"What happens at a dude ranch?", he asked the clerk who was helping Bob buy new cowboy boots. She said that her husband had been a wrangler — a horse handler — at a dude ranch for years. We were at Big R. in my hometown of Greeley, Colorado, just a couple of hours east of the Rawah Guest Ranch. The farm and ranch store, Big R, is something of a local institution. It's where you take your out-of-town guests to buy cowboy hats and boots. On the other side of the store is all manner of hardware for repairing your Zimmatic irrigation equipment, watering tanks, corrals and fences, and lots of riding mowers and tractors. It's Home Depot for ranches. Bob strolls around the aisles before setting to the task of boots. Now he is asking the simplest of questions, and one of the slipperiest of answers. What exactly does happen at a dude ranch.

The clerk said: "It's a resort with horses." It was a great place to start our exploration.

Sunday Evening: Meeting The Other Guests

Rawah Ranch is counter sunk in
the Laramie Range of Colorado.

Rawah Ranch (pronounced RAY-wah) is nestled in the Colorado ’s Laramie River valley, adjacent to the Rawah Wilderness, an enormous area of pristine mountains. Named for a Ute word for "abundance," the wilderness is available to everyone who is on foot or horseback only. Wildlife is all around the ranch. Moose, deer, elk, pronghorn antelope, big horn sheep are in the backyard.

Rawah Ranch hosts a maximum of 32 guests and boasts a high staff-to-guest ratio, with 20 on staff. Our week, we are outnumbered because we arre among only 19 guests. We drop off our luggage in our cabin and change for the pre-dinner reception. With so many boots and hats, it is difficult to distinguish the guests from the staff. We first meet a large man in an apron. He thrusts out a meaty hand and says, "I'm Ray. Welcome! How would you like your steak cooked?" A friendly hello followed by a dinner order. Things arre shaping up quite nicely.

Ben matches
guests to steeds.

We also meet Nick, who is a wrangler and had worked the previous year at Rawah on the grounds crew. Equally welcoming is Ben, the head wrangler who orchestrates our rides for the week. Pretty quickly, we meet all the staff and our fellow guests. If we had been the least bit nervous about spending a week with a bunch of strangers, we quickly realize that we aren't going to be strangers for long.

At 6:30 the dinner bell rings as it will for breakfast, lunch, and dinner throughout the week. We sit at the table with one family from Massachusetts, who are returning for their third vacation at the Rawah Ranch. Kathy and Steve brought their two sons, Jeremiah and Josh, who are both in their early twenties. It makes me wonder, when was the last family vacation I took with my parents and siblings? I couldn't remember.

"We like it because it's not all tarted up," Kathy said. "It's the closest to the real thing that you can get." Rawah Ranch offers something that almost no other guest ranch offers: custom rides every day. At many ranches, the rides are prescribed. Thursday might be the all-day ride day. Not at Rawah. Each morning and afternoon, we have the choice of two half day rides, a full-day ride, or a riding lesson. Then we tell Ben what type of scenery we want to see, and he recommends a particular ride. Often there are multiple full-day rides going to different places. And of course, we always have the option of not going. We try to do it all!

What about the steaks? They are cooked to perfection and served outdoors on the back picnic tables along with potato salad, rolls, salads. The Laramie River gurgles happily in the background. We chat with the other guests: Steve and Sheri are from southern California; Cathy and Steve, and their children, Matt and Kristen are from Pennsylvania, as well as Sue and Cindy from a nearby Pennsylvania town; and Pat and Jon and their children, William, Nicole, and Chris, who turns out to be the charmer of the group. I was the closest thing to a local, having grown up nearby and hiked and camped in these mountains as a kid.

Just before we turn in for the evening, one of the kitchen folks asks if we'd like coffee and cocoa delivered to our room in the morning before breakfast. Now that's about as civilized as it gets.

Monday AM: Riding Basics

Kristin is the
breakfast chef.

Every morning, Pete's daughter, Kristin, and Ray, cook a hot breakfast to order. You can go all-cowboy and get eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, along with cold fruit, cereal, juice, coffee and tea. And each morning features a different special of the house — breakfast burritos, chorizo (a Mexican sausage), Eggs Rawah, omlets, and so on. By about the third day, we realize we can not eat everything they have to offer, and slow down considerably on the beefy breakfasts. It is already too late. We have each gained at least 10 delightful pounds.

