Film Triggers Mini-Stampede to Dude Ranches


“City Slicker” Billy Crystal and his sophisticated sidekicks, Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby, wrestle with wranglers, spark a cattle stampede and almost drown swimming the herd across a raging river. Moviegoers can’t seem to get enough of one of the summer’s hot film: Now they’re heading in droves to get their own taste of the cowboy life.

In fact, the dude-ranch business is booming this year. “I’ve had a ton of calls,” says Wright Catlow, who represents the Colorado Dude and Guest Ranch Assn. Ranch owner Dick Elder agrees, saying, “The movie really has generated a lot of interest.”

Elder’s Colorado Trails Ranch is a luxurious 525-acre, 100-horse spread on the edge of the San Juan National Forest outside Durango, Colo. This year’s booking inquiries actually have picked up at midsummer, when they normally begin to drop off. Elder worked as a member of the “City Slickers” movie crew and is a bit perplexed by the eager response to the film. The chaotic image “isn’t what I would want to project,” he says.


Throughout the West, cattle and horse ranches have opened up their corrals and ranges to paying guests. You can play cowboy in reasonably safe and civilized luxury or, as “City Slickers” depicts, share in the arduous life of a real cowhand on an authentic cattle drive. On the trail, danger and discomfort are always possibilities. But, says Elder, the chances of tumbling into the movie’s fictional misfortunes “are nil.”

Despite the plot contrivances, “City Slickers” depicts an appealing, accessible and moderately priced adventure that nurtures the fantasies of Americans who grew up on cowboy capers. The spectacularly scenic film setting has--along with such other recent hits as “Dances With Wolves,” the Kevin Costner movie that won last year’s Best Picture Oscar, and the TV miniseries “Lonesome Dove”--sparked a noticeable interest in the American West, say the ranchers.

On Elder’s ranch, sitting in the same beautiful countryside where “City Slickers” was filmed, the emphasis is on learning to ride--Western or English saddle--in reasonably safe and comfortable surroundings. Families stay in two-room cabin suites, and during a week’s visit they are treated to such traditional Western pleasures as chuck-wagon cookouts, square dancing, hayrides, overnight camp-outs for the youngsters, country music fests, archery, riflery, trout fishing and a rodeo.

Elder worked for five weeks on the film as its humane officer, representing the American Humane Assn. in protecting the welfare of the 400 head of cattle and 65 horses needed to re-create an authentic cattle drive. He provides an insider’s look at one of the film’s critical scenes.

Near the conclusion, Norman, the beguiling newborn calf adopted by Mitch, the ad salesman played by Crystal, is swept away in white-water rapids. Ignoring the risk, Crystal jumps in to save his little friend. All that rain, falling in torrents around them, actually was pumped from the river and sprayed from a big hose, says Elder. “It made more rain than we ever get here.” The fierce wind, shaking the trees, roared from a giant fan.

Crystal, seemingly caught in the rapids, was dressed in a wet suit beneath his Western garb to protect him from the cold river water. And six different calves played Norman. “We only let them into the water for a few minutes,” says Elder. “Then we dried them off and put them in a heated tent.”

Elder has the same concern for dudes. He figures they aren’t up to spending eight hours a day in the saddle if they aren’t experienced riders. At his ranch, rides of about two hours each are scheduled for morning and afternoon. This is a gentler way to ease into the cowboy life. The week’s rate for a family of four, including meals and riding, is $2,900 to $3,400.

In contrast, paying guests such as those in “City Slickers” can join a real cattle drive, sharing in the long hours, chancy weather and other challenges. Joe and Iris Bassett offer this kind of adventure on their 40,000-acre Schively Ranch in the rolling grasslands and mountain valleys of south-central Montana. “We are a working cattle ranch,” says Iris Bassett firmly, “not a dude ranch.” The ranch, located in the midst of the Crow Indian Reservation, maintains 1,200 head of cattle.

Iris Bassett has not seen “City Slickers,” but she has felt its impact. “I can’t believe what enthusiasm it has created,” she says. “Everybody who calls tells me about it. I don’t think I’m going to have to see it.”

The Schively Ranch takes in about 14 guests a week from spring into fall. “We put them on our ‘cow horses’ and give them a feel of what it’s like to be a cowboy,” Iris Bassett says. If it rains, “you get rained on,” and snow is always a possibility in spring and fall. When riding the range, the only restrooms are what she jokingly calls “he-she bushes.” Incidentally, a cow horse, as novice cowpokes soon learn, “is a horse that has a good eye for cattle. It keeps a watch on them.”

