Thursday, August 25, 2011

One Perfect Week at the Smith Fork Ranch

The closer we got, the more I worried. Was this a major mistake? My jet-lagged mind went haywire, taunting me with umpteen unpleasant scenarios starring the Prescott family being unloaded into some dismal dump in the middle of nowhere. What had I been thinking, back in March, when I booked a week’s holiday at a ranch I’d found over the Internet? Sure, it looked wonderful, had a great website featuring loads of lovely photographs. And yes, there were a number of compliments left by satisfied guests. But…but…but…anyone can have a nice website! You see, a few years ago I got duped by a Swiss website advertising idyllic pony camp weeks for children. I’d picked a week, paid, packed a few bags, and spent four hours driving my excited daughter and her cousin up there. Well, we’d taken one look at the place and driven all the way home. It was filthy! It was a revolting, smelly hellhole, run by a greasy-haired, stinky-breathed sociopath! Do you think I got my money back? Not a chance!

Strangely enough, despite the fact that Colorado would have been a heck of a long way to go for the family holiday to end in a “mistake”, I’d forgotten all about that unfortunate episode until our little plane landed in Montrose, Colorado. There, a friendly elderly man with a lovely cowboyish drawl picked us up and chauffeured us to the Smith Fork Ranch, just outside the tiny town of Crawford. During the drive - which took just over an hour -, paranoia flipped my overactive imagination into overdrive. I’d instigated the trip, convinced my family to travel all this way and spend a week at an isolated, expensive ranch nobody seemed to have heard of! It was bound to be crap! By the time we pulled up outside the ranch I was absolutely knackered. Yes, just from worrying! Daft, eh?

Seriously, it was mega daft, because the Smith Fork Ranch is amazing, and our holiday couldn’t have been more perfect. Our two-bedroom cabin was cozy and cute, and I’m still wishing I could have brought that wonderful king-size feather bed back home to Switzerland because it was just soooo comfortable. I instantly loved the quiet, peaceful atmosphere, the romantic views of the wild meadows and the West Elk Mountains, the bright blue sky and intense dry heat. I felt so lucky, so thankful and blessed, simply sitting in the sunshine on the deck, breathing in the fresh, herb-scented air, entranced by the hummingbird and the deer.

Not that we spent the week just sitting around, admiring the views. Having fantasized for years about riding in the great American outdoors, my daughter Olivia and I had no intention of missing any of the equestrian action. After an initial mandatory “riding orientation” session officiated by two very pretty young wranglers, Katie and Faith, we were introduced to our horses for the week: I was assigned Gunner (Laura, I thought of your Gunner!), a big, bright chestnut, impressively muscular American Quarter Horse. Gunner felt incredibly long and wide and sturdy compared to Qrac, my narrow, super short-backed and snake-hipped Lusitano.

Having never ridden Western in my life, I couldn’t believe how different it felt. Although I immediately felt very secure in the saddle, the steering part had me stumped, especially in trot and canter. I had a hard time with the concept of not holding Gunner’s outside shoulder, of letting go of the outside rein to turn him. I instinctively kept returning to my dressage habits, trying to ride him deep and low, and poor Gunner did not understand! I felt like a complete beginner, lumbering around, incapable of going where I wanted, barely in control. Olivia told me she felt exactly the same, although I thought she looked great. Horses are such humbling creatures!

Out on the trails, however, Gunner and I got along wonderfully. Hour after hour, day after day, he ploughed up and down those mountains, along steep rocky trails, splashing through rivers, winding through trees without ever bashing my knees, never stumbling or getting impatient or bad tempered. I was really impressed by his stamina, sure-footedness and strength. In fact, I was impressed by all the horses at the Smith Fork Ranch. All were easy-going, well-trained, reliable, and very well looked after. I also liked the fact that, with 38 horses available, every horse has one week on, one week off.

The rides were spectacular. We rode high up narrow trails leading high up into the mountains, winding through pine trees and Aspen groves (such beautiful trees! I want some for my garden!). On the longer rides we stopped in meadows for lunch, tethering the placid horses to trees, devouring delicious sandwiches, scoffing organic crisps (“chips”), fruit salad and homemade chocolate chip cookies, chatting with the wranglers and other guests. After an hour or so we’d climb back onto our horses and plunge back down into the valley, looking forward to a nice cool shower. One evening I even had a lovely 90 minute massage to look forward to!

My only mini equestrian frustration of the week (apart from not being an instant genius at western riding!) was that, as my son Gregory had complicated knee surgery in late June, we couldn’t ride “en famille”. Cedric, my husband, didn’t want to leave Greg alone for hours at a time (Cedric isn’t exactly keen on horses, anyway!), so the boys had the opportunity to spend a lot of time together, enjoying each other’s company, which was really nice. With the ligaments in his left knee recently reconstructed, many of the activities on offer, such as rafting or long hikes across rocky terrain, were out of the question for my sixteen-year-old son, who was initially somewhat worried about spending a week stranded in the middle of nowhere.
Fly fishing offered moderate appeal, although once he tried it he seemed to quite enjoy it, and was definitely better at it than me (although, by some miracle, I actually caught a fish, which I immediately released, of course! Would you believe I actually enjoyed fly fishing?!). Over the course of the week, the boys also tried their hand at clay pigeon shooting and archery, and Greg had guitar lessons with the immensely talented and ever so endearing Connor, musician/youth entertainer/animal tracker/botanist extraordinaire. Connor also accompanied the boys during a visit to the Black Canyon, part of the Gunnison National Park. Greg and Cedric came back thrilled by their excursion, and I know Olivia and I would have enjoyed it too if we
hadn’t been happily plodding up a mountain on horseback.

