Getting back to your roots and into a Colorado Dude Ranch adventure by Hilary Stunda

I was riding down the trail to the alpine lake, the warmth of the afternoon sun on my back, on Pancho, my horse for the week, and trusted partner. My thoughts quieted as we rhythmically swayed back and forth through the rustling of Aspen trees. The sky was a crisp blue; the leaves a verdant canopy.

My husband was beside me and two sons followed behind. Their horses were younger; a little friskier, which served them well—my kids enjoyed picking up the pace on occasion. By the end of our weeklong stay at the Colorado dude ranch they seemed to have changed. No longer just “city” kids, they had been touched by the invaluable experience one can only get with horses, campfires and midnight stargazing.

We rode out into the open and approached the lake’s shoreline. The sun sparkled on the pristine water surrounded on all sides by mountain views. A picnic awaited us as did Misty, one of the ranch wranglers.

The kids dismounted and immediately started skipping rocks. My husband and I sat on the multi-colored horse blanket spread out before us facing the sun to settle in for a glass of wine and some cheese and crackers. Misty tied up our horses.

This was our final day at the dude ranch and we were feeling a little sad about leaving in the morning. It had been one of the most memorable vacations, ever.

We spent our evenings listening to stories at the campfire, noshing on s’mores and later singing songs. Back at our cabin we played board games by the fire and hit the sack early after a full day of activities.

Active in nature

From the very first day, my boys never asked for their phones or whether they could check their emails. There was no television; no movie nights. They spent their days with wranglers and ranch staff who took them on adventures every day, from archery and scavenger hunts, to kayaking and fishing; and cookouts and hayrides.

Life was simple here and to tell the truth, better.

Our dude ranch was nestled in the Rocky Mountains. It was July, peak season for wildflowers. Columbine, Lupine and Indian Paintbrush covered the mountainsides. It was like stepping into Monet’s garden each time we walked outside.

My thirteen year-old son, Kyle, met an ex-rodeo champion who worked at the ranch. You couldn’t miss him. Grizzled and handsome, wearing his championship winning belt buckle from the National Finals Rodeo, it was Kyle who noticed the duct-tape on the tips of his cowboy boots.

“Can’t get rid of ‘em,” he said, when he caught my son looking at them. “My favorite pair,” he said with a smile.

From then on, the two had a special bond. His name was Wyatt and he taught Kyle how to ride and better yet, how to groom and take care of his horse. Each of my boys had their own horse for the week and it would be their horse each time we returned.

Now that my teen actually knew someone who had been on the rodeo circuit, he was interested.

Getting comfortable with ranch life

While the kids were off on their daily adventures, my husband and I had the days free to do what we pleased. It was the first time I felt confident sending the kids off for the day. I knew they were in good hands, having fun and making friends while learning something valuable about the outdoors.

One day while our kids went to an offsite rodeo, we went on a guided 10 mile hike, followed by a blissful hot tub soak and massage. The next day, my husband paired up with an expert fly fisherman, who led him to some of the best fishing holes in Colorado. I had the great privilege of zero responsibilities.

I read a book and rediscovered peace. Relaxing on the front porch rocker, I was joined by the resident hound, Freckles. He sat beside me, and I noticed grey on his otherwise black and white muzzle.

“You probably appreciate the peace and quiet too, don’t you old boy?” I asked. He nuzzled my hand in response.

Birds playfully chirped a melody from among the trees and the nearby stream provided the calming undertones of the song. Fresh air filled my lungs and tension was nowhere to be found. Freckles picked up on the mellow vibe too, setting himself into nap mode. We shared the moment, me reading my book, and Freckles dozing at my side.

Dinnertime became a family highlight; a time to share stories. The kids recounted their adventures and we laughed at some of the crazy things we did, like zip lining over a raging river. We were happy and ready to tell each other about our day. Used to being overly scheduled back home, with our days following a tightly packed ritual of after-school sports, dinner, homework, then bed, we relished having the time to just be, together.

“Remember the really tall cowboy we met when we first got here?” my nine year-old, August, asked.

He was referring to Wyatt, the one with the duct-taped cowboy boots.

“Well, he’s nice,” said August. “He taught me how to lasso.”

My husband and I gave each other a surprising glance, as my youngest son was usually very shy. But Wyatt was a softie, even if he looked like he stepped right out of a Clint Eastwood movie.

From the start, the kids were excited and happy. From collecting the chicken eggs from the chicken pen for the head Chef (who made them into a delicious frittata) to learning how to tie a clove hitch knot to keep a horse safely tied to a fence post.

That’s how it was for all of us at the dude ranch.

Being around people who love the outdoors has an effect on you.

Each day began with a big hearty breakfast and ended with a casual gathering around a campfire. Suddenly, the jobs and schools that defined us in our “other” life seemed to fall away. What mattered most here was how we were as people, together and apart.

Lasting connections

That last evening we made the rounds to say our farewells. The kids headed to the barn to visit their horses one last time; we sought out the friends we made, exchanged numbers and vowed to return the next year, during the same week.

Freckles walked me to our car after checkout. I crouched down and gave him a good rub behind the ears.

“Farewell for now, friend,” I said.

As we drove down the long dirt road leaving the dude ranch behind, I spotted Freckles in the rearview mirror sitting and watching us drive away—his version of farewell. My boys gazed quietly out their windows at the passing terrain—vistas of farms and ranches backed against Ponderosa Pine, Colorado Spruce and Aspen. We wound alongside the raging river where just a few days before we had rafted class 3 rapids.

We rode in silence for a while, just savoring the flavor of what we had just experienced and what was to come.

One week at a Colorado dude ranch had instilled in us a lifetime’s worth of what truly matters.

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