After eating at the main lodge, we gather at the stables to get a refresher course on horsemanship basics. My one and only riding lesson was when I was 11 at Girl Scout camp, so I am happy to be reminded of how to walk around a 1,200 lb animal and how these particular horses like to be handled. We all are assigned a horse for the week. Jasper is my horse, a reddish Appaloosa, who had been Pete's horse when he rode more often. A few years back, Jasper lost an eye to cancer. The wranglers worked with him, and he returned to regular service. Universally, the wranglers thought he is among the best horses at the ranch.

We go for a short meadow ride where we see two huge moose lying in the field. Moose can easily weigh more than a ton and stand more than eight feet high. We arre awed and reminded that we are 60 miles from the nearest town, out in the wilds of northwestern Colorado. A wave of respect and humility moves through the group.

The Lily Pond

Horsing around at Rawah!

Lunches are the most casual of the three meals. A buffet of soups, sandwiches and salads are placed on a sideboard and we tend to ourselves. For those who have gone on an all day ride, a cold lunch buffet appears after breakfast where we make our lunches for long days.

After lunch, we ride out to the Lily Pond, an easy afternoon hike as well. We are reward with peaceful surroundings, and a stunning view of the Laramie River Valley. We return around 4 p.m., giving us plenty of time to soak our city-slicker behinds in the hot tub, catch a quick nap, and dress for appetizers and conversation at 5:30 p.m. The dinner bell rings at 6:30, and we line the tables in the Main Lodge for a family-style dinner. Pete tells us that the ranch has arranged top-flight entertainment for the following evenings, and we should enjoy Monday evening, as it is our only evening free.

We collapse into our king-sized bed with crisp white sheets and slept like the out-of-shape cowboy wannabees that we are.

Tuesday Morning: Back In The Saddle

The view from the
Sky Line Ride.

I can't tell you how wonderful it is to never be on a nose-to-tail ride the entire week. Our riding groups are usually 4-8 people, just enough to have wonderful conversation, but not too crowded. Every day we ride with different guests and wranglers, and get to know everyone. There is never any pressure to ride or do anything at all, so Bob takes the morning off, and I ride the Skyline Ride. What amazing views of the valley, the 240 acres the ranch owns and the millions of acres of the Rawah Wilderness, and Roosevelt National Forest . A well-maintained dirt road leads to the ranch, making access easy in any type of car.

Annie checks the ridge.

All week, we encounter absolutely bizarre weather for August in Colorado — frequent daily showers. On a typical Colorado day, you get a 20-minute shower, a thunder and lightning storm around 4 p.m. But we have spring like rains all week. At a time when everything should be brown and readying for autumn, crazy mountain flowers are still blooming all over the place and grassy meadows ache in green. It is wonderful, and worth all the ponchos, soaking hats and gloves and mud.

When we discover at lunch that one of our riding options is to skip a trail ride and get a riding lesson, we leap at the chance. Another wrangler, Annie, shows me the correct way to ride when the horse is trotting, something called "posting." It turns out that in my one riding lesson, oh so many years ago, I had learned incorrectly. She is such an incredibly talented teacher, and she gives us simple pointers that make the rest of the week go much more smoothly. I highly recommend taking a lesson ride early in the week.

It's Wednesday: We Must Be Rafting

Rafting is part
of the Rawah fun.

If you want to raft, just let Pete know. Rawah Ranch will pick up the tab for anyone who wants to go rafting on Wednesdays. It's about an hour and half drive through the Poudre Canyon, down from Cameron Pass to Fort Collins. About a third of the way down the canyon, look for the Sleeping Elephant rock formation. It's clearly marked with a roadside sign.

The rafting company, Wanderlust Rafting www.awanderlustadventure.com takes wonderful care of us, providing us weather weenies with wet suits and everyone with paddles, helmet, and great instructions. We make two runs down the Poudre River with the family from Pennsylvania, Cathy, Steve, and their kids, Matt and Kristin. The first time, Bob and I sit in front, and in consultation with Cathy and Steve, allow that the kids will be just fine on the second run. We raft with three other boats, one of which is the family from Massachusetts . We need very little motivation to start a water fight. Towards the end of the second run, a number of us swim in the river. Certainly tasted better than the ocean.

Many guests return to
Rawah year after year.

Once we are back at the cars and dry, Bob and I head for a favorite old haunt — The Rio Grande on the corner of Mountain and College in Old Town Fort Collins (www.riograndemexican.com). I contend that the Rio makes the best margaritas anywhere, and proof of that is they limit you to three. Be forwarned, you don't want to drink three. And for aging lightweights like me, there are always minis — half size margs. The food is consistently average but tasty, and the recipes seem not to have changed in 15 years.