Apart from the fabulous location, gorgeous views and great activities, one of the things my family really appreciated about the Smith Fork Ranch was the friendly rapport between the staff, both among themselves and with the guests. Everyone truly seemed to get along, making the atmosphere particularly relaxed and friendly. Only three other families were staying at the ranch during the week we were there, and pre-dinner nibbles and drinks made socializing easy, even for a shy person like me. The dinner bell went at seven every evening, whereupon we all settled at our tables, eager to discover what yummy stuff the chef had concocted. Some evenings I had a vague idea of what vegetables he’d be serving as I’d seen him coming back from the organic vegetable garden with some big fat tomatoes, or fresh zucchini. The service was impeccable, and my husband and I were most impressed by the chef’s ability to cater so creatively to our daughter’s lactose intolerance. In fact, I’m going to write and ask him for his lactose-free brownie recipe.

With long, active days spent in the sunshine, everyone felt ready to flop into bed by the time darkness fell. Nevertheless, on one evening Connor managed to keep us up until about ten (!) by playing the mandolin and the guitar around a campfire down by the river. It was a bit chilly, but so lovely to huddle by the fire and join in singing old classics, such as “House of the Rising Sun”, and “Country Roads”. We fluffed the words a bit, but it didn’t matter! Oh, yes, and the following night we were entertained after dinner by some local musicians who got some of the more foot-loose guests out of their chairs and onto the dance floor.

Later in the week we were lucky enough to be taken to see a rodeo, about forty
minutes from the ranch, in the town of Hodgkiss. I’d never been to a rodeo before, and was very excited to see the various roping competitions, and the barrel racing (how do they not fall over when they turn so fast without holding the outside rein???? Seriously! Come to think of it, one horse did fall over!). One of the evening’s eye openers was the children’s sheep rodeo; I’d never heard of it, and couldn’t believe how those tiny kids (I think the upper age limit was 5) had the
courage to allow themselves be lowered onto a terrified sheep enclosed in a pen, only to be bucked off within seconds when the gate was opened. Some cried and clung to their parents, while others went back for more. Amazing! And once that was over, the bigger kids had the opportunity to get thrown off bucking calves! Only in America, right?!

Our magical week whooshed by, and all too soon we were back in the car with our luggage, heading back towards to Montrose airport to catch our flight to Denver. From Denver we then hurtled towards New York where we spent the night, indulging in a little last minute shopping before flying back to Switzerland the following afternoon. It was a long way to travel for such a short time (we were gone for 12 days altogether), but I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

How was your summer? What did you do? Have you ever been to a dude ranch (incidentally, I can’t help smiling at the term “dude ranch”! It just sounds so funny to me!)? Can you recommend somewhere in particular? I’m already dreaming of experiencing more of the same next summer and would love some recommendations. Then again, maybe we’ll just head right back to the Smith Fork Ranch...


Karen said...

Hi Francesca. You captured the spirit of the week beautifully! Loved your pictures - was so nice to feel the "Smith Fork" feel again! Mmmm - can almost smell that beautiful fresh air. We must go back again! Hi to everyone!

Francesca Prescott said...

Hi Karen! Start convincing your husband to go back next year! Mine always prefers to try new places, but I like to go back to what I know and enjoy. I'll be in touch by email soon :).

Lots of love,

Funder said...

That sounds so lovely! Great pics, great description.

Laura Crum said...

Francesca--How fun! I haven't done a "dude ranch" vacation, though I think I'd love Smith Fork. I have done many horse packing vacations in the Sierra Nevada Mts of California, and can recommend Kennedy Meadows Pack Station on Sonora Pass. I used to work there, and its a great place to pack into the mountains. They will supply a wrangler and cook if wanted, as well as all the livestock and gear.

I was in Colorado in July (!) We rafted the Poudre River--big fun-- and went through Rocky Mountain National Park--very dramatic views--tons of elk and moose. I love Colorado.

How cool that you got a Gunner to ride. Its actually a pretty common QH name, and most of them have big white blazes. They mostly go back to a famous horse named "Mr Gunsmoke". My Gunner is an own son--and there aren't many of those left.

Alison said...

Loved your dude ranch experience since I have never done one before. I'll have to email to ask the price! Otherwise, my own dude ranch here will have to do.

Your description of the horses reinforces Laura's blog on finding a dependable horse. Gunner was obviously a great choice. Were any of the riders total beginners and how did they do?

Unknown said...

Wow, what a week! It looks so serene and beautiful, and green!

I've never seen the children's sheep riding in real life, only in pictures. I get kind of a kick out of it, but if I were a parent I have no idea if I would allow/ encourage my children to do it!


Linda Benson said...

Francesca - Wow, looks like you had such a wonderful time! What beautiful scenery, and I'm so glad you got to watch a rodeo. They don't have those in Europe? I thought there was a big Western horse craze there, but maybe it's only in reining and cowhorse stuff. Have to chuckle when I see pictures of English riders with a snaffle bit - it's hard to get used to the concept of not keeping constant contact with the horse's mouth, huh? Sounds like you had some good mounts, though, and I bet old Gunner could do those trails with his eyes closed. Gosh, I envy you. Looks like a lot of gorgeous riding!! Hooray!

Minus Pride said...

Great post on the beautiful American West! Welcome to your first rodeo, the only other event you may have found highly entertaining and slightly scary is bull poker, where mostly rodeo clowns sit down at a table in the arena and they let a bull loose with them. The bull will charge them and flip their chairs over, and of course get the table too. The one who stays the longest wins!

PS - I just got your book, I can't wait to dive into it this weekend!

Shanster said...

Your vacation sounded absolutely wonderful!! Loved your post!

Anonymous said...

It looks like a beautiful place, and sounds like the kind of management you want at a resort.