If you’ve seen City Slickers and/or smuggled excess Duty Free through airport customs, then you’ll have some idea of how I felt as I drove from Jackson towards Lander to drive up to Jim and Mary Allen’s Diamond 4 Ranch in the Wind River Range. City Slickers shows what happens when aging men raised on TV westerns go to a “Dude” ranch. Embarrassment. And if you’ve ever been caught trying to get more than your allowance through Customs, then you’ll know what I mean. Shame. Humiliation. Cringe.
The road up to the ranch left the world of metaled roads and sell-everything gas stations behind, winding into the 2,800 square miles of mountains that make up the Wind River Range. My instructions from the website were immaculate. Just as well. Google maps, the Internet, electricity and phone signals stopped about an hour up the track.
I’d chosen it because I’d always fancied the idea or riding a horse to lakes and rivers to fish at altitude, especially the native Cutthroat. Friends advised me to buy padded cycling shorts to protect my backside from hours of riding. Others advised taking a walking stick for when I dismounted. One other asked if I would be sitting in a covered wagon being pulled by mules.
The ranch sits snugly at the end of a track in the lee of some sumptuous mountains and wraparound pine and spruce forest – a corral for dozens of horses, a few outbuildings for the saddlery and provisions, and a wooden ranch house where staff and guests share breakfast and dinner. Everyone seemed to be wearing jeans, check shirts and cowboy hats. My Tilley all-weather adventurer hat looked pretty silly, I thought, but perhaps a 66-year-old guy riding out into the wilderness to camp and fish was a little silly.
Jim Allen is whip-thin and wiry. “Have you ridden a horse recently?” he asked by way of introduction. “Not this century,” I replied. I couldn’t work out whether Jim’s resultant laugh was amusement or pity. George Cartwright, a former ski instructor working as as kitchen hand and would-be wrangler, helped me unpack a few things into my cabin home for two nights.
The horses were all turned out into the wilderness and galloped away, bells ringing ,just before the bell was sounded for dinner. I was their last guest of the season and felt a little isolated, but the ranch hands, wranglers and staff were curious to know how an ancient Brit ended up in the Wild West via Somaliland, Dubai, Ireland and New York. The food was homely and healthy. Fatigue mixed with altitude send me to the warm embrace of my new sleeping bag. I was awoken from a deep sleep at dawn by the sound of the bells returning
I’d been promised fishing for my first day. Jim talked me through the basics of how horses see things and how you have to let them pick their path on rocky trails. Then I was introduced to my mount, Brandy. Brandy was big, the colour of an antique wardrobe,and inscrutable. I tried to rub her face but she pulled away like a girl on a first date. Dogs I can read. Horses I knew nothing about. “Brandy’s a solid mount for dudes,” said one of the women out of the Marlboro ad. “Very steady. Never a problem.” I was not reassured.
The Helios2 rod given me by Orvis marketing manager Tom Rosenbauer was strapped to my mount in a gun sheath built for a Winchester and I stood on a crate to be helped onto Brandy’s back. All around me cowboy-hatted men made of rawhide and pretty women in picket fence shirts adjusted my straps and girths and ropes. I felt like a Formula 1 driver being strapped in.
And so with a hopeful click of my teeth and a gentle kick in Brandy’s ribs, I moved off towards the horizon behind a much sleeker-looking horse ridden by Megan, my guide for the day. She lives in Lander and “helps out” the Allen’s from time to time. Her real job is driving one of the yellow buses full of hormonal kids to and from local schools. I felt in perfect hands. Truly.
We meandered. Brandy, I quickly discovered, had two speeds: Slow, and Stop. And we seemed to go very slowly. Megan cut me a branch to encourage Brandy with, but this only encouraged a brief burst of trotting followed by Slow. Sat up on my Western saddle, Tilley hat on my head, I submitted to meander.
Megan tied up the horses at the edge of a forest after about two hours and pointed me across a meadow. “The river’s over there. Last guys I brought here said they couldn’t stop catching.” And they were right.
Clear and low at this point, the South Fork teemed with brook trout that seized my fly, any fly, as if it were the last meal on river (it could hardly be last meal on earth, could it?). Beautifully coloured, as if Faberge and Picasso had worked on them together, the fish were small but fought like tigers. Dozens of them. I stopped counting at 30 and shared an excessive sandwich with Megan in a copse.
Brandy was a little more enthusiastic about going home than coming to the river and I started to feel a little less like a piece of freight and more like the rider. Nor was I bent double with stiffness or unable to walk. No more so than if I had spent the same amount of time in a budget airline economy class.
We were back at the ranch in 90 minutes. I was helped off Brandy and encouraged to take a hot shower before dinner. I felt flushed and full of fresh air and adventure. “How did he do?” Jim asked Megan, as she unhooked my saddle and rod. He wasn’t asking about Brandy, I realized. “He did great,” said Megan. “This old guy’s a real trooper, a natural. No problem.”
I suddenly wished I had followed my sister’s urging and bought a cowboy hat. Only three hours in the saddle, 24 at the ranch, and I felt like I had already earned one. The next day I was off on a five-hour ride to a camp 10,000 feet high to live for five nights.