Dude Ranch Story

Posted On : 2010-06-06

Dude Ranch

by Joan Mathews, LWR Guest September 8-15, 2002

"Would you like to go to a dude ranch where we can ride horses”, my sister Karen asked, “And go on hayrides, sit by the campfire, and do square dancing?” “Of course I would,” I replied, “A dude ranch has been on my vacation ‘to do’ list for a long time. And we’ve got to do it while we can still hoist ourselves up on a horse!”

We invited our husbands to join us, but neither of them thought that sitting astride a horse for six days sounded like much fun, so on a blue-sky day in early September, Karen and I met in Salt Lake City, then took a connecting flight to Kalispell, Montana. At the airport we picked up a rental car and drove north about 60 miles to Laughing Water Ranch. The highway took us along the edge of a wide, flat valley formed eons ago by water cutting through the Flathead Range of the Rocky Mountains. The Stillwater River, which parallels the road is all that is left of the mighty sweep that once arranged the geography of this area.

The highway was barren; there were no towns after we passed through Whitefish, and only an occasional car passed us coming from the north. All we saw to our left was the valley plain, punctuated for a few miles by a deep-blue lake, and to our right we saw forest. In this uninhabited area, we might have missed the turn-off for the Ranch had our directions not mentioned a lumber mill just south of a dusty lane identified by a tiny sign reading Deep Creek Road.

Karen and I arrived at Laughing Water Ranch just in time to settle into our log cabin, then to mosey up to the main ranch house to meet other guests over afternoon hors d’oeuvres. Following introductions to the staff and getting acquainted with some of the arrivals, Karen and I had a short time to sit on the porch of our cabin and listen to nearby Laughing Water Creek. Then it was time to return to the main ranch house to share a family-style dinner with the other guests and the owners of the ranch.

Dinner foretold a week of abundant meals prepared by a chef with up-to-date ideas about cowboy grub: tender field greens with huckleberry vinaigrette, juicy ribeye roast, salty-skinned baked potatoes with butter and sour cream, peas and carrots, green beans fresh from a farmer’s market, oven-warm rolls and homemade cherry jam. For dessert, we were served cheesecake with huckleberry sauce. We would taste huckleberries again in breakfast flapjacks and dessert cake.

The huckleberry, a plant related to the cranberry and blueberry, is indigenous to the mountain slopes of Montana. Not a true berry, the fruit of the huckleberry has a hard stone; thus the fruit is not commercially cultivated. The ranch chef, Jane Woods, and her kitchen staff collected the berries during ‘time-off’ hikes between lunch and dinner. Jane gladly offered to let any guest who planned to hike carry a bucket and bring back additional harvest.

That first evening was chilly—heavy thunderstorms had moved through the mountains the previous day—and we were tired from traveling, so we snuggled early into our beds. Tomorrow we would, in the parlance of the ranch manager, “meet your horse for the week” and take our first ride.

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Laughing Water Ranch lies along the edge of a flat valley that is flanked on the east and west by mountains of the Flathead National Forest. Glacier National Park occupies the northeast portion of the mountain range. The ranch property was purchased in the early 1970s by an electrical engineer from Chicago. His family, including nine children, had a love for the West and they decided to move from a Chicago suburb to the open spaces of Montana. Having a large family, and the idea of some day running a dude ranch, the engineer built a spacious house on a hillside of the mountain slopes. A horse barn and pasture were carved out of the flat part of the land. Adjacent to a fishing pond, a grass lawn was coaxed to grow to accommodate picnic tables and a large stone cooking grill.

After the children grew up and left home, the idea of turning the property into a dude ranch came to fruition. An ‘Indian village’ with teepees, an ‘Old West fort’, and a shooting range were added. Arrangements were made to let guests participate in cattle drives during the month of May to help local ranchers move their stock from winter to summer pastures. When the owners got older they sold the ranch to their eldest son, a commercial airline pilot. He built several log cabins along the creek, away from the main house, and new homes for his parents and his own family. The ranch accommodates about 30 guests and focuses on vacations for families. Karen and I chose to go during an ‘adults only’ week.

