IT'S BEEN a month now. The western shirts and the cowboys boots are back in the closet where they belong. And I'm sitting in my upper Northwest den staring at the green ribbon I received for surviving a week at a dude ranch, a ribbon that says "Greenhorn's Greatest Charles Lindbergh." Each guest gets some kind of award, and my riding talents were so minimal that they were overshadowed by the white Lindbergh-like neckerchief I wore constantly on the trail because, let's face it, eating dirt is not my idea of gourmet dining.
No, my thighs no longer feel like the insides of Mount St. Helens. No, I no longer wake up from the recurrent nightmare that I'm interviewing Ralph Nader when I suddenly sing, "Whoopee-ti-yi-yay, git along little Corvair." No, I didn't learn to rope calves or brand steers or even like Willie Nelson; given the opportunity I'd still take Willie and Waylon and all those other C & Ws --- knickers and tie 'em to the rocks and let the ants get at 'em. But as for spending my time and my money at a dude ranch, well, hell yeah, in a minute.
A little background:
I'm a New Yorker. My wife's a New Yorker. All our lives we thought horse was a vocal condition. In case you haven't noticed, Mayor Koch rarely gets photographed hailing a Clydesdale. "Urban Cowboy" may have been set in Houston, but it's aimed at the heart of Saks Fifth Avenue.
We decided on a dude ranch vacation because what could be more of a fantasy for New Yorkers? We did it in California -- northeast California, 75 miles from Reno -- because we have friends in L.A. who'd drive up and meet us. And we did it at Greenhorn Creek because it offered maid service, maid service being the No. 1 priority for vacationers who both work. After three hours on a horse you try bending down to pick up a dirty sock. After three hours on a horse anyone who can bend down ought to get work as a radial tire.
The cost per couple during the July-August peak season at Greenhorn Creek Guest Ranch (sure it's a thing realistic like Here's Dirt Up Your Nose, who'd come?) for their six-day week was about $800. A family place. Loaded with kids. You got two trail rides a day, ranging from 90 minutes to three hours each on (Thank God) reasonably docile horses; three good meals a day, unlimited portions, not gourmet but not Spam from the can either; small but clean rooms (though the postage-stamp towels drove me crazy); a swimming pool, a fishing hole, pinball, Ping-Pong, volleyball, pool and organized nightly activities like dancing to a live band.
It wasn't what you'd call luxurious, but what dude ranch is? Part of the fantasy is the illusion of roughing it, which a New Yorker describes thusly: No TV. No radio. No newspapers. No phone. (When I asked for a wake-up call, they gave me an alarm clock.) The only way to make contact with the outside world was to steal a horse, but since they had only pack horses it required a full-scale bust-out, and even then these horses wouldn't willingly go anywhere but up a mountain.
Greenhorn requires advance payment. That turned out to be a blessing for us since we stopped over in Reno the night before arriving at the ranch. Reno was not bera, bera goooooood to us. The only reason Reno didn't leave us penniless is because it didn't have penny slot machines. I have strong feelings about Reno, none of which can be printed here. Anyway, the Greenhorn week begins on Saturday, and I might as well begin with it.
Saturday: "Howdy." Everyone here wears cowboy shirts, cowboy hats, cowboy boots and says, "Howdy." I can't get into "Howdy." To me, Howdy is Mr. Doody's first name. Why they say "Howdy" is, of course, part of the fantasy. Look, because of the cost of airfare and gasoline virtually everyone here is from California, and most of them are from suburban areas outside L.A. and San Francisco. You really think they're saying "Howdy" these days on Wilshire or Nob Hill?
You get buttons with your name on it to facilitate your Howdy. First names only. That keeps it friendly. Nobody mentions their profession. That stifles competition. But whatever they do, at $800 a couple you've got to figure them for money. One tip-off comes at the Greenhorn bar where the kinds of wine served outnumber the kinds of beer, 5-3.