We decide to drive back to Rawah the way we first arrived, going through Laramie and then south into the mountains, rather than back up the Poudre Canyon . The Laramie route is longer, but definitely rewarding with magnificent views all the way. We also see a group of six hawks ridge soaring along the crest of a wash. The crest is the same level as the road, so the hawks are actually soaring below our feet. Exceptional.

Get Your Outdoor Gear HereA Writer And Poet Reunited

We meet Kathy, Steve, Jeremiah, and Josh in the hot tub. It is turning into a ritual of sorts. They have skipped the Rio after rafting, and head to the New Belgium Brewing Company (www.newbelgium.com). Fort Collins is famous for its micro-brew houses, and for the dozen or so beer supply stores for amateur brew masters. The brewery is worth a tour, as is the Budweiser Tour. The Bud plant is on I-25 just north of Fort Collins. This plant not only brews beer, but is the home to some of the Budweiser Clydesdales. If you're lucky, you'll be there when a new baby is born. These horses are enormous, and their babies are almost the size of a standard horse. They are also renowned for their grace and gentle temperament.

Later, when we all meet for dinner, I see a familiar face at the table, but it seemed to take eons for my mental file clerk to dig back and remember his name. Ah, yes, before long the file clerk returns, bursting into my present thoughts: "Gary McMahan, cowboy poet and singer." What a small dang world. I had interviewed Gary about 15 years previous. Then he was running the Double Diamond Stables in Fort Collins, and trying to get his singing career going. It is a thrill to see him doing so well. I certainly remembered him, even if he only slightly remembered me.

A Bear, A Cat, and A National Yodeling Champion

"This is not a hygiene problem," Gary said. "I'm just digging in my pocket for a guitar pick." Gary 's show is a delightful blend of comedy, poetry, and music. "Ya know, a horse is one of the few critters that can poop and walk at the same time," he chuckles. "If you don't think that's a trick, you try it." We are rolling in  laughter from the very beginning. He turns a Montana Fish and Game brochure on bears into a tune. In it he reminds us that they way to avoid a grizzly bear is to wear bells and carry pepper spray. If you've heard the joke, you know where this story is going. If you don't remember how to identify grizzly bear scat, you'll need to buy Gary ' s live CD to get the answer. Gary peppers his evening with his own wonderful cowboy poetry. Check out Gary 's web site at www.singingcowboy.com

Gary told us that cowboy poetry got started because cowboys spend a lot of time with no one other than a couple of heeler dogs and cattle. It gives them a lot of time to think, and the gait of a horse can get'cha making up rhymes in your head. Plus, you can tell a campfire story one or two times, but you can recite a poem over and over. They have better legs than stories. As more often than not, the stories are true, which makes them even more delicious. But likin' poetry might indicate to others that you might be "a little light in the loafers." Then in the mid 1980s, a group of folklore scholars started studying cowboy poets and the first gathering happened in Elko, Nevada . The National Cowboy Poetry Gathering is entering its 21st year in 2005. Check http://www.westernfolklife.org/gathering.html for the dates of the next gathering.

Here is one of my favorites. To get the full effect, you need to hear Gary perform it for you, which he does on his live CD. It's about a long-standing argument between Gary and his dad, when Gary was a younger pup. He says it's about a decade's worth of debate, boiled into two minutes' worth of performance... Bull Rider Poem >>>

Thursday, I learn To Fish

The author at the falls.

Carl teaches fly fishing.

Breakfast Thursday is like the previous mornings, full of wonderful food and conversation about which rides we should take that day. Bob and I opt for the ride up to the falls with Nate, and then an afternoon with Carl, learning to fly fish.

Fly fishing is the outdoors-person's golf. It is full of peculiarities that can keep an obsessive person like me busy for years. The right length and weight of rod, line, and all the different lures. Our amazing instructor, Karl, drives up from Greeley, a couple of hours away, just as he does every week for the entire 16-week season at Rawah. He plucks a rock from the Laramie River, just behind the Main Lodge, to show us what kinds of bugs are present in the water, indicating the type of food that the fish are looking for.  That solves a big mystery for me: how does one choose a fly?

