Friday, June 29, 2012

Devils Tower

“Hypothetical - what if the car breaks down on the way home?” my friend Katherine asks.
“Well, I guess we get abducted by aliens,” I reply. “And probed.”
We are standing at the foot of Devil’s Tower, a bizarre geological formation that looms above the Black Hills near the border of South Dakota, about a two-hour drive east of Paradise Ranch. We literally can’t take our eyes off the mountain - it’s almost like it has a magnetic pull, drawing us closer, sucking us into the vortex. Little wonder it’s considered a sacred site for Native Americans - like Uluru in Central Australia, it seems to have its own force field, a spirituality transcending its imposing physicality. 

Of course, the flat-topped creviced mountain, which stands 1267 feet above the surrounding terrain, is also famed as the landing site for extra-terrestrials in the 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a Hollywood fantasy that has only added to the mountain’s mystique. And it’s not hard to imagine a mother ship hovering above, pulling in hapless victims powerless against the greater forces of the universe...
We hum the five-note theme from the movie as we hike around the rock, a fairly easy two-kilometre walk that circumnavigates the base. Several people are clambering over the lower boulders, while two rock-climbers defy the Native American request not to climb the tower during the month of June when they are conducting sacred ceremonies at the site.

Hugely popular with rock climbers, the tower was first ascended in 1893; the wooden ladder from that ascent is still intact on one face of the rock. We peer through a rusty telescope, both amazed and a little appalled that anyone would even consider trying to get to the top. The crevices seem so deep, the face so sheer - I can’t help wonder what drives such madness, especially considering the traditional owners consider climbing a desecration of the site.

Sacred to the Cheyenne, Lakota Sioux and Kiowa tribes, there are several legends surrounding the monolith and its creation. Its name in Arapaho and Cheyenne is ‘Bear Tipi’ ... and it does indeed look like a tipi structure, ripped to shreds by the talons of a gigantic bear. 
According to the Sioux legend, seven little girls were playing in the forest when a bear began to chase them. To escape, the girls jumped on a rock and began to pray to the Great Spirit to save them. Hearing their prayers, the Spirit caused the rock to rise into the air, lifting them towards the heavens so the bear could not reach them. The crevices in the rock were created by the bear’s giant claws as it attempted to scale the rock. When the girls reached the top, they were turned into the star constellation the Pleiades.
The geological explanation of the monolith is less evocative, but equally shrouded in mystery. Some say it’s the remnant of a volcano; others that it’s a volcanic plug that formed 40 million years ago, protruding from the landscape as surrounding formations eroded around it. The rocks and boulders at the base of the mountain are actually broken pieces of hexagonal columns, fallen from the sides.
Declared America’s first National Monument in 1906, Devils Tower is a lure for hundreds of visitors a day. It certainly makes a fascinating day trip from the ranch, particularly for international visitors keen to see one of the world’s rare ‘oh my god, stop in your tracks’ sites. If you’re in this part of the world, don’t miss it.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Talents real and dubious...

I have no talent. Well, musical talent that is, or even any special party tricks that I can whip out at a moment’s notice. So I’m always in awe at people who can stand up and sing, play the guitar, bend their bodies backwards or even dance (as I have two left feet...) 

Quite frankly, Paradise Ranch’s weekly Talent Night never ceases to amaze me. I always find it staggering the depth of talent hidden amongst both guests and crew, as well as their confidence in performing in front of a crowd. I am particularly stunned by the gifts that some of my fellow crew members possess; it’s such a revelation to see them transform from drawling wrangler to musical virtuoso, from humble wait-staff to comedic genius, from fishing dude to chicken hypnotist ...

But it’s the kids who really throw me for six with their confidence and inspiring talent. Last night we were treated to some incredible performances, from 12-year-old Brooklyn singing the national anthem, to 7-year-old Oliver breakdancing to MC Hammer’s ‘Can’t Touch Me’. There were a couple of masterful piano renditions, beautiful singing and goofy skits; and then there was 7-year-old Sava playing the violin, the smallest, cutest maestro ever. True talent from a mini-genius.

Of course, the night always ends in mayhem with the Little Man sketch, where crew members get to pay out on their friends by slathering them in shaving cream, mud and breakfast cereal. Nothing like public humiliation to amuse a crowd!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Where there's smoke...

This morning I woke to a blood red sun and a haze of smoke over the ranch, Fan Rock shrouded in mist. It’s the fallout from two wildfires, one near Tensleep (40 miles down the road) and the other on the eastern fringe of Buffalo, near Ucross. Neither fires are currently a threat to the ranch, but it’s a reminder of how volatile and explosive this environment can be, especially when fuelled by 100 degree heat and 35 mile per hour winds.

