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A hoss, a hat and haute cuisine

Guests press closer to the fire pit, warming feet and faces, as the dusk chill settles over the Rocky Mountains. Cocktail glasses chime through the laughter and chatter. I give the scene wide berth, hobbling across the thick grass. My legs bend and wallow, entirely disobedient. After six hours in the saddle – the first time in 15 years – my limbs are mutinous. They lurch towards the soothing warmth of the flames and the chilled Pinot Grigio on the lodge’s log porch.

Too late. I’ve been spotted dithering. "Amanda," a cheerful voice cries out. "What are you doing? Why aren’t you here?"

"Work," I demur. A chorus of boos floats across the lawn.

"Come have a drink, silly. You’re not here to work."

Actually, I am, but my resolve melts before the campfire and gentle camaraderie. A gentleman relinquishes his chair by the hearth. An unobtrusive waiter slips a glass of white wine and plate of hors d'oeuvres into my hands. I snuggle up and sigh.

These people – strangers until yesterday – called me out of the darkness. Without strain, without pretense, they wove me into their close-knit circle. Some have visited the CLazyU Ranch for more than 50 years. The lawyers, professors and entrepreneurs, so dignified in western couture now, once scarfed s’mores in the children’s program. They return the same time each year, greeting old friends, breaking in new boots.

"This place has turned into family," one explains. Another enthuses: "It’s like intergenerational summer camp. The kids get to tent out, visit the rodeo, brand their leather boots and belts, watch films. Meanwhile, we sit and drink nice wine."

We – the adults, that is – do indeed live well. Soufflés and gourmet pancakes greet us each morning. We lunch by the pool after three-hours on horseback. Hiking, trap shooting, tennis, rafting: the options are vast. The ice cream parlor opens twice daily, crafting ornate banana-syrup constructions, and the bar manager circulates during cocktail hour, topping up glasses with a sincere smile.

Then we dine. The long communal tables are blanketed by chef Tom Lee’s creations. Rosemary bread, wild mushrooms and long-grain rice, fresh mountain trout, ginger crème bruleè. The portions are mammoth, sized for farmhands rather than sedentary city-slickers. I eat and eat, but gain no weight. Perhaps clinging to the saddle horn burns more calories than I realize.

The children orbit this stately summer camp, immersed in a world all their own. They breakfast en famille, then vanish with bright-eyed, hearty counselors, who orchestrate the finger-painting, scavenger hunts and pony rides. After dinner, they rejoin the adults for bluegrass music, square dancing or other wholesome – but wholly fun – activities. Each and every one seems deliriously happy. "When it came time to leave, all six of my children begged to come back," a single father observed. "I signed up immediately for the next summer. How often do they agree about anything?"

The home-on-the-range atmosphere is largely due to the proprietors, the Murrays, who grew up visiting the ranch. "Some folks are fourth-generation visitors," co-owner Brian explains. "It’s increasingly rare to return to the same place year after year, but around 65 percent of our guests do."

I see why. A bold young wrangler, Kate, coaxes me onto a red mare. My last ride was two decades ago, but she has me trotting along hill trails the very first morning. By day three, I’m scaling ridges and fording streams with my trusty steed. No prizes are forthcoming for deportment, but I can handle myself on a horse now. The CLazyU took a rank amateur and introduced her to the sweeping mesas and aspen glades of the Continental Divide. I’d say the process is painless, except for all the undignified hobbling that follows.

The ranch has access to 8,000 miles of trail, as well as an indoor, heated arena. Summer homes dot the valley, but the terrain and wildlife are rugged enough to sustain the cowpoke dream (more advanced riders can even help round up the herd). Badgers, foxes, mountain lions and black bears populate the hills. As my horse ambles up a slope, the other riders gesture ahead. "Look at the weird deer!" So we do ... until it registers: Not a deer. Moose. Gawky baby moose. We turn tail rather than face a protective mother, but the thrill lingers a long time.

As did the sensation of catching my first trout. Hip waders pulled high, I stand thigh-deep in the ranch pond with laconic instructor, Claus Muhlbauer. "Fly-fishing is a thinking sport, which appeals to highly educated professionals," he muses. "It’s more complicated than throwing out a worm."

Indeed, we practice the whip-n-wait traditional technique, then roll-casting. Claus, demonstrating how to avoid obstacles, hooks the lone tree on the lawn accidentally. "And this is how you disengage a line without damaging expensive equipment," he chuckles, sacrificing the delicate fly. Two minutes before the lesson’s end, my rod bows and I reel in an eleven-inch rainbow, gaping mouth just above the surface. Claus leans down to tweak the hook free, but with a flash and wiggle, the trout wrenches loose and arches back into the lake. Perfect. Just perfect.

So that’s why I sigh beside the fire, completely content. I have my very own one-that-got-away fishing tale. My cheeks are pinked from fresh air. I am saddle sore, granted, but the sauna left me languid. I’ve eaten and drank well in good company. And let me tell you, partner, I feel just fine.

Amanda Castleman is an award-winning freelance journalist specializing in travel, the environment and women’s issues. Her features have appeared in the International Herald Tribune, Italy Daily, the UK’s Daily Mail, Wired, Salon, Time Out, The Athens News and on the BBC.

Copyright 2005 Amanda Castleman. Reprinted with permission.