In my books you may have noticed a common theme about coming and returning to build a home. To me, home means safety, security, and love. For some, home’s a location with a shared history. For others, home can be any place where you’re surrounded by loved ones.
The western United States holds a special place in my heart. I love the plains, the high meadows, and the mountains. Our return trip to Eatons’ Ranch in Wolf, Wyoming filled every one of my heart’s nooks and crannies battered by last year’s events. If you were unable to vacation this year, I hope my journal provides a peaceful interruption to your chaotic life. Everyone needs a moment to breathe.
Day 1: Sunday, August 29, 2021
Up at 3:30 to breakfast and drive to CLT. Uneventful air travel to Billings, MT via Chicago, with a lovely upgrade, thank you very much, Jim. All flights on time and only one stupid person, who was very pleasantly informed if she didn’t have a mask, the flight attendant would supply one. Such an attitude. However, the woman pulled a mask from her purse and held it. I assume she put it on. Why do people do this? Everyone on board had on a mask. It’s clearly written in the terminal. It’s a choice: fly and wear your mask or take another transportation form.
We paid our exorbitant rental car fee for a Nissan midsized sedan. Nissan does not design cars for tall people. Canadian Man, who is certainly not a giant at 6’2”, drove with his knees almost bumping the steering wheel. This, however, is one advantage for being vertically challenged, which would be me. I rarely bump anything. 😊
Since we had the afternoon to chill in Billings, we walked through the Montana Zoo. I’ll have to research the definition of zoo because there were very few animals exhibited. However, it was a lovely parklike setting and a beautiful day, especially after being cooped up in a flying tuna can.
We topped it off with a fabulous meal at the Montana Brewery. OMG, the fish tacos were awesome. One problem: the cod used in my tacos was fried. Note to self: Becke’s body no longer does fried foods. Thank you, Rolaids!
Day 2: Monday, August 30, 2021
I received lots of birthday wishes from all. My brother and family located in Biloxi, MS, weathered hurricane Ida. Canadian Man and I had an outstanding breakfast at Stella’s Breakfast and Bakery. Fresh baked bread, and pastries, oh my. I had my usual breakfast, but the toast was wonderful light wheat with real butter. Yum. Plus, I purchased two goodies for my birthday dessert. I absolutely could not pass up the pastry display, especially on my birthday.
We enjoyed a peaceful drive down to the ranch. I bet we didn’t pass 500 cars in 200 miles. I always forget how beautiful the rolling hills starting the Bighorn Mountains are. We arrived at Eatons’ in time to be fitted for our saddles and unload at our charming cabin, complete with a bedroom, bath, living area and a front porch and back deck. There is no TV and Internet is only available in one community area. However, there are deer roaming around the cabins and pronghorns in the mountain pastures.
The cleaning staff presented us with a wildflower bouquet picked from the Eatons’ Garden, and a welcome back note. Before the lunch bell clanged, we had time for a peaceful rock on our deck.
At Eatons’, guests are assigned tables in the dining room with a wooden horse napkin holder. Our fellow diners, a retired couple, and their son, haled from Nebraska. They were retired cattle ranchers, so we swapped bovine stories. We enjoyed a nice spinach salad lunch, chatted for a while, and then reported to the horse barn for our afternoon ride.
At the barn I met my assigned horse Badger, a homely flea-bitten gray with an attitude. For my less horsey friends, flea-bitten is code for tiny flecks of brown in his white coat. Although he’s considered gray because his skin and eyes are dark, his coat appears white.
One would think a horse that has worked the mountain trails for many seasons would know to keep his haunches down and under. Not Badger. He stiff legged it down every grade, a trait that does not inspire confidence. I could’ve requested another horse, but decided I’d stick it out. The weather was glorious and the scenery stunning. I could deal with Badger. He got the job done. It just wasn’t always pleasant.
Canadian Man rode Gamble, a cute, sorrel quarter horse with a stripe and three socks. Sometimes you are the windshield and other times the bug. In the assigned horse department, I rated the bug. Although my motto is each horse makes you a better rider, Badger often made me cross. However with the beautiful landscape, my annoyance was only temporary.
Our first afternoon ride was scenic and a lot of fun. However, we did not follow our intended trail. Since I was hugging the tree line, we missed our intended trail and spent time trying to figure out where we’d gone wrong. The nice thing about vacations is the lack of rules. We were mounted and having fun. Who cares if we miss our turn?
