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Horseshoes and hayrides

It's lively and fun, but relaxing too -- and that's what keeps folks returning yearly to family-run Rankin Ranch in the Tehachapis.

September 30, 2007|Donna Wares | Special to The Times

Caliente, Calif.

We crawled up and around the mountain just before dusk, winding along a skinny highway noteworthy for its spectacular sunset views, hairpin turns and an army of fearless cattle that graze the slopes and regularly amble into the middle of the road.

Cows far outnumber people in this wild pocket of Southern California's Tehachapi Mountains, 2 1/2 hours north -- and another universe entirely -- from Los Angeles. The trek up the mountain is only nine miles, but it took us a good half-hour to drive to the top, where the road twisted through a final set of curves, then spilled into a lush valley, home to one of California's oldest family ranches.

A small, easy-to-miss wooden sign on the right side of the road finally pointed the way to the Quarter Circle U Rankin Ranch. We turned down an unpaved road in the twilight, moving past a thick grove of lilacs as a cottontail rabbit darted for cover. My husband, two children and I barely had stepped out of our car when 14-year-old Gaby flipped open her cellphone and the bellowing commenced.

"No service! There's no service here!"

Exactly.

There also are no telephones in the wood-paneled cabins secluded among the ranch's enormous pine and locust trees. No televisions. No DVD players. No Wi-Fi. Not a video game in sight. Take a breath: Unplugging is part of the experience here, and essential to enjoying the timeless charm of Rankin Ranch.

This 31,000-acre slice of California heaven has been a working cattle ranch since Walter Rankin imported the first herd of white-faced Herefords in 1863 in the middle of the Civil War. Cattle is still the family business 144 years later. But for the last four decades, the Rankin clan also has opened the ranch for six months of the year to weekend cowboys and nature lovers who come to cast their lines in mountain lakes, hike the backcountry trails, marvel at the dazzling starscape each night far from city lights, and, most of all, saddle up and ride. Unlike many other guest ranches, Rankin's rates include riding, along with meals and just about everything else at the remote ranch.

Rankin Ranch sits in Walker's Basin, a dramatic expanse of big sky, rolling hills filled with wildflowers and acre upon acre of willowy rye grass shimmying in the wind. It feels more like Wyoming than Southern California. The simple d├ęcor and, perhaps more important, the warm and generous sensibility here recall a gentler, more innocent era. That's largely because members of the Rankin family -- we met dad Bill, daughter Sarah Rankin Wilder and her husband, Clint Wilder, during our visit -- stay right in the thick of everything at the ranch, from breakfast to barbecues to bingo, preserving cherished traditions. This includes weekly hayrides, horseshoe contests and regular sessions of square dancing with Omar Krumm.

For four decades, Omar has driven up from Bakersfield on weekends with his big, white cowboy hat, record player and collection of vintage 45s. He calls out the square dances, while his silver-haired wife, Lois, in white flats, skillfully demonstrates each step and turn. Omar and Lois have been teaching visitors how to promenade, line dance and master the rolling vine since the guest ranch first opened in 1965.

"One more thing," Omar likes to say, and he and Lois explain yet another move to a roomful of novices. "I'm just gonna add one more thing."

The Krumms are irresistible. Even my reluctant teenager gave her pink iPod a rest and joined 30-odd strangers and her parents on the dance floor on a recent Saturday night. Almost immediately Gaby was laughing as she partnered up with her 8-year-old brother, Eben, while Omar worked through his stack of 45s, from the "Hokey Pokey" to "New York, New York."

"I didn't know square dancing could be so much fun," Gaby said afterward, as we walked back to our cabin in the pitch-black mountain night lighted only by the stars above.

A ROSTER OF REGULARS

Unlike most of the other guests we met, Ed, Gaby, Eben and I were first-timers at Rankin Ranch, which closes down in fall for the calving season but offers some special scrapbooking weekends in October. The ranch opens for a new season in spring, and returning guests often book months ahead to secure their annual vacation spots. We got lucky in early May when a weekend cancellation left a last-minute opening in the Comantha cabin. We had left Seal Beach around 3 p.m. on a Friday, planning to reach the ranch before the Rankins rang the 6:30 dinner bell. Then we got bogged down in traffic on Interstate 5 nearly all the way to the Grapevine and didn't make it up the mountain until 7:30 p.m.

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