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Say HOWDY to Two Very Different Ranches, DUDE : A tradition-filled Wyoming spread, or a Montana place with hot tub and haute cuisine . Your draw.

July 17, 1994|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

WOLF, Wyo. — Never mind the roaming buffalo, or those deer and antelope at play. Out in the wide open Western spaces these days, the plains are crawling with dude ranch proprietors, each determined to give a vast and disparate American public the ranch vacation of its dreams.

Horses and family-friendliness are the obvious recurrent themes, and everyone seems to be basking in the cinematic afterglow of "City Slickers" and its sequel. But the ranch vacation now comes in more varieties than Disney has Dalmatians, and quasi-cowboys can pay $80 a day, or $150, or $250, depending on one's choice of meals, lodgings and surrounding luxuries. At the offices of the national Dude Ranchers' Assn., where membership grew from 35 to 69 ranches in the first six decades after the group's founding in 1926, the files now show more than 110 members. And that figure excludes many ranch operations that offer rural retreats, horseback riding and cabin living, but shrink from the word "dude."

And so, early this summer, as the rivers surged with runoff and the wind riffled through the amber waves of all that stuff out there that leaves thistle in your socks, I boarded a plane, hopped the Rockies and went looking for the edges of the ever-expanding universe of the ranch vacation.

My mission was to sample the extremes--the most old-fashioned and newfangled ranches I could find. I found the old-fashioned ranch in Wolf, Wyo.; the newfangled one in Big Sky, Mont. Their features ran from coal heating to Kohler plumbing, from Jif in a jar to escargots , from a rumbling 1928 Ford Model A on a dusty path to lounging llamas on grassy knolls.

Eatons' Ranch may be the oldest dude ranch in America--19th-Century record books aren't clear--and its keepers put on no airs. The property lies about a half-hour northwest of Sheridan, Wyo., cradled by the Bighorn Mountains, bisected by Wolf Creek, trodden each summer by the hoofs of about 200 horses. There are other hoof prints too--mostly from roving deer and about 200 cows, whose offspring are usually packed off for plumping after they've reached yearling status.

But the point of Eatons' is horses. Each year on Memorial Day weekend, the ranch wranglers, sometimes assisted by ambitious dudes, spend three days driving the animals up from their winter home at the Eaton family's Echeta ranch, 100 miles to the east. The drive climaxes with a traffic-interrupting, police-escorted passage down Fifth Street through downtown Sheridan (population: 14,000) and ends at the Eatons' 7,000-acre spread. Near the end of September, the spectacle is repeated in reverse.

The first Eatons' Ranch was founded by three Eaton brothers in 1879 on homesteaded land near Medora, N.D. From the beginning they entertained friends and acquaintances from the East, and in 1882 they accepted their first payment from one. They used the term "dude" to describe that guest and rusticating visitors like him, and may have been the first to do so. In 1904, the Eatons moved to Wyoming.

The ranch remains a family operation--almost everyone with any authority carries the name of Eaton or Ferguson--and you eat when the family says. During the summer high season, there are two strict dinner seating times: 6-6:10 p.m. and 6:50-7 p.m. No one, the ranch schedule warns, will be admitted between 6:10 and 6:50.

You also eat where the family says (in an assigned seat with five assigned table mates) and you eat what the family says. Usually it's healthy helpings of American grub, family style, around a centerpiece of ketchup bottles and peanut butter jars. Capacity is 125 dudes, and adults generally pay $900 a week.

As you get ready to eat breakfast each day--for that meal, you have from 6:30 to 8:45 a.m.--a few wranglers are driving the horses across Wolf Creek, up a dusty road and into the ranch's main corral, from which they are summoned for saddling.

Tradition is very big. The old photos and stuffed animals in the public rooms hint of summers past, as do the high wooden beams of Howard Hall, where there's a dance with a country-Western band once a week. Even the swimming pool would qualify as an antique, by California standards: It's about 60 years old, 70 feet long and fed by filtered and heated creek water.

The ranch's 54 cabins (one, two and three bedrooms) are fascinating, if not fancy. Lockless doors. Heating by propane gas, steam and coal stove, depending on the cabin and its vintage. The thermostat in my cabin controlled the temperature in several others. In another cabin, the summer's first occupant found a strong scent of skunk and what appeared to be a wasp's nest under the porch eaves.

"You get excited if there's a new bedspread in your place . . . but you don't want things to change," said Eileen Kidder of Cudahy, Wis., a repeat visitor for 14 years, as she led me on a tour.

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