Unfortunately, conditions are ripe for fire; it’s been a relatively dry spring, with a lower ice-pack than usual during winter. And with this heat so early in the season, everyone is a little nervous about a repeat of 1988, the year of the infamous ‘Lost Fire’ when the ranch was evacuated not once, but twice in a week...
The closest current fire, and the one causing all this smoke, is the blaze on the other side of the mountain at Tensleep, which is burning on a 300 acre front. Word is that the firefighters are back at base, however, so clearly it’s not a major concern ... unlike in Colorado Springs where the fire has erupted into “an apocalpyse” with 30,000 people evacuated...

Driving up from Denver yesterday - which was, incidentally, like a fan force oven even at 9am - we could clearly see the source of the fires, plumes of smoke hanging over the base of the Big Horns. Judging by that - though admittedly I'm no forest ranger - I'd say we're a long way from danger, despite the pungent smell of smoke in the air this morning.

Behind the smoke, however, it’s shaping up to be a beautiful morning at the ranch, a little cooler than yesterday and ideal for riding. So that’s what I plan to be doing, hitting the mesa on a steed that’s fiery rather than firey ... 

Sunday, June 24, 2012

See you in a few days...

Sorry guys, there's going to be a slight lull in the blogging proceedings ... I have to drive to Denver to swap my rental car (don't ask) and to pick up my Aussie friend, Katherine, who is coming up to the ranch to visit for a couple of days!

I'll leave you with a tranquil early-morning scene from Paradise Ranch ... I've discovered it's certainly worth getting up early in the morning, going for a walk to the mesa or to the hill behind the ranch. It's especially lovely when the horses are being rounded up, as they were during this shot, with the sun breaking out over Fan Rock.

Enjoy, and I'll be back online on Tuesday evening ...

Saturday, June 23, 2012


“I think I’ll go check the weather,” Clay says, one eye on the ominous, broody sky. “Don’t!” I tell him - for sure the weather forecast will be gloomy, and with the chuckwagon already packed, it’s best not to know.
Paradise Ranch’s weekly Chuckwagon Night is notorious for being cancelled due to bad weather. It was pulled at the 11th hour last week, and apparently last year they only got up the hill once. Summer storms are common in the Big Horn Mountains, and with the occasion held a couple of miles from shelter, it’s sometimes best to exercise caution, particularly with the risk of lightning strike.

But this time, we defy the weather, send the packed chuckwagon pulled by Jane and Judy the mules on its way, and head down to the barn for the ‘shuttle ride’ up the hill. Only to have it start raining. “Where’s your hat?” someone asks me. “I don’t wanna get my hat wet,” I say. “That’s what hats are for,” they reply. Stupid cowboy logic.
The thunder rumbles in the black sky above as 25 horses or so pick their way slowly up the hill. But by the time we reach the top, the storm is passing; and we round the corner where dinner will be served to weak rays of sunshine.
The pretty green and white chuckwagon, a picture of pioneer perfection in this wildflower-strewn meadow, is already serving hors d’euvres; and the campfire is roaring, waiting for the wagonwheel hot plate (which had somehow gone missing) to arrive. The horses are tethered under the trees to rest, while we grab beers and sit chatting around the fire.

The sky is clear and sun shining as we tuck into chicken, corn, beans and ribs, served up by the wranglers. Then local legend Charlie Cook recites a cowboy poem, guests hanging onto every hilarious word of a tale of dude ranch lust and various stages of undress. A former packer at the ranch, Charlie is the real deal, a vestige of the golden age of cowboying in the West, and it’s a privilege to hear his eloquent, expressive rendition.

To ferry all the guests and gear back down the hill is quite the epic; so unfortunately we have to head back around 8pm. I personally don’t want to leave - the evening light is so perfect, the setting so idyllic and the ambience so chilled. But as I ride down the hill, bringing up the rear with Kelly and Lane, I feel so blessed as I look out over the ranch, bathing in the final rays of sunshine under the shadow of the glistening Big Horns.

Such a beautiful evening, in such a beautiful place.

