I was one of those horse-crazy girls, the kind who longed for a pony of her own and who collected those plastic lifelike models of foals and mares, colts and stallions. By 12 I had read all the books: My Friend Flicka, Black Beauty, National Velvet, Misty of Chincoteague. During the summers, when I wasn't begging my parents for more riding lessons, I campaigned for us all to go to a ranch. No one else was even slightly willing. As for my pet of choice, my parents explained many times that (a) we couldn't afford a horse, and (b) even if we could, we couldn't pay for a barn, fenced pasture, and the monthly restaurant bills for said animal. Perhaps by way of compensation, I was allowed to have a raccoon, a goat, sheepdogs, cats, and even a monkey. All these years later, the animal obsession continues: my current menagerie consists of two deranged hairless Chinese Crested dogs and four ferrets that live in their own room, the ferretorium. And though I no longer do much riding, my dream vacation still revolves around a ranch.
Naturally my daughter, Willow, five, has no interest whatsoever in horses. Neither does my husband, Tim. He's a golfer. But that didn't stop me from booking us a week in July at a classic Wyoming dude ranch, one that, unlike most, allows even five-year-olds to ride. Tim pointed out that he'd be just back from a long business trip then, so I let him off the hook for this initial expedition. Instead I tried to persuade my mother to join us, but she, having taken over the care of one of my dogs, pleaded pet duty. So I recruited my friend Ellen, a single mother, and her five-year-old son, Obie.
We live in the same Brooklyn apartment building, one floor apart, and Willow and Obie are best buddies. Ellen is the director of an art gallery; she is not exactly your rough-and-ready sort. She's more the "let's go get a manicure and pedicure and then splurge on a weekend in Paris" type. Last summer, she and Obie and friends rented a castle in Portugal, the appeal of which was largely its retinue of servants.
"By the way, Ellen," I remind her, shortly before our departure, "you'll need cowboy boots."
"I'm not buying cowboy boots!" she says. "I have those old Prada boots from last winter. I'll just wear them and if they get ruined, I'll toss them out."
I don't dare ask if the boots have stiletto heels.
CM Ranch is 1 1/2 hours from Jackson, Wyoming, and six miles from tiny downtown Dubois, in the high-altitude desert, the real cowboy West. It's been around since the late 19th century and has had only three sets of owners (Charlie Moore was the first—hence the CM brand). En route, I keep telling Willow we're going to a dude ranch, but the only thing she can connect with, it appears, is the promise that there'll be a swimming pool. I have to admit to myself that if horses were my thing at her age, her main interest is, well, water. But that's good, I guess—it means that when she's older, in order to make up for her childhood she can take her kids to the beach or a water park.
At the Jackson airport a handsome ranch hand picks us up in a 4 x 4. For an hour we drive through the magnificent Wind River Range into a green valley, passing rivers and bison. Then the scenery changes and we're in a dry, rugged land. The ranch is a few miles up a gravel road, at the base of Whiskey Mountain. We stare out at cottonwood and willow trees and irrigated fields—it almost never rains around here—and past a corral filled with beautiful horses, then through a log-pole gate and into an old-fashioned western set: stables, bunkhouse, saddle barn, hay barn, and a half-dozen cabins with porches, all lined up against the mountain face. These guest cabins are original to the place and have been faithfully restored, except—yippee!—they now have showers and baths.
It's a family place, but as a modern, if temporary, family, we fit in just fine. Quite a few of the 40 or so other guests, are in extended, blended groups. There are also a remarkable number of returnees, many parents and even wranglers and waitstaff who have been coming since they were kids. Spending time at CM as a child seems to ensure a summer job down the line. I'm determined to return, if for no other reason than to give Willow a future job opportunity.
The first morning, the weather is hot and sunny and perfect. After omelettes and French toast in the dining hall, almost everyone heads down to the stables, where our mounts are saddled and waiting. (Those who don't want to ride can fly-fish with guides, hike, mountain bike, go rock climbing, or bird-watch.) Guests are broken into groups daily, depending on the sort of riding they want to do. There are outings to crystal caves and the Dubois Badlands, on routes that pass through meadows where one can do a bit of loping. The ranch seems to have countless trails; it owns 1,800 acres, leases another 1,040, and has access to thousands of acres of government-owned land.
The kids are divided up by age into four packs, each with its own wrangler. Willow is hoisted onto her horse, and she suddenly looks incredibly tiny. I start to have some apprehensions—well, okay, basically a nervous breakdown. What had I been thinking?All I can remember is the scene from Gone with the Wind in which Bonnie, the daughter of Rhett and Scarlett, falls from her pony and breaks her neck.
"Bye-bye, darling!" I say, waving through my tears. "Be brave!"
To myself I mutter, "What am I, nuts?We're Jewish people from Brooklyn!"
Then Willow's posse of six, led by Kaycie, the kiddie wrangler, exits the corral. In the sudden quiet that follows, Ellen and I go to meet the horses assigned to us for the week. I can't stop worrying about Willow, but soon we pass the kids, and . . . they're in heaven. For years, at home, Willow's been told not to bully the dogs; now she's being instructed to kick a giant animal and pull on its reins. I abruptly remember one of the reasons riding had been such fun: at a time in your life when you have no power or control over much of anything, you're suddenly given permission to make a huge creature do whatever you want. And though I know horses can be dangerous, the ones selected for the children are almost like big dogs. And Kaycie, an 18-year-old from North Carolina, seems to be the ultimate in capable instructors.
