CLARK, Colo. — Bumping along in our ride to the Home Ranch, an upscale dude ranch where my husband, young son and I will spend the week, wrangler and local cowboy Sand Reed suddenly jerks the pickup to a quick stop on the road's edge, nearly spilling the contents of the drink I've been clinging to since he picked us up at the airport.
"See them buildings over there? That's where the stagecoach used to stop," he says, pointing to what looks closer to a date with a wrecking ball than a historic preservation effort. "Poor travelers bunked on the floor when the stagecoach pulled in."
Spending time around cowboys as a kid gave me an appreciation for embellishment, but when he next tells me Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid spent nine winters in the little town of Clark and points out a little wooden church where Butch hosted barbecues, I mentally check it and decide to verify later.
And then, within minutes, the low hills part and the Elk River Valley opens wide, cattle ranches and rolling pastures dotted with cedar rainbow trout farmhouses set among fir, aspen and spruce. It doesn't stretch the imagination to see how the area would have appealed to early settlers.
As we pull up the long road and into the ranch, a man with outstretched hand steps up. "Hi, I'm Johnny," he says in a firm voice, offering a quick smile and a hand with our bags. Wearing classic cowboy couture, Johnny Fisher is ranch manager. It's only later that we learn he has a fancy for bluegrass and his serious demeanor masks a quiet mission to insure guests' experiences are ranch worthy, Johnny-style.
Sitting on 1,200 acres of pure poetry, the Home Ranch — a study in elegant meets down-home — isn't what I expected. Navajo rugs hang on walls in the main lodge and haute cuisine care of Chef Clyde Nelson in the communal dining hall is de rigueur. But Fisher has parlayed an old-fashioned sensibility and warmth into the property that dims what could easily have teetered over into haughty. Putting on airs just isn't in these folks' repertoire.
A rambling set of log buildings make up the lodge, which also is home to a library loft (where a quick survey reveals a vintage hardback edition of "Ozma of Oz," the third in L. Frank Baum's Oz series), a games room and a contingent of guest rooms. Adjacent are the recreation room and outdoor pool, kid-central for part of the week.
Most mornings during breakfast, gritty, sunburned wranglers toting steaming hot cups of coffee meander into the dining room to discuss guests' plans for the day while servers whoosh by, busily accommodating every whim imaginable. Chocolate chips in your gluten-free pancakes? No problem. Ride down to the river for some fly-fishing? Chef will pack you a gourmet lunch. Need a massage? How does 2 p.m. sound? It's this saddle-to-sauna dichotomy that makes the ranch unique.
Cabins with nicknames such as Birdhouse, Compromise and Bunkhouse sit back from the lodge nearly 100 yards, semi-obscured by stands of aspen. Accommodating between two and eight guests, each is outfitted with a fireplace, rustic furniture, thick throw blankets and a sauna on the porch. Daily maid service includes a fresh fire "match ready" and a batch of cookies on the sideboard.
I'm still curious about the area's outlaw past, so after an admittedly overindulgent breakfast of eggs benedict and sausage patties with fresh fruit, we walk down to the Clark General Store to check on Reed's story.
A gentle nudging produces more tales of the area's colorful history. Chris, whose tie-dye shirt and bandana make him look a little closer to someone we might meet up with in a Berkeley coffee house, tells us that not only did Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hole up here — it seems ice on the river complicated quick getaways — but a particularly onerous character named Liver-Eating Johnson (one of several outlaws comingled by Hollywood writers to produce the Jeremiah Johnson character of the movie by the same name) lived in a modest log cabin "about 10 miles upriver." It seems Johnson's desire for avenging his wife's death wasn't fully realized until he ate his victims' livers, a juicy tidbit that adds to our wonder about how the "wild" West ever got romanticized.
The balance of our week is filled with tromping down to the river to fly-fish, reading local lore on the porch and sometimes just listening to the wind blow through the aspens outside the window. The fishing hut — both nearby Yampa River and three miles of on-property Elk River offer stellar fly-fishing — is where I'd wander to have a chat with the fishing guides about all things ranch, occasionally joining them to enjoy the sunshine and a newspaper on the hut's porch.
Down by the hay meadow where the winter's feed is grown and harvested, head wrangler Kelly Carlson and seven fellow wranglers spend sunup to sundown caring for the ranch's 95 horses and all guest riding requests during the long summer days.
On a warm evening after dinner, Carlson hitches up two Percheron draft horses, half brothers Jim and Jack, to the hay wagon, nearly all the kids tumbling onto the back as they giggle and fall over each other.
"Easy, Jack," he coos. This is the draft horses' second year on the ranch, and Carlson tells us hitching them up has been a retraining process, as the brothers arrived with a few odd habits.
There are, of course, the little things. A hand-delivered plate of gluten-free cookies arrives unexpectedly at our cabin door. Or, when I lose a day to a migraine, servers offer easy-to-digest meals at chef's behest.
The biggest surprise, though, is watching nearly 20 children of all ages form a sort of happy tribe. Because visits in the summer always begin and end on a Sunday, the week becomes a kind of camp for both adults and kids, giving time to develop lasting friendships.
"We have a lot of families that return every year at the same time," Fisher tells me. And while there are counselors on duty, there is a sort of autonomy the kids develop on their own.
It doesn't take long to loosen the reins on Nicholas, our 11-year-old, as he discovers the joys of a less tethered childhood. An ad hoc sleepover in the living room, hours on the backs of horses with names like Amigo and Wyatt, and building boats out of used wine corks from the dining room to race down the property's little creek keep him so busy we begin to feel we've gone on a couples retreat.
"We find that by giving children independence, it actually makes them enjoy their families more. They suddenly realize they haven't spent time with their parents and will rush in for a hug during dinner," Laura Fisher, Johnny's daughter and the ranch's marketing coordinator, tells me over dinner.
But it's Wednesday nights we find the most magical, and for a brief time I'm transported back to my own childhood, square dancing with cousins in the Ohio countryside. Dinner over, at around 9 in the evening guests mosey down to the barn where we are welcomed into a massive room in the barn's upper floor, old saddles draped from beams and a local band called Sundog playing bluegrass in the corner.
It's a barn dance, and Fisher, who paid his way through college calling square dances and shoeing horses, gives a quick primer on the subject and then dancing begins. It's a hoot to watch city kids, more habituated to a rap beat than country and bluegrass, clapping their hands and following the steps. For nearly an hour, staff and guests line dance, two-step, and toy with the Virginia Reel.
"If there were more barn dances, there would be a lot fewer psychiatrists," Fisher pronounces. He might be on to something. Another month here and I might also catch up on that stack of novels sitting by the bed.