement in the world. He mesmerizes his guests with tales of avalanches that wiped out entire villages and miners who faced the elements in search of uncertain wealth.

During winter, MacTiernan's guests ride in a one-horse open sleigh and skate on a frozen pond. Others do trips on cross-country skis or else soak in a steaming hot tub.

As for the little town of Ouray, it's a Christmas-card scene cradled in the Rockies, and considering its past you wonder how it remained that way. Discovered by three prospectors in 1873, it became a booming mining town and soon was overrun by strangers with dreams of riches.

Thousands poured into Ouray. The men worked the mines and the women worked the men for their silver and gold. Bordellos flourished. Dance hall girls ran wild in the streets and saloons ran 'round the clock. Some got rich while hundreds remained poor.

Prospectors swarmed through the hills. Within a radius of a dozen miles they dug more than 10,000 holes. MacTiernan tells how the tunnels, placed end to end, would stretch from Los Angeles to New York.

With his Camp Bird Mine, Tom Walsh became a millionaire. After this he bought his daughter the Hope Diamond, and Evalyn Walsh McLean went on to Washington to become the capital's legendary hostess.

Tragedy together with fortune visited the mining boom. Blizzards roared through the mountains, touching off avalanches which swept entire wagon trains to their doom.

The Winters Snows

Stubbornly, the miners faced the winter snows. Silver was mined until 1893. Later, gold was discovered and the boom carried on.

By 1902, already a millionaire, Tom Walsh sold the Camp Bird mine for another fortune. Dozens of others had made their millions from the mines and said farewell to Ouray.

Today, for 24 miles between Ouray and Silverton, the ghostly remains of the bonanza days can be seen--tumbledown mines, collapsed cabins and fallen shafts.

They're like markers in a weed-covered cemetery, recalling an era when Ouray, Silverton and Telluride were among the richest towns in America.

Miners still work the old Camp Bird, but the boom days are gone. With them are gone the dance hall girls and the mule skinners and the girls of the bordellos who accepted gold for their favors. Peacefulness has returned to Ouray and now instead of miners the town has turned to tourists.

Meadows Come Alive

The winds of winter still shriek, but springtime along with summer and autumn is sweet. By July the meadows are alive with columbine, chiming bells, Indian paintbrush, lupine and yellow buttercup.

Within a 65-mile radius 95 peaks rise above the 10,000-foot mark, some to 14,000 feet or more. No mountains anywhere in the United States--perhaps in the world--compare with those of Ouray.

This is the San Juan Range and the high snow remains eternally and sheepherders tend flocks where prospectors once dug for ore. Visitors are delivered to the peaks in Jeeps operated by Frank Kuboske, an ex-automobile dealer from the state of Washington. Kuboske, who began his trips in 1960, delivers passengers to Yankee Boy Basin, Telluride and Mystery Mountain.

His Jeeps climb to meadows and sheer cliffs below which white water tumbles thousands of feet in a steaming torrent. One trip goes beyond 13,000 feet and from here the San Juans are visible for hundreds of miles. The Jeeps groan over Cinnamon Pass and through Poughkeepsie Gulch.

Caught in a peaceful valley carved by glaciers during the last Ice Age, Ouray is surrounded by cliffs rising 2,000 feet straight up from its streets. Along 7th Avenue, ex-Marine pilot Robert Bowers serves steak, chicken and trout in a one-time brothel he calls the Coachlight. Bowers' restaurant features stained-glass windows, kerosene lanterns and Victorian pictures.

Victorian Trappings

Ouray's visitors retire to the St. Elmo, a spotless 11-room hotel which has been operating since the 1800s. Guests slip away to rooms with antiques and Victorian trappings, the price for living in yesterday's world ranging from $36 to $62 a night. In the lobby a clock ticks away the hours, and there's a restaurant, the Bon Ton, that's reputed to be Ouray's finest.

Across Main Street the ghostly old Beaumont, once the grand hotel of the Rockies, stands empty. For reasons known only to herself the owner refuses to open it to the public. Slowly it disintegrates, a 19th-Century relic sacrificed to the whim of an absentee owner.

One may book a suite in Main Street House, a superbly renovated Victorian, for as little as $35 a night. Or else take the apartment upstairs with its bedroom, living room and kitchen for a mere $50.

For the budget traveler, the Western Hotel on 7th Avenue (circa 1891) provides rooms with a 19th-Century flair for as little as $20 a night. The bar and lobby feature Victorian pictures, a potbellied stove, a gilt-edged mirror and a dozen trophies of elk, bear, antelope and bighorn sheep.

"It's a zoo," a guest said, "a zoo."

The management makes one request: unless something moves, hold your fire.


MacTiernan's San Juan Guest Ranch, 2882 Highway 23, Ridgway, Colo. 81432. Telephone (303) 626-5360. Rates: $550 weekly (children $325), including accommodations, meals, Jeep trips, sightseeing and a horse.

St. Elmo Hotel, 426 Main St., P.O. Box 667, Ouray, Colo. 81427. Telephone (303) 325-4951. Rates: $36/$62.

The Main Street House, 334 Main St., Ouray, Colo. 81427. Telephone (303) 325-4317. Rates: $35/$50.

The Western Hotel, 210 7th Ave., Ouray, Colo. 81427. Telephone (303) 325-4645. Rates: $20/$40 a night.

Note: For a free copy of the "Colorado Dude Ranch Directory" describing 32 properties, write to the Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Assn., P.O. Box 300, Tabernash, Colo. 80478. You may also obtain free the "1987 Dude Ranch Vacation Directory" published by The Dude Ranchers' Assn. (covers several states), P.O. Box 471, Laporte, Colo. 80535. The same group publishes The Dude Ranch Magazine for $1. A separate brochure is available from Colorado Blue Ribbon Dude Ranches, P.O. Box 1486, Boulder, Colo. 80306

In addition, for a free "Colorado Adventure Kit" write to the Colorado Tourism Board, P.O. Box 38700, Dept. PR, Denver, Colo. 80238 or telephone toll-free (800) 433-2656.

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