“I hate trotting, too,” called James, our wrangler, without a trace of irony.
He had turned halfway around in his saddle to encourage me to cowboy on despite my sore behind, and he somehow maintained the posture, with no apparent discomfort, for most of a four-hour trail ride through Wyoming’s Gros Ventre River valley. We were guests at the nearby Goosewing Ranch.
James was similarly good-natured with the endless stream of questions from my 11-year old son, Will, and my wife, Courtney: What’s your favorite kind of meat? (Snapping turtle, but you have to soak it for a week in clear water to clean the meat.) Is that your horse? (No, the ranch rents their pack of 60 or so horses every summer, but he had one back at home that just had a foal two weeks ago.) What did you do with your day off? (Went to church and “swam” a horse named Cowboy in the river. Riding bareback, of course.)
My older son Jack and I were generally more stoic — him because he’s a 14-year-old boy, and me because every time my stubborn roan, Stillwell, broke into a catch-up trot, my inflamed posterior commanded my full attention.
Fifty miles or so to the south, the jagged gray crags of the Tetons occasionally came into view between the gentler curves of the sage-strewn foothills through which we traveled. The Grand Teton itself rose above the others, capped with snow. These majestic peaks are the first environmental feature you notice when debarking the plane in Jackson, as clear in the distance as if they were at your fingertips. The second is the air itself: also crystalline, without a hint of humidity.
The drive from bustling Jackson to our dude ranch near Kelly, Wyo., took an hour and 15 minutes, the last third of it over progressively more rutted dirt roads that we were told become impassable in the winter months. They were bone-rattling enough then, at the start of August.
Those rough roads were jarring us out of our wired lives into a world with a far slower rhythm, one that allowed us to rediscover simple pleasures, like playing charades after dinner instead of watching TV, and to find new ones, like chatting on the trail with a real cowboy. Not to mention zooming around rocky two-track roads in recreational off-road vehicles and shooting skeet with 12-gauge shotguns.
The dude ranch adventure was courtesy of my mother, who offered a few years back to take each of her kids and their families on a vacation of their choice. My twin brother, with his wife and two boys, enjoyed a tour along the rocky Dalmatian coast; my culinarily adventurous sister took her family on a gourmet tour of Italy, complete with a cooking lesson in Rome.
These were lovely trips, but for my sons, something more active, and less breakable, was in order. As for the rest of us, I had visions of trophy trout leaping from isolated rivers at the end of my fly line; the horses did it for my wife, who had ridden as a girl; and my mom was happy with a heated pool and the prospect of gorgeous walks on picturesque trails.
We all got what we wished for, except my mom. The spot where we ended up had views in all directions that made you feel like you’d been plopped into a postcard, but the rough terrain was better navigated by horse or jeeplike UTVs (utility task vehicles) than on foot. Mom made the best of it, proving herself the rootin’-est, tootin’-est 77-year-old cowgirl on the ranch. Along with pool time, socializing with other guests and a couple of rubdowns from the in-house massage therapist, she stepped out of her comfort zone to experience a number of firsts: She shot both billiards and a .22-caliber rifle and rode up a rugged trail in a UTV on a 26-degree morning to catch the sun spreading across the Gros Ventre River valley. We even got her on the back of a gentle pony for an hour-long lesson.
“You should have adult-only hours at the pool,” she told Francois, the French owner of the ranch. “And more walking trails.”
“Bar-ber-a, thees is not for walking,” he replied, gesturing across the valley. But I’m pretty sure he was thinking about how to mark out a few trails for future guests as he said it.
Francois was a gruff but excellent host. Over the decades he’d owned the ranch, he had developed it from a few dilapidated structures into a cozy compound centered on a well-appointed guest lodge complete with a gazebo and pool. Nestled next to the lodge was a pretty little pond and lush lawns where one could throw horseshoes or just take in the breathtaking views. Strewn across the grounds were 10 guest cabins and a sprinkling of outbuildings and activity areas — think hatchet-throwing into log chunks and roping saw horses near a teepee.
And, of course, there was the corral. The heart and soul of the Goosewing Ranch is equine. On our first night, this was illustrated at cocktail hour with an exciting event called “running in the horses.” Guests are herded to a split-rail fence surrounding the pasture, and from the direction of the tack barn, a few faint yells can be heard. Soon a cloud of dust arises, and from a gate at the far end of the field thunders a herd of horses, moved along by furiously galloping, whooping wranglers. The sheer speed and abandon of the cowboys and cowgirls makes you tingle with excitement. It doesn’t hurt that most of them are good-looking and about 20 years old.