Capacity here is about 100, and this week they've got about 80 guests. We missed the first day's riding because of car trouble in Nevada, but that night at the walcome dinner, the "wranglers"-- what else would you call the riding guides, the "levis"? -- told us about the schedule, and one, an authentic Texan named Bob McMillan, who looked more than a little like Burt Reynolds, answered my tenderfoot fear by telling me, "By Wednesday, you'll be in the rodeo." I said "Great, and after the rodeo I'll be in the hospital." I went to sleep wondering what the scene was like at the Polo Lounge.
Sunday: After breakfast my wife, Karril, and I put on our western clothes (I looked like a contestant on "Let's Make a Deal" -- Monty, I'll trade my Gucci spurs for what's behind Curtain No. 3) and went to the corral to get the horses we'd ride all week. Karril, who was certain her horse would be a King-Fu master, got one named "Mouse." I got one named "Gabby." All the horses have cute, docile names because, after all, who wants to get anywhere near a horse named "Crusher" or "Killer"? Gabby was about the size of the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line, and they gave him to me after I'd specifically requested a horse that was addicted to Valium.
The wranglers, all of whom were really quite nice and helpful, would joke about our fears. One guest said, "I've never ridden a horse before," and the wrangler answered back, "That's why we gave you this one -- he's never been ridden before." Everyone laughed except the man, whose face took on the color of chalk.
Just before the morning ride the adult novices -- there were three groups of riders arranged according to admitted skill: children, adult novice and adult advanced -- were given a lesson on how to trot a horse. It was assumed that all of us could walk a horse, especially pack horses like these that automatically follow the horse in front anyway. Now the trot is about the most painful gait there is for the rider, and you have to get used to it early because the horses do it all the time. We rode up and back from a cookout, and by the time we got back I would have eagerly sold my wife for a half-hour in a Jacuzzi; my thighs and backside felt like Johnny Cash look, and I hit that swimming pool like a mortar shell. I had been told there was a physician who was a guest and I tried to get his name so he could write me a prescription for morphine.
Good old Burt-Bob told me, "Don't worry. In a couple of days you won't hurt a bit."
I was hoping that was because I'd get thrown and killed.
A few words about horses in general: The world is their bathroom. They go anywhere, anytime. The real pros can do it on the dead run.
A few words about Gabby and Mouse: They must be the hungriest horses in captivity. Every time they passed a tree or bush -- which is to say every five feet or so in these mountains -- they bent down to take a bite.
A single word about riding after eating at a steak cookout: Dumb.
Monday: We learned to lope. This is a gait similar to a gallop, but a bit slower. Surprisingly, the faster you go, the less it hurts because you get into the horse's natural rhythm. Plus your heart is pounding so hard in terror that you haven't got time for the pain. They teach you loping in the corral, but you learn it on the trail when the wranglers set themselves up 50 yards apart and tell you something soothing like, "You're on your own, Tex."
I loped looking something like a frenzied puppet, tossing around, leaning, hanging on to the saddle horn for dear life. Bill Cremin, a psychology major at UC-Santa Barbara who was activities director and the lead wrangler for the novice group, watched me lope and said, "That's a good way to get thrown." tI thanked him for the compliment. Who'd want to learn the bad way to get thrown?
The wranglers don't really follow the schedule they post on your room door. Things are routinely 30-45 minutes late in starting. Bob explained this saying, "It's mostly the guest from L.A. who get upset; the guests from the Bay Area are more flexible. It takes the L.A. people a while to realize that a week's a week -- the longer you take it, the longer it lasts."
Revelations: My thighs hurt less. My fears have disappeared. Gabby and I have reached an understanding; I don't stop him from nibbling at trees and he doesn't run me into them. I hate country music even more than I thought. The next time one of these wranglers plays a song by Willie, Waylon, Johnny or Merle I'm going to take an axe to the jukebox.
Tuesday: The weather couldn't be better. This is four straight days of bright sun, no humidity, 85 degrees during the day and 55 at night. The food is excellent. Each day you get at least one cookout, and if it wasn't for those wranglers with their guitars singing "mama, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys," it would be the most idyllic place on earth. The trails are all scenic.Plumas County seems to be all fir trees, creeks and mountain passes. Some of the trails can take your breath away, especially when you come to a clearing on top of a mountain and that ranch that looked so big to you this morning is just a fly-speck down below. When you're 8,000 feet up with the sun in your face and your horse in full stride you could care less how Reagan is doing with big labor. No wonder people come here; the reality is as much fun as the fantasy.