Friday, June 22, 2012

King's Saddlery and Museum

From its street frontage, King’s Saddlery in Sheridan looks like any other tack shop. But entering though its front door is like going through the looking glass into a western fantasy world, with everything imaginable to do with riding, ranching or roping on offer. From a full wall of bits, to hand-crafted saddles, bridles, and hats to western trinkets, gifts and jewellery, this is cowboy nirvana, the ultimate place to consume all thing horsey.
But that’s just the shop. Keep going through to the back, cross over the laneway, and you get to King’s Ropes, which has over 30,000 ropes in its inventory. Each rope - whether nylon, rawhide or trick - is stretched, sunned, twisted, and tied straight on the premises by roping specialists, with many imported all over the world.

                                        (Don King Museum)

But it’s the room to the left of the roping barn which had me absolutely gobsmacked. This is the Don King Museum, the most amazing collection of western memorabilia I’ve ever seen. The museum houses 40 years of the King family’s dedication to collecting cowboy and equestrian artifacts, from perfectly preserved wagons and coaches, to stuffed animals (the two-headed calf is a perennial favourite), to an incredible array of historic saddles, There are Mexican wooden saddles lined with silver and gold, saddles worn by famous people from history, an Arabian headdress and saddle cloth (draped enticingly over a stuffed bear!), and even John Wayne’s stuntman’s saddle. The collection is enormous, and probably priceless - and growing all the time as people donate gear to the museum.

                                           (Arabian headdress on a bear)

                                           (two headed calf)                            

Born in 1923, Don King began his saddle making and leather tooling career when he worked as a ranch hand, trading his wares for other cowboy necessities such as clothing. In 1946, he moved to Sheridan and opened his own saddle-making business, focusing on highly ornamental trophy saddles. He developed his own style of tooling, with his signature ‘wild rose’ tooling coming to be known as the ‘Sheridan style’. 

                                           (A Don King 'Sheridan style' saddle)
This tradition is continued in the museum today, with custom leatherworker and painter James Jackson on hand to demonstrate his skill. If you want to order one of his pieces, however, be prepared for a long wait - there’s at least a six month waiting list for the waiting list! Unless, of course, you are Queen Elizabeth II, Ronald Reagan or the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia - they have all been recipients of a King’s saddle.
For guests at Paradise Ranch, a visit to King’s Saddlery adds another dimension to their western vacation experience. This is the real deal, the best of the west - and a fascinating excursion to boot.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Ridin' and fishin'

The two most popular activities at Paradise Ranch are riding and fishing ... so why not combine the two? Yesterday I headed out on an all-day ‘fishing ride’, joining a family from Denver who wanted to combine a bit of adventure with the thrill of fly fishing in a new location.

It was a pretty gloomy morning as wrangler Quannah lead us up the ski slope on our horses onto Hunter Mesa, then back down through the forest to French Creek, bubbling through wildflower-strewn meadows at the base of Fan Rock. But the weather held throughout the day, sunshine intermittently breaking through swirling clouds to provide some relief from the bone chill. 
With the horses tethered to a line of aspen, fishing guides Zac and Sean took over, giving dad Brent tips on how to read the river for the best chance at catching fish. An avid fly-fisherman, Brent didn’t need a lot of instruction; though the fish weren’t really biting during the morning session, Brent landing just one brook trout to start the tally.

Now, I’m not much of a fisherwoman ... but I do appreciate the languid consistency of fly fishing and the focus required in the quest to get a nibble. I can literally watch the process all day, hypnotised by the perpetual motion of casting, with the occasional excitement of a catch. It certainly wasn’t a hard way to kill a few hours, despite not getting behind the actual fishing pole (next time ... I used the excuse of not having a fishing license in order to participate, but I do plan on learning how to do this...)
Meanwhile, kids Carter and Sloane were in explorer mode, climbing trees, scaling rocky bluffs and disappearing up the hill. Mum Claire also wasn’t so keen on fishing, just chilling in such a gorgeous wilderness. But after lunch the whole clan got involved, remounting the horses to head downstream, before trying their luck at the beaver pond below Fan Rock.

This time, the fish were co-operating, with the children (under Zac’s expert casting tuition) hauling in eight fish - five cutthroat and three brook trout - in an embarrassment of river riches. The kids were ecstatic with each landing, gently taking the hook out of the fish’s mouth, then patting it goodbye before releasing it back into the water. It’s heartening to witness respect for nature instilled in kids so young, a subtle yet effective lesson in sustainable environmental practices which will hopefully stay with them for a lifetime.

With such a successful end to the day, we headed back to the barn by 3.30pm, with all the talk focused around hitting the hot tub. Happy days...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Kids in Paradise

Happy kids, happy parents, they say ... and that certainly seems to be the case here at Paradise Ranch. With the children happily ensconsed in the kids’ club program - doing everything from fishing to riding, crafts to treasure hunts - parents can relax into their own routine, with the freedom to go on all-day rides or simply to chill out.

