You probably wouldn’t take me for a barrel racer, and surely not for a blue ribbon-winning, rodeo barrel racer. But I am, and no one can take that away from me.
Many years ago, my parents took my brothers and me to a dude ranch in Montana. It was almost universally commended as our best-ever family vacation. As my mother’s 70th birthday approached, she hoped to re-create that magic as a present to herself. But 30 years later, this trip would include spouses and a new generation, her grandchildren.
All told, 17 of us from three generations converged on the Tumbling River Ranch, just up a dirt road from the tiny burg of Grant, Colo. That’s two grandparents, three sons, three spouses and nine grandchildren, ranging in age from 4 to 72.
We arrived for our weeklong stay on Sunday afternoon and were met by Megan Dugan, who owns the ranch with her husband, Scott. As Megan showed us around, she told us that she’d grown up on the ranch, which her parents purchased in 1975. In their teens, Scott and Megan were both on summer staff. They re-met, married and eventually bought the ranch when her parents retired. Now they’re raising their own three kids there.
The Dugan family, and their home at the center of the ranch, brought a family feel to the whole experience, as did something we heard at orientation that night. The ranch was full to capacity on our week, with six families totaling 49 guests. Of those six families, three were making return visits to Tumbling River, two of them on their fourth visit. Clearly, Tumbling River engenders some serious loyalty.
At orientation, the entire staff of wranglers, cooks, servers, kids’ counselors and housekeepers sat up front, dressed in their cowboy duds, explaining the ins and outs of the week. Turned out that the stellar staff — most of them college kids on a summer job — became one of the most memorable elements of Tumbling River; our kids are still talking about them.
Hoping for a love connection
On Monday morning, we gathered in the rodeo arena to meet our horses, a nerve-racking experience. Weeks before the trip, we’d sent in forms declaring our height, weight and riding experience, and the wranglers had matched us up with horses. Scott said, “We’re hoping for a love connection between you and your horse.”
Standing there, in a group of humans dwarfed by a group of horses, I thought one thing: Wow, these horses are big. And muscular.
I hoisted myself aboard Hoosier, a feisty horse in his teens. My steed likes to kick other horses, I was told, so I’d be riding in the back on the trails. When I asked why, a wrangler told me that Hoosier was at the bottom of the social ladder in the corral and was often bullied by other horses, so on the trail he liked to exert himself with an occasional swift kick to another horse’s face.
The different personalities of the horses quickly became apparent, and it was something that my family and I didn’t take for granted. Paco, my wife’s horse, was what you might call “noncompliant.” Shaq, my dad’s horse for the week, was a massive, 1,700-pound beast. Beaver, ridden by 8-year-old Evie, was sweet and gentle and long in the tooth, as they say.
We received an hour of instruction in the arena, then set out on our first trail ride.
The aptly named Tumbling River Ranch is nestled along a creek with foothills rising along both sides. Within an hour’s ride in either direction from the ranch, you are awash in the majesty of Colorado’s Eastern Slope. “Fourteeners” — mountain peaks over 14,000 feet — are still capped with snow in August, and several were visible on the rides. On any given ride, the wranglers lead the group through a tamarack forest, up a steep switchback trail and out onto a massive plateau called “Cowboy Flats,” where the horses get to lope.
Not everyone rode every day. In fact, there’s no pressure at all to ride daily. The ranch also offers a swimming pool, daily hikes, white-water rafting, fly fishing lessons, trap shooting and a fully stocked trout pond, the kids’ favorite. Virtually every cast brought in a fish for even the least experienced angler. The staff took our trout, smoked them and served them to us for breakfast a couple of days later.
In the evening, there was entertainment. One night, a cowboy singer serenaded us during a cookout. On another, a square dance caller had us kicking up our heels. Two nights during the week, the Dugans host an adults-only dinner while the kids have pizza and a massive game of Capture the Flag with the staff.
Eating, and riding
The food was spectacular, a hearty mix of steak, fajitas, chicken, roasted vegetables and homemade bread with every meal.
Many meals were prepared for us in the Pueblo House, which our extended family had to ourselves because of the size of our group. Built by the Coors family of beer fame in the 1920s, the Pueblo has great charm and personality, including a fireplace in every bedroom, and — rumor has it — a resident ghost, Charlie, former butler to the Coors family.
Amid the historic accommodations and host of activity options, horseback riding is the star of the show. Midweek, we took an overnight ride — totaling more than six hours in the saddle — to reach an abandoned mining town above the timberline, where the kids explored what looked like a moonscape. We spent the night under the stars in lean-tos — and were especially thankful for the hot tub upon our return the next morning.
The climax of the week came on Saturday afternoon: a rodeo.
With more than a little sibling rivalry in the air, my brothers and I mounted our horses for the keyhole race, the flag race and the barrel race — all timed races meant to test our ability to control our horses and ride quickly. The kids had their own versions of the same races, and the event culminated with a relay race among the wranglers, reminding us that we are just rank amateurs.
That night, the last of our stay, the staff gathered again, just as they had on our first night. This time, they serenaded us with songs both funny and sweet. More than one of our children cried at the thought of parting with their horses and their favorite wrangler.
Then it was time to reward the rodeo winners. When they announced me as the winner of the barrel race and handed me my blue ribbon, I acted like it was no big deal. But to this 45-year-old city slicker, it was a bit more awesome than I was willing to admit.
Tony Jones is a theologian and writer. He lives in Edina. You can find him at tonyj.net.