"True Grit" CondeNast Traveler visits Zapata Ranch, Colorado and The Hideout, Wyoming
by Susan Hack | Published April 2011
Susan Hack explores the New West's nexus of ranching, conservation, and tourism.
Zapata Ranch, Colorado
You may not run into Rooster Cogburn, but there are valleys out west where the tough old ways of the range live on. Susan Hack checks into three cutting-edge ranches where dude is a dirty word and you will work (hard) for your supper.
I'm riding a sure-footed black and gray Appaloosa named Chip through an obstacle course of greasewood brush, rabbit holes, and hummocks of saddle-high yellow grass. Somewhere on this high desert range, which stretches toward sand dunes at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a herd of 2,500 bison are roaming. Bison once numbered in the tens of millions, and before the Civil War the great herds were easy to spot, kicking up dust clouds that could be seen for miles. These Colorado remnants tend to split up into subgroups, and locating them is a bit like trying to find a needle in, well, a haystack. My companion, Zapata Ranch hand Dan Lorenz, suspects we can find part of the herd grazing beside a small marsh fed by snowmelt. Listening to the sound of coyote pups yipping, we stand in our stirrups to scan the horizon.
I've seen bison before—from a car in Yellowstone National Park. But instead of feeling blasé, I'm surprised when my first glimpse of eighty cows and their shaggy yearling calves, a dark line moving on the edge of a slender spider flower meadow, makes my hands shake and my heart catch in my throat. The skies darken, and they (and we) are startled by a sudden spectacle of lightning and rain sheets alternating between towering black clouds. The skittish herd stampedes in a rumbling crescendo whose vibrations I actually feel passing from the earth through Chip's body up into my bones.
Bison were reintroduced to this historic range in the 1990s at Zapata Ranch—founded in the 1860s and owned now by the nonprofit Nature Conservancy—where I am a guest. I'm here not just to indulge my inner cowboy but to test a principle: that ranching and conservation need not be mutually exclusive. At Zapata, for example, the Nature Conservancy has won conservation easements on 103,000 acres of private ranchland to prevent subdivision and the extraction of water and minerals for industry. A third-generation Colorado rancher manages beef cattle on the fenced-off southern half of Zapata's acreage. The bison roam wild on the other 50,000 acres, except for about a month starting in late October, when they are rounded up, and two-year-old bulls and non-pregnant cows are culled for their low-fat, grass-fed gourmet meat. In this exchange, the bison pay for Zapata to divert land to wildlife. As in the distant past, the bison sustain the prairie symbiotically, aerating the soil with their hooves, fertilizing grasses with their manure, and grazing a wider range of plants than cattle, creating a healthy range that supports thousands of native animal, bird, and insect species. Zapata's paying guests, like me, further fund the project. We get to help herd cattle (and eat meals of wine-marinated bison T-bone). But the big draw is riding horseback in the northern sector, which has reverted to the equivalent of an American Serengeti.
Following the brief storm, sunshine prevails and the bison settle. Dan explains that bison are faster and more agile than horses, but they are also curious. Spying us, they stop to sniff the wind, then whirl and flee, only to change their minds and run back toward us.
That evening, before the cook rings the dinner bell, I step outside Zapata's original chinked-log bunkhouse into the very same cottonwood clearing where the soldier-explorer Zebulon Pike camped in 1807 during his mission to map the western boundary between the Spanish territories and the Louisiana Purchase. (Captured by the Spanish, Pike never climbed the Colorado peak named after him.) At sunset a red-tailed hawk wheels over two grazing mule deer, and I can hear the stock horses neighing to one another in the pasture that is their refuge after each hard day's work. These sights and sounds of the West I absorb with pleasure and melancholy. After the Civil War, the U.S. government encouraged an all-out slaughter of bison to open up more than a half-million square miles of prairie for cattle grazing and to force nomadic tribes that relied on bison-hunting onto reservations. By 1883, bison had become so scarce that when Theodore Roosevelt went to the Dakota Badlands to hunt a trophy bull, trackers couldn't find one for him to shoot. Roosevelt, who managed to be both a conservationist ("forever wild" was his idea) and a big-game hunter, spearheaded a program to capture and breed eighty-eight of the last remaining bison, and the population came back from the brink. But apart from the several thousand roaming Yellowstone, the vast majority of the nation's more than 400,000 bison today are raised for meat.
A bit of History
As early as the 1880s, cycles of cattle booms and busts forced ranching families to take in paying guests to help sustain a classically American way of life. It's still easy to find visitors eager to ride horses for a week, or young people who want to work on a ranch for a season. But real cowboys, bred to the life and committed for the long haul, are an endangered species. Along the road from the airport in Cody, Wyoming, to Dirty Annie's, a bison burger joint in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains, I notice more than one Cowboy Realty sign advertising ranch for sale. It's a no-brainer. Conditions can be terrible, especially in winter; the work is dangerous; and the pay stinks.
