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UTAH: hitch up the snowmobile

By Cindy Loose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2002

The pastures at the foot of the craggy mountains were buried in snow. Peregrine falcons were held aloft by wind blowing between the canyons. Often, the rustle of birds nestled in snow-covered juniper trees was the only sound.

The quiet emptiness of the Wind Walker Guest Ranch in central Utah just about drove me crazy. But only the first day or so. Then I learned how to mosey.

A dude ranch in winter is a perfect place to learn to mosey. You might be able to learn some of the bare rudiments of moseying on a dude ranch during the summer, which is the more typical time to go. But it probably would be a lot harder -- not to mention more expensive.

At the Wind Walker, where I recently was a paying guest, summers are activity-rich. Overnight trail rides, lasso-roping contests, swimming, fishing, hiking, picnicking, sing-alongs around big bonfire pits. A Native American conducts purification rituals in a sweat lodge. At the pond, guests build Huck Finn boats from logs and race them, while nearby towns hold festivals and rodeos.

None of that happens in winter. Distractions are held to a minimum at this particular ranch. You can take short trail rides, but the horses can't go fast or far on snowy trails. Chief wrangler Jeff Allred twice during our stay hitched up a pair of Clydesdales to a wagon so we could take rides (the sleigh was stuck in ice), and we played in the snow.

Other than that, we moseyed. And moseying, I decided by the time I left, is good. Everyone should spend part of their year moseying. Three days at a stretch seemed just about right for me, but there are people who come to Wind Walker and never want to leave.

When I first arrive, though, I am still on city-slicker time, and the two-hour scenic ride from Salt Lake City has me keyed up, ready to roll. I throw my bags inside the door to one of the three nicely decorated guest lodges, then, along with my daughter, Madeline, rush down the short path to the recreation hall, where food is served and a fire is always glowing in the fireplace.

Hopi the dog is the first to greet us. The owner's two grandchildren are about the same age as my 9-year-old daughter, but otherwise, we are the only guests.

Cowboy Jeff says he'll saddle some horses, and Maddie and I wolf down some chili and wait. Maddie goes outside to throw sticks to Hopi and meet Squeak, another ranch herding dog. I fidget as Jeff moseys around.

But the ride is worth the wait. New snow lightly falls on a base sturdy enough to support the horses' hooves. We travel trails begun centuries ago by the Ute -- the Native Americans who inspired the state's name.

A bald eagle circles overhead. White-furred jack rabbits are blurs in the snow as they frantically tear across our trail, Squeak and Hopi in hot pursuit.

"Don't worry, they hardly never catch one," says Jeff.

The Wind Walker ranch lies on more than half a million acres of land, 6,000 feet above sea level. Those acres are surrounded by the Manti-La Sal National Forest, the Horseshoe Mountain wilderness area and other giant ranches. There is nothing but land as far as you can see in any direction.

"Out here we've got more scenery and less to see than anywhere in the world," says Cowboy Jeff.

We enter Allred Canyon, named after Jeff's family: Mormons, and the first white settlers. Jeff owns the 160 acres of land abutting the ranch -- 160 acres being the amount the federal government allotted to homesteaders in the late 1800s who could reach this remote place and stick it out long enough to build a house and cultivate the dry, rocky land.

The homestead includes the original cabin, which we are approaching. It is a stunning reminder of how young we are as a country. I think of Jeff's great-grandfather hewing the beams for the wooden porch and cutting the foot-thick slabs of stone for the cabin walls.

Downstairs is one tiny room, just big enough to hold a wood stove, dish cabinet and round dining table. Up a ladder in the ceiling is a sleeping loft. It would seem perfectly natural to look out the window and see a cold, bedraggled family passing by in a Conestoga wagon.

We walk around the frozen lake as Jeff points out elk and mountain lion tracks, then head higher into the hills. The land very gradually slopes up to the base of mountains, which suddenly ascend another 6,000 feet.

By the time the horses are unsaddled it is nearly dark. We return to the recreation hall, where Loretta Johnson, the owner, is serving up slabs of salmon and heaps of mashed potatoes. By 6 p.m., dinner is over. Maddie settles in to play pool and Bingo with Loretta's grandchildren.

What now?

I go outside and look at the stars. I hear what I guess are some birds, but I have to tell you that a city slicker has to slow down a lot before the rustle of a bird's wings can occupy the senses, and the mind.

I persuade Squeak to walk with me back to my lodgings. But Squeak is so well-trained about not going inside that I can't coax him into my room, even with a cookie. I am alone with my thoughts, and find I don't have any.

I read while waiting for Loretta to drop off Maddie, wishing for morning.

Loretta, who is part Seminole Indian, considers a section of her ranch sacred land. At breakfast, she tells me about a huge Native American medicine wheel on the property, made of concentric circles of rocks and stones. The first time she happened upon it as a new owner, her usually steady horse threw her. Every time anyone rides there, she says, the horses spook. She believes they sense the spirits of Native Americans massacred there.

In the early 19th century, Native Americans were starving due to the white man's fencing and trapping and shooting, she explains. Tribes from around Utah gathered at one spot to perform a ghost dance, seeking help from their ancestors.

The whites were terrified to see so many warriors gathered in one spot, and attacked. She believes it was on her property. While such battles are recorded, I couldn't find a citation placing it on her ranch. But it seems possible, and Loretta believes it.

I, of course, immediately want to go there, and have to be reminded that it's sacred ground. We decide to go sledding instead.

