by Joshua Berman, Special for USA TODAY
DUBOIS, Wyo. — “Are we still going to ride?” I ask, glancing at the storm rolling off the jagged peaks of the Absaroka mountains. Wrangler Dallin Maples, 25, responds by handing me a long, yellow raincoat as the first drops splat on the hard brim of my hat.
“The horses don’t spook in the thunder?” I ask, pulling the coat on. Lightning flashes crazily close, just up the valley.
“No, they’re used to it,” Maples says in a patient tone that indicates he’s heard these city-slicker concerns before.
He walks me over to Butch, a gray-and-white Amish-trained draft horse, and shows me how to pull myself onto the saddle by grabbing the mane. Butch follows Maples’ horse out of the corral and across Horse Creek.
“The trails up the hill will be too slick,” Maples says, “so we’re going exploring.” With that, he pulls his horse into the trees, and three of us follow.
Slowing down, cowboy style
I’m visiting T Cross Ranch, a small, rustic guest operation in northwest Wyoming, with my wife and three daughters. As a schoolteacher about to start another busy year, I wanted to bring my family somewhere special before hectic schedules take over our lives — somewhere quiet, where we would be forced to turn off our toys and actually listen to each other.
Holing up in a simple log cabin at the end of a remote mountain road seemed like just the ticket, and the old-fashioned family fun of a guest ranch seemed like the perfect level of excitement.
T Cross’s eight creaky lodgepole-pine cabins have wood stoves, basic plumbing, a few lightbulbs, and porches with grand views of the pasture and sky. The cabins are built around a main lodge and kitchen, and the ranch can accommodate no more than 24 guests at a time,who pay $1,690 for an all-inclusive six-night stay ($1,550 for ages 6-12). The biggest amenity, however, is the remote location, north of the town of Dubois in the Shoshone National Forest, surrounded on all sides by one of the most remote, rugged regions in the Lower 48.
I’m easing into the sleeping-eating-riding routine of the week. Things are relaxed, sure, but this kind of vacation is not for the idle. Each morning, I shake my daughters awake before the 7:30 a.m. breakfast bell, then we walk to the lodge where a fire roars and everyone greets us by name.
On this day, after a second helping of “cowboy potatoes” in the Buffalo Room, my wife and baby stay back in the cabin to porch-sit and play “Little House on the Prairie,” while my older girls and I walk-skip down the trail to the riding ring.
At ages 3 and 5, my girls are a little young to take part in the gymkhana — a weekly ranch tradition in which wranglers and dudes playfully compete in barrel racing, shovel pulls (sitting on snow shovels dragged by running horses), and calf-penning competitions — so instead, we sit on the fence, squint into the sun and watch the festivities. It is a fun, lazy morning full of dust and laughter, but after lunch, I’m ready to ride.
The storm already is moving on and the rain is tapering off, leaving that rare moment of cool, soggy, moss-smelling mountains in a normally dry, high-desert climate 7,800 feet above sea level. We breathe it in for a few strides before anyone speaks.
“Small, family-run, historic ranches like (T Cross) are important to keep and preserve and support,” says Nancy Gargiulo, 50, a housewife from Chester, N.J., who came to ride with her daughter, Emma, 15. They both ride English-style and have been to plenty of horse shows together, but this is their first mother-daughter dude ranch vacation.
Gargiulo’s main criteria for selecting a ranch were simple: “a cabin and a horse.” She had other desires as well, including some things she didn’t want in a ranch vacation. “I wanted rustic, not a spa, not a lot of people, not a big kids’ program.”
The four of us are riding through the damp woods, on the lookout for moose and elk, and playing “pass the stick” as our horses carry us through the trees and sage.
“America has fallen out of love with the West,” laments one of the T Cross owners, Mark Cardall.
It’s not as easy to sell a ranch vacation as it used to be when John Wayne was touting cowboy culture to the world, he says. Indeed, as the guest-ranch industry struggles to attract new clients, some properties are expanding their list of activities beyond horses and cabins.
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Some guests may actually be better suited to those bigger, corporate-backed ranches “with ziplines and climbing walls.” But at T Cross, Cardall says, guests come simply “to ride horses, learn horsemanship and see wild country—that’s what the old traditional dude ranches were.”
He should know. Cardall and his wife, Gretchen, grew up on ranches, and they met on one, too. “Gretchen’s dad and her grandfather ran those classic ranches at the base of the Tetons back in the 1930s, which was the golden era of dude ranching,” he says.
That four-generation connection with these mountains and with this tradition of hospitality is what makes T Cross different from other ranches, he adds.
Then, there are the cowboys
As we return to the stables, I look up the valley where the lightning struck a few hours earlier and see a small, steady pillar of white smoke. I point it out to Maples who rides over to tell Cardall. The next thing I know, these normally unhurried wranglers are shouting and scrambling to re-saddle their horses and grab shovels and chainsaws. Then, with a fast-thumping beat of hooves, they take off into the forest.
Luckily, the afternoon storm brought plenty of moisture and no wind, and the men knock down the burning tree and contain the fire before supper is over. I watch them amble back past the dining lodge as the light of day fades.
The next morning, Maples and his co-workers are back in the wrangler room, packing sack lunches for an all-day ride with guests — just another day in the life at a classic Wyoming dude ranch.
Joshua Berman is a freelance writer and Spanish teacher based in Boulder, Colo.
Dude ranches have deep roots in Wyoming, where dozens of operations offer a range of experiences in a variety of terrain. The Dude Ranchers’ Association lists 28 ranches with the requisite combination of “horses, hats, history, and hospitality.” Here are a few to get you started.
T Cross Ranch, Dubois, Wyo.
Dates: Open through late September
Highlights: This remote, small ranch embodies traditional Western hospitality, and they have spectacular, well-kept horses, to boot.
Rates: $1,690 adults for six nights
CM Ranch, Dubois, Wyo.
Dates: Open through late September
Highlights: This historic family run ranch has 115 horses, plus stunning access to the Wind River Mountains and surrounding wilderness.
Rates: from $1,690 a week for adults
The Lodge & Spa at Brush Creek Ranch, Saratoga, Wyo.
Dates: Open until Oct. 12;
Highlights: Everything on this beautiful 15,000-acre property is included in the rate, from gear and guides to all on-ranch activities to wine and spirits.
Rates: From $1,200 per unit per night
A Bar A Ranch, Encampment, Wyo.
Dates: Open until Sept. 23, with guided bird hunts and overnight pack trips until Oct. 30.
Highlights: With 100,000 acres, A Bar A is one of the largest guest ranches in the country and has a long history.
Cost: $430 per adult, per night, all-inclusive
Paradise Guest Ranch, Buffalo, Wyo.
Dates: Open through Sept. 22 (adults only starting Aug. 25)
Highlights: The classic, century-old ranch features lots of family activities. Fly-fishing instruction also is available.
Rates: Late-season discount weeks start at $1,500