Dudes saddle up, ride 'em out

`HI. My name is Racquel, but you can call me Rock. Now y'all pay attention while I go through a few basics of ridin' a horse. ``Behind me on the fence are our wranglers - Robin, Shelley, Michelle, and Missy. They'll be helping you with your riding.''

So begins the Monday morning session at the corral on Vista Verde Guest Ranch. The dudes, from five years to over 60, are gathered outside the gate in their store-new cowboy hats and jeans. Each one is eager to get on a horse on this 550-plus-acre spread in the Colorado Rockies - 25 miles north of Steamboat Springs.

Last night at dinner we'd been asked about any previous riding experience, so this morning, riders are quickly sorted into groups according to age and experience and paired with a suitable horse for the week.

As Rock calls out a name, the corral gate opens a crack to let a dude in to mount up. Saddles and stirrups are adjusted one by one, and a wrangler on horseback leads the group out to the fenced ring. Here, basics are reinforced by ``on horse'' instruction. After a few words such as ``stop on the count of three,'' and ``go straight to the middle and turn left,'' and ``take a right at the corner and stop at the gate,'' it's time for the riders to head out for a ride on the dusty ranch roads.

Nestled into a green valley and pressed up against a hill covered by a stand of aspens and evergreens, Vista Verde reminds me of the memory of a working ranch I've had from years back. It came from reading Mary O'Hara's book ``My Friend Flicka'' and her later novels - all set on a Wyoming ranch. But the memory also stems from my childhood life on a small ranch in west Texas.

Vista Verde Ranch began as a working cattle operation at the turn of the century. It's been a guest ranch since 1975 when Frank and Winton Brophy came from the East and bought it and began to develop it into a fine vacation retreat. Visitors are quickly won over by the authentic Western experience.

Meals to tempt any palate

A lunch of homemade pizza, home-grown spinach salad, apple salad, green-bean salad, fresh-baked oatmeal cookies, fruit, and iced drinks is served on picnic tables on the lawn to the tune of a babbling mountain brook. Then, a little siesta is in order before guests regroup for an afternoon trail ride - off the ranch property.

Incidentally, food here is gourmet. The 1987 chef graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Her assistant has had years of experience cooking on guest ranches. The kitchen staff and wranglers help with serving the tables.

The dining room atmosphere is homey, with lupin-blue place mats, napkins, and blue-and-white stoneware pottery accented by pewter candlesticks. At dinnertime, a fire blazes in the fireplace, adding to the coziness of the log lodge.

Riding into high country

Shelley leads our afternoon group ride into higher country bordering the Routt National Forest. We even break out a new trail through a thick stand of aspens.

The bottom line at a guest ranch is a positive experience with horses. Vista Verde's herd is made up of sturdy quarter horse-cross stock. The horses are heavy chested, strong-legged, sure-footed animals, reliable on the often steep and rocky hard-packed mountain trails. They fall in behind each other well and have good manners - and don't even try to trot down or up the steep inclines.

The scenery on the ranch and in the adjoining hills is remarkable for its variety of terrain and unobstructed views. Valleys are ringed by hills that allow occasional glimpses of the Continental Divide in the distance. Short and tall wildflowers of pink, blue, yellow, and white blanket the fields beside the trails.

Apart from the horses are other activities to choose from. No pressure is ever put on anyone to participate, but most dudes here this week are game for anything.

Fishing is popular. A staff member takes youngsters to fish, and gear is provided for them. Adults have to bring their own fishing tackle, need to pay for a license, and can sign up for a clinic at the ranch with a local fishing expert. There are about 40 lakes, plus 900 miles of streams, nearby.

Archery, steer roping lessons (Vista Verde's tame steers have hay bale bodies), panning for gold, trips to the old swimming hole, and hiking entertain the kids. A well-designed spa is a recent addition for adults.

Inside are a variety of board games, and there's even quiet time during the day when it's fun simply to watch the hummingbirds feed on the porch of the lodge or play in the tree house. Or just hang around lazily with the two huge dogs, Nutmeg and Flurry, and the numerous resident cats. Usually there's a litter of new kittens, this week the tiny white kittens still live with their mother in a cardboard carton condo in a shed.

During the morning if mom and dad choose to ride, the preschoolers help feed and water the barnyard chickens, rabbits, goats, and sheep, under supervision. One of the chores is to gather freshly laid eggs. There's a high casualty rate with the eggshells, but it's memorable fun for the kids.

A hike on the ranch can lead to an encounter with a herd of 100 head of cattle grazing on the acreage during the summer, or with a mare and new foal tucked safely into a distant pasture.

Trips away from the ranch

Even horses need an occasional day off. So Wednesday is river rafting day with a day-long trip that includes lunch. Then on Friday, there's a hike, again with lunch, to the Continental Divide.

Early Thursday mornings a guest can choose to fly in a hot-air balloon with Balloon the Rockies, from Steamboat Springs. This and the fishing clinic are the only activities not included in the weekly rate. Flights begin soon after sunrise, when predictable winds off the Continental Divide last for an hour or more.

By Saturday the dudes are seasoned and turn ``pro'' for the gymkhana competition on horseback - to show off the skills learned all week. Then, around 3:30, guests ride out on the trail, stop and tie up the horses, and enjoy an outdoor steak dinner. The return ride to the ranch is at dusk with the red of the sunset lighting the sky. What could be a more fitting ending to a week in the Old West?

Dudes come from many states

Guests during our visit last July hailed from New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Florida, California, Alabama, Texas, and Pennsylvania. They were mostly families with younger children, aged 3 to 12. There is rarely ``a discouraging word to be heard,'' but rumor has it that one seven-year-old lay awake far into the first night, worrying ``that the Indians might attack the ranch tonight.''

Families with kids, couples without children, and singles make up a congenial extended family at the dining room tables and during evening activities such as the sing-along. A pianist comes up from Steamboat Springs to accompany the singing, and guests take turns keeping the beat by plucking on a country-style rhythm instrument.

A Vista Verde vacation is warm and special. It lives up to those visions of ranch life that western movies of the '40s and '50s implanted in so many of us.

If you go

Vista Verde Ranch can accommodate 30 to 34 guests at one time in eight log cabins ranging from one to three bedrooms. The ranch has a summer program from June through September. Reservations should be made very early for July and August. Rates start at $135 a day or $925 a week for adults (lower for children). Vista Verde is also open during hunting season in October, although no hunting is allowed on the ranch, and in the winter, it's open for cross-country and Alpine skiing, snowshoeing, and sleigh rides. For more details, write Vista Verde Guest Ranch, Box 465, Steamboat Springs, CO 80477, or call (303) 879-3858.

Sonia W. Thomas is the Monitor's travel editor.

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