TIMES STAFF WRITER; Eric Lichtblau is a reporter in Washington for The Times

Whoever first proclaimed that cleanliness is next to godliness must have showered at the UXU Ranch, here in the shadows of the snowcapped Absaroka Range.

Ah, the shower. Before all the other allures of Ham Bryan's dude ranch--before the mountaintop horseback riding, the white-water rafting, the bear sightings and the fly-fishing, before the legend of the ranch's bitterly sanitized name, even before the cowboy with the mud-packed beard who fired that bullet from his antique .45 just inches from my fearless new bride--before all that, there was the shower.

It is an amorphous thing, this shower; it is half inside and half out. From the bathroom of the Hollister log cabin at Bryan's ranch--once an authentic stagecoach stop on the way to nearby Yellowstone National Park--the nondescript glass shower door doesn't give away much about where it leads.

But reach the other side and you're in heaven. The Shoshone River lies to one side, through the woods and down the grassy slope. The mountains creep upward on the other side, their white tips peeking through the lush pines. There is nothing between all this and you because the shower itself is outdoors, hemmed on two sides by a 4-foot-high wall of river rock and nothing else. The hot water billows off the rock in clouds of steam, wafting up to a Big Sky that Montana would be proud to call its own. It's a liberating experience, and after a week of this morning ritual, it was tough to go back to tile and grout.

The shower is just one of the treasures at the dude ranch that Bryan bought in 1996, when he chucked his video distribution business in San Francisco and returned to his family roots in cattle ranching. He got into his car and drove, looking for a spot to claim. When he stumbled onto the 34 acres of U.S. Forest Service land on a sage-scented property known as the UXU, he knew he'd found it.

As local lore has it, the UXU moniker grew out of the ugly breakup of a cowhand couple who owned a nearby ranch in the late 1920s. When the wife cleaned him out, the embittered husband bought what is now Bryan's property a few miles down the road and proclaimed the site's new name on a sign--the X stands in for a rude label originally bracketed by "you's"--that let his ex-wife know what he thought of her each time she passed by. The Forest Service would have none of it and made him change it to a less profane "UXU."

The legend belies the bucolic aura of the ranch, a place with the familiar, well-worn feel of an old catcher's mitt on the first day of softball season.

The ranch and its 10 cabins are 6,200 feet above sea level along a remote stretch of road that Teddy Roosevelt once called "the most scenic 52 miles in America." The rustic decor is so striking that the UXU was featured on the cover of Architectural Digest and was named one of the five "Best Dude Ranches" last year by Mountain Living magazine.

Our cabin and its amazing shower were Bryan's own creation; he bought the Yellowstone stagecoach stop at an auction some 20 miles away for $700, then trucked it over to his site log by log and restored the place, complete with pine furnishings and Western collectibles.

But you won't want to spend all your time in the cabin. Outside is the chance to do lots or little: horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking, fishing, visiting the local rodeo or simply lounging in the main cabin with 30 or so guests, playing cards or billiards and enjoying a beer or wine from the honor bar. There's even a masseuse who comes once a week by appointment. A cowbell announces three meals a day with a Western-style gourmet flair (sample fare: green salad with duck confit, zucchini basil soup, citrus salmon). Meals are included in the weekly price, which begin at $1,475 for the first adult, depending on the cabin. Most daily activities are included in the rate.

It was here, in northwest Wyoming about 17 miles from the eastern rim of Yellowstone, that my wife, Wendy, and I spent our honeymoon last year after our wedding in Laguna Beach. We had looked at other honeymoon options--the traditional Europe tour, the beach getaway, a swing through Canada or Alaska. But because of time, distance and other mundane factors, none quite appealed. Then Wendy's boss threw out an idea we hadn't considered: the "City Slickers" honeymoon. We laughed it off, but the idea grew on us: It was something we could fit into a week, and after all the stresses of planning and executing a wedding, it wouldn't be nearly as exhausting as, say, jetting off to France and trying to cram the Eiffel Tower, Versailles and every Bordeaux winery into a few short days. Best of all, the ranch promised to be as relaxing as it was distinctive.

"You're going to a dude ranch for your honeymoon?" a flummoxed colleague asked after we made our reservations. "You don't even have kids," he added, as if to suggest that was the only reason to consider such a trip.

