One night, as the sun sets behind the Sierra Nevada, I drain a beer on the porch of my cabin, which overlooks a large grassy quad where a couple of boys play ball with several of the ranch border collies.
Sharing the porch with me is Bruce Forsythe, a retired dentist from Sebastopol. He sips red wine, and we chat about fishing, writing and family life. His parents first brought him to the ranch in the 1960s, and now he returns each year with his daughter, Samantha, now 14.
He says he likes that the ranch's guests are not distracted by modern electronics. The simple but comfortable cabins resemble ultra-economy hotel rooms: no TVs or phones, no minibars or coffee makers. For a touch of kitsch, the room includes a hat rack made of welded horseshoes. Don't expect high-end cuisine at the dining hall. The menu boasts mom-and-pop-diner meals -- burgers, steaks and pasta.
Each night after dinner, the guests saunter from their cabins for a gathering. One night, we roast marshmallows around a campfire while our wranglers play guitars and sing country tunes. Another night, we try to milk a cow. The next night, we jump on a horse-drawn hay wagon for a ramble. One evening, the kids -- and a few adults -- put on a talent show, with skits, magic tricks and more sentimental cowboy poetry.
Later in the week, I meet Betsy Hunewill Elliott, the great-great-granddaughter of the ranch founder. She's the ranch boss now. Her brother and sister help out too. The Hunewills have already added some resort-like amenities, such as a full-time masseuse and, beginning this year, Wi-Fi access.
And now, she says, the Hunewills are pondering even more amenities, such as a hot tub. But she is leery about changing the character of the ranch, which has been in her family for nearly 150 years.
Of modernizing, she says, "We are torn."
HEAD 'EM OUT
My first taste of real cowboy work comes on my third day at the ranch when the wranglers ask guests to help move cattle from various pastures. In the field, about 10 of us form a moving column, slowly tightening our circle around a herd of brown-and-white heifers. Without prodding, our horses close in on the cattle. A few heifers briefly rebel, refusing to yield until they come nose to nose with our advancing column.
Next our crew circles a group of Angus steers we must move to another field. These fierce-looking beasts -- the pit bulls of bovines -- are tall and thick in the shoulder, but they offer little resistance as our horses approach.
Three hours of cowpunching and I ride back to the barn, thinking I may have what it takes to be a real cowboy. But reality sinks in when I get off my horse and waddle to my cabin to relieve my sore muscles with some ibuprofen and a chilled bottle of pale ale.
Toward the end of the week, I tackle another cowboy tradition: ambling. The wranglers move our horses by trailer to a lakeside campground about five miles east of the ranch, on the outskirts of the Hoover Wilderness. About 20 of us would-be cowboys follow in cars. We pack sandwiches and water bottles in our saddlebags and ride into the Sierra wilderness.
A dirt and rock trail leads us to Barney Lake, a deep blue mountain pool that was first stocked with cutthroat trout by Napoleon's son Frank Hunewill in the late 1800s.
The four-mile, single-track path follows the banks of a shallow, fast-moving creek. We are shaded by ponderosa and Jeffrey pine, white cedar and quaking aspen. The mountain breezes make the aspen leaves quiver like butterfly wings. Yellow mule's ear blooms and purple lupine adorn our path.
We stop to stretch our legs and listen to another cowboy poem -- something about life being a lot like a doughnut.
As we ride, the sound of hoofs and the splashing creek fill the warm mountain air. When the lake comes into view between the pines, even our thick-skinned wranglers can't help but be stunned. "What a sight," says one. "Beautiful."
HANGING UP HIS SPURS
It's the morning of my final day at the ranch and I've joined a group of riders for a few hours of loping and ditch jumping in the pastures. I've spent nearly a week in a saddle, and I've abandoned the title of "buckaroo." Maybe I'm not a cowboy yet, but I'm certainly no tenderfoot.
As Murphy and I sprint across the fields, leaping over narrow waterways, I can almost hear the "William Tell" Overture.
Back at the ranch house that afternoon, the wranglers call for volunteers to move more cattle out of a pasture in the western end of the ranch. Not today, I say. All of this riding has taken its toll. I have an hourlong deep-tissue massage scheduled with the ranch's in-house masseurs.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Planning this trip
THE BEST WAY