The riders — your guides and instructors on the rides to come — eventually pull up along the fence and smile down from their horses, introducing themselves and engaging in small talk in both English and French. The ranch draws guests from across the country and beyond, France especially. At meals, we heard French spoken as often as English, and we rubbed shoulders with families from Texas, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands.
Regardless of where they are from, guests on the ranch quickly embrace the cowboy vibe. Stetsons and pointy-toe boots are standard attire. The full-time ranch hands are easy to pick out, of course: They’re the ones with the fancy belt buckles and grips of iron when you shake their hands, even the pint-size teenage girls. And then there’s Wayne.
I suppose every ranch has somebody like Wayne. He’s pulled hard winters minding lonely herds of horses in the mountains and done just about every back-breaking job on a working ranch there is to do (not to mention a stint in the special forces in Iraq that he doesn’t like to talk too much about).
Wayne is bigger than bantamweight, but not much. Teeth that look like they may have been kicked once or twice, and a big black hat. Standard cowboy facial hair and craggy features, Tony Lama boots, a Texas twang and a glint in his eye. He is as patient with giggling 8-year-old girls as he is with an unbroken colt. Less so with the staff in his charge: “Be gentle on his mouth there, James,” he scolded one day as our guide rode one of Wayne’s favorite horses, “or I’ll smack you so hard your brother’ll feel it!”
Firm as they may be with the mounts, the wranglers are nothing but accommodating with guest riders. Although Courtney and Will had some riding experience under their belts, Jack and I were green. We all listened to “Horse 101” — this is a bridle, this is a bit, and so on — then took our introductory lesson in the arena. That same day, they took us out on a two-hour trail ride, and each day thereafter, there were options for two-, four- or six-hour rides.
I’ll never forget the ride we took that first day. On our way home the temperature dropped 20 degrees and a cold rain lashed our faces. The horses put their ears back and trudged into the wind; our hands clung numbly to the reins. Our cheerful guide, Darby, called over the howl: “If you don’t like the weather around here, just wait 10 minutes!” Sure enough, that evening we were back in short sleeves, enjoying drinks on the deck as we watched the sun set.
Midweek, saddle-sore, we decided to take a break from ranch life and make our way into Jackson for a day. We took full advantage of the ski town in summer, cramming in white-water rafting on the Snake River, an alpine slide run on Snow King Mountain, and a night at the local rodeo before heading back to Goosewing. Mom subbed a historical walking tour for the rafting and was left with a sense of awe for the early settlers who had somehow forged the town from a wilderness that then, as now, could see as much as 800 inches of snow in a winter. All in all, Jackson was pretty cool. But I’d take the simple pleasures of Goosewing anytime.
One of those pleasures, for me, was fly-fishing for wild trout — beginning with taking the UTV along the rutted roads to find spots that Francois had marked on the map. And those spots were doozies.
The first day, I hit a tributary of the Gros Ventre called Fish Creek, and my second cast into a bubbling pool below a cluster of boulders produced a spirited 12-inch brook trout. That was the first of dozens, all on big yummy “attractor” flies that the seldom-angled-for trout couldn’t seem to resist. This fishing wasn’t exactly for beginners: It required long casts to the tail of pools, with lots of skinny water in between. But once I’d cracked the code, I was in angler’s heaven. I admired each of those orange-bellied brookies as I released it.
The next day was more of the same, only on the Gros Ventre itself. This sinuous river eventually feeds into the mighty Snake, famous for “hogs,” two-foot-long rainbow and brown trout that fishermen dream about. The Gros Ventre is home to a more delicate fish, the native cutthroat trout. Named for the delicate streaks of red along its gills, the cutties ran a little bigger than the brook trout and were a tad tougher to catch. But when I hit the right pool with the right fly, they exploded from the water like they were auditioning for an Orvis catalogue.
At one point, as I trudged the banks I came across a catcher’s-mitt-size track in the mud that looked like it could have been left by a dog with really long claws. In the sun, I felt a quick chill knowing that a local wolf had stalked here maybe just a few hours before me.
At a campfire cookout on our last night, with the sun painting the clouds behind him and horses whinnying in the distance, Wayne spun cowboy tales about Bill Cody and some lesser-known but equally colorful characters (ever heard of a formidable prostitute named Big Nose Jane?). It made for a memorable trip ender, immersing us in the history of good guys and bad who settled the rough country that is home now to the truly comfortable Goosewing Ranch.
Emmet Rosenfeld is an educator and writer who lives in Alexandria, Va.
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