He was missing the point. The beauty of the ranch is that it can be anything you want it to be. For Wendy and me, it was a breathtakingly romantic spot that allowed us to plan adventures by day and serenade each other by night to the impassioned guitar-strumming of an old-time cowboy crooner named Val Geissler. For an older couple there with us, it was the perfect launching point to pursue their passion for collecting antique saddles and other Western memorabilia. For three generations of a Northern California clan who won the trip in a church raffle, it provided ample accommodations for a family reunion, where some could settle into a sofa with a book from the library while others explored the surroundings. (Some extended families and companies have made reservations a year in advance to book the whole place for a week.) And for several Eastern couples and their younger children, it offered the chance to hike, fish, horseback ride and the like before moving on to parks and tourist spots in the great West.

Now a confession: I fell off my horse.

Actually I was knocked off, but none of my friends back home in Washington, D.C., seem to believe that. We were crossing a creek on a morning ride when we approached a large branch hanging neck-high in our path. Wendy, riding a few paces ahead of me, spotted the branch and tried to bend it out of the way for me and my faithful horse, Cashew, but the branch sprang back before she could execute the handoff, knocking me to the ground. I should feel fortunate; my married friends tell me that after a few years of wedded bliss, Wendy won't bother to try clearing the branch out of my way.

Despite that hard knock, the dude ranch offered a sense of relaxation and escape that neither of us had quite experienced before. I noticed the transformation of an Atlanta doctor who came to the ranch with his wife and two young children after a stressful week at work. On his first night there, as we gathered for a Western-style cookout, the father scolded his son because the boy had let his marshmallow-on-a-stick catch fire in the barbecue pit. (Isn't that the point of making s'mores?) Within a few short days, however, Dad was wearing a cowboy hat two sizes too small and leading a kick line in a Western sing-along while his kids cheered him on.

The world beyond is distant: There are no TVs or radios, and cell phones don't work in this remote site. A single phone line in the common living area provides the only outside access.

I'd be a news junkie even if I weren't a reporter, and I was itching to know the big story in the outside world during our first few days at the ranch. When we ventured into Cody, 35 miles away, toward the end of our trip, I pounced on the first New York Times I could find at the general store, only to discover the Old Gray Lady was a week old.

Confession No. 2: Even after returning home to Washington and catching up on all the news from that week, I realized I hadn't missed much.

"Having no TV, no phone in this day and age is an incredible thing for a lot of people," Bryan reassured me. "You don't get many vacations like that anymore. Once you cross the river and go across the bridge and spend a couple of days, you feel like you're totally out of it, away from it all. It's like a vacation should be."

Dude ranching has grown significantly as a tourist draw in the last few years, with an estimated 300 ranches nationwide. Many of the sprawling sites are in the West, with Wyoming, Colorado and Montana leading the way, said Bobbi Futterer, who runs the Dude Ranchers' Assn. with her husband. She considers UXU at the upper end of the sites, partly because of its cuisine and its decor.

This summer is shaping up as a tough one for the dude ranching industry because of soaring gas prices, a sputtering economy and the misplaced fear that England's foot-and-mouth disease has made its way to U.S. cattle country, Futterer said.

But dude ranchers have proved a resilient bunch over the years, and Billy Crystal's Wild West high jinks in 1991's "City Slickers" gave dude ranches the kind of powerful "branding"--literally--that marketing experts crave. A decade after the film came out, "I still get a call every week from someone saying 'I want to do the "City Slickers" thing,"' Futterer said. "There's just something about the Western way of life. It's really a place where everybody fits in, and the bonding just makes it very attractive." At UXU, Bryan adds a personal touch, playing the role of omnipresent tour guide, storyteller, dining companion and occasional riding instructor all in one. He has a range of outdoor adventures planned daily, but the ranch revolves around the horseback rides--a definite highlight of our trip, even though we were novices. You can ride nearly every day if you want, depending on the durability of your derriere.

We did two rides during the week: a morning-long get-acquainted jaunt through the nearby creeks and hillsides (resulting in my ill-fated encounter with the branch) and a daylong adventure into the mountains that was broken up by a deluxe picnic lunch along a creek. We faced some maddeningly steep inclines and a few stumbles along the way, but the key, as our wrangler/guide assured us, was to relax and let the horses do the work.