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We were part of a small, but compatible group of ranch guests. Besides Karen and myself there were two young single women who loved horses and spent many hours at the barn helping the wranglers catch, saddle, and groom the horses. The handsome (albeit married) head wrangler no doubt figured in their enthusiasm. There also were two middle-aged women from Dallas, two couples from Minneapolis, and twin brothers from Long Island along with their sister.

The latter threesome had sat in front of us on the airplane. To amuse myself during the flight I speculated about the fellows. Dressed in cowboy boots, levies, Western-style plaid shirts, and fedoras that could pass for a rancher’s hat, they looked like cowboys who seldom strayed from the ranch. They were lean and lanky, and moved as though they spend all day in a saddle swaying to the rhythm of a moving horse. I speculated that the three were returning home from some place in the West—Texas? Colorado?—where they had transacted cattle business. Perhaps the woman, who seemed to be more sophisticated, was their business manager.

During the first dinner at the ranch (and several times daily thereafter) we heard that the twins, Allen and Mark, were lobstermen on Long Island Sound. They had been lobstering for 25 years, since the age of twelve, explaining perhaps why they moved with a perpetual rhythm. Each brother ran a boat that was part of the family’s 4-boat fleet. Their sister worked for an airline and also kept the books for the family business.

Allen and Mark would have been irritating had they not been so unconsciously entertaining. Allen talked constantly, and when for some reason he was out of the way, Mark took up the almost stream of consciousness chatter. Both seemed unaware or unconcerned about whether anyone actually was listening to them. I surmised that they pass the lonely hours at sea chattering to an imaginary audience.

Between the two of them they claimed expertise and considerable experience about every topic that came up. Photography? Allen had taken courses for two years, although he did ask what a sepia photograph is. Horsemanship? Allen had worked on a horse ranch, although I heard his sister ask him when that had been. Mountain biking? They did that routinely. Hiking? A 6:00 AM hike in the Adirondacks was one of their frequent passions. Fishing? Well, they did know quite a lot about that, as we heard over and over again. Had I paid close attention, I might have learned more about claw regeneration, the rare blue lobster, or how to lay out a lobster line, and pondered less about how they managed to bike and hike regularly when lobstering kept them on the water from 5:30 AM to well after dark six days a week.

Over the week, their tales became more exaggerated. For example, Allen said he was suffering from poison ivy on his arms and legs that he had gotten the previous week while mountain biking. A few days later he claimed he had gotten this affliction the previous week while riding his horse. He said he got poison ivy on his buttocks and it had spread over his entire body. He pointedly ignored me when I asked if he had been riding his horse while buck-naked.

* * *

The morning of our first trail ride the air was cool and clear. By the time we had eaten a cowpuncher’s size breakfast, the sun had risen above the mountain ridge, but its warmth had not yet dried the dew on the long grasses of summer’s end. Karen and I walked the quarter mile down a path leading from the main ranch house to the horse barn where the horses were saddled and standing patiently, waiting for the ordeal of getting accustomed to yet another group of riders. Chochise, my assigned horse, nuzzled my shoulder and chest to become familiar with my scent. Our ride would take us across ranch property onto an old logging road and thence to our destination, an alpine lake named Martin Lake. This was a so-called “short ride” of about two hours to accustom us to the hip-splitting mechanics of sitting astride a horse.

It took a while for the wranglers to tighten any loose cinches and make adjustments in each rider’s stirrups. During this time Allen instructed his sister Donna about how to handle a horse, as though she had not heard the salient points during orientation the previous evening. “If you want the horse to go, give him a kick. If you want him to stop, pull on the reins and say ‘Whoa’”, he instructed. Donna was the soul of patience with her brother. She let Allen rattle on about shifting her weight forward when going uphill and putting her weight in the stirrups on the downhill, and pulling the rein to the right or left to make the horse turn. (These points are rather academic since a trail horse naturally follows the lead horse in movement, direction and pace.)

On the trail I had the misfortune of riding just in front of Allen. Thus I was subjected to hearing him repeat over and over again for two hours, “This horse wants to run. I sure wish I could take him to the open field so I could run him.” At first I assumed that he was an experienced rider, yet whenever his horse trotted a few feet in order to close a gap with my horse, Allen would anxiously call out, “Whoa boy. Steady there. Hold it down boy.” According to Allen, the horse had been ‘galloping’.