For our first ride, head wrangler Toby leads Ellen and me, along with Jean, a 73-year-old Minnesota matriarch, on a slow horseback walk up a mountain. Before we take off I explain to Toby that my childhood riding skills have disappeared, and that Ellen never had any. She is, well, not anti-animal, just not fond of pets. Knowing this, perhaps, animals love her. Visiting us in our apartment, she's been known to accidentally kick a ferret across the room. Toby puts her on a coal-black gelding called Darth Vader.
"Tama?" Ellen inquires from across the corral as she mounts the, uh, steed. "Why am I doing this?"
My horse, big and brown, is called Alazan. We cross gorgeous dusty fields, redolent of sage. The heat is so dry, it's almost like being in a sauna—one with a landscape of brown mountains, streams, and sandstone canyons. Alazan isn't too happy, though; in fact, the animal is undeniably depressed. I rename him Ativan, after the tranquilizer.
"Move, buddy!" I keep shouting. "Pick up your feet! You're falling over, man!"
Ellen takes to riding at once. Sometimes I hear her, prancing ahead of my comatose creature, talking.
"Oh, Darth, take good care of me baby, you handsome lunk."
"Hey!" I shout. "You never talk to my animals like that. What's gotten into you?"
"My life is in his hands. I love him."
On more than one occasion, she announces, in all seriousness, that she wants to bring him home. Within a day or so she is flying across the meadows.
We go out in the mornings, from 9 to 12, return for lunch, and by two are ready to hit the saddle again, usually till around four. The kids take a morning ride, up and around a short loop trail—sometimes we all go together. It's a hoot to see them stopping their horses from eating grass or letting them drink. They also play games, on horseback, in the arena. But in the afternoons they're tired and content to hang out at the pool, which is when the staff of $7-an-hour baby-sitters comes in handy.
The crew is mostly college-age, young and good-looking, just as the ranch hands were in my childhood books. Lunch is a buffet—make-your-own sandwiches or cheese enchiladas or mac-and-cheese and salad—and though it doesn't seem as if breakfast was that long ago, we have wolfish appetites. Our time before the afternoon ride is spent in the pool, which, though not fancy, has a view of the mountains, on one side covered with piñon, cedar, and fir, on the other with craggy cliffs. The riding is so much fun, and the pool so enticing, that we never do get to try all the other things.
Dinners are early: family-style platters of roast pork or turkey, biscuits, steamed vegetables, all very tasty, plain American food. Every night there's an activity. A great local group, the Prickly Pair, plays cowboy music on fiddle, bass, and guitar; a naturalist comes to talk about the area's wildlife; the daughter of the CM's previous owner presents some ranch history (and tells how, at age six, she and her four-year-old sister would ride from town on their own horses, alone, to stay for the week with Charlie Moore—which makes me a little less nervous about Willow's riding). One night all the kids get driven in a 1954 GMC fire truck down the road to a creek surrounded by giant boulders. We ride over (by car) to join them for a fantastic cookout of steak and beans, potato salad, coleslaw, and 'smores. Afterward some of the ranch hands attempt to play the guitar, and we all attempt to sing.
"Toby," I say after a few days of riding on hilly trails, "my horse is seriously depressed. I'd like to change him."
"Depressed?He's not depressed, he's just lazy. You have to kick him."
Unlike my daughter, I am not into forcing an animal to do something. (This may explain why my pets at home—and my daughter—are so spoiled.)
"I know, but Toby, I can't enjoy the scenery on an animal who acts like every step is hellish. Let me ride something a little more cheerful."
"Satan?" suggests another wrangler. "Or Widowmaker?"
Toby gives me Dakota, who, if not faster, is a great deal jollier.
The last day, instead of trail rides in the afternoon, there's a family gymkhana. We all sit on hay bales, drinking lemonade and eating ice cream, while the cowboys show off in the ring, trying to catch and mount horses bareback. Then the rest of us, young and old, play games; one consists of maneuvering a steed around barrels, then dismounting to bob for apples, and continuing on horseback to the finish line. There's slow-motion pole bending (riding around poles), and rider relay-races. It's all very entertaining, and nostalgic, too—the ultimate apple-pie Americana fun. Sensing an opportunity to try a genuine horse, I mount Jazz to race Ellen around an obstacle course. We take off, with all the children and guests and wranglers cheering. "Keep your horses to a trot!" shouts Toby. For the first time in the week, I find myself pulling on the reins instead of kicking. It's startling. Meanwhile, Ellen is charging gleefully ahead.
The week's only disappointment comes that night, when Ellen and I break away for our two-girls-without-children evening on the town. We were excited to discover that of the 1,492 people in Dubois, about 1,200 are single men. I have single girlfriends across the globe. Now, I thought, I'll know where to send them. While the kids scream bloody murder at being abandoned with a baby-sitter, Ellen gets out her fancy portable DVD player—how foolish I was to laugh at her for bringing it along!—and pops in a Japanese movie called Catnapped! Immediately they become calm, and completely uninterested in us. We head out to the weekly square dance at the billiard hall.
The Rustic Pine is full of men, just full of them. But now I understand why the town has these last remaining 1,200 single heterosexual men. They all look like the cowboy in the Village People pop group, circa 1978. But that cowboy was in a lot better shape. The bar scene is an authentic glimpse of the Old West, one that I'm sure will be here next year (these guys aren't going anywhere) when I return, definitely with Tim and, maybe, a group of friends. I'm not going to ask for Jazz—I'm happy on a slow mount, thank you very much—but I will bring a crib sheet with the lyrics to "Don't Fence Me In" for the next singalong.
CM Ranch, Dubois, Wyo.; 800/455-0721 or 307/455-2331; www.cmranch.com; cabins $1,100 per adult, children $945, per week, meals and riding included.
Tama Janowitz's latest books are A Certain Age: A Novel (Doubleday/Anchor) and, for children, Hear That?(North-South/SeaStar Books).