Here’s the great part about horseback riding at Eatons’. When we owned our horses after each ride, we unsaddled, hosed them down, fed, and cleaned stalls. At Eatons’ we ride to the barn, hand over the reins, and the wrangler cares for the horse. Luxury! All horses at Eatons’ are turned into the mountain pasture every evening. The two hundred plus horses are rounded up every morning and brought to the corral. The wranglers cut out the horses in use for the day and the rest are released back to the pasture. Horses used for only a morning ride are released at noon.
Finished with our ride, we return to the cabin for a shower and a rest until dinner. Fifteen minutes before dinner, we walk across the lawn to the community porch outfitted with rockers to perform our social media check. From that vantage point, we can see horses grazing in the mountain pasture ridge, deer, and a lovely sunset. After signing up to ride the following day so the wranglers know to cut out our mounts, we dined on a wonderful evening meal of sockeye salmon. I topped mine off with a gingersnap cookie. Home-made at Eatons’. Yummy. Although the night sky is lovely, we never see it except in the morning. By 8pm. two very pooped cowpokes turn in.
Day 3, Tuesday, August 31, 2021
The next morning, we have tender muscles in new-to-me muscles. Padded bike underwear applied! After breakfast, we are mounted and heading north. The temperature is very warm and windy with a layer of smoke added from neighboring state fires. Ah well. The scenery is still gorgeous despite the limited visibility. We rode north and, according to the locals, you can see Montana. We made it to the last wire fence. With the smoke I’m not sure about visualizing Montana, but we saw two pronghorns and several magpies.
Jim has developed a new photo technique to get both of us in the shots. He rides with a lookout for rocky outcrops. However, not just any outcrop will do. The rock must be high and jagged to hold his phone and face an interesting background. When he finds the right place, he nestles his phone in the rock, sets the 10 second timer, and hustles to mount before the picture snaps. I should video his mad dash to mount up and smile. Imagine this in hilly terrain and at high altitude. He huffs and puffs but manages a smile. After a while, he tires and stands with his horse.
At lunch we run into two ladies we had met during our first trip to the ranch. Like us, they make an annual trip to ride the Bighorn Mountains. This makes the third year we’ve met them here.
For our Tuesday afternoon ride plan, we hope to find the trail we missed yesterday. Maybe we’ll be successful or not. There are a few rules at Eatons’. The primary one is to return by 11:30 in the morning and by 4:30 in the afternoon. Every other day, riders can request a full day ride and take a sack lunch in the saddlebags.
I’m happy to report, we found the Roosevelt trail. This is a magnificent ride. It’s high in the mountains with spectacular views. At one point in the ride, a prickle of panic starts to wiggle down my spine. We’ve past the halfway point for our return time and we can’t see a way around this immense gorge separating us from the ranch. At this point, we hope we’ve stayed on the right trail and continue forward. The trail continues winding around the ridge until we come to a shelf that bridged the gap. Phew! We will avoid being the riders who are tardy to return and aggravate the wranglers.
Now for the loooooong way down the mountain. For those who don’t ride, downhill is more challenging to the rider’s body than uphill because to keep your weight toward the back of your horse puts a lot of stress on your knees. However, the ride is worth a little discomfort riding down. A hard ride also makes a long cool shower that much nicer.
After dinner, we settle in our little cabin for…all of thirty minutes and go to bed at 7:15. Tomorrow is our all-day ride to the falls. Rest up body. You’re in for a challenge. I’m so grateful I can still do this.
Day 4: Wednesday, September 1, 2021
Wednesday has brought cooler weather, so we bundle up to watch the wranglers bring in the herd. From the auditorium porch, visitors can sit in rocking chairs or stand along the adjacent fence to view the horses coming in from the mountain pasture. Jim and I joined the morning roundup two years ago. We met at the barn at o-dark-hundred and rode the pasture in a long trot for over an hour flushing horses from ravines. The horses are familiar with the routine, and some wait at the gate. However, a great deal of the herd hides in thickets and must be flushed out.
On our ranch we often drove the cattle herd from pasture to pasture, but this was our first experience driving horses. Two years ago I was given Bird to wrangle horses. Bird is on the same caliber as Badger, a flea-bitten gray with a spine rattling plow-horse trot. I’ve yet to find a ranch horse that jogs, a slow ground covering trot that is easy to ride. For English riders, it’s like riding a sitting trot. I’m sure the ranch has a few horses that jog, but we haven’t found them. And a gaited horse? Wow! That would be nice too.
While waiting for the herd, we met Courtney, an artist from Black Mountain, NC and Ruth who has vacationed at Eatons’ for the past eighteen years. More interesting, Ruth has recently retired to Powell, Wyoming.
