A WORKING CATTLE RANCH since the 1920s, the Double E was, until recently, Hooker Ranch, cobbled together from failed homesteads by a man named Joseph Hooker. In 1996, Joseph's son Donald sold it to Alan and Debbie Eggleston (the two E's), whose lifelong dream was to run a cattle ranch in their retirement. The ranch came with the old Hooker homestead and 100 Herefords, to which the Egglestons added 150 Texas longhorns. But the beef market, then in precipitous decline, barely earned them enough to pay the mortgage, and a lengthy drought made it tough to expand the herd. In between branding and calving, Debbie and Alan fixed up a few of the buildings as guesthouses and posted a Web site, and people began to come.
Debbie and Alan are not ranchers by trade -- Alan was a commercial airline pilot for years, and Debbie worked as an administrative assistant -- but they are the kind of durable, resourceful people to whom outdoor pursuits come easily, and with the Double E they have put together a fairly realized vision of the cowboy life. "Some people golf," Debbie told me. "Some people play tennis. We wanted to own a ranch. We weren't planning on running a guest ranch, but we just decided to do it like a place we would want to visit."
Ranch hands take clients on horseback rides through the spectacular scenery at Double E Ranch in New Mexico.
(Carol Guzy - The Washington Post)
Meals are served, boardinghouse style, on two broad plank tables in one of the ranch's newer structures, a brick ranch house. Like all the ranch's buildings it is decorated in a charming Nouveau West style: fringed leather pillows, lamps wrapped in what look like pieces of lariats, and cowhides, the hair still on them, thrown over the sofas. A bookshelf along one wall has several linear feet devoted to a gilt-embossed set of Louis L'Amour books, a hardcover titled No Life for a Lady and a scale model of a Lockheed P-3 Orion airplane.
It is pleasantly noisy and chaotic at the table. Two British couples, who spent the day shopping in nearby Silver City, nod knowingly as we describe our attempts at barrel-racing. "Yesterday," one woman says, "Preston showed us how to rope cattle. We figured it out right away, didn't we, Helen? We picked three that were lying on the ground and began shuffling them down the fence. Everyone thought we were brilliant for doing three."
"Poor things were almost asleep," says Helen.
"I roped four," says Helen's husband, Colin, beaming. He and Helen raise cattle, as it turns out, and the other couple, Peter and Ann, raise sheep. They have always, they tell me, wanted to try their hand at being cowboys. (Helen and Colin also run a B&B. "This is a bit of a busman's holiday for us," she acknowledges.) I ask Colin if he uses ropes when he herds his cattle at home. "Oh, no," he says. "People would think I'd gone mad if I started roping my cattle. I use four-wheelers and a dog."
After dinner, I return to my cabin, which was one of the first structures built on the ranch, a low clapboard house with creaking floors and a wide porch. In its new life as a guesthouse it has horseshoes nailed to the walls, the collected essays of Frederic Remington on the shelf, and a bed with a fluffy meringue of a down comforter. It is barely 8 o'clock, but a wind is whipping up, and the bony places where I connected with the saddle are beginning to complain. As I slip into bed, I give thanks that I did not choose to go on one of the more authentic cattle drives, where guests sleep on the ground in bedrolls. All night, the wind blows showers of little nuts onto my tin roof. I dream of tiny cattle, stampeding in the distance.
SADDLING UP BEGINS at the barn at 7 a.m. At that hour, the sun has yet to clear the ridge, and the ranch's low white buildings are bathed in a bluish half-light, as though they were underwater. The day is clear and chilly. Dressed and ready, the dried mud knocked off of my boots, I see a light in the barn and head over a few minutes early, but it is just the glow from the Mountain Dew machine. There is no one around. After a minute or two, Preston's purple Ford F-250 motors over the ridge, its diesel engine thrumming. In the pens beside me, the dark shapes of horses prick their ears and snort softly.
After breakfast we scrape to our feet, stiff from yesterday's exertions, and make our way down to the barn. Our group is sharply turned out: felt Stetsons, crisp white hats, shirts with pearl snaps. A young actress from California has on a battered straw hat and a faded red bandana knotted charmingly around her neck, and a physician from Albuquerque and his wife are wearing matching fringed chaps. I have on an old pair of cowboy boots saved from my last tenure in the Southwest, but I have been too self-conscious to affect any other cowboy gear, and I am wearing a wool stocking cap and a sweater.
"Welcome to the Wild West," one of the ranch hands announces as we mount up and jockey for position in the road. "Everybody got their Chapstick?"
We take a trail that winds back through narrow canyons and shallow washes, a landscape shaped by water but dry as a bone.
The horses pick their way placidly through sand and rock, sometimes hitting a trot in the open stretches. Riding on the trail is a far cry from riding in the ring. The ranch's vast acreage swallows us. Cottonwood trees shiver over the creek beds, and the hills are a thatchy expanse of what Preston tells me is cat's-claw -- a bush with hooked, needle-sharp thorns. I have no idea where we are going or how far we have come. There is nothing, down in the wash, that an urban person can use to orient herself: no receding four-point perspective of streets and buildings, no clear dichotomy of "here" and "there." Progress is made imperceptibly, each scene replaced with one subtly different. This is oddly soothing. You are at the center of the visible world; wherever you are feels like your destination.
We see one cow today, in a stand of cottonwoods. It lumbers to its feet and watches us as we pass. Our guide leans over to get a look at it. "That's not one of ours," she calls.
"Where are ours?" I ask. She shrugs.