SPRING GARDEN, Calif. — When my 9-year-old promised to eat her broccoli if I agreed to a dude ranch vacation, I jumped at the opportunity. Finally, I thought, I had outsmarted her.
Horseback riding had always been a lot of fun for my wife and me. We were reasonably good at it, too. Twenty years ago, anyway.
But being the cautious type, I preferred to test the waters before plunging into a weeklong Western epic. So we decided to head for northeast California's Greenhorn Guest Ranch for a three-day weekend tryout.
In the Sierra Nevada just off California 89, I noted that Greenhorn was only 70 miles north of Reno.
Great! My wife and daughter could enjoy a glitzy show while I courted Lady Luck.
As Luck Would Have It
Lady Luck turned out to be a terror. The only reason she didn't leave us penniless was because there are no penny slots in Reno. It turned out to be a blessing that those wise folks at Greenhorn asked for payment in advance.
We arrived at the remote, woodsy ranch mid-morning, and it was just as we imagined: a family place loaded with kids, but also a sanctuary--a silent forest, delicate wildflowers, crisp, clean air and an enormous corral.
We were shown to our cozy, rustic cabin. Far from luxurious, it was clean, comfortable, and did have maid service, certainly complying with our version of roughing it. Let me define "roughing it:" No TV. No radio. No newspapers. No phone. The only way to make contact with the outside world would be to steal a horse and ride away.
On second thought, the only place Greenhorn's horses would go is up a mountain.
The ranch wranglers take guests on two rides a day, ranging from 90 minutes to five hours. The trails are all adventurous. And Plumas County is guaranteed to charm.
A sure-footed horse takes you up, up and up through a forest of tall fir, pine and aspen, laced with noisy creeks and cool streams. Some of the trails take your breath away; reaching a clearing on top of a mountain, the ranch that looked so big is just a fly-speck below.
At 8,000 feet, with the sun in your face and your horse in full stride, you don't care about who's playing what game back in the big city. The reality is as much fun as the fantasy.
First day, first decision. What to wear? Nothing we brought matched. My wife did the packing. Half an hour later we were ready for our first ride, looking like a chic collection of mobile graffiti.
The Proper Gear
Many of the other guests were wearing cowboy shirts, cowboy hats and boots. We were a little intimidated. You'd never guess that they were urbanites on the lam, escapees from the controlled congestion of city life.
But I did have my red silk neckerchief. It dangled in the breeze, smartly.
My wife, my daughter and I grabbed a light brunch and headed for the corral. It was a scene right out of a John Wayne movie: wranglers, horses, dust, dirt, flies--and more wranglers, horses, dust, dirt and flies.
Immediately, the wranglers looked at us sideways. We were being sized up for horses. I shot a hard stare right back at them.
Mistake. I got a horse called Thunder. He was about the size of the entire Chicago Bears front line.
My wife and daughter were luckier; they were assigned AppleJack and Lucky. It seems that they always give the gals horses with cute, docile names because, after all, who would want to get near a horse named Satan or Lightning?
The wrangler tried to reassure me. "You're going to love him, Mister M. Handles real easy. Why, old Thunder's never even been ridden before!" My face turned the color of chalk.
Off on our first ride, we headed for the chuck wagon, where Greenhorn's weekly steak-dinner cookout was being set up, two hours ahead.
Learning the Ropes
On the way we were given a lesson on how to trot a horse. The trot is the most painful gait there is for a new rider, but it's one to get used to early because horses have a habit of trotting all the time.
AppleJack and Lucky were the hungriest horses in captivity. Every time they passed a tree, which is to say every few feet, they took a bite. When they finished, those overhanging branches they were chewing on would fly back and Thunder and I would receive a face full.
We arrived at the chuck wagon in one piece, ready for a hearty meal. There's something about fresh mountain air that builds a voracious appetite. We weren't disappointed. Thick, juicy steaks. Big, crisp salads. Enormous baked potatoes. Rich chocolate cupcakes.
An Outstanding Feed
My wife thought dinner was outstanding, especially because it was prepared by someone else. She was ready to stay for the entire week. Even my daughter made friends. Isn't it surprising how quickly children can find other Madonna fans?
None of the guests mentioned how they earn a living. I guess they felt it would destroy their cowboy or cowgirl fantasies. But whatever they did, at better than $1,000 a week for a family of three, you've got to figure them for money.