I grew up in California in the 1960’s, the place every clear-thinking kid on the planet wanted to be: 650 miles of sandy beaches, Disneyland, the "scene" in San Francisco. But my family didn’t take vacations to those spots. We didn’t even take vacations, strictly speaking. We took research trips to Ireland, which my historian father had dedicated his life to studying and writing about. Other kids whiled away their summers driving around our state seeking family-oriented fun. I was forced to remove half the comic books and Barbies from my TWA in-flight bag to accommodate stacks of note cards on the Land League and the Black and Tans. One year, my father decided to revive his journalistic career by filing a report on the anniversary of Internment, a vile process by which suspected IRA members living in Northern Ireland were thrown into prison without charges or trial. Whether it was his idea or Mom’s to bring the kids along I do not know, but I recall very clearly a night in the bar of the Europa Hotel, in Belfast, listening to gunfire and waiting for a mechanic to abandon the cause of a 32-county united Ireland long enough to repair the four flat tires we got while driving over shattered glass.
Consequently, I have been obsessed not just by the notion of vacationing in California—Sunshine! Coca-Cola! Due process!—but by the idea of taking a holiday entirely given over to innocent pleasures. I want wholesomeness so aggressive it borders on the simpleminded. I want the child-centered getaways I was robbed of in my youth, and if my kids have a good time too, all the better. And so it was that the four of us—my husband, Rob, a toy-company executive who was looking forward to playing tennis and doing some fishing, our eight-year-old twins, Patrick and Conor, and I—set out from our Los Angeles home last winter break, bound for the Alisal, the most beloved dude ranch in the state.
Dude ranches, of course, are devoted to a self-conscious immersion in the Western experience of the Roy Rogers/Lone Ranger/"Happy Trails to You" variety. But they are equally devoted to the pursuit of a particularly American kind of niceness. The theory is that the debased urbanite will come to a ranch, be transformed by a Tom Mix code of optimism, self-reliance, and strenuous physical exercise, and return home not just revitalized but morally improved. And that’s pretty much what happens at the Alisal, where you play at being a cowpoke all day: riding trails into fog-shrouded mountains, gathering around campfires, sitting silently on horseback watching real cowboys herd cattle up through the passes. How much of a visitor’s experience is "authentic"? None of it. All of it. Who cares?
The Alisal is a two-hour drive from L.A., up north past the beautiful beaches of Santa Barbara, then east 13 miles into the Santa Ynez Valley. From the moment we turned onto the Alisal’s wide allée of sycamores—bordered by a tidy row of cream-colored guest cottages on one side and a dozen chestnut horses gamboling in a sun-dappled paddock on the other—I was a figure in a jerky black-and-white movie I’d been watching all my life. Surely I’d remembered to pack a red bandanna?
Ah, there it was, waiting for me for $4 at the front desk, along with a hearty welcome, a schedule of the day’s events, and instructions about where to find the wrangler who would arrange the week’s riding. My children—whose exposure to Western lore had been confined to Woody and Bo Peep’s romance in the Toy Story movies—fell immediately in line, behaving the way kids are supposed to: they struck up a friendship with two other children and proceeded to catch frogs in the stream while Rob and I checked in.
The guest operation at the Alisal (which has 73 cottages) is small in relation to the 10,000-acre ranch. It is also expensive and, in its way, fancy. The families who vacation here have been doing so for years, and they hail from tony, Sunset magazine locales: Pasadena, San Diego, and the nicer suburbs around San Francisco, Denver, and Seattle. They have much in common with one another, the most central of these commonalities being money. They may demand, as only the rich will, rooms that lack telephones and televisions, and they may desire to get up at 6:30 in the morning so that they can ride an hour through inclement weather to a pancake buffet, but don’t misunderstand: they also want good food, a decent wine list, king-size beds, a large, heated outdoor pool, and two championship golf courses. That the Alisal caters to each of these tenderfooted whims is not a violation of the dude ranch spirit, but rather its essence.
Dude ranching has its roots in the 19th century, when ranches began to offer board to Easterners intrigued by the romance of the American West. By the 1920’s—when luxurious train travel, in combination with Hollywood’s production of two-reel westerns, lured the wealthiest tourists—dude ranches were going great guns.
The Alisal, a cattle ranch since the mid 1800’s, opened to guests in 1943. Its spacious rooms are tricked out the way an indulgent mother of the 1950’s might have decorated the room of a boy deep in a cowboys-and-Indians phase. Wrought-iron broncobusters adorn the walls, along with sepia-toned photos of cattle drives and prize horses. The rooms have fireplaces, and the maids slip in to deliver wood in the morning and to turn down the blankets—thick wool in serape stripes —at night. Each family is assigned its own linen-covered table in the excellent restaurant, so an unforced camaraderie develops among the clans clustered together.