“I have no idea where my son is and I really don’t care,” one mother told me at lunch yesterday. Knowing your child is in safe hands, around other kids their own age and being entertained is a huge weight off parents’ minds, and its great to see the stress of everyday life and responsibility drop off over the course of a week.
I hung out with the children yesterday as they fished in the Paradise ponds, learning how to cast, watching intently as the fish nibbled at the bait, then squealing with delight as they reeled in a catch. Kids’ program staff Meg and Tink were on hand to help out, as well as patient fishing guides Zac and Sean who passed on style tips and advice.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Capturing the Wyoming spirit in bronze

On the mantle above the fireplace in French Creek Saloon is a beautiful little bronze called ‘Headed to Paradise’. Sculpted by local artist D. Michael Thomas, this intricate depiction of a cowboy riding his horse down a hill, carrying a guitar, is modelled on Paradise Ranch’s Thursday night entertainer, Jim Niner, who has cowboyed most of his life in these parts and is a well known picker and singer. 
Standing around 12 inches high, this piece is for sale for $2,500 - a bargain at twice the price, considering the sculptor is fast becoming one of the biggest names in Western art. 

                                ('Headed to Paradise, by D. Michael Thomas)

D Michael Thomas - Mike to his friends - is best known for his over-lifesized statue of singing rodeo star Chris LeDoux, located in a park in the town of Kaycee, about an hour south of Buffalo. A fantastic study of a buckjumper and rider in furious motion, this memorial to the departed local hero has really put Mike on the artistic map, giving him the celebrity status - in Wyoming at least - that he deserves.
Wyoming born and bred, with a lifetime of ranching experience, Mike lives on the far side of Buffalo, working and sculpting out of an amazing barn/studio that he built himself. I was privileged enough to visit him at work yesterday, with this humble, unassuming man taking the time to show me around, explain the processes of bronze casting and even take me through his gorgeous home, a veritable museum with precious pieces of western memorabilia and art, including works by his mother, an accomplished oil painter during the 1960s.

                                        (Mike in his studio)

Although he grew up in an artistic environment, Mike has had no formal art training. “When I was at college I had a buddy who was messing around with sculpture. I thought, gosh, I’d like to give that a try,” he says. “I learned it all the hard way. I don’t know if that’s the good way. But everyone says heck, you won’t want to go to art school, that will just screw you up.”
It wasn’t until 1993, however, that Mike took up sculpting full time. He was working at the Buffalo feed store at the time when he was offered his first big commission - a three-quarter sized statue of a cattle rustler, which now stands in a park opposite the bank on Main Street in Buffalo. 

                        (Mike's first major commission in Main Street, Buffalo)

“I had to quit my real job to do that,” he says. “That was kind of a spooky little jump to leave the day job. I thought if this doesn’t work I can always go and find another one. And knock on wood, I haven’t looked back.”
The Buffalo public sculpture not only gave Mike the incentive to follow his dream, but also provided him with a comfortable income for the first time. “Sheesh, I made more in that one sculpture than I would have in three years working in the feed store,” he laughs. “I figured I had three years to get my act together. I wasn’t in any galleries, no one knew me, so I started going to art shows. Then galleries contacted me and started to put stuff in there, and then they started selling. Every day was Christmas, almost. When times were good, it was amazing!”
Mike now commands up to six figures for his life-sized statues, which can take up to four years to complete. That’s working every day, often up to 10 hours a day - whatever is required. On some pieces, he needs to walk away from it to figure out what needs changing; or sometimes simply get out and gain inspiration from what’s around him.
“I have used my own horses as models, when I get stuck on a certain part of the anatomy,” he says. “ Lot of times the stifle joint baffles me sometimes, how that goes forward or back. So I get them out there in a round pen and get them galloping or whatever position I’m in, just to see that muscle group and how it reacts and how bulbous it gets, or how many lines come through it because it’s so stretched out. I do that quite often.”

