Never mind the roaming buffalo, or those deer and antelope at play. Out in the wide open Western spaces these days, the plains are crawling with dude ranch proprietors, each determined to give a vast and disparate American public the ranch vacation of its dreams.
Horses and family-friendliness are the obvious recurrent themes, and everyone seems to be basking in the cinematic afterglow of "City Slickers" and its sequel. But the ranch vacation now comes in more varieties than Disney has Dalmatians, and quasi-cowboys can pay $80 a day, or $150, or $250, depending on one's choice of meals, lodgings and surrounding luxuries. At the offices of the national Dude Ranchers' Assn., where membership grew from 35 to 69 ranches in the first six decades after the group's founding in 1926, the files now show more than 110 members. And that figure excludes many ranch operations that offer rural retreats, horseback riding and cabin living, but shrink from the word "dude."
And so, early this summer, as the rivers surged with runoff and the wind riffled through the amber waves of all that stuff out there that leaves thistle in your socks, I boarded a plane, hopped the Rockies and went looking for the edges of the ever-expanding universe of the ranch vacation.
My mission was to sample the extremes--the most old-fashioned and newfangled ranches I could find. I found the old-fashioned ranch in Wolf, Wyo.; the newfangled one in Big Sky, Mont. Their features ran from coal heating to Kohler plumbing, from Jif in a jar to escargots , from a rumbling 1928 Ford Model A on a dusty path to lounging llamas on grassy knolls.
Eatons' Ranch may be the oldest dude ranch in America--19th-Century record books aren't clear--and its keepers put on no airs. The property lies about a half-hour northwest of Sheridan, Wyo., cradled by the Bighorn Mountains, bisected by Wolf Creek, trodden each summer by the hoofs of about 200 horses. There are other hoof prints too--mostly from roving deer and about 200 cows, whose offspring are usually packed off for plumping after they've reached yearling status.
But the point of Eatons' is horses. Each year on Memorial Day weekend, the ranch wranglers, sometimes assisted by ambitious dudes, spend three days driving the animals up from their winter home at the Eaton family's Echeta ranch, 100 miles to the east. The drive climaxes with a traffic-interrupting, police-escorted passage down Fifth Street through downtown Sheridan (population: 14,000) and ends at the Eatons' 7,000-acre spread. Near the end of September, the spectacle is repeated in reverse.
The first Eatons' Ranch was founded by three Eaton brothers in 1879 on homesteaded land near Medora, N.D. From the beginning they entertained friends and acquaintances from the East, and in 1882 they accepted their first payment from one. They used the term "dude" to describe that guest and rusticating visitors like him, and may have been the first to do so. In 1904, the Eatons moved to Wyoming.
The ranch remains a family operation--almost everyone with any authority carries the name of Eaton or Ferguson--and you eat when the family says. During the summer high season, there are two strict dinner seating times: 6-6:10 p.m. and 6:50-7 p.m. No one, the ranch schedule warns, will be admitted between 6:10 and 6:50.
You also eat where the family says (in an assigned seat with five assigned table mates) and you eat what the family says. Usually it's healthy helpings of American grub, family style, around a centerpiece of ketchup bottles and peanut butter jars. Capacity is 125 dudes, and adults generally pay $900 a week.
As you get ready to eat breakfast each day--for that meal, you have from 6:30 to 8:45 a.m.--a few wranglers are driving the horses across Wolf Creek, up a dusty road and into the ranch's main corral, from which they are summoned for saddling.
Tradition is very big. The old photos and stuffed animals in the public rooms hint of summers past, as do the high wooden beams of Howard Hall, where there's a dance with a country-Western band once a week. Even the swimming pool would qualify as an antique, by California standards: It's about 60 years old, 70 feet long and fed by filtered and heated creek water.
The ranch's 54 cabins (one, two and three bedrooms) are fascinating, if not fancy. Lockless doors. Heating by propane gas, steam and coal stove, depending on the cabin and its vintage. The thermostat in my cabin controlled the temperature in several others. In another cabin, the summer's first occupant found a strong scent of skunk and what appeared to be a wasp's nest under the porch eaves.
"You get excited if there's a new bedspread in your place . . . but you don't want things to change," said Eileen Kidder of Cudahy, Wis., a repeat visitor for 14 years, as she led me on a tour.
