I sat 5 feet off the ground on the back of a glistening quarter horse named Cappuccino listening to the wind whistle in my ears and rustle through the surrounding meadow of wildflowers. As far as I could see there was nothing but nature, a small portion of it sowed to fields of grain, but mostly the rough terrain of mountainous cattle country.
Rankin Ranch, located in the Tehachapi Mountains, about 125 miles north of our urban Hollywood home, probably doesn't look much different today than it did 135 years ago when Walker Rankin Sr. rode in and homesteaded 160 acres. Looking over the verdant countryside--nourished by three times the usual rainfall--it wasn't hard to understand why, five generations later, the Rankin family is still here.
Lucky for the rest of us that they are. In 1965, the family opened their cattle ranch (now 31,000 acres) to paying guests--up to 36 at a time, who come from April to early October. Here, the Rankins practice a dedication to the old ways that makes the city seem a century away.
We came because I love to ride and don't get enough chances at home. My husband, Richard, was game, though he'd only been on horses a couple of times. Our daughter Rachel is almost 3, and a year too young to be left in the supervised children's program.
But when I called to make our reservation, Glenda Rankin assured me that Rachel could play with the other children and participate in all the kids' programs, as long as one of us was with her or we arranged with them in advance for a special baby-sitter. We knew Rachel would enjoy older kids, and we didn't want to wait another year to go, so we decided to take turns spending time with her.
The emphasis is on horses. About 30 stallions are kept at the ranch for guests, and anyone over age 6 can ride twice daily. Two wranglers take out groups of no more than 12 riders each morning and afternoon, each outing following a somewhat different trail.
For a mid-June three-day weekend, we arrived on Friday afternoon at about 4 after an easy freeway ride followed by a foggy drive up the steep hill from the tiny town of Caliente. Despite the late-spring date, it was cold in the mountains and a bit rainy, so we were more than a little concerned about what our time at the ranch would be like. Coming into the lodge, we met a guest who had decided to sleep through the afternoon ride, opting out of the rainy trek. Others, however, had gone anyway, and gotten soaked. Rides, evidently, are available whatever the weather.
After settling into our room--one-half of a duplex cabin--which included a double and single bed and a sleeper couch as well as a private bath, we joined the rest of the guests in the lodge for some card games and coloring (for Rachel) before dinner. Promptly at 6:30, the dinner bell rang.
Everything at Rankin is covered on the American plan, including all meals--almost a necessity since the ranch is so remote. Accommodations are ample and the food, served only during designated mealtimes, is homemade, fresh and healthy, mostly of the meat-and-potatoes variety, with hefty breakfasts of eggs, hash browns and meat. Prices for adults depend on how many are sharing a room, and kids' prices depend on age.
There are no TVs, and the only telephone is a pay phone in the lodge. To say the Rankin family is friendly is almost to understate the warmth with which they operate their hostelry. Bill Rankin, who oversees the farm and cattle ranch for the family, signed us in when we arrived; his mother, matriarch Helen Rankin, whose watercolors of wildflowers adorned our room, joined Friday's dinner, and Glenda Rankin, Bill's wife, participated in many of the weekend's activities.
From their enthusiasm, you'd never guess they've been open to the public for 33 years. The result is that many visitors are regulars, and reservations can be hard to get. When I called in mid-May, only two weekends before Labor Day had openings. There are sometimes cancellations, however.
The ranch has six duplex cabins, with another under construction. We stayed in the one farthest from the lodge. The draw, though, is the outdoors, and even in the wet, cold evening of our first night we could tell that the landscape is spectacular. When we woke to clear blue skies, it was obvious that we were in luck.
My first ride, on Cappuccino, was my favorite of the three I took. Maybe I'd just been away from nature for too long, but every minute seemed incredibly alive. David Staats, the ranch's head wrangler, led the group, along with his assistant, Jeff Haynie, and we covered enough ground to make the ranch house, adjacent barns and stables seem remote.
Richard went out next, and Rachel and I joined the kids' group for a hike along the creek, which included a snack and a hunt for tadpoles in a small creek-side pond.
If the trout-stocked lake alongside the corral hadn't flooded out with the winter rains, we might have tried our luck at fishing. Instead, after lunch, Rachel was more than ready to jump into the pool and make an afternoon of it. I rode again, and this time our group went up into the hills overlooking the meadow. Richard napped instead of taking his ride--blame it on the mountain air.
After dinner--my favorite of the weekend, since it included fresh strawberry shortcake--we were more than curious about the scheduled square dance in the lodge. The scene was as authentic as everything else at the ranch, with ranch regular Omar Krumm serving as caller, and his wife, Lois, teaching the steps. After six or seven dances--both traditional square and line dancing--even Rachel gave it a try.
The Krumms, it turns out, have been coming up to Rankin from Bakersfield just about every weekend for 31 years to teach dancing. Such continuity is in evidence everywhere here. Even the corny, scratchy songs broadcast from their portable player seemed completely apropos.
Sunday's weather was great again, although we were warned that summers can be very hot, with the mountains just 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the highs in Bakersfield. Richard rose early for a bike ride; this was the lure that had convinced him to come. And despite very chilly temperatures, the three loops he made around Walker Basin, totaling about 21 miles, made him a happy camper. He returned to wake us for the 7:30 start of breakfast.
Richard's Sunday riding group went back into the meadow, where they had the biggest adventure of all: Some cattle had broken loose, and the guests helped the wranglers herd them back inside the fences. With some actual work to do, Richard said that riding horses made sense for the first time.
Freudenheim is The Times' Arts Editor.
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Budget for Three
Lodging for two nights, plus all meals and activities: Two adults: $560.00
One child under 4: $70.00
FINAL TAB: $697.61
Rankin Ranch, 23500 Walkers Basin Road, Caliente, CA 93518; tel. (805) 867-2511, fax (805) 867-0105.