A master of realism, Mike’s biggest influence is life on the land - the people and animals that he has spent a lifetime studying. “I guess you sculpt what you know,” he tells me. “If I went out to sculpt a whale or something, I wouldn’t have any interest and it would look pretty bad. But I’m interested in our history, interested in the ranching community myself, because that’s how I was raised.”
“When you know that subject you don’t need a tremendous amount of reference material. You can kind of picture it in your mind how that horse should be, how that human would be riding that horse. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing - because it’s what I’m familiar with.”
Historical subjects, on the other hand, require an intense amount of research to ensure accuracy. For instance, the Cavalry used to change tack every two years - so if Mike is sculpting a horse during the 1874 Battle of Little Big Horn, he has to make sure the tack is correct, down to the shape of the buckles. “If you’re doing something historical, you have to have your stuff together or you’ll get called out.”

                              ('When the Dust Settles' by D. Michael Thomas)
Mike’s latest project is a study of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He’s still perfecting the small sculpture, with the aim to eventually make a lifesized version which will be placed outside Buffalo courthouse. “They’ll be facing the courthouse, trying to figure out how to rob it,” he says. But it’s still a work in progress - Mike is still not happy with Butch’s facial expressions, and eventually wants to make him look like he’s talking out of the side of his mouth.

                                      (Unfinished study of Butch and Sundance)
The devil, of course, is in the detail - and Mike’s eye for subtle movements and facial expressions is what make his pieces so outstanding. The way the wind catches the tail of the horse, the posture of the rider in the saddle - you can almost see the dirt on the cowboy’s jacket, the sweat on his brow. Each and every piece is a master study of Wyoming culture - from a man who knows it so intimately, and captures every nuance of life on the land. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Hidden Treasures

In a landscape abounding with jaw-dropping vistas, it still takes me by surprise to discover a hidden gem, another postcard view that wrenches out my heart and squeezes it till it pops. Yesterday, on a perfect spring afternoon, wrangler Leah, office gal Casey and I went on a short drive to a nearby lake, on the recommendation of foreman and all-round local info guy, Dylan. 

Tie Hack Reservoir is located just down the road from Paradise, literally about a five mile drive along Highway 16. Turn left and onto a gravel road, drive inland for about a mile past a campground, and there's a beautiful lake and dam, flanked by pine-clad slopes, with the tiara of the Big Horns in the distance.

It was great to see so many people out enjoying this site on a sunny Sunday - families soaking up the sun in deckchairs on the dam wall, kids fly fishing off the green banks, and a lone fisherman in a rubber dinghy in the middle of the lake. No motorised boats are allowed on the lake - just as well, as it's such a tranquil spot, with just the lapping of the water and the wind in the pines as accompaniment.

On the far side of the lake, the icy waters were pouring over the dam wall, creating a man-made waterfall. We walked down the rocky path to feel the water spray, charged with invigorating ions; then back up and over a metal bridge where the waters rush beneath.

So close to Paradise Ranch and an easy drive, I'm planning a return trip at sunset, armed with a bottle of chilled white wine, soft cheese and crackers. The perfect summer picnic spot!

                                                                   (me and my gal pals!)

Sunday, June 17, 2012


Well, the first official ‘dude’ week has come to an end, with a fitting climax of the kids’ rodeo, followed by an evening square dance. Hugs and tears all round this morning as families say goodbye and promise to be back next year.

                           (both horses and riders were decorated for the occasion)

The Paradise Rodeo was just hilarious, and as cute as can be as kids aged from three to 17 showed off their newfound skills around the barrels and bending poles, with stupid antics from resident clowns Billy and Lane (complete with terrifying makeup, courtesy or Tink) keeping the parent spectators amused. 

                                    (big horse, little girl)

Billy made quite the entrance on his mule, being bucked off before he even came through the gate; but tough guy that he is, he dusted himself off and held his own in a dance-off with Lane.

                                          (Billy versus Lane)

                                         (Is that the Joker?)

The wranglers also put on quite the show, with Travis and Kyle competing half-naked in a Stampede race (where they have to get out of their sleeping bags, saddle their horses and race wearing only boots, hat and underwear); and the girls showing how it’s done by thrashing the boys in the three-lap arena race. Sarah had us all on the edge of our seat as her crazy horse Chevy nearly deposited her over the fence; but then she redeemed herself on the ski slope race, a photo finish with Quanna, riding bareback. Holly, however, is still somewhere out in the woods ... 

                                 (wranglers have a need for speed)

And then of course there was the obligatory ‘troughing’ of the teenage boys (and some female staff members) ... a gentle reminder that, in the cowboy world, you need to be able to take as good as you give...

(poor Kara!)

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Every Friday evening, and daily during the summer months, the horses at Paradise Ranch are released into the pasture to graze overnight. After a couple of weeks confined in the corral, last night was their first foray into freedom ... and as these pics show, they were busting to get out!