WICKENBURG, Ariz. — Turning off Arizona Highway 89 onto a dusty, unpaved road facing the Bradshaw Mountains, I could feel the stress peel away. Layer after layer. With the sun slipping lower in the sky, I stopped the car to listen to a silence that was disturbed only by the blowing of the wind.
While shadows fell across the land, a jack rabbit skittered through the brush and a hawk wheeled overhead. Having escaped the rush-hour traffic of Phoenix, miles behind, a peace took over that comes only with the wealth of aloneness.
I put the car in gear and rattled across a cattle guard, passing a sign that read: "Drive carefully, puppies and kittens playing."
Such was the introduction to the inviting little Kay El Bar, Arizona's friendliest dude ranch. The Kay El Bar rises alongside salt cedar trees and a 300-year-old saguaro, and as I stopped the car a couple of playful golden retrievers, Nugget and Bear, ran across the lawn, the unofficial greeters of this small, unpretentious ranch three miles north of Wickenburg.
Nugget and Bear accompanied me to the lodge, where a note from the proprietors was pinned to the front door: "Come in. Make yourself at home. We'll join you as soon as we've spiffed up for dinner."
No formalities. Just this laid-back graciousness of Arizona's second-oldest guest ranch.
A wood fire crackled in the lounge with its high, beamed ceiling. Western scenes were framed on the walls and facing the huge stone fireplace were a scattering of sofas and a shelf lined with books.
Other guests gathered by the fire included the Bob Kings of Connecticut and the Paul Ledbetters of Brea. Ledbetter, a retired plumber, is one of those red, white and blue types who won the Distinguished Flying Cross during World War II but doesn't give a hoot about riding horses. Instead he gets his highs these days lounging by the pool.
The 60-acre Kay El Bar is operated by sisters Jan Martin and Jane Nash and their husbands Charlie and Jay. This is strictly a riding ranch. No tennis or golf. Just horses and a swimming pool for cooling off after one of those long rides. The ladies bought the ranch nine years ago following a love affair with dude ranches that began when they were youngsters living in the East. When their own children left the nest, the sisters grew restless. Mid-life crisis was fast approaching and they decided on a new career.
Jan's husband Charlie sells bonds and Jane's husband Jay is a computer wizard. Together they commute the 60 miles to Phoenix, returning in the evening to exchange suits and ties for jeans and cowboy shirts and to tend bar, gather firewood and exchange pleasantries with guests.
Visitors from overseas zero in on the Kay El Bar along with American guests. Only recently a group of Japanese executives--all dolled up in silk business suits and ties--galloped off into the sunset. Later, an enthusiastic member of the group was asked how he enjoyed his ride. "Fine," he replied, smiling hugely. "I only fell off twice!"
A policeman from Britain appeared at the Kay El Bar a couple of years ago decked out like a stand-in for Hopalong Cassidy. A cowboy buff from Dover who'd spent his life eyeballing Westerns, he wore boots, jeans, chaps and spurs and left two weeks later, outfitted as he'd arrived. And although his name was David, this British buckaroo insisted that the gang at the Kay El Bar call him "Tex."
Similarly, the curator of a museum from Liechtenstein took on the nickname "Rocky."
Guests who show up at the Kay El Bar without the proper duds are outfitted in Wickenburg at Ben's Saddlery. Either that or they're offered the loan of boots and hats at the ranch. One woman stayed on at the Kay El Bar for seven weeks. The oldest guest--he was in his 90s--rode daily during his stay at the Kay El Bar.
One vacationer wrote: "I am torn between the desire to tell everyone I know what a wonderful place the Kay El Bar is and wanting to keep it a secret so mobs of people won't spoil it."
Fine. But it wasn't always a charmer. Says Jane Nash: "It was a disaster when we bought it!"
Weeds sprouted everywhere and the lodge looked like early Halloween with Goodwill furnishings.
"A Motel 6 had more charm," as Jane tells it.
With loads of enthusiasm and little money, the sisters and their husbands painted, plastered, rewired and replumbed the entire ranch. And while the women tell how they adored horses as youngsters, they admit they knew absolutely nothing about ranching when they landed in Wickenburg.
Jane shudders. "For the first season we winged it."