2000s Archive

A Dude By Any Other Name

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The great room in the lodge at Teton Ridge—cavernous, firelit, a vault of log and stonework—feels, to twist a phrase, like the continuation of nature by other means. There is something inexpressibly satisfying about sitting in front of a massive fire, drink in hand, knowing that in the kitchen directly beneath you, Lori Dooner is putting the finishing touches on another memorable dinner, emanations of which have been insinuating themselves throughout the lodge for the past few hours. Dooner has an unconventional résumé for a chef—she is a soccer player and a former Marine who has also trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris—and she brings to Teton Ridge a culinary sophistication that utterly transcends the guest-ranch aesthetic. You would think that context would be everything at a western guest ranch, but the menus Dooner prepares have a way of escaping the ranch setting—they bring to mind a wintry evening in Manhattan—while still alluding to it. Subtlety blends with a kind of frankness.

Fourteen degrees of latitude south of Teton Ridge lies Cibolo Creek Ranch, within the shadow of the Chinati Mountains and only a Texas eyeshot away from the mountains of Big Bend National Park. Cibolo Creek Ranch is a historic reconstruction of El Fortín del Cibolo, an adobe redoubt built in the late 1850s by Milton Faver, a trader and farmer whose two smaller forts—La Morita and La Cienega—are also part of the Cibolo Creek property, which extends for 25,000 acres. The largest of these forts, the Hacienda at Cibolo Creek, has eleven guest rooms, and the smallest—La Morita, some 15 miles away over gravel roads—has only a single bedroom, for guests who want to retreat even further from the press of daily life and human company. Each fort feels like—and is—an oasis in the midst of the harsh but beautiful south Texas desert.

Cibolo Creek is managed by Lisa and Artie Ahier, a young couple of almost indescribable generosity. Lisa is the ranch chef, and she opens her kitchen to guests who want to take cooking classes with her or who, perhaps, desire only to watch, a glass of wine in hand, while one of her specialties—Broken Arrow venison osso buco or Cibolo shrimp salad—materializes before their taste buds.

Like Lori Dooner’s at Teton Ridge, Lisa’s food is marked by a sense of adventure that alludes to the vocabulary of western ranch cooking but that speaks more naturally of her global intuitions, her willingness, for instance, to lay before her guests perfectly steamed Chilean sea bass wrapped in banana leaves. Lisa’s food would be remarkable anywhere, but it is especially so when you consider that the nearest city—and not a sophisticated one when it comes to foodstuffs—is El Paso, about four hours away. Lisa relies heavily on her organic garden, as do the peccaries that live in the neighborhood.

Artie Ahier is curator of the ranch’s historical rooms and of its guests’ comfort. He is an apostle of service, as well as the ranch’s chief naturalist. Even if you can’t tell a chicken from a duck, except when arrayed on a plate before you, it’s worth spending half a day birding with Artie. Cibolo Creek is really a ranch for naturalists, and naturalist-dudes, of course. In this unpopulated part of Presidio County, Texas, the landscape shifts swiftly and dramatically. A half-day search for birds will take you from the peach orchard near the Hacienda across a plateau with the dark ash remnants of Indian fire pits, and high into the rugged hills above it. It’s hard not to notice, when driving to the ranch at night, the absence of any lights on the horizon. From the hills above the ranch during the afternoon, the spareness of settlement in this part of the world becomes perfectly plain. The falling sun seems to peel away layer after layer of the landscape, well across the Rio Grande and into Mexico, and there is scarcely a sign of human habitation to be seen, only the stern elegance of yucca and cacti and the infrequent seclusion offered by a stand of live oaks clinging to a shaded slope.

Given its southern latitude, Cibolo Creek Ranch is not a place for high summer. That season belongs to the HF Bar Ranch, in Saddlestring, Wyoming, which sounds like a town but is actually a private post office set on the HF Bar and therefore, interestingly, a tautological address. The HF Bar, founded in 1902 (making it one of the oldest dude ranches in the country), is a 9,000-acre crease in the eastern face of the Bighorn Mountains. If there is such a thing as the quintessence of dudeness, the HF Bar is it. At Teton Ridge and Cibolo Creek, children over six are welcome, though largely unnecessary, but at the HF Bar they are indispensable, since every kid, boy or girl, is a natural dude. This is a place to bring the brood and then turn them out with the herd, to let them roam like Buck, a retired ranch horse who now wanders the HF Bar at will, pausing to graze on the lawn or investigate a cabin porch or merely doze in the sun. The ambition of the HF Bar is that all its guests be as relaxed and as western, if perhaps not so hipshot or gaunt in the gums, as Buck.

Even first-time guests at the HF Bar feel, after a day or two, as if they have been adopted by an extended family. That is an atmosphere purposely cultivated by the owner, Margi Schroth, whose own house—set only slightly apart from the cabins that line Rock Creek—spills over with children and dogs. When the HF Bar was still just beginning, guests helped design, and sometimes construct, the cabins they stayed in, most of them set along the thick shade of Rock Creek. There’s a multigenerational feel to the place, not only in the buildings but in the guests and employees, too, who are, in many cases, the grand- and great-grandchildren of guests who first came to the HF Bar decades ago. Their informality is contagious, and so is their sense of belonging, whether you meet them while fishing Rock Creek or at supper in the dining room, pausing only for a forkful of panfried trout in the happy uproar of high-summer conversation.

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