I chose the bridge over troubled waters in this muddy, fast-melting-snow-causing-rapids river. Everyone else including my grandson was fine with riding their horses across. Option B was a wooden footpath..so yes, the riderless horse is mine.
I sniffled back tears of fear and snapped a picture as our guide ponied Prism across. Finally in the saddle, we caught up with the others and headed to Meadow Lake.
My grandson and I spent a week near Big Sky, Montana at the Covered Wagon guest ranch. I'd taken my older grandkids on vacation and now it was his turn. Look at his calm, cool confidence as I met him at the gate. Almost 13, he's still okay hanging out with grandma and old enough to navigate airports and highways. The hardest part was keeping me brave. The churning river was day four of our adventure; he didn't even try...but he did high-five me when I rode Prism across on the way back. After two hours with a horse, you can trust the word sure-footed.
We arrived in Bozeman around noon and picked up our rental car. Fifty-five miles to the ranch; good thing I put him in charge of directions. After questioning myself "is this the first stop light or the second? I need to turn left somewhere along here," his voice assured me I was making the left turn exactly as instructed.
We drove a two-lane road surrounded by open sky and sweeping land. Land that continually rose as we climbed higher and around and then up higher some more. Snow-capped mountain peaks straight ahead, a sunny afternoon and country music on the radio. With a sense of reverence, we quietly pointed out how beautiful Mother Nature can be with shades of green and blue arranged just so. "Feels like being in the middle of a post card," I whispered. Sure enough, a few days later we found postcards in a Big Sky grocery store, exclaiming how much they looked like the photos he'd taken.
Located in the canyon of the Gallatin Range, the ranch dates back to 1925.The original cabins have been updated for plumbing and electricity, but are otherwise as authentically rustic as the good old days. Our welcome was as warm as greeting an old friend. Here they believe folks arrive as guests and leave as family.
The owner offered to start our wood burning stove the first night. We declined, preferring the chilly nights bundled in blankets.
Attention to detail was evident everywhere. How delighted my boy was returning to our cabin one afternoon to find our housekeeper had made his bed with a personal touch.
Attention to personal taste and requests was big in the kitchen too. Ray, the breakfast and lunch chef, served bacon and eggs, fresh fruit and a variety of regular and gluten-free cereals and baked goods each morning. Chef Roy took charge of dinners and put great care into making sure everyone's needs were met. How impressed I was when a foil-wrapped, salt-free baked potato was placed in front of me our first night. Months earlier I'd noted under Food Preference paperwork little or no salt. The family-style meal included roasted, seasoned-potatoes as the guests and crew gathered around the table. Roy also offered my grandson a burger or mac and cheese on nights he wasn't crazy about the main entree.
The main requirement for guests planning to ride is proper footwear. Boots must have a smooth sole and at least a one inch heel to protect your foot in the stirrup. I've ridden horses my whole life in sneakers or hiking shoes, so I wasn't prepared at my age to shop for real cowboy boots. I checked styles on line and at local western shops and decided I wanted short, tan, round-toe and cute.
I also knew comfort and walk-in-them-all-day fit were most important. Imagine my surprise when these black pointy-toes felt the best. So not me. A dude ranch is not riding around the corral or a trot through the back woods. This was big-league time and I needed to feel safe on the horse as well as steady on my feet on any kind of ground cover. These were super comfortable and gave me can-do confidence!
Riders are matched with a horse according to age, height, weight and experience. As novices, Drew and I were assigned two older geldings with easy-going personalities...meaning gentle and dependable. Each morning guests were asked if they wanted a whole or half-day ride and what kind of landscape they'd prefer. It's amazing how many varied trails and terrain horses can traverse; steep ups and downs, forested foothills, flat grassy meadows, gnarled sagebrush and rocky riverbeds.
In three days of riding, we experienced all of them while learning about cowboy life and old west traditions. What a great time we both had. I'm so grateful my grandson wanted to go, adapted to horseback riding so quickly and was the best kind of travel buddy...making me laugh and welcoming quiet times.
Realizing we were only 50 miles from the entrance to Yellowstone National Park, we took a day to check it out. Neither of us had ever been...oh what a magnificent place it is. We spotted elk, bison and bear as we followed the lower loop around and watched in awe as Old Faithful performed on schedule to the cheering crowd.
Friday night was celebration time. A cookout with steak and bison burgers, live music, dancing and roasting s'mores 'round the campfire. Following another ranch tradition, the wranglers branded our boots with a BAR over W. Just before dark, as we'd done the other nights, guests and crew walked down to the barn to check on the horses. Our pals Prism and Emerson quietly grazed, stretching through the fence to munch the dandelions. We said goodnight, but this time we also said goodbye, knowing our visit was over come morning.
Dude ranching is awesome! Definitely a bucket list item. Take your best pals, your kids or your grandma...just make sure they're ready to ride with clothes for layering, cool boots for comfort and bravery for the unexpected.