One of the ranch's biggest selling points is freedom. Once a dude (at Eatons', everyone uses that word without hesitation) has demonstrated his or her horsemanship, wranglers will set him or her free to ride unescorted, galloping on the flats, climbing the mountain slopes, loping up to the viewpoint on Rattlesnake Ridge, maybe even accompanying children or other less experienced riders. Most ranches don't dare let any guests go anywhere on horseback without a wrangler on hand, and members of the Eaton family say that one lawsuit, even if failed, could end their tradition.
But then again, maybe not. Sometimes, it seems that it would take more than mere legal action to dislodge a long-standing habit at Eatons'. Consider, for instance, the napkin rings and the ice.
Every dude gets a brightly painted napkin ring with his or her name on it. At the end of every meal, dudes are supposed to stuff their napkins back into the rings and leave them on the table. Forget, and their waitress ties your napkin to the back of your chair, and you are singled out for gleeful public derision. I couldn't find anyone who remembered why this goes on.
On the front step of most cabins stands an ice box--not a refrigerator, but a box with a door into which a block of ice is placed each morning. The man who places the ice there is Franklin Whitham, who is known only as "Sudsy" (he started 30 years ago as a dishwasher). He makes the deliveries in the ranch's black 1928 Model A, with ice tongs at hand and a mixed-breed dog named Lady panting in his lap.
Why do the cabins need ice? Because the proprietors prefer to serve only overnight guests in the dining room, they can't get a liquor license. (They also feel strongly about preserving a family-friendly atmosphere.) But many guests do want a little beer or wine after a day on the trail, so they buy some in town and bring it back to the ranch. To keep it cool and at hand, they use the ice, and make Sudsy indispensable. Was Prohibition something like this?
If scenes such as this catch your affection, you keep coming back, form attachments, cherish the pile of rusted old horseshoes by the shed, make your calls home from the public telephone on the platform where the stage stop used to be and watch the wranglers practice their roping on lazy afternoons. They stand in the dust, toss a looped lariat at a plastic steer's head on a saw horse, hit or miss, recoil, toss and toss again.
Dorothy Douglas, asingle Brooklynite, came back for 54 summers from 1935 to 1988, then died. Mary Dailey, a photographer who lives in New York, in 1993 marked her 43rd year visiting. (Like many veteran dudes, she takes the same cabin every year, and has done a lot of renovating and decorating herself.) Also last summer, the McNutts of Indiana and the Nimicks of Pennsylvania marked their 39th year, the Inglehearts of Kentucky marked their 36th, Col. Ed Clapp of North Dakota marked his 34th and so on.
The newcomers' list can be interesting too: Among them last year was Tina Brown, editor of the New Yorker magazine, along with her husband, Harold Evans, president and publisher of Random House Adult Trade Books, and children. (The ranch reserves the right to "exchange references" with new dudes, and sometimes, according to a source I will call Deep Dude, a newcomer who is considered unreasonable or troublesome will find that the ranch is full up whenever he or she tries to book a return visit.)
Using the ranch as a base, a dude could fish for trout in Wolf Creek or the Tongue or Bighorn rivers (there are brochures for fishing guides in the office), or sample Western civilization in the nearby former frontier towns of Sheridan, Dayton, Ranchester, Big Horn, Story and Buffalo. But much of that seems to be beside the point to the most devoted dudes of Eatons'. After all, sight-seeing would leave less time to ride, to eat, to sit on the porch, and then ride some more.
Pull up a seat in the Lone Mountain Ranch dining room, take note of the high ceiling and the handsome twin chandeliers of bleached antlers, and read the note on your menu: The antlers above are not hunting trophies, it reassures; they "are naturally dropped each winter by bull elk."
That's one clue to the progressive nature of Lone Mountain Ranch, and there are many more. Lone Mountain lies in Montana's Gallatin Canyon, an hour south of Bozeman, an hour north of the west entrance to Yellowstone National Park. More than 750 miles of blue-ribbon trout rivers run within a two-hour drive, the Spanish Peaks mountains rise all around and the Big Sky ski resort stands close at hand. So do a few hints of Montana's burgeoning popularity: vacation condos under construction and a gas station that advertised itself as a "Travel Shoppe." But the ranch's most striking distinction may be that it deals more in environmental awareness and haute cuisine than it does in cowboy nostalgia and trail grub.