Forty-nine years ago, Canadian Man and I packed up our Vega with everything we owned and drove west, our destination Powell, WY. We had identified this town because it was in the west, midsized, and had a small college. We only made it to Cheyenne. We lived there through the winter. Brrrr. As soon as the thaw came, we headed southeast. We rarely speak of Powell and then we meet Ruth. Isn’t life interesting?
This fun human interaction incident was followed with another one at breakfast. Our dining room server has supplied my next hero’s name. Really. Basil, our server, is one of three children. He has a sister Madeline and a brother Ruben. When I asked if there was a story behind the name selection his mother had chosen, he smiled and said, “Only the food connection. Basil-herb. Madeline-cookies. Ruben-sandwich.” His mother has a sense of humor. I told him his name may appear in my next story. Lots of interesting people at the ranch.
Today, is our day ride to the falls. The kitchen has packed our lunch and we’re ready to go in the brain department. Once my bottom hits the saddle, I’ll know if my body shares the enthusiasm. If not, it can just saddle up because we are going. Yeehaw!
And so much for the ride to the falls. Don’t get me wrong. It was an awesome ride with spectacular scenery and mild weather in the 70’s and partly cloudy. I wore a fleece vest over a light, long sleeved shirt and was very comfortable. However, we not only didn’t make it to the falls. We missed the cow camp, our lunch destination. Worse, we’ve ridden to cow camp twice before.
Yes, there are trail markers, and we have a map complete with some landmarks. It’s not great. Thus, the reason we often get lost. Our best guess is we missed the cow camp turnoff and proceeded up the mountain to another trail. The map includes approximate riding times. We were due at cow camp around 11:30 and were riding a steady pace with no wrong turns. At 12:30 there is no sign of cow camp, and the surrounding area is not familiar. We backtrack looking for the missed turnoff for another thirty minutes with no success. Undaunted, we had our picnic in a mountainside meadow and then return down the mountain.
Tomorrow, we will ride our last trail of the trip. Although we are sad, four days is a perfect trip. Not too long to wipe out our bodies, but plenty of ride time. Plus, I’m sure Sammy is more than ready for us to come home. We have a little road trip planned for the drive back to Billings. I hope my road map skills exceed my trail map skills.
Day 5: Thursday, September 2, 2021
We’re up and rolling early on our final day. From our little cabin nestled in the valley, the wind blows the trees. Wind usually brings out the idiot factor in horses, so more on that after we mount up. Since check out is noon, we plan a short ride to give us time for a shower, lunch, and check out. Today, we’ve planned a ride over South Red Ridge Canyon. It’s a steep ascent with spectacular views. I hope to find an easier descent to spare our tired legs. Trust me. After four days in the saddle, my legs are talking about all kinds of new-to-me discomforts. After typing this, I wonder how in the heck I rode all day during calving. Hmm. I must’ve been off and on the horse.
Today, my horse Badger has finally decided to stop his resistance. I’m not a weekend rider who lets the horse go where he wants. Since Badger and I have had several ‘discussions’ regarding this issue, one would think he’d get it. For once, he doesn’t sour leaving the barn and actually sidepasses as cued at the gate. I’m having second thoughts about my former unkind remarks about him.
After a steep climb the views from the ridge are spectacular. The temperatures are a mild 60’s with blue skies and less smokey haze. Unfortunately, time passes quickly, and we’re unable to find a different descent. We return the same route with some leg pain. Considering the abuse from our long day yesterday, I have little discomfort.
At the gate Badger returns to his usually uncooperative behavior and refuses to sidepass to the left. On our next trip, I won’t be riding Badger. The good news, Gamble Jim’s nice quarter horse with better sense covers gate duty.
We’ve selected a return trip to Billings through the Bighorn Mountain Pass via a scenic route Alternate 14 to Lovell, Wyoming before turning north to Billings. Caveat: this route is not open in winter. The views are spectacular, the road one hairpin curve after another. The highest point is over 9,000 feet. I was hoping to see a bighorn sheep in the wild, but no luck this time around. After trips to Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, the Canadian Rockies, and Alaska, we’ve yet to see one of the illusive critters. The animals at the St. Louis Zoo don’t count. 😊
Day 6: Friday, September 3, 2021
We’ve come to the end of the Wyoming trail and arrive in Billings. Our new-found restaurant the Montana Brewery is only a three-block walk from our Doubletree Hotel. No fried for me this time around. We awaken at the ungodly hour of 3:30 to catch our 6:00am flight. At 6pm we pull into Blythewood and collect our lonely poodle. Although he was napping on our neighbor’s sofa, he gave us a spectacular homecoming. It’s so nice to climb into my own bed. Welcome home, travelers.