Marcy Barack Black

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Ranch life can spoil a manicure                  July 11, 2004, Los Angeles Times

Urbane L.A. women find there's nothing like a week spent wrangling cattle in Dubois. And a massage isn't too bad, either.

By Marcy Barack, Special to The Times

A week earlier in Los Angeles, my friend Ruth had raised a glass of champagne in a toast to Tom Cruise at his birthday party. Tonight, she wielded a Dustbuster in her battle with a colony of moths inhabiting the chinks of a log cabin in northwestern Wyoming.

Lowering her perfectly plucked eyebrows, Ruth lunged. The tired battery gave its last bit of juice to devour a fugitive moth.

"Got the sucker!" she crowed, displaying the hand-vac. My sister Jane and another friend Mickey peered through smoky plastic at a flock of wings fluttering in their death throes.

What were those upscale Los Angeles women doing in what Jane's husband had described as a shack?

Vacationing.

Looking for a change from computers, crowds and conspicuous consumption, Ruth and Jane found it at the EA Ranch, and they've been coming here for years. Two summers ago, I flew from Portland, Maine, to Jackson, Wyo., to join in their fun for a week.

We had come to herd cattle. It might not be the dream of most middle-aged women, but it was for us. Too many of our formative hours were spent watching "Rawhide" on TV, no doubt.

It's about 90 miles on U.S. 26/287 from the Jackson Hole airport — over 9,658-foot Togwotee Pass — to the Wind River Valley cow town of Dubois (pronounced DEW-boys).

After scoring a six-pack at the package liquor store, we headed north five miles, down a dusty track and through a cattle gate to the heart of the EA.

A grove of cottonwoods shades the main lawn, encircled by barns and bunkhouses, some dating to the late 1800s. Horse Creek cools the perimeter. Red, sagebrush-covered hills rise behind the two-story log ranch house.

Owners Renny and Tracey Burke welcome visitors to two comfortable rooms with private baths in the remodeled main house and two rustic cabins. There's also a tepee and a sheep wagon that once served herders as a kind of primitive RV. The ranch holds no more than a dozen guests at a time. Because we had arrived in early summer, we had the ranch to ourselves. Their busy times are late July to September.

Jane, Ruth, Mickey and I shared a three-bedroom guest cabin furnished with rough-hewn wood furniture. Cute cowboy curtains framed a spectacular view of the red hills. Our bathroom included a shower; the tub was behind the cabin in its own bathhouse.

The Burkes met on the ski slopes of Jackson in 1984 and acquired the EA nearly 16 years ago. The working ranch is big — 4,000 acres plus leased grazing rights. The EA grazes its own 44 cows and 30 ewes, and 500 head of other people's cattle.

It was started by Eugene Amoretti Jr. in 1890, when Wyoming achieved statehood. One of its first ranch hands was the outlaw Butch Cassidy.

Good meal, nice horse

Our typical day at the ranch began with Tracey ringing a bell to call us to a family-style breakfast. Mornings can be frosty in late June and early July, but the weather during our visit was warm and dry — so dry that forest fires were a concern.

At home, the Los Angeles ladies and I have household help, but here at the EA we made our own beds before walking to the main lodge for breakfast. Although work isn't required, Renny and Tracey are such good hosts that we felt like their house guests, so we naturally pitched in with some chores.

Food at the EA was fresh and homemade, delicious and plentiful. Guests and crew helped themselves to sourdough pancakes or omelets with goat cheese and fresh basil and banana muffins. We sat together around the long dining room table in front of a wall of windows overlooking a lush meadow.

Dinners featured Wyoming-raised beef or lamb and, in season, vegetables from the garden. Tracey willingly cooked to our tastes, ratcheting up the spicy heat of barbecue or cooling our palates with fresh fruit salsa. She even made me a perfect peanut butter sandwich — peanut butter, lettuce, no jelly, on toasted homemade bread.

After a hearty breakfast, we helped clear the table while Tracey packed our lunches. Then it was off to the stable.

Max, the head wrangler, saddled the horses and we saddled ourselves with fanny packs and belt pouches holding water bottles, bug spray, sun block, lip gloss, cameras, film, binoculars, toilet paper and ibuprofen. Slipping sunglasses on lotioned noses, clamping hats on blown-dry hair, and pulling leather gloves over manicured nails, we mounted up.

