Maybe it was the small, closely-knit communities we passed through on our way to French Broad Outpost Ranch that told us we had ventured back in timethe ones that sold handmade Indian blankets and produce from small wooden buildings that clearly needed attention but more than made up for it in ambiance. Communities where folk still walked down town and met outside the barber shop on a rusty old bench to gossip and talk about the weather.
White-capped mountains towered over us as we snaked down the dirt road toward the ranch. To the left was an elevated train-track, which we later found out was still guiding trains every few hours. The train pulled 49 cars of cargo.
On the right, the French Broad River swiftly passed by, untouched by time, seemingly peaceful and beautiful and housing more memories then anything unable to tell the stories should.
The trees opened their arms at the end of the road, revealing a rustic four building complex that looked sleepy and peaceful, as if an artist had brushed a replica of a gold-rush town. Behind the office stood two buildings butted against the side of a mountain. One of the buildings contained a dining hall on the first floor that transformed into a square dance floor later at night and the second floor was a saloon, complete with barstools made from horse saddles.
A black and white cat scurried in front of us as we pulled up to the office, holding a prize in the form of a field mouse in its lips.
The smell of the wooden building illuminated our ideas of a peaceful weekend as ranch owner, Shawn Gannon greeted us in traditional fashionfirm handshake and smile peering past a cowboy hat attached by a long dangling string that hung down his chest. His was old-worldly and simple with a Confederate-style ten button shirt, jeans and boots that rapped of golden days when the spurs jingled as he walked, but yet educated and understanding of people and personalities other than his own.
Dinner was said to be at 6 p.m., so with a few hours to kill, we dropped our bags by the room, grabbed some amazingly large carrots and headed out to the numerous fenced in areas where over 50 Arabian horses were kept.
The horses were amazingly tame and trained to the sight of the carrots as they all converged, heads stuck over the fence praying for a taste. They were a collage of colors and sizes and mainly female.
Surprisingly free, our walk never uncovered a closed door or keep out sign, but it did reveal some very friendly goats and dogs, one hobbling on a bad leg, but curiously pouncing forward looking for a good rub behind the ears.
The other workers of the ranch were introduced to us. Jade, the 18-year-old fellow that another guest had so correctly stated his looks as a carbon copy of Billy the Kid, grinned and tipped his hat in a shy mannerspoon full of food. Jade, I later learned, hailed from Texas and had spent more of his teenage years traveling the country during the summer and working at various ranches.
Our cook, Scott, was from Colorado and made the most amazing homemade bread I had ever tasted.
There were two other couples on that evening, one from Kentucky who owned a few horses and was living the cowboy dream but was there as a Valentines Day present to the husband. The other couple was lively and exuberant, neither being an avid rider but served as comic relief the whole weekend.
We retired to our respective rooms after dinnerall couples tired from their drive and ready to wake up in the morning and ride some horses.
Breakfast was at 8 a.m., consisting of eggs, bacon and biscuits. Shawn told us he started the ranch because he couldn't part with any of the horses he had and after acquiring so many, the ranch came to him as a means of financing the upkeep on the horses.
Earlier that morning, while we all found ourselves peaceful tucked away in our serene beds, Shawn chose a horse for each of us that suited our needs as a rider. Mine was Tory, a large, white mare that in the summer was used as a children's horse.
We finished breakfast and met in the center field where Shawn showed us how he trained the horses and how to control them. It was invigorating to hear him speak about he never harmed a horse to train them, merely showed them love and helped them overcome their embedded fear.
In keeping with the motif, Shawn allowed us to round-up our assigned horses from the fields, accompanied by a ranch hand, using a newly taught kissing sound and light pats to the chest.
We led our horses back to the stable where we brushed and saddled them. Our ride was a follow-the-leader trek where we meandered through winding trails with a 15 minute finale along the French Broad River. Small trickling streams crept from underneath the rocks that fed to the larger river, at which a particular horse named Echo, chose to jump instead of wading.
The whole scene seemed a rendition of a journey that local Indians once would have taken on their way deep in the mountains.
Later that night, the three original couples enjoyed a majestic candle-light dinner in the study, complete with champagne and a dozen red roses for the females. After dinner, tables were moved to the side and everyone square-danced their way to exhaustion.
Shawn's ranch spans over 360 acres of the mountain town of Del Rio, Tennessee. The warmer months offer white water rafting trips, old fashioned cattle drives, and many other activities for family and couples.
The trip rekindled the simplicity of kindness and adventure. No phones, computers or anything else that would remind a person of realityjust the beauty of becoming lackluster and what it brings to the bodyrelaxation.
French Broad River Dude Ranch can be contacted by calling 800/995-7678 or by visiting www.frenchbroadriver.com. All families and individuals are welcome and rates vary during certain months.
By John Ross, Tennessee Correspondent.