Karril was way ahead of me. In the afternoon ride she moved up to the advanced group with our friends Danny and Ruth, who'd ridden extensively and had actually once owned a horse. In a brief but moving ceremony before the afternoon ride I kissed Karril goodbye and asked if I could have her record albums if she died. In fact, she did super. She must be a natural.
I stayed behind with the novice group where I belonged. There were about 25 of us now that a few from the advanced group had gotten the message and dropped back. In the group was one family of eight, a mother and father and three children with their spouses. The entire population of Bakersfield, I figured. They all rode one behind the other, and all that was missing from their family convoy was a CB radio on each saddle. My goal was to pass all of them on the road during a long lope. I started off looking like Billy Hartack, passing people left and right, and ended up looking like Billy Carter when Gabby decided enough was enough and stopped to relieve himself.
Wednesday: Rodeo Day. Sorry, Burt-Bob. I opted out. I had a notion to sign up for the slalom event, but I bailed when they told me that Gabby wasn't fit to ride in the rodeo because he was "barn sour," which meant he didn't work well in the corral. They offered me another horse, but I had terrible visions of getting one that wouldn't understand how sensitive I really was and would mistake my gentle kicking him in the ribs for a declaration of war and throw me into Nevada.
Karril The Riding Fool entered all three events and, though she didn't win a ribbon, she looked like she'd been riding all her life. Of all the guests who'd entered the rodeo she was the only one who'd made the quantum leap from flat beginner to advanced. Tonight, at the dance with the live band -- they looked like rock 'n' rollers, but the people kept calling for C & W -- Karril could have taken a few bows. Eccept if she did, she'd have never been able to straighten up.
Thursday: The last rides.Throwing caution to the winds I loped like I was born to ride. Passed the Bakersfield Eight like they were standing still. If I hadn't been so scared I might have even dared take my right hand off the saddle horn and waved my hat Clint Eastwood style like you see them do in those beer commericals.
Knowing that Gabby and I had reached the end of the trail, I decided to be Mr. Nice Guy and take off his saddle and put it away. Bad mistake. The thing weighed 50 pounds. Can you imagine the shame of making it through six days on horseback and ending up in the hospital needing a hernia operation? sI got it up on the shelf and came back out, patted Gabby goodbye and wished him luck. I'd like to tell you he winked at me, but I'm sure it was just his way of shooing away the flies that were making love to his eyeballs.
Friday: The wranglers get the day off, so you have the place to yourselves until check-out around 1. You can get your last licks in at pinball or pool or Ping-Pong or horseshoes or tetherball or volleyball, or just lying around the swimming pool catching rays. It's obviously a time for reflection on the week and the guests, some of whom were unforgettable.
Like a woman who spent all her waking hours playing Space Invaders instead of riding. Like the real-estate broker from L.A. who was so competitive he had his kid bunting in a softball game when the score was already 11-2 and a 45-year-old woman was playing third base against him. Like the Bakersfield Eight who seemed to be attached by string. Like the Caty Cheerleader type who always went for lemondade for the wranglers and the men who played volleyball and who said "Have a nice day" so often it seemed that her goal in life was to get a job as a Mouseketeer.
As I went to pack I felt my thighs and realized they hadn't hurt in days. Not only that, but I'd grown accustomed to the dust, walking bowlegged and even those silly ornate western shirts. I had my Lindbergh award and Karril had hers -- Greehorn's Greatest Most Advanced. We'd both agreed it was the best vacation we'd ever had.We'd learned to ride passably well. She'd gotten over her fear of horses. I'd written some notes on a possible script about ex-lovers, now married and with families, who meet by chance at a dude ranch called "Back in the Saddle Again."
And best of all, driving away we realized that we never had to hear Waylon and Willie or say, "Howdy," again.