Cowboy Sean McGough stoked the flames as smoke filled our nostrils and made our eyes tear. The branding iron turned a bright red, and we prepared for the smell of burning cowhide.
What we got was burning rubber.
McGough wrestled a pair of Teva sandals to the ground and seared the sole with the letters "GV."
"Hey, would you brand my cowboy hat?" requested a college girl from Pennsylvania.
"You couldn't make it any worse," joked a California winemaker as he eyed the pink straw Stetson.
"What are you talking about? This hat's from Texas," she shot back.
"That's the problem right there," quipped the cowboy -- apparently Wyomingites don't take kindly to Texans -- while fielding the boots, denim jackets and even pieces of wood we tossed at him for branding.
We all wanted to take home a piece of Jackson Hole's Gros Ventre River Ranch, where even the branding ritual is a bit, well, unorthodox.
In an era when dude ranches have become cliches -- mostly thanks to movies such as "City Slickers" -- this 160-acre spread with soaring views of snowcapped mountains defied our expectations. Instead of a working cattle ranch, we got tens of thousands of acres of public parkland. Instead of faux cowboy food, we got gourmet meals. And instead of a bunkhouse, we got cozy log cabins with heater blankets, front porches and rocking chairs.
Surrounded by national park
Our arrival was celebrated by a herd of bison that had stopped traffic while about 50 of the hairy beasts moseyed across the road.
Next, we passed the National Elk Refuge, home to about 5,000 wintering elk -- there wasn't a beef cow in sight -- not exactly what we had envisioned for a dude ranch. Equally confusing was the sign welcoming us into the Grand Teton National Park. Were we going the wrong way?
Turns out the Gros Ventre River Ranch (pronounced "grow vont" -- it's what the French trappers called the American Indians in this part of Wyoming and means "big belly") is one of the original homesteads in the area. It's situated in the Yellowstone-Grand Teton region, meaning the ranch is surrounded by hundreds of miles of national park, national forest and an animal preserve to be explored on horseback and on foot. Although we did get the opportunity to round up a dozen or so dogies -- that would be calves, for you city folk -- we spent most of our time exploring verdant hills of wildflowers, crossing river rapids and looking for wildlife from the backs of fine steeds.
On our first full day at the ranch, all 36 guests -- including families from across the country, many that come back every year -- were introduced to their horses, which we kept for the duration of our stay. The sign of a quality dude ranch is that there are plenty of horses to go around. At Gros Ventre, not only did we get our own horses (mine was Felt, a big, dark gelding), but we also got our own saddles, which were custom-fitted for stirrup lengths by one of the ranch's five wranglers.
Horses were chosen based on our riding levels. Caitlin Morgan, the college student from Pennsylvania, was an experienced equestrian and wanted a horse with spunk. She got one. Occasionally, her part Percheron would put on a little rodeo show, bucking as if it had a burr in, um, a bad place. Luckily, Felt never gave me any guff -- mostly because of his temperament rather than my riding skills.
It was impressive that the horses weren't those nose-to-tail types that you often find at operations geared toward beginning trail riders. But Gros Ventre had plenty of gentle horses for the inexperienced.
"No dinks here," said McGough, who manages the ranch with his wife, Tori. Apparently in cowboy lingo a dink is a nag or is somewhat unreliable. But McGough wouldn't elaborate. He is a man of few words, except when he's ragging on Texans.
That night, Lloyd Dorsey, a conservationist, led a discussion about the sometimes contentious history of Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. He talked about bears, elk and wolves, reintroduced to the area in 1995. The presentation had us hoping we'd see a bear, elk (wrong season, we were there in July) or wolf during our stay, but we never did. We did see two moose, an antelope and a few coyotes.
The wranglers do their best to take you to the top wildlife spots. They are also pros at answering silly questions.
"My favorite: 'When does a deer become an elk?' " said wrangler Joe Ferguson, a Northern California cowboy who works summers at Gros Ventre. "My other favorite: 'How much does that mountain weigh?' "
Although riding is the focus, activities such as fly-fishing, inner tubing in the Gros Ventre River, hiking and mountain biking also are available. There are horseshoe pits, a swing set and a game room. The ranch provides tickets to the rodeo in nearby Jackson during the summer.
Eating seemed to take up a good portion of our time. I fully expected to be served by a couple of cowhands slinging hash in a makeshift kitchen. Wrong. Executive chef Danna Ates and his sous, Immanuel Pausanos, dished up everything from blintzes and eggs Benedict to wild boar sausage and caprese salad. Pastry chef Nathan Williams whipped up an array of sweet and savory breads every day.
After one of the ranch's sumptuous dinners, we'd amble back to our log cabin. On every porch, a bootjack awaited for the ritual: prying off those dusty Tony Lamas, kicking back in a rocker and watching the sun set over the Grand Tetons.
The cabins, decked out in cowboy chic with overstuffed couches, had just the right amount of luxury. For large groups, there are lodges with picture windows, laundry rooms, kitchenettes and fireplaces.
But there is so much to do that we hardly spent any time in our room. Before bedtime one night, a cowboy singer serenaded us. On another night a cookout was held near the cabins, and McGough demonstrated the Western tradition of branding.
But even without the fire pit or red-hot steel, the place had left its brand on me.