A guest's happiness at a dude ranch is directly related to her comfort on her horse. Renny and Max played matchmakers and assigned a spirited mount to Mickey, an accomplished equestrienne. I got Chrissy, who was happiest with her nose in the back of Jane's mare.

At first we followed Horse Creek, which meanders through a valley green with grass and willows. Rounding a bend, we startled a moose splashing through the shallows.

Leaving the creek behind, we rode through hills carpeted with sage brush and wildflowers. Ruth crushed sage in her hands to inhale its scent. Mickey sang "The Sound of Music."

I reined in to appreciate the delicacy of a single sego lily while Jane photographed a hillside of balsam root in bloom. I pestered Max to identify the wildflowers. He referred to every lemon-colored blossom as a DYF, darned yellow flower.

Pronghorn antelope nervously surveyed us from a distance before bouncing over the ridgeline. A lone coyote zigzagged up a brushy slope. Elk tracks revealed where a herd had wintered.

Bones were scattered everywhere, a constant reminder that this was wild country with predators. I picked up a three-point deer antler off the ground. It now sits on a table in my entryway.

On a wind-swept plateau, where a tobacco company had built a corral to film a commercial, we hoisted some collapsing rails back into place and drank in vistas of the snow-capped Absaroka Mountains and the timbered expanse of Shoshone National Forest.

The horses picked up their pace as we headed home, and after currying our mounts, we had our choice of afternoon activities.

I love to garden, so I was happy to chop at the sod and plant lupines. Mickey enjoyed polishing the manners of unruly mounts. Ruth read in a hammock strung between the cottonwoods.

One idyllic afternoon, Tracey summoned a masseuse to knead our knotted muscles as a chorus of cicadas lulled us in the shade of the trees.

Exploring and shopping

During our stay, Jane and I got the urge to roam, so we set out in search of ancient rock carvings. Kathy, the ranch hand who resembles a Breck girl, drove us east of town through the vivid ocher-banded rock cliffs known as the Badlands.

The route passed the Whiskey Mountain Wildlife Habitat Management Area, home to more than 600 bighorn sheep — thought to be the largest herd in the lower 48 states.

We stopped at a viewing kiosk to squint through an arm-long telescope, but the bighorns were hiding that day.

We nearly didn't find the petroglyphs either. To protect the primitive rock carvings from vandals, no maps to the sites are available. After an hour of stop-and-go searching up countless roadside trails, we turned back.

Suddenly, Kathy screeched to a halt beside Torrey Lake and led us to a VW Bug-sized boulder that bore an elaborate figure radiating beams from its head and toes. It was carved perhaps 3,000 years ago by ancient Shoshone.

Another day we headed back to Dubois to see if Welty's was open. This century-old general store is on the National Register of Historic Places. Traditional Western wear was available in front.

Roped-off shelves and boxes held stacks of gear, hidden treasures that probably hadn't been disturbed since Butch Cassidy's day.

We browsed at Two Ocean Books, which was heavy on Western titles, and at the Velvet Thorn gallery, which featured crafts by local artists. I couldn't resist buying a pack of cowboy-themed playing cards at Water Wheel Gifts.

The 1,000 citizens of Dubois have hit upon a unique way of preserving the town's Western character. A wooden boardwalk lines the log-and-plank storefronts on Ramshorn Street, the main drag. For $30, you can buy a board in the boardwalk and have it carved or branded with your name.

Two museums mark the western end of town. The 11-year-old National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Center features hands-on displays about the sheep that gave their name to Rams- horn Street, Ramshorn Peak, Rams- horn Realty and Ramshorn Inn. Inside, there's a 16-foot-tall mountain built to show bighorns in their natural habitat. Down the block is the Wind River Historical Center, with exhibits about the local geography, native tribes and early settlers.

I regretted not having my picture taken atop the world's largest Jackalope. This 8-foot-tall faux jackrabbit sporting antlers and a saddle is enshrined at the Exxon Country Store.

