South Bay Magazine – June 2010

Totally Dude- Days and Nights on the Ranch
By Dianne Bates

It started in the middle of Jeff Bridges’ acceptance speech for Crazy Heart. Then I heard there was a remake of Big Valley in the works. A friend persuaded me to join efforts to save American wild mustangs from slaughter. I seemed to be nursing an inside longing to return from the blindingly instant world of tech relationships and business dealings to a simpler slower place.

I craved Western. I had to get off the speeding bandwagon and ride the horse.

I decided that a visit to the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort near the über-Danish town of Solvang might provide a good transition from the city/hotel/spa/party scene I’d been covering to the laid-back land of open hills and sing-a-long sunsets. So what if they had a spa!

What to wear, what to wear…I stressed over the fact that Alisal’s dining room has a no-jeans policy. What the…? I packed an assortment of cowgirl-punk-business clothes and decided to figure it all out when I got to the ranch.

I breezed through the alpine architecture that is Solvang and, you betcha, soon passed Alisal’s expansive rural golf course and pulled into an oak-lined drive with lovely cottages on one side and a pasture on the other. A canoe was waiting for me at Alisal Lake. A very large canoe. Big enough for an entire tribe. A cold wind blew across the plains (sorry, I had to write that), and the lake was choppy, so I switched to a paddleboat and happily made it to the middle of the lake before my legs gave out. I rested for a bit, watching the tiny lake birds (whose numbers, I later learned, were being diminished by resident bald eagles). I peddled back to shore where several fishing families enjoyed my several attempts to dock and tie my boat.

My room was in a lovely duplex cottage on the stream. The clean and modern western accommodations included a wood-burning fireplace, and that suited me just fine. I headed to the dining room for dinner, striding into the bar in a long dark skirt, Levi’s jacket and eggplant cowboy boots. Oh, and a blue silk calico scarf by Single at my neck. I was Barbara Stanwyck.

Everyone else was dressed in business attire. Except for the staff, I was the only person thematically attired. Ouch. A glass of wine at the bar alleviated my fashion pain. In the Ranch Room, I enjoyed a luscious dinner of horseradish-encrusted salmon and greens, then strolled through the starry, dark bullfrog night to my room, wondering if ALL western-style dining rooms were required to hang red-checkered curtains.

There are no TVs or phones in the rooms so I built a fire, donned my P.J. Salvage stagecoach-and-cowboy jammies and poured myself a glass of 2003 Alisal Santa Barbara County Syrah. Produced by Lucas & Lewellyn winery, the lush 14.5% wine was a perfect finish to a long day. The full-bodied wine burst with a berry rush, and then revealed herbal notes. The long finish was velvety with hints of vanilla. Perfect.

It was never this good on the trail.

7:30 am. Too early, but I’m on a schedule. I threw on some jeans, a man-shirt by Fashion Week’s Seth Wellington, Levi’s jacket, boots and black bowler and headed to the barn for the breakfast trail ride. The corral was crowded with wranglers and families dressed in everything from English riding helmets to hoodies. I, of course, was the only one dressed like Butch Cassidy. It was refreshing to note that no one felt obligated to whip out an iPod.

We all rode in small groups along green trails and valleys filled with deer and cattle. The beautiful ranch was given to actor Leo Carrillo’s grandfather by the king of Spain and is currently used to fatten up cattle for market. I admit it made me a bit sad to see all those cows walking in lush open pastures, eating all that green grass, thinking they must be in heaven, unaware of their fate.
I hadn’t been on a horse in years. The horse knew it, I knew it, and my legs would know it the next day.

We arrived in a clearing where we were served a huge outdoor breakfast cooked on-site. Pancakes, eggs, bacon, sausage, fruit, biscuits and gravy, hash browns and various breads were piled on plates as cowboy poets and singers entertained the riders. Then another hour ride back. I was beginning to understand the logic of having a beautiful luxurious spa at the resort.

But I had to get home, so I bid the Alisal a fond farewell and headed into the sunset. Was it fun? Yeah, pardner. Real fun.

A few days later, when I got the full use of my legs back, I decided to get a refresher course on horsemanship. I’d seen the look in my mount’s eyes when I disembarked. It was sarcasm. I drove to the Palos Verdes Peninsula for a session at Cowboy Boot Camp. Jim Moore and his wife Lori Barnett own and operate two camps in California. The one in Rolling Hills Estates is located in a horse-owner community filled with miles of horse trails.

I felt Jim sizing me up as he introduced me to various horses. He stressed his emphasis on horsemanship and told me he often trains actors to ride for film and TV. His horse was a huge mustang, and he chose a smaller, older Arabian for me (go figure). As we hit the trail behind his house, he politely advised me about small things I’d forgotten: correct boot placement in the stirrups, posture, and the importance of communicating with your mount.

“Horses know they are just food for predators,” Moore told me. “You have to be in control so they feel safe.” By the end of the ride, I felt I’d regained my former skills as a horsewoman.

There are myriad ways to satiate your western self. Rancho Oso near Santa Barbara is a bit more rustic than the Alisal, and families can even sleep in covered wagons. Marble Mountain in northern California features white water rafting. Most ranches offer riding, fishing and family activities. Many have golf courses and spas. Ranches in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico offer a change of vistas and different versions of cowboy food. If you’re a couch cowboy, there’s always the Autry Museum.

I wouldn’t advise a single person to visit a ranch with the hopes of meeting a potential date, though. Ranches appeal to groups and couples, and most of the horse wranglers and staff are married. I know this because I asked. All those single cowboys of my fantasies — Flint McCullough, Little Joe Cartwright, The Sundance Kid, and Wyatt Earp — returned to my memories. At least the married horse wranglers I met all politely and gentlemanly said, “Thank you, ma’am,” and I guess that will have to do.

Well, technically east, for us Californians, still you can’t get more authentic than Colorado’s Vista Verde Ranch. YES, it’s a luxury ranch and you get to sleep indoors, but as a guest to Vista Verde once told them, “We were treated like royalty, but made to feel like family.” The facilities are rustic yet romantic, the setting breathtaking. Hosting no more than 40 folks at a time, the atmosphere is intimate and accommodating, the staff a joy to interact with. Check out the property in the glorious white winter, riding-friendly summer, or my favorite, autumn, when Steamboat Springs’ explode in seasonal color. You just don’t get that same experience in the Sunshine State.