Sore from the horses, we switched gears the day after our first ride by rafting the Class 3 white waters in the north fork of the Shoshone, led by an eco-minded college student who was part tour guide and part comedian. ("What's the difference between a river guide and a savings bond?" he asked as he was helping us maneuver a turn. "A savings bond matures after 30 years.")

The next day, while Wendy rested, I ventured back into the river with a guide and another guest to go fly-fishing for the first time in my life.

Confession No. 3: I didn't catch anything. Wendy thinks I did--well, OK, maybe because I told her I did--but despite all my "River Runs Through It" hubris upon my return, the truth is that the best I could hook was some debris. Then again, my veteran guide didn't catch anything either. And hey, I did get to meet a former National Hockey League all-star named Bob Kudelski, who sells fishing permits in the neighborhood.

We also spent a day hiking through Yellowstone, marveling over Old Faithful and spotting a few bears. Earlier, Bryan brought a local ranger to the ranch for a fascinating lesson on park wildlife. The kids loved it, but the guy shamed us adults by proving our pathetic inability to tell a grizzly from a black bear, despite his photos detailing the differences.

One of our last nights was in Cody, where we took in a rodeo and got a private tour of a memorable tourist haunt called Old Town Trail. An inventive local, Bob Edgar, has spent three decades buying up historic buildings throughout the region--a Western saloon, a general store, a blacksmith's shop and even the hideout reputedly used by Butch Cassidy and the Hole in the Wall Gang--then reconfiguring them along a dusty stretch of road in town. The result is an eerily realistic ghost town that feels as though the outlaws and shopkeepers vacated it just moments before you arrived.

Edgar was a little eerie himself. He spoke in a low, monotone rumble, telling cowboy stories so richly textured that he seemed to have lived them himself. A stuffed buffalo stood in the background at rapt attention. Edgar's black cowboy hat and Western garb gave the ring of truth to his yarns, and as if to drive home the point, he pulled out an antique .45 and called on volunteers to help him show off his marksmanship. Before I could grab her, Wendy was standing 10 paces from the old gunslinger and holding a postcard-size etching of a Wild West saloon as a target.

The details here are a bit sketchy because I was closing my eyes and picturing headlines about the world's shortest honeymoon. But I'm told that Bullet Bob hit his target almost dead on the mark, putting a hole through the postcard that was clutched in my bride's fingertips. All this while holding his long-barreled gun upside-down, no less. The bullet was real; I checked afterward and found it lodged in a wooden stump behind her.

And the Atlanta doctor, the one who had scolded his son a few days earlier for letting his marshmallow catch fire? He was there too, pushing the excited boy toward the black-hatted gunman as the next volunteer. But this time, Bullet Bob wasn't only holding the .45 upside-down; he had his back turned toward the boy, and he peered at his target in a tiny mirror before firing. Dad savored the moment, laughing. Seems the Wild West had won the dude over.


Guidebook: Luxuriating at UXU

* Getting there: Delta, United and Frontier airlines have connecting service (change of plane) from LAX to Cody, Wyo. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $348. The UXU can arrange pickups at the airport.

* The ranch: The UXU Dude Ranch, 1710 Yellowstone Highway, Wapiti, WY 82450; telephone (800) 373-9027 or (307) 587-2143, Internet http://www.uxuranch.com, is about 17 miles from the eastern rim of Yellowstone and 35 miles from the city of Cody in northwestern Wyoming. Open until Sept. 29 this year, it has a range of daily activities, including horseback riding, fly-fishing, white-water rafting, a nearby rodeo and Western museum and other entertainment. The ranch has a capacity of 30 guests. Rates, which include three meals a day, generally run $1,475 per week for the first person and $1,175 for the second person, with discounts for children. The Hollister cabin, a local landmark, is $5,900 for up to four people and $1,075 for each additional person. A 5% sales and bed tax and a 15% service fee is added to the bill.

* For more information: Wyoming Division of Tourism, Interstate 25 at College Drive, Cheyenne, WY 82002; tel. (800) 225-5996, fax (307) 777-2877, http://www.wyomingtourism.org.

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