sign welcomes new and returning guests to the ranch.
Colo. ó 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 roadís
edge, nearly spilling the contents of the drink Iíve
been clinging to since he picked us up at the airport.
them buildings over there? Thatís 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."
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
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 doesnít stretch the imagination to
see how the area would have appealed to early settlers.
we pull up the long road and into the ranch, a man with
outstretched hand steps up. "Hi, Iím 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. Itís only later that we learn
he has a fancy for bluegrass and his serious demeanor
masks a quiet mission to insure guestsí experiences are
ranch worthy, Johnny-style.
on 1,200 acres of pure poetry, the Home Ranch ó a study
in elegant meets down-home ó isnít 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 isnít in these folksí
rambling set of log buildings make up the lodge, which is
also home to a library loft (where a quick survey reveals
a vintage hardback edition of "Ozma of Oz," the
third in L. Frank Baumís 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.
mornings during breakfast, gritty, sunburned wranglers
toting steaming hot cups of coffee meander into the dining
room to discuss guestsí 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? Itís this saddle-to-sauna dichotomy that makes
the ranch unique.
with nicknames like Birdhouse, Compromise and Bunkhouse
sit back from the lodge nearly a hundred 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
still curious about the areaís 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 Reedís story.
gentle nudging produces more tales of the areaís
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 ó it
seems ice on the river complicated quick getaways ó 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 Johnsonís
desire for avenging his wifeís death wasnít fully
realized until he ate his victimsí livers, a juicy
tidbit that adds to our wonder about how the
"wild" West ever got romanticized.
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 ó both nearby
Yampa River and three miles of on-property Elk River offer
stellar fly fishing ó is where Iíd 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 hutís porch.
by the hay meadow where the winterís feed is grown and
harvested, head wrangler Kelly Carlson and seven fellow
wranglers spend sunup to sundown caring for the ranchís
95 horses and all guest riding requests during the long
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.
Jack," he coos. This is the draft horsesí 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.
bred for pulling, but I wouldnít want to ride one,"
he says matter-of-factly. "Itís like riding a
mattress." With a warning to hang on and a murmur to
the horses, he snaps the reins and theyíre off, the
mighty harnesses clinking loudly as the wagon pulls into
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 chefís behest.
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.
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.
doesnít 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 propertyís little creek keep him
so busy we begin to feel weíve gone on a couples
find that by giving children independence, it actually
makes them enjoy their families more. They suddenly
realize they havenít spent time with their parents and
will rush in for a hug during dinner," Laura Fisher,
Johnnyís daughter and the ranchís marketing
coordinator, tells me over dinner.
itís Wednesday nights we find the most magical, and for
a brief time Iím 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 barnís upper floor, old saddles draped from beams
and a local band called Sundog playing bluegrass in the
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. Itís 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.
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.