Hard work begins

Despite the distractions of Dubois, cows were what we came here for. Once a year in early July, the EA moves its cattle into the hills to graze on sweet summer grass. Our first task was to collect a small bunch that wandered down Horse Creek.

"Yell at 'em," Renny advised.

What do you yell at a cow? I wondered. "Whoopee ti yi yo, get along little dogie," sprang to mind, but it seemed too musical.

Ruth dredged up a childhood memory from summers on her family's Southern California ranch.

"Gee-ah," she bellowed.

The cows responded instantly.

Vacation was over; we were working. We rounded up the EA's cattle along with a much larger herd from the Diamond D, a neighboring ranch. We turned skittish when we spotted grizzly tracks behind the main ranch house.

When Renny and Max disappeared into the hills to chase strays, we pushed the main herd forward, keeping our eyes peeled for grizzly bears and grumpy bulls.

We left the herd at a watering hole for the night and returned to the ranch. Over a dinner of sizzling steaks, the Diamond D's owner shared some mighty fine wine, and the ranch hands traded tales of close calls with grizzlies. They concluded that bear juice (the equivalent of Mace) isn't as effective as a gun.

In the morning, we donned shirts with the EA logo, and Tracey led us in a team cheer: "Push 'em back. Push 'em back. Waaay back."

It was an hour's ride up to the wide basin where we had left the herd. After a near stampede through a forest of aspen and lodgepole pine, the herd slowed and stretched out as we drove the cattle up a valley to pasture on government land. We yelled "Gee-ah" as we rode for hours without a break, guiding the river of constantly mooing black and red cows, calves and a few boisterous bulls through the sage-green hills under cloudless skies.

My knees and bottom ached from sitting so long in the saddle. My mouth was dry. I was covered with dust. My nose twitched at the odor of sweaty hides and cow dung. It was hot and noisy. And I had the time of my life.

 

Way out West

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Delta, United, American and Northwest offer connecting service (change of plane) to Jackson Hole, Wyo. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $288.

The 90-minute drive from Jackson Hole to Dubois follows the Wyoming Centennial Scenic Byway. Head north on U.S. 191, and turn east on U.S. 26/287 at Moran. From Riverton, take old U.S. 26 west through the Wind River Indian Reservation for about an hour. Some Dubois lodgings will arrange airport shuttle service.

WHERE TO STAY:

Most ranches book by the week during the summer season, which starts in June.

EA Ranch, 913 Horse Creek Road, Dubois; (307) 455-3335. Rates $150 a day per person, including lodging, meals and most activities.

CM Ranch, P.O. Box 217, Dubois; (800) 455-0721 or (307) 455-2331, http://www.cmranch.com . One of the oldest dude ranches in Wyoming, it's on the National Register of Historic Places. Cabin rates $1,240 for riders, house rooms $1,340, less for non-riders.

Brooks Lake Lodge & Guest Ranch, 458 Brooks Lake Road, Dubois; (307) 455-2121, http://www.brookslake.com. Summer rates from $275 per person per night, double occupancy, including meals and accommodations.

WHERE TO EAT:

Meals are included at most ranches, but several eateries in Dubois are worth a visit.

Ramshorn Bagel & Deli, 202 E. Ramshorn St.; (307) 455-2400. Grab a bagel with a schmear here.

Café Wyoming, 106 E. Ramshorn St.; (307) 455-3828, http://www.cafewyoming.com. Everything is made from scratch by Los Angeles-trained chef Ken Wolfe, who bakes his own bread, smokes his own pork and offers duck either marinated or spiced with a dry rub before roasting. Dinner entrees $15-$22.

The Rustic Pine Steakhouse, 123 E. Ramshorn St.; (307) 455-2772. Besides seafood and beef, this place features live country and western bands on summer weekends in its pine-paneled bar bedecked with mounted animal heads. Dinner entrees $8-$16.

Dubois Drug Store, 126 E. Ramshorn St.; (307) 455-2300. Indulge in ice cream at the soda fountain.

TO LEARN MORE:

Dubois Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 632, Dubois WY 82513; (307) 455-2556, http://www.duboiswyoming.org.

Wyoming Dude Rancher's Assn., P.O. Box 618, Dubois, WY 82513; (307) 455-2084, http://www.wyomingdra.com.

— Marcy Barack