RIDGWAY, Colo. — The first thing that comes into focus is the red ranch house with the St. Bernard asleep on the porch.
Someone described San Juan Guest Ranch as a Rocky Mountain post card painted by Grandma Moses, and that after this it came alive with the dog and the chickens and a horse corral beside it. A river hurries by its door and Rocky Mountain peaks tower over a peaceful valley that's alive with deer and elk and cattle that graze in pastures framed by aspen.
If there is a ranch in all the West that bids the guest a warm welcome, it is the San Juan. A gravel road twists to a gate and a yard with shade trees and grass as green as the spruce that surrounds the Uncompahgre Valley.
This isn't your ordinary dude ranch with too many guests and too little chance to relax. The San Juan is special, which is particularly true of the setting. Only five miles south of the mining town of Ouray, which fancies itself "the Switzerland of America," the San Juan Guest Ranch reaches out to the vacationer seeking solitude.
Rather than a structured program, proprietor Scott MacTiernan and his mother, Pat, provide a week of relaxation for vacationers weary of the treadmill. Guests ride when they wish, explore ghost towns in the Rockies, picnic in alpine meadows, go riding in a surrey with the fringe on top--or just hang back at the ranch and read a book or cast for trout in a river or a pond that reflects the Colorado sky.
Scott MacTiernan, who resembles Tom Selleck with the rugged style of the Marlboro man, taught skiing at Aspen before he and his mother got into the guest ranch game. The San Juan is small, with an intimacy that's contagious. Logs blaze in a huge fireplace and guests help themselves to pitchers of tea and lemonade. In the kitchen with its old-fashioned goodness a sign reads: "Welcome my friend--you will find joy and love within."
It is no idle boast.
Everyone leaves the San Juan ranch reluctantly.
My search for a small guest ranch with a family atmosphere ended at the door through which 20 guests filed for an evening meal of beef, garden-fresh vegetables and home-baked breads and pies.
Among them were a schoolteacher from Missouri, a couple from Indiana, a businessman and his wife from Florida, a high school counselor from Chicago and a young British mother with her 5-year-old son whose dream of the American West no doubt will last a lifetime. For two weeks, pint-size Jaime Barrett and his mother, Amanda, rode horses, attended rodeos and explored old mining towns.
Amanda Barrett confessed to her dinner companions that she'd spent years saving for her holiday, and that it had been two weeks of enchantment.
"I loved everything," she said as the day of farewell arrived.
Jaime left wearing a cowboy shirt, boots and jeans. His mother wore jeans also, and a sweat shirt emblazoned with the name of the little Colorado town she'd found so infectious. She didn't want to leave but Amanda Barrett wisely chose to return to England while the dream was still real.
Evenings at the San Juan are spent around campfires listening to wranglers play the guitar. Occasionally a group will run off to see the movies in Ouray. Or to what one cowboy described as a "dirt bag saloon" in Ridgway where locals play billiards and drink beer out of the bottle and plug coins in a jukebox offering such sentimental favorites as "Wishful Drinkin' " and "Working Class Man."
Even "non-riders" saddle up at San Juan Guest Ranch where Scott MacTiernan is reputed to be the finest riding instructor in the Rockies. An overnight trip is offered to a high meadow called Charlie's Place with wildflowers and a trout pond and tents already set up.
On occasion, MacTiernan slips out of the saddle and into a van to chauffeur guests on shopping tours to Telluride and Ouray and a ghost town high above the timberline where snows remain year-round and winds howl through broken windows and shutters bang against sagging walls in what once was the largest alpine settlement in the world. He mesmerizes his guests with tales of avalanches that wiped out entire villages and miners who faced the elements in search of uncertain wealth.
During winter, MacTiernan's guests ride in a one-horse open sleigh and skate on a frozen pond. Others do trips on cross-country skis or else soak in a steaming hot tub.
As for the little town of Ouray, it's a Christmas-card scene cradled in the Rockies, and considering its past you wonder how it remained that way. Discovered by three prospectors in 1873, it became a booming mining town and soon was overrun by strangers with dreams of riches.
Thousands poured into Ouray. The men worked the mines and the women worked the men for their silver and gold. Bordellos flourished. Dance hall girls ran wild in the streets and saloons ran 'round the clock. Some got rich while hundreds remained poor.