2000s Archive

A Dude By Any Other Name

Originally Published February 2000
Back at the ranch you’ll find whatever you’re searching for—open spaces, riding, hiking, and, of course, great food.

Meditate for a moment on the word dude, as it was used long before it became a one-word anthem for the slacker generation. Dude was an insider’s term in the working West, the name you gave someone from outside—an easterner, as the dictionaries say, or a person wearing a new, store-bought outfit or cowboy clothes that were fancier, perhaps, than their owner’s ability to ride. But somewhere out West, years ago, some dude with a sly, self-effacing optimism called himself a dude and took the sting right out of the name. He walked up to a horse he had never met, hitched up his pants, which were too short to begin with, stuck a shiny boot into a weathered stirrup, and hauled himself aboard as though he were climbing out of running seas onto a moving yacht. Then he clapped his hat to his skull and sat there like a newly minted penny in a handful of old change, too amazed at himself to notice the wranglers’ reactions or the look in the eye of the horse, who was entertaining thoughts of Old Virginny.

And so, to wrap up this brief history, the dude ranch was born. Almost a century later the institution is still going strong all across the West, though you’ll notice that few dude ranches use the word dude in their names now, even though they may be members of a dude ranch association. This allows a little latitude to the paying guests, some of whom are dudes but won’t admit it—stopping just short of, say, the true Walter Mitty mindset—or who really only want to relax Out West without riding anything more animated than a wooden porch railing with the sound of water and the smell of cottonwoods nearby. Some people go west on ranch vacations in search of a stockman’s authenticity, and others do so hoping to end up at a place no more genuine than Cody College, the western boys’ school in the 1943 musical Girl Crazy, where the cacti are cardboard, the girl is Judy Garland, the bandleader is Tommy Dorsey, and the score is by George and Ira Gershwin. Not many guest ranches will give you a Busby Berkeley finale the way Cody College does, but they can nearly all muster a singing cowboy, the smell of sagebrush and wood smoke, and enough wide-open space to sustain the illusion of the West the way it once was—or at least the way it once was in the daydreams of dudes.

There has always been a therapeutic quality attached to the notion of a ranch vacation, a Teddy Roosevelt faith that outdoor living and a certain amount of self-reliance would toughen up the soft city dweller. But these days the last thing a city dweller needs is toughening up. He or she is more likely to require a little punching down, like risen dough, and a chance to leave the self-reliance to someone else, like the housekeeping staff, the chef, and the masseuse. As a result, many guest ranches now feel more like spas than high-country cow camps, and they offer a range of activities—fly-fishing, sporting clays, bird-watching, hiking—that stops just short of golf, which would confuse everyone. The only things spartan about a modern guest ranch are the thin mountain air and the cool summer evenings and the fact that the ranch lies back of beyond, where the cattle moan at night and the cell phones all say “no service.” The horses may be an afterthought, but the beds are not. The scenery may be exceptional, but not as exceptional as the menu and the wine list.

Consider Teton Ridge Ranch, not far from Tetonia, Idaho, on the western slope of Targhee National Forest. Teton Ridge sits within the last fold of conifers before the terrain begins to shoulder into open land and down across Mormon farm fields to the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, one of this country’s finest trout streams. Yellowstone, and all its fly-fishing waters, lies 90 miles to the north, and Jackson, Wyoming, only 40 miles to the southeast as the raven flies. But in the raven’s way stands Grand Teton itself, nearly 14,000 feet high. To a guest pretending to have had a hard day lounging, while the light fades, in a rocking chair outside the lodge’s great room or near a fire inside, Grand Teton shows every trick of perspective. To pretend that it has only one height or rises at only a single distance from where you sit is to deny the evidence of your eyes. Some days Grand Teton glowers nearby like an outsize flake of obsidian on the horizon. Other days it’s as bright as an elk’s eyetooth, making you aware of all the interceding country, the difficult traverse to the mountain’s far base.

If you ride out from Teton Ridge, the horses will take you down into the canyon worn away by Badger Creek, a wide, shallow stream as clear as the midday sky. The trail cuts back and forth across the water, past beaver dams and willow thickets, where moose graze, along a sandy bank where the print of a mountain lion’s paw is still visible. Cover is thick in the country around Teton Ridge, except where trails—miles of them—have been cut for hiking and cross-country skiing. Somehow the profusion of aspen and lodgepole pine, the dense, matted forest floor, the evergreen stillness, enhance the feeling of seclusion that is one of the ranch’s chief attractions; one of the things, too, that make it as inviting to cross-country skiers and snowshoers in winter as it is to fly-fishermen, hikers, riders, and the idly disposed in summer. The quality of privacy is exalted here by nature itself and also by the fact that Teton Ridge accommodates only a few guests at a time.

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