Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Day the Lights Went Out ...

A power outage can be a pain in the ass for anyone trying to conduct a business ... but when it happens first thing in the morning at a ranch with a full slate of 70 guests, then it’s high drama. 
Something happened around 4.30am to cut the power; but no one seemed to know what. Changing the fuses didn’t work - it was clearly something more major. So while Clay headed to the mesa to get phone reception (since all the phones here are run off the internet, and therefore weren't working either) to call the power company, the kitchen and maintenance staff went into emergency overdrive, hauling out Ed and Jean’s generator to power essential electrical items in the kitchen.

                                  (Ed jumping into action with a smile)

What they managed to pull off was next to miraculous - a full buffet breakfast, hot coffee and that evening’s brisket underway in the oven, all by 7am. Guests were none the wiser to the enormity of the feat, but I guess that’s the sign of a seamless operation. 
Meanwhile, a delivery of refrigerated food was en route from town; so arrangements had to be made to stall that, with the kitchen cool rooms already heating up to a potentially hazardous temperature. 
Of course, other operations around the ranch were also affected - I couldn’t print out my photos, or charge my computer - but these were minor problems compared to keeping a kitchen functioning.
And of course, no power here means no water (which is driven by electrical pumps) ... but at least everyone smelled bad, not just me! And just in case, housekeeping delivered bottled water to each cabin, both for drinking and in the event that the toilets stopped flushing ... eek!
It was eventually determined that the problem was a broken transformer ... situated under Clay and Leah’s front porch. Not an easy fix. So a temporary line (sorry if that’s not the technical term, what would I know?) was installed in a trench dug by Dylan and his baby excavator, bringing power back by around 10.40am.

                                     (Dylan to the rescue!)

Crises do tend to bring out the best in people; and I heard nothing but praise for the chefs, waitstaff, housekeeping and the maintenance guys in pulling together and coping with a ridiculous, high-stress situation. Gotta hand it to these folk for their hard work, humour and improvisation under incredible duress.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Ghosts of Paradise

I was sitting with Hawaiian guest Kawena on the dining room porch this morning, shooting the breeze about life, the universe and finding healing at Paradise Ranch. Although we come from different cultures, we both recognise that this place exudes an energy; whether it’s the land itself, the people it attracts or the combination of both, very few pass under the FUN timber archway without being affected in some way.
It’s also no surprise to me that this place is crawling with ghosts. Or so they say. If souls do indeed continue to exist on another plane after death, then this is as good a place as any to spend eternity. Attachments to land and places clearly run deep, even beyond to the other side...
Of course, anywhere with as long a history and as complex a human drama as Paradise is bound to have stories attached, of tragedies and death, and of past residents who choose to linger in their paradise. The isolated mountain location is also incredibly evocative; some crew members jokingly compare it to The Shining, particularly during winter when all the guests have gone, the only access is by snowmobile and it’s lonely and quiet...
And of course, there ARE stories. Many believe the front cabin Silver Dollar - one of the ranch’s original structures - is haunted; one of our housekeepers Kate swears she saw a ghostly male figure passing through the kitchen area just a few weeks ago. There is also the tragic tale of the hunting guide who shot himself in the head in another cabin, leaving a pool of blood and his sideburns plastered to the log walls...
There is also a long Indian history associated with the ranch, which may or may not be relevant to its high energy levels. The Crow nation used to pow wow on the land as recently as the 1950s; and there is speculation that tribes passed through here on the way back from the Battle of Little Big Horn, finding refuge for the women and children behind Fan Rock.
Whether the stories have any foundation or not, the fact remains that Paradise Ranch is a ghostbusters dream. And when this week’s 20-something-year-old guests from Indiana - Casey, Christina and John Michael - found out I had a background in paranormal research from my television series and three spooky-la-la books, they asked me to join them in a ghost hunt in the saloon, allegedly the most haunted place on the ranch.
According to previous ghostbusters, French Creek Saloon - built in 1927 and one of the oldest buildings on the ranch - has more than one presence; said to be benign, but nonetheless very active. Many a bartender has complained that the place is creepy, particularly upstairs where the infamous ‘blue lady’ is said to dwell. Of course, she was said to be a prostitute ... or maybe just a horny crew member, who resided there when it was actual living quarters. That certainly wouldn’t surprise me...
Anyhoo, the four of us - plus sous chef Tim, adding a touch of cynicism and his signature ‘tourettes’ cussing - met inside the saloon after midnight, after the bar had closed following an extremely lively Saturday night session. Unfortunately, the bar lights and electrical equipment stays on all the time; so it wasn’t pitch black or as quiet as I’d prefer for a genuine ghost hunt.