The Hideout, Wyoming
As a guest with the option of putting her boots up, I'm tempted to forget the economic and physical hardships of cowboy life at my last stop, the Flitner's Hideout Ranch, in the painted hills near the tiny town of Shell, Wyoming (population 50). In 1906 Arthur Flitner came from Oklahoma and purchased 160 acres with a $3,200 investment. Over the decades Arthur's entrepreneurial grandson, David Flitner, now seventy-seven, has bought up neighbors' failed ranches to build a 300,000-acre empire encompassing Angus and Aberdeen cattle; a quarter horse breeding program; crops of corn, pinto beans, and alfalfa; luxury vacation homes; a supper club in a lodge once visited by Theodore Roosevelt; and the Hideout, the guest ranch where I'm staying.
The Hideout has the most diversified program of the ranches I've visited, offering twenty-five guests the chance to work, fly-fish, hunt elk, or go on guided rides in a Big Horn landscape of mountains, flowing creeks, and red rock chimneys. Wooden guest chalets, a huge stable, the dining hall, and perfectly groomed lawns make me think of a cowboy country club; indeed, a Culinary Institute-trained chef prepares all meals.
At cocktail hour a wrangler carrying a clipboard asks what I'd like to do the next day. Chop trail? Push cows and calves? Try cowboy mounted shooting? Riding a mare named Easy Money and coached by local champion Dave Kain, a retired cowboy with a handlebar mustache who says he makes a better income working in Cody as a mechanic, I discover a hidden talent for blasting balloons from horseback with pepper-loaded revolvers, a sport harking back to the days when ranch hands rode into the nearby town of Greybull on their days off, got drunk, and shot up the street lamps. Whatever my choices, I never miss out because staff relentlessly photograph all activities for the pre-dinner slide show, in which we each star, some dressed for the part (the gift shop sells cowboy hats and chaps), in these western days of our lives.
Despite the cruise ship management style, there is a lot of hard work to be done. And it never ends. Laid up with broken bones from a calf-roping accident, Stewart Reed, the head wrangler, summons enough true grit to recite poetry to the guests from his wheelchair.
I sign up to move cattle to fresh mountain pasture below Copman's Tomb, a five-thousand-foot-high limestone massif. Six guests, three ranch staff, and our horses trailer up the mountain to a grass-covered plateau. After getting instructions to sweep anything on four hooves toward a gate on a distant ridge, we separate to look for cattle resting in the shade among lodge pole pines. I find twelve cows and their calves all by my lonesome and, with the help of my chestnut mare Slim's cow sense, manage to get them walking, not running, toward the fence line.
When we arrive there, the gate is already open. On the other side, a cowboy I don't recognize is looking at me quizzically. "You from Flitner's place? Flitner's cattle are the ones with white ear tags. Those are my cattle, and I just put them in that pasture you came from."
I'm mortified. Apparently, I wasn't listening during the ear-tag part of the briefing. The animals I've so proudly gathered have red ear tags, and now they're hoofing down the opposite side of the ridge. Not only have I undone this man's labor, I've made his cattle burn untold steaks' worth of calories. All this time I've been thinking how the glory of the New West lies in its attentiveness—to people, animals, and the planet. But in the big picture, I'm still a dude.
A Working Ranch versus a Guest/Dude Ranch
A working ranch is not like a guest/dude ranch. Rather than riding for pleasure, expect to make yourself useful. Chores may include maintaining ditches and irrigation systems, hauling stuff in a pickup, and mending fences.
Prep tips: Bring along a GPS and a tire repair kit for drives in remote country; buy and wear Wrangler jeans with seams on the outer leg and padded bicycle shorts with tights underneath to prevent soreness and chafing.
Prices quoted are per person, including meals and riding, and are for April 2011.
Zapata Ranch, in Colorado, offers the chance to do the annual October bison roundup to advanced horseback riders who have been to the ranch before. Bison are faster than cattle, and riders must be comfortable galloping in relays over wide arcs on uneven ground to herd them into corrals, where they are monitored and sorted for culling. Between March and November, the ranch has "working weeks" with grass-fed cattle and bison, horsemanship clinics, and educational day rides in the bison pasture and in Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Accommodations are in a restored 19th-century wooden bunkhouse or in the 1970s-era house of this Nature Conservancy property's last private owners. Excellent meals include slow-simmered bison (888-592-7282; $985 for three nights).
The Hideout, the lodging operation at Wyoming's highly diversified Flitner Ranch, is one of the few ranches open year-round. Guests can round up cattle, go out on small-group scenic rides, and pack into the mountains for overnight stays in cabins. There are also some rodeo sports such as cowboy mounted shooting, but guests cannot rope livestock because of liability issues. The ranch prides itself on its quarter horse-breeding program and matches high-quality mounts with riders of all levels (800-354-8637; $1,385-$1,795 for four nights).
Please also visit www.zranch.org for more information regarding Zapata Ranch
Or visit www.thehideout.com for more information on The Hideout.