Then he shows us the correct way to cast (all elbow and very little wrist) and how to lay the fly down on the water. I surprise with myself with how quickly I catch on to the basics. But pretty soon, I realize that I might be in a lifelong pursuit of the perfect cast. Carl and his friend, Tex, patiently help all of us would be fishers-of-fish make better casts. We practice out on the front yard of the Lodge, and then in the private, stocked pond. No one catches anything that day, but we have a wonderful time learning.

Carl points out that trout make a habit of living in pretty places where the water is clean and cold, and that means if I want to continue fishing, I will have to go to places that I already love. I'm not all that big on killing animals, even for food, so I am thrilled when Carl tells us about barb-less hooks that do much less damage to the fish's mouth. A fish that gets hooked and released is a lot smarter about lures in the future. I enjoy the thought that my fishing might encourage good survival instincts among the trout. I can't wait to get back to the river.

We Meet A Rock Star

Learn about the geology
around the Rawah lodge.

The Rocky Mountains, in which Rawah Ranch is smack dab in the middle of, are something of a geological mystery, and Pete says that he gets lots of questions. It turns out that one of the best geology schools is just 60 miles away at the University of Wyoming in Laramie . So Pete thought he'd ask a geologist or two to come once a week throughout the summer to talk with guests. Wrong.

It turns out that geologists really make their money in the summer consulting to mining companies. No one has time. The university sent graduate students for a couple of years, and then Pete thought he has heard the story enough times that he can tell it himself. And so he does on Thursday evening. It goes like this:

Mountains are usually formed around the edges of tectonic or continental plates. The Rockies are in the middle of a huge continental plate. So how'd they get there? This is the mystery. We know this: The tops of the Rockies are 3 billion years old. The stuff lying around at the bases of the mountains is 300 million years old — way, way younger. We know that the dirt around the Front Range (Denver area) is only 65 million years old — that is the time that scientists think that a meteor hit in the Gulf of Mexico and the resulting weather killed off all the dinosaurs. There are all kinds of guesses about what happened next, and how these huge mountains shot up out of the ground from New Mexico up through Canada. Pete present us with some terrific satellite maps and some of the theories.

Friday: A Breakfast Picnic and Square Dancing At Night

Breakfast picnic, with
Square dancing later.

When the chow bell rings at 7:30 on Friday morning, we all gather at the grill house for a breakfast picnic of pancakes, special eggs, bacon, ranch potatoes, fresh baking powder biscuits, fruit, and coffee and cocoa. It is refreshing to eat outdoors in the early morning light with just enough snap in the air so we can see our breath. We depart for our rides for the day, and meet again at dinner to discuss which rides should be the ones to top off the week on Saturday, our last full day.

After a respectable amount of time for digestion, we all congregat in the game room, which is cleared of pool and shuffle board tables for square dancing. Pete has arranged for a professional caller to come and teach us the basics. The kids among us are well-versed in this strictly American dance form, since nearly all kids learn some sort of square dancing by the 5th grade. Thank goodness, because we need all of them to help direct Bob and other less-adept dancers around the floor. We learn the Cotton-Eyed Joe, and how to do-si-do, right-n-left grand, Texas Star and other colorful and wonderful steps. Chris, our nine-year-old charmer, leads the group with dogged determination and a cheerful demeanor. The caller rewards his efforts by orchestrating calls, so that he ends up with Annie, one of the wranglers with strikingly beautiful eyes.

Saturday: The Final Ride

The summer of 2004 will be remembered in Colorado as one of the wettest on record, and a blessed relief from a 5-6 year drought. Fires have been at a minimum. Thunderstorms, normally reserved for the 20 minutes after the stroke of 4 p.m., rain down on us all week. Wildflowers bloom, grasses grow high, and every day means donning six layers of shirts, jackets, vests, coats. and rain gear. Because we decide to go on the all-day Twin Crater Lakes , which tops out at 11,000 feet, we also bring gloves, hats, and extra warm socks. Well-prepared with clothes and another tasty sack lunch, we are warm and dry in the midst of hail, wind and rain. It is perfect.

Blue Mountain Asters.

It start out sunny, and we meander through lovely meadows, which quickly give way to a steep hiking trail. As a Colorado native, I'd faced many an grimly steep trail, and always envied the horseback riders zooming past me. What a delight to be hauled up by my gentle beast of burden. Near the lakes, the trees give way to flowering meadows and two small lakes surrounded by a moonscape of pink granite. Annie guides us on this trail, and spends a few minutes pointing out mountain goats or big horn sheep traipsing carelessly on nearly vertical cliff faces.