Only a few guest ranches still stage cattle drives, and traditionally they are a spring and fall activity. In late April and early May, the Bassetts start moving their herd north from protected winter quarters near Lovell, Wyo., to open summer pastures on the Schively acreage. About a quarter of the herd is moved each week in four separate drives. In October, two more drives are held to return to Wyoming the cattle that have not been sold. The distance is about 50 miles each way.

Between the spring and fall drives, cowboy life goes on, and guests join in ranch roundups--moving cattle between different pastures in sometimes rugged country. This year, one errant band, Iris Bassett says, keeps trying to descend from a high, grass-filled valley where they have been sent. Wranglers spend about two days a week chasing them back. Branding is another task, and fences have to be checked on horseback regularly to make sure no strays get away.

On the drives, guests sleep in tents. During the summer roundup time, lodging is in family cabins or bunkhouses. The Bassetts welcome inexperienced riders, and training them to be temporary cowpokes is part of the day’s work, says Iris Bassett. Sometimes the newcomers run into a little trouble. “They get into the middle of the herd, and we have to get them out.”

Is it safe? Bassett echoes the realistic replies of other guest-ranch operators: “A horse is an unpredictable animal. Occasionally, we get somebody dumped. People come here at their own risk, but we’re pretty careful not to kill you off.” A week at the ranch for roundups is $625 per person; to join in a cattle drive, the rate is $750 to $800 per person.


Ranches and Outfitters

Among establishments and resources for travelers interested in a cowboy vacation are:

--The Dude Ranchers Assn., representing 98 guest ranches in California, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Montana and Wyoming. Most are in the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Montana and Wyoming.

The facilities range in style from luxurious (swimming pool, tennis courts, sauna) to basic. Some ranches offer traditional cattle drives in spring and fall, and many have special activity programs for children. A week on a ranch, with meals and riding, ranges from about $500 to $1,500 per person.

The guest-ranch season generally runs from late spring to early fall. In Arizona, however, ranches operate from fall into spring. All member ranches offer riding instructions. The Dude Ranchers Assn. distributes an annual 32-page directory, “The Dude Rancher,” describing each of the ranches. A copy is $2. The association also will help travelers pick a ranch to suit their budget and interests.

For information: P.O. Box 471, Laporte, Colo. 80535, (303) 223-8440.

--Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Assn., representing 39 ranches in the state, including several that also belong to the Dude Ranchers Assn. Member ranches also range from luxury to basic. A free guide, “Directory of Colorado Ranch Vacations,” is published annually. The association will assist in selecting a ranch to meet your interests.

For information: Box 300, Tabernash, Colo. 80478, (800) 441-6060 (only to order a directory) or (303) 887-3128.

--Adventure Guides Inc., a New York-based travel agency established by Pat Dickerman, author of “Adventure Travel North America,” now in its 20th edition, and “Farm, Ranch & Country Vacations,” in its 40th edition. Dickerman and her staff will help you find a ranch to satisfy your interests, and she will make the necessary bookings. She receives a commission from the ranch. For information: 36 East 57th St., New York 10022, (800) 252-7899 or (212) 355-6334.

--American Wilderness Experience, another adventure-travel firm that operates as a clearinghouse for dozens of outdoor outfitters throughout the country. Featured are weeklong wilderness trail rides, ranch vacations and cattle drives. About a dozen drives are scheduled yearly. In part because of the movie “City Slickers,” this fall’s cattle drives are booked full, says president Dave Wiggins. A directory of wilderness outings is available. For information: P.O. Box 1486, Boulder, Colo. 80306, (303) 494-2992.

For more information on the ranches described in the accompanying story, contact:

--Colorado Trails Ranch, 12161 County Road 240, Durango, Colo. 81301, (800) 323-3833.

--Schively Ranch, 1062 Road 15, Lovell, Wyo. 82431, (404) 259-8866 (in Montana, May to October) or (307) 548-6688 (in Wyoming, all year).

--Oregon Trail Wagon Train, Route 2, Box 502, Bayard, Neb. 69334, (308) 586-1850.

--Yellowstone Institute, P.O. Box 117, Yellowstone National Park, Wyo. 82190, (307) 344-7381, Ext. 2384.