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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.

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.

Whatever else you come to the HF Bar for, it’s worth rising at dawn one morning to watch the wranglers bring the horse herd down to the corrals. Every evening the horses—nearly 130 of them—are turned into the hills above the ranch, hills overtopped by red-rock cliffs and a contour of dark trees. At early light the wranglers saddle up and ride out of the corrals along a road that climbs quickly toward the upper fence line but that devolves before long into a webwork of horse trails. The time it takes the riders to reach the upper slopes—to turn into mere fractions of themselves in the distance—readjusts your sense of scale, as does the movement of the herd when it begins. At first it is barely a herd, only a few individual animals being pushed by some indiscernible force over a ridge and into sight. Slowly at first, and then more swiftly, they collect and begin to trickle downward silently onto the sunlit slopes, and then, as they reach the road, they gather themselves and slip into a collective trot. For a moment they drop out of sight again, and the only sound is the wind in your ears. Then the herd tops a knoll that brings them suddenly closer. The air begins to fill with the dry stony rhythm of their hooves, and they pour—a river of chestnuts and bays, roans and sorrels—into the stout corral beside the tack barn, where row after row of saddles hang. A storm of dust roils behind the horses and settles over one and all.

After a sight like that, there is only a single thing to be done: Put a dudelike grin on your dust-chapped face, have a wrangler catch and saddle a horse for you, and ride back up to where the sun has already warmed the morning.