Dude, Where's My Horse?
Sunday, January 27, 2002
Darkness has fallen and dinner is winding down at Ho's Ponderosa when the conversation turns to a recent wildlife sighting, as likely a topic as any at a dude ranch. But here the subject is one of nature's unheralded battles, the titanic clash of bald eagle vs. . . . sea gull.
"I was enjoying the sun and watching the horses in the fields when the eagle just swooped out of nowhere and grabbed the gull," says a ranch employee. "Poor little guy must have strayed inland from the Gulf of Mexico.
"Never seen anything like it."
It's not antelope rutting or bears attacking, but that's okay. At Florida's only dude ranch, you take what you can get.
So many questions, but Ho's Ponderosa co-owner Jill Hoch swats them away like flies off a pony's back.
"My father always wanted his own dude ranch, and his favorite show was 'Bonanza,' " says Hoch (pronounced "ho," solving another riddle). "He figured the question wasn't 'Why Florida?' but 'Why not?' "
The elder Hoch died last year, but not before seeing his dream take form. Besides choosing most of its two dozen horses, many of which were saved from abusive homes, he found its location. "He knew what he was doing," says his daughter. "The weather is great, and plenty of people around here are looking for diversions."
"Around here" is Bushnell, a pinpoint on the map in north-central Florida. But it's less than 90 minutes from both Tampa and Orlando and, more important, their airports. Although the Ponderosa hasn't exactly caught on with the hordes bound for the mechanized wonders of Disney World and Busch Gardens, it has attracted a disproportionate number of foreigners looking for a "real" American adventure.
That explains the presence of John and Jenny Butcher, my new British best friends and the only other guests at the ranch during a recent weekend visit. (Ask them what part of England they're from and they respond, "Gatwick Airport." Huh? "No, really. We can walk to the terminal.") They're also the bravest travelers I've ever met: They committed an entire week to Ho's based solely on its Web page -- which, until it was updated this month, made the ranch look more dud than dude.
"No way we were going out West. Too cold, too far," says John, a retired postal worker. "As long as it was warm, I was ready for anything."
Turns out he had nothing to worry about.
Set on 60 acres beside the mammoth Withlacoochee State Forest, the ranch seems a lot more secluded than it is. Driving in from Orlando, I whiz by orange groves and billboards and Waffle Houses and Wal-Marts and then, only a few miles out of Bushnell, not much of anything.