The following morning at the horse barn, I heard Allen saying that he knew how the horse wanted to gallop, and he wished he could take him to an open field…and so on. I tried to close my consciousness to this mantra, but I perked up when he had something new to say. “I’d sure like to get on this horse and let him gallop but he keeps going ‘round and ‘round. Whoa boy. Hold it there. Let me get on. Stop going ‘round and ‘round.” I glanced in Allen’s direction. “Allen,” I called, “you are trying to get on the horse from the wrong side.” “Huh?” he replied. “You’re on the wrong side,” I said. “You get on a horse from his left side, not his right.”

* * *

Our Wednesday ride was scheduled to take place after dinner. During our free day, Karen and I drove to Glacier National Park, where we planned to take a hike. With a stop for shopping at Montana Fur Trader near the town of Hungry Horse (we bought the ubiquitous souvenir tee-shirts and some striking Zuni jewelry), and a stop at Lake McDonald Lodge, to see the exquisite early 20th century lodge architecture, our hike would be short. This particular Wednesday was the one-year anniversary of the terrorists’ attack of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

As we drove toward Glacier Park, Karen and I talked about the harrowing event, voicing our sorrow for the loss of so many outstanding individuals and the loss of American innocence. We were grateful to be away from newspaper and television coverage of the anniversary, since we anticipated that the media’s penchant for sensationalism would demean the solemnity of the day. As we approached the town of Columbia Falls we met a convoy of fire engines and ambulances that was driving slowly with red and white lights flashing, but without sirens. Later we learned that these rescue vehicles had collected from several towns and were traveling to Kalispell to participate in a memorial service.

I remarked that I felt guilty for going on a pleasure outing when so many people still feel pain and grief over their personal losses and our national loss. Karen replied that it was appropriate for us to partake of the spectacular beauty of our nation, where we have the freedom to travel any place we want, and to reflect upon the privilege of not seeing our precious land desecrated by war. At every vista along the road that cuts through the awesome mountains and valleys of Glacier Park, I gave my thanks for our beautiful country.

* * *

Our evening ride took us high into the mountains of the Flathead National Forest. By dusk we reached a broad plateau where we dismounted and tied up the horses. From our observation perch the wranglers pointed out Laughing Water Ranch, which appeared as a small dot of light; further west we could see the bright lights of the lumber mill and the scattered lights of tiny Fortine, where the mill workers live.

The sun had dropped below the rim of the mountains west of the valley, leaving a deep red-orange band of color to accentuate the outline of rugged peaks. A quarter moon hung low in the western sky, its thin gauzy surface filling in as the night sky intensified, until finally it reflected a luminous white light, as though lit by a stage floodlight. Unusual for the time of year and the high altitude, the night air remained warm; it felt soft against my bare arms.

I asked Orin Bleken, the Ranch Operations Manager, if he would say a prayer in remembrance of 9/11. (He had given a lovely prayer before dinner on Sunday.) Holding hands, we all gathered in a circle near the edge of the overlook while Orin gave a stirring prayer. He thanked God for allowing us the privilege of assembling on the land we all own, and gave thanks for the beauty of our country and for the privileges and freedoms of our nation. He asked God to lighten the grief of the people of our nation and especially of those who lost family and friends in the tragedy. Then he asked that freedom and peace be allowed to triumph over intolerance and terrorism. Last, he acknowledged that the enemies of freedom will be dealt with in God’s own way and in His own time, and that we mortals should not seek revenge.

It was time to remount our horses so that we could traverse the steepest part of the trail before full darkness descended. As the sunset faded, millions of silver stars came out to play. The Big Dipper was exceptionally clear; it seemed so close that I felt certain I could reach but an arm’s length and take hold of its handle.

“Trust your horses,” the head wrangler said, “They have big eyes. They can see things you can’t.” In spite of Dale’s assurance, a little nervous frisson seemed to settle upon our group, for we rode homeward in complete silence under the protective blanket of the stars. I could not see the riders in front of me. Feeling alone, I wrapped my thoughts in the luxury of solitude. The only sounds I could hear were the creaking of the saddle as I moved with the motion of my horse, and the occasional sound of his hoof striking a loose rock.

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