      (upstairs in the saloon, with what appears to be a big fat orb hovering above the chairs)
The kids came armed with their mobile phones, downloaded with an app which provides all the necessary ghost hunting tools; an EMF meter (measuring electronic fluctuations), thermometer, a ‘ghost radar’ and even a type of EVP (said to detect subliminal voice messages). I’m a little sceptical of how all this technology works, or if it’s just a crock of paranormal wizardry - but either way, it gave us some means of detecting a presence or otherwise. I also went and grabbed my camera, to see if any anomalies appeared in a photo.
According to our equipment, the most active place was not upstairs, where we began the ‘hunt’, but downstairs in the saloon itself, where what appeared to be an restless presence was moving from the lounge to the piano and over to the jukebox (which many people think is haunted, as it spontaneously begins to play music at opportune -or inopportune - moments...) 

                                                (the haunted jukebox)
                            (Casey and John Michael examining their ghost-busting phones)

Christina even had one intense moment when she was inexplicably overcome with sadness, following by frantic beeping on the radar and a voice message, ‘hate’. All spine-shivering stuff for open minds...
After nearly two hours of chasing spirits, however, I needed to hit the sack, so we called it a night, with our conclusions being ‘inconclusive’. Always a good fallback for a ghost buster, and one which gives us an excuse to try again another night...

Friday, July 27, 2012

Healing Hands

After three days off and not a whole lot of stress, I really didn’t need a massage - but it’s a tough job, and someone had to do it! All for the sake of the blog, of course ... the sacrifices I have to make ...
The talents of Paradise Ranch’s resident massage therapist Leishaan Crane are held in high esteem around here, with multiple guests and even ranch owner Leah Miller raving about her magic, healing hands. But as Leah says, it’s not until you experience it for yourself that you can appreciate just how good Leishaan is, and how relaxed you’ll feel after a session with her.
Leishaan - who incidentally was a wildfire fighter in a former life, a ying/yang career path if ever there was one! - is Buffalo based, but works out of a little room in the fishing cabin at Paradise on Wednesdays and Thursdays. It’s certainly a unique set-up ... you enter through the harness tack room, pungent with the smell of horse sweat and leather ... but beyond the door, it’s all scented oils and ambient music. It’s cosy, quiet and womblike - but also very much in keeping with the rustic location ... with the accompaniment of neighing horses and braying mules in case you forget where you are.

After a six hour drive the day before, I had knots in my neck and butt I wasn’t really aware of. Leishaan is one of those instinctive masseuses, finding crusty sore points and working them loose in a few deft movements. She also knows women’s bodies incredibly well; she found sore points in my rib cage area, for instance, where she says many women carry tension.
With most of her clients local women from Buffalo, Leishaan prides herself on catering to females and their specific needs. She thinks too many women try to live with their pain, using a lack of time or money as an excuse not to seek treatment. But instead of ‘cowboying up’ in traditional Wyoming spirit, she wants women to know that relaxation and healing is a right, not a privilege; and that taking time to indulge yourself will eventually make you a happier, healthier individual. 
This is especially true for ranch guests, who perhaps for the first time are taking time out for themselves. Some are sore after riding; most are simply sore from life. But as I can testify, after an hour with Leishaan, you’ll float out on cloud nine, dazed and loose and ready to face whatever challenges come your way ... 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Frontier Days

If anyone has been wondering where I’ve been the past few days, (thank you for missing me, by the way!) I’ve been down in Cheyenne at Frontier Days, