Almost every week I think I get asked, “How did you end up becoming a dude rancher?” I get this from not only our guests, but also from a lot of people I meet in town. Being a dude rancher isn’t exactly a normal job…and not one that I could have ever imagined would have been mine. A lot of people know that it all started when I was a guest, but here is the full story!
In June of 1992, my best friend and I were sitting on the beautiful, sunny, sandy beach of Destin, FL watching our children play in the ocean when she suggested that we DO something really exciting for vacation later that summer. Laughingly, I said, “I thought we WERE doing something exciting right now???” She laughed and started to tell me about a dude ranch vacation her sister and her family had taken the year before and how much fun they had all had. I thought it sounded like a something different and an adventure for us so we decided to check it out when we got back. With that one conversation, the seed had been planted.
Once we got back home to Knoxville, we did just that. I checked on flights in August and Sheila (the best friend) called the ranch her sister had visited…you guessed it, Cherokee Park Ranch. Our husbands requested the time off from their medical practice and within a couple of days, it was set! We had our first dude ranch vacation booked and Sheila’s sister and her family even joined us for their second year. The week before our children were to go back to school, we were all headed west to Cherokee Park Ranch. Little did I know how much this trip was going to change the entire course of my life.
We flew into the Denver International Airport and rented a 15 passenger van for our group of ten. My husband, Dickey, and I had four children and Sheila and her husband, Charlie, had two children. I knew as soon as we turned off the main highway, onto the dirt road that led to the ranch, this was definitely going to be a different vacation than we were used to. BUT, Sheila was right, this was also going to be an ‘exciting vacation’!
Fifteen miles of a dirt road and the most beautiful views on earth later, we pulled up to the lodge. Our children immediately jumped out of the van and headed towards the stocked trout pond. Within minutes of arriving, they had caught a rainbow trout. Of course, they didn’t have a clue what to do with it, but thankfully, a young man approached and told us that he would gut the fish and we could have it for dinner if we wanted. Incredible! Not only were our kids entertained, I didn’t have to worry with the fish they had caught. I might be a lot of things, but ‘fish fillet-er’ was not and still isn’t one of them.
We settled into our cabins (we were assigned to the Beaver cabin and our friends stayed in half of the Birdhouse) and prepared for our first seven-night stay at a dude ranch. The second night at the ranch was a cookout and hayride. As we were feasting on BBQ ribs, chicken, corn on the cob, baked beans, salad and cornbread, my husband commented that he had seen a ranch brochure and that some guests here paying over $1000 per person to stay for the week. I almost choked on my ribs…we were paying the same. (I must have forgotten to mention that piece of information.) From that point on, Dickey was determined to be as high maintenance as possible. No matter what he asked for, it was made available to him. Not only was he pleased, but he had fun (!!!) and he quickly fell in love with Cherokee Park Ranch.
Throughout the week our family got to experience the full gamut of the ranch: horseback riding, fishing, hiking, square dancing, skeet shooting, river rafting, among other activities. And we got to do all of it with our children! As most parents know, finding activities that both parents and children enjoy doing together can be quite a feat. Our kids got just plain dirty and loved every minute of it. On our departing Saturday, our children were crying and even as adults we had lumps in our throats. The vacation was just magical for us all. It had all been an incredible adventure…one that we had not expected to fall in love with so deeply.
Once we were loaded up and heading back to the airport, my husband looked at me and said that THIS was what he wanted to do and asked if I would help him. Again, I choked. Do what? Did he mean be a dude rancher? Are you kidding? I remember smiling and thinking THIS must be what is referred to as a mid-life crisis. My response was affirmative and supportive even though I really never dreamed in a million years that he was serious, but serious HE was!
When we got back home to Knoxville, he contacted a realtor who sold dude ranches and set up a time for me to fly out and look at some in Colorado and Wyoming. I followed through and in October of 1992, I flew out to visited 12 available ranches. None of these were right though, none stuck with me the way Cherokee Park Ranch had. When I got back, I thought that that would be the end of this crazy idea. But, as many of you already know, it was not the end. For the next four years, whenever a ranch came on the market, our realtor (Carolyn Callaway) would call and let Dickey know. Throughout this time frame, we continued to vacation at Cherokee Park Ranch and with each visit, I solidified that I too wanted to be a dude rancher.
In November 1995, I made another trip to look at a ranch that I thought might make the cut. Turns out, it wasn’t Cherokee Park Ranch but it was close, close enough to make an offer. To help in our negotiations, we called the then-owners of Cherokee Park Ranch to ask for some hard numbers on expenses. We had made three offers and just didn’t want to continue until we had some guidance and information from people who knew the business. When they found out how serious we were about buying a ranch, they told us to “buy our ranch”! Stunned with disbelief, we made them a verbal offer. They told us to put it in writing; we did and before Thanksgiving, it was a done deal. We were officially buying Cherokee Park Ranch.
The first person I called was my friend who started it all, Sheila. She had known about our crazy journey over the past 4 years, but neither of us thought it would actually happen. We were BOTH in shock! And on Christmas Day we told our children and family members…the shock continued. There was definitely a mixture of reactions from elation to sadness but in the end, everyone couldn’t wait for our family to start our dude ranch adventure.
Over the next few months, we sold our house, purchased 28 additional horses and packed up to start our next chapter as dude ranchers…well, one of us was going to be a dude rancher. When Dickey had told his partners that he had bought a ranch, they had him promise to stay in Knoxville until they replaced him (a process that unfortunately took 2 years and 9 months to happen). Thus, one woman and four children (ages 13, 11, 9 and 9), thirty-seven horses, three dogs, and four cats headed to Colorado.
We rented an old farmhouse that was located just over Goat Mountain from the ranch since there wasn’t a guest cabin that was big enough for all of us. We missed Dickey terribly and would all cry when we saw an Airport Express van in Ft. Collins, since that is what he came in on when he visited us on weekends. Those years without Dickey were difficult for us all. I learned how challenging it is to be a single parent and our children bonded over living an hour from civilization. We didn’t have cable and on many snowy Sunday afternoons after church, we would all snuggle up on the couch and watch Lonesome Dove to the point that we knew almost every line in the movie.
Becoming a dude rancher was a far cry from my life in Knoxville. I used to play tennis (at least) 3 times a week, attend Bible study (BSF International) and stay active in all of our children’s school and after school activities. But after 21 years of living and working at Cherokee Park Ranch, I would never go back to the old life. I thought that the ranch was intended for my husband. In reality, it was meant for me. He works full time at a couple of hospitals in Wyoming and our youngest son, Townsend, and his wife, Caree, help me run the ranch. Funny how life throws you a curve ball. I’m glad that I caught it!