When I'd made our reservations, Loretta had said that she'd take us on a truck to go sledding. I'd envisioned someone dropping us and our sleds at the top of a long, steep hill for the day. But Loretta had literally meant that she'd take us sledding on a truck. There are no hills among these mountains and valleys. So Loretta ties plastic toboggans to the back of her four-wheel-drive vehicle with rope and tows us for miles. We dip into and out of ruts in the road, Maddie screaming with delight.

Back at the rec hall, we make hot chocolate and eat the fresh-baked cookies that are available 24/7. We spend a few hours alternating between sitting by the fire and throwing sticks for Squeak, who never tires of stick-throwing.

"Squeak is a good old dog," says Jeff admiringly. Loretta tells us that Hopi started out life with the name Hope, because as her son said, "We hope she makes it." Not that there was anything wrong with Hope, but dogs that are free and unpampered tend to face a lot of perils. Squeak, for example, bears the scars of being kicked in the face by a horse. We're very glad she survived.

I think I'm starting to mosey.

In fact, once Jeff gives up digging the sleigh out of the ice and decides to hitch the Clydesdales to a wagon, I stay behind, content to sit by the fire. If I get bored, I'll help Loretta with whatever it is she gets up to stir in a big black caldron every half hour or so. Or maybe go outside and listen for the rustle of birds.

Yet with the death of daylight in the early evening, I get antsy again. It's with great joy that I learn of a movie theater over in Mount Pleasant, a mere half-hour's drive. The marquee lights and people in ticket lines cheer my soul. It's nearly 9 p.m. when we return; Loretta, her family and Jeff have waited to have dinner with us.

Squeak rides on the back of Jeff's snowmobile, Maddie on the back of mine. I know snowmobiles are considered ecologically incorrect, but I hope they're not too bad because I am loving this.

We turn them off often, just to sit and look down the mountains we have climbed, or to listen to Jeff talk. He's been a wrangler and a logger; he's worked construction and in factories and in Western movies, riding for actors who couldn't.

There was no long interview process for his job with Loretta. "I just came by one day to borrow a cup of sugar and never left."

Jeff discusses the pioneering days of his ancestors as if he'd been along at the time. His family name remains prominent in Utah's Mormon circles. His immediate relatives, having already been run out of Missouri and Illinois due to religious persecution, were sent by Brigham Young to settle the Spring City area in 1853.

They were welcomed by the Ute chief until they'd fenced enough land and shot enough game to imperil the Indians' food sources, according to Jeff. His story parallels that of history books, most of them written by Mormon historians.

"There weren't enough Allreds to defend the town, and the Indians ran them off," says Jeff. "They loaded their wagons and a half-mile out of town they could look back and see their cabins on fire."

His ancestors returned and left again during the Blackhawke Wars between Native Americans and Mormons. But the Allreds came back again. On our way out of town the next day, Jeff points out a ranch complex where he says his relatives, who are polygamists, live.

On our third and last night at the Wind Walker, I somehow find myself content just to sit by the fire. Loretta and I idly chat, with the children sitting next to us, listening. Suddenly, I remember being my daughter's age and spending whole evenings sitting around, listening to the adults talk. With a shock, I realize this is something my daughter has never done before.

Turns out I'd known how to mosey all along. I'd just forgotten how. And now I have a child who is learning how to mosey, too.

Details: Wind Walker Ranch

The three guest lodges at the Wind Walker Guest Ranch (888-606-9463, www.windwalker.org) offer one- and two-bedroom apartments. Summer rates are $1,348 per person for a Monday-through-Saturday stay, all meals and riding included. Rates drop to $1,079 October through May. Like most ranches open in winter, shorter stays are available off-season, making a trip more affordable. For example, a two-night package at Wind Walker is $340 for adults, $250 for children.

GETTING THERE: Fly to Salt Lake City, about two hours away. Fares from Washington vary widely; I flew an Internet deal on Northwest for $317. Nonstops are operated by Delta from Dulles, and Southwest from Baltimore Washington International. The ranch picks up guests who prefer not to rent a car.

OTHER ACTIVITIES: The land here was made for cross-country skiing, but be sure to arrange ski rentals before you come. Brochures about local attractions and events are available through the Chamber of Commerce (800-283-4345, www.sanpetecounty.org). Various craft co-ops are scattered throughout the area, and small historic sites abound. Various ethnic and heritage festivals are hosted in nearby towns, primarily during the summer.

The ranch is 15 minutes from Maple Canyon State Park, 1 1/2 hours from Capitol Reef National Park, three hours from Bryce National Park, and 3 1/2 hours from several other national parks, including Zion.

OTHER OPTIONS: Anyone with a horse can call himself a dude ranch. The Dude Ranchers' Association vets properties applying for association membership, and only about 60 percent meet association standards. Prices vary widely. Higher-end ranches tend to offer more activities, especially in winter.

For winter dude ranching, if money is no object, check out Hidden Creek Ranch in Harrison, Idaho (208-689-3209, www.hiddencreek.com), which looks fabulous. Rates for two nights start at $827 per adult, meals and most activities included. I was also quite taken with the brochures of Vista Verde in Steamboat Springs, Colo. (800-526-RIDE). Minimum stays in winter are three nights, at $900 per adult. In summer, minimum stays are one week, for $2,400.

INFORMATION: Dude Ranchers' Association, 970-223-8440, www.duderanch.org.

-- Cindy Loose

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