I wander off to relieve myself in the cowgirl way (at least 100 feet from any water source), and quickly determined that I have diddled just a little too far away from the group. Black clouds advance with amazing speed, dropping sheets of small hail stones, followed by enormous rain drops. I am not completely soaked when I return, but it is clear that we need to get below tree line tout de suite. The rest of the ride leaves us to our own humming and thoughts, passing poor soaked hikers who have hurriedly erected their tents by the side of the trail. By the time we arrive back at the ranch, the storm has cleared, and puffy clouds and blue skies echoes our cheery moods. For all the weather we ride through, the horses never flinch at the thunder or give any indication of nervousness. It is the best ride of the week.

Rawah is a blooming garden.

After our ritual hot tub soak and conversation with our Massachusetts friends, and yet another amazing gourmet meal, we join our friends — for we have moved way beyond being fellow guests by this point — at Pete's home for drinks and good-byes. Pete used several of the trees cleared from the lot in the construction of his home. When you go, be sure to look for the central post that supports the weight of the ceiling and two decorative posts to the sides. Both Bob and I are single malt Scotch drinkers and we were quite pleased and impressed to see that "drinks" at Pete's means a selection of 5 different Scotches, one of which we have never seen before. We all exchanged email addresses and made vague promises of keeping in touch with each other.

Sunday: Stealing Shrubbery

Sunday morning finds us all distracted and hub-bubbish  at breakfast. We say good-bye for real to all our new found friends — guests and employees alike. On the way back to our cabin to  pack, I find Josh snipping bits of a bush.

"Stealing the shrubbery?" I joked.

"I have friends back east who have never traveled West," he said. "To me, the smell of sage is the thing that takes me back here. I want to take a bit of this place to them, so they can at least know what it smells like." It was unutterably sweet.

Aimed At Adults and Chubby Bunnies

While many guest/dude ranches offer programs for little kids, Rawah Ranch is designed to provide the most authentic ranch experience possible. That means that the ranch offers experiences that are not appropriate for children under six, and the ranch does not offer babysitting or other programs that keep kids entertained while adults go riding and rafting.

Junior cowboys & cowgirls
have great stories to tell.

We find that all the younger children, ages nine to 13 or so, appreciate being treated as adults. I found these kids to be exceptionally comfortable around adults, able to converse on a wide range of topics, and to display only rare moments of bad mood or manners. Josh and Jeremiah, who are the only two in their early 20s, made wonderful playmates for the younger kids, as they both have been camp counselors for years. These terrific guys taught the kids a version of poker called Texas Hold 'Em, and a game that may now be a Rawah Ranch institution: Chubby Bunny. The point is to stuff as many large marshmallows in your mouth, and, without chewing, still be able to articulate the phrase, "Chubby Bunny." Chris holds the record for our group at 2.5 large marshmallows.

Parents of the younger kids uniformly agree that a big part of the reason they choose Rawah Ranch is because there are no separate programs for kids. "We want a family vacation," Pat said. "We want the kids to be with us, and so many of the ranches want to separate us. Rawah is perfect for that." Rawah Ranch also offers adult-only vacations in September, for those who want a complete break from the younger set.

Special Foods and Other Goodies

The laundry is to the left,
of the cookshack.

One of my built-in tests for an establishment is how they handle my allergies. I have celiac disease, which means I can't eat wheat in any form — and it's in nearly every packaged food, won ton wrapping, sauce, salad dressing, and so on. Pete's daughter, Kristen, head's up the kitchen, and she didn't bat an eye. In fact, she and Ray concocted some special wheat-free cookies, and presented me with a huge box of them when we arrived. I haven't had a cookie since I was diagnosed — 7 years ago. Kristen and crew went out of their way to make me wheat-free cornbread, fritters, desserts and other goodies. We received 5-star attention in a place that can take you back 100 years.

The staff are mostly summer break college students from Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Chicago . Nearly all of them have considerable experience as camp counselors, and are quite accustomed to handling enthusiastic, wannabe cowboys like us. And guests love the atmosphere — 60% of Rawah Ranch guests are returnees or referrals.

When it is time to pack up our truck and leave, we know we have just had one of the most extraordinary experiences of our lives, one to return for storytelling again and again. The dinners, the entertainers, the riding, the rafting, the friends. After all, where can you get an authentic cowboy blessing from a national yodeling champion: "May the Horse be With You".

By Cymber Quinn and Bob Conn, San Francisco Correspondents.

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