The ranch itself is a compound of 23 log cabins, a stable, various public buildings, 700 acres of meadows, trails, wildflowers and pines, and thousands of acres accessible through lease agreements with neighbors and in the neighboring Gallatin National Forest. Deer and moose peek through the trees. The accommodations serve as many as 70 guests in summer and about 50 in winter, when the ranch lures cross-country skiers with more than 40 miles of trails.
My cabin was roomy, with pine-log walls and open sloping ceilings, electric heating, a rocking chair, a handsome black stove. As at Eatons', there was no phone and no television. There was a lock on the door, but guests are only issued keys if they ask, and most don't bother. The bathroom amenities matched those of any upscale hotel, and the porch looked out on a babbling creek.
The dining room is a log structure too, but went up in 1989. If it evokes the word "chow" at all, it's with the Italian spelling. The chef was trained in Holland. The restaurant is neighbored by a fully stocked saloon. Guests gather their food from a wealth of choices at a buffet table, then can either keep to themselves at a table for two or socialize at larger tables. On a busy night, the crowd may include two or three dozen day-trippers who have driven up to the ranch just for the food. Offerings include trout baked with spinach and Brie, schnitzel, pepperoni pizza (for children), cheese ravioli with scallops and bison steak. And every meal features a vegetarian option. (Guests eat whenever they like, between 5:30 and 9 p.m.)
No, vegetarianism does not square with the central objective of cattle ranching. But Lone Mountain hasn't been a cattle ranch for more than 60 years. And as the smoke-free saloon, the hot tub, the staff massage therapist and the place's various further comforts and precautions suggest, Lone Mountain hardly fits the mold of an old-fashioned guest ranch. Also, no one uses the word "dude."
Bob and Vivian Schaap, managers and majority owners of the ranch, were both raised in Wyoming, went on to big-city life in the Boston area, moved to Montana in 1972 and took over management and part-ownership of Lone Mountain in 1977. Though the land was first homesteaded for a cattle and hay ranch in 1915, it was sold to a Chicago paper mill tycoon in 1926 and since then has generally had more to do with hospitality than livestock. In fact, neither a steer nor a cow has been professionally employed here in more than 20 years, unless you count the taxidermized head of Bessie, which looks down on guests in the ranch's lounge area.
The Schaaps' emphasis on wilderness appreciation shows up in various ways. As an alternative to the "rancher" package that is highlighted by six days of horseback riding in a weeklong stay, the ranch now offers a "naturalist" program that concentrates on guided hikes, a Yellowstone tour and activities designed to teach children more about the natural world. Basically, the naturalist gets everything the rancher gets, minus the riding, and saves a little money. (None of the packages is cheap; ranchers pay $1,450 weekly for the first person in a cabin, meals included, air fare excluded and $1,000 for each additional person.)
In years to come, Schaap said, "I think there will be a greater percentage of guests who won't want to get on a horse, or will want to get on a horse one time in a week."
Lone Mountain attracts its share of return visitors too. In fact, when ownership of the property was restructured last year, a handful of committed repeat visitors ended up investing and becoming minority partners with the Schaaps in the enterprise.
I did all sorts of non-equine things at Lone Mountain. On my first morning there I joined guide Tim Klare on a three-mile hike up the ranch's North Fork Trail. On the way, Klare pointed out glacier lilies, mule deer, the snow-topped 11,166-foot-high peak of Lone Mountain, and the network of paths that under snow would become cross-country trails.
A day later I joined a rafting trip on the Gallatin, where many scenes in the film "A River Runs Through It" were shot. Since this was early June, the water was cold (we wore full wet suits) and the rapids fairly strong. After the 2 1/2-hour, 11-mile ride, we were soaked. Our guide estimated that the rapids would be classified a 3 or 4 on the river-runners' 1-6 scale. (This trip is an extra excursion through Yellowstone Raft Co., and adds $37 to an adult guest's bill.)
After rafting, I ate and rested for two hours, then followed head fishing guide Gary Lewis on a fly-fishing float down the Madison River. Brown trout were biting on nymphs, and the landscape was empty of humans but for us. On the way home, the sky performed: golden late-afternoon sunshine on our backs, bursting black thunderheads off to the horizon on the right and a rainbow framing the snowy mountains on our left. Never underestimate anything anyone tells you about the sky in Montana.
But Lone Mountain is a ranch, after all, and one with nine wranglers and more than 90 horses. It makes sense to ride there. So when the equestrian club of Delta Airlines arrived and saddled up, I followed. Soon wrangler Jennifer McDonald was leading us across meadows, up slopes, through thick pine groves, across ravines and past a handful of recently constructed custom homes. (Lone Mountain's wranglers never let a rider out unguided.) We mostly walked, trotted a little, never galloped.
That's not, however, to discount the pleasures of a guided ride. After returning to relax for an hour or so, we saddled up again, and this time our wrangler led us to a barbecue a little way up the canyon. Pork ribs on the grill, along with trout, baked potatoes and a pot of beans. Coolers full of beer and pop. A pan full of apple cobbler. Quipping ranch hands. A cowboy-hatted toddler with a face full of food.
Then came the leisurely ride through the cooling evening back to the stables and the most difficult decision of the day: To the hot tub next? The massage table? Or to the saloon for a toast to the broad new world of the ranch vacation?
A Whole Dern Passel of Ranches
Two ranches: Eatons' Ranch (Wolf, Wyo. 82844; telephone 307-655-9285). Rates from June 15 to Sept. 5 this year are $900 per week for each person 18 or older, $700 for kids 17 or younger, with a minimum stay of seven days. From June 1-14 and Sept. 6-30, when activities are more limited, the rates drop to $825 for adults, $625 for children. The ranch price sheet also notes that rates can vary depending on the type of accommodations and whether cabins are occupied to capacity.
Lone Mountain Ranch (P.O. Box 160069, Big Sky, Mont. 59716; tel. 406-995-4644). The seven-day "rancher" package (which excludes air fare but includes all meals) is priced at $1,450 for the first person in a cabin and $1,000 for each additional person age 6 and over; children age 4-5 begin at $625, those 2-3 begin at $300. The "naturalist" package costs $1,300 for the first person, $850 each for additional people. There's also a "fly fisher" package (four full-day fishing trips and various "naturalist" activities) at $2,150 for the first person, $850 for a second person sharing the same fishing guide.
Other ranches: The national Dude Ranchers' Assn. (P.O. Box 471, LaPorte, Colo. 80535; tel. 303-223-8440) publishes an annual directory with descriptions of its more than 100 member ranches, and sends out copies for $5 each. Also, a two-minute call to (900) 988-0019, Ext. 634 (cost: $2 per minute) offers a general explanation of how to plan for a ranch vacation.
The Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Assn. (P.O. Box 300, Tabernash, Colo. 80478; tel. 303-724-3653 or 887-3128), which counts 40 member ranches, mails out free directories.
Dude ranch prices: Rates generally range from $600-$1,500 per week, per adult, excluding transportation to and from the ranch. Children's rates vary just as widely. Rates are mostly "American plan," meaning three meals daily are included. Riding is generally also included (guests are usually matched with horses on their first morning and keep the same horse for the rest of the week). Most activities beyond ranch confines (such as fishing with a guide or rafting) carry extra fees.
Some ranches leave gratuities up to guests or suggest that they leave a 10%-15% tip (to be shared by staff). Other ranches assess a flat 15% service charge when you check out. Be sure to ask what credit cards are accepted; some operations are small and prefer cash or checks. Children: Family-friendliness means different things to different people. Some ranches are designed as places where parents and children spend their time together and don't offer baby-sitting. Some ranches provide it free, others provide for an added fee and still others will recommend a nearby day-care location. Families should inquire closely of individual ranches. Most ranches encourage children to ride horses, but start them at varying ages. At Lone Mountain, wranglers lead 4- and 5-year-olds on pony rides and gradually lead 6- and 7-year-olds through special instruction. At Eatons', children under 6 aren't allowed to ride; older children are allowed to ride with appropriate supervision.
Off the trail, don't expect video games. Most ranches offer such diversions as board games, puzzles, playing cards, Ping-Pong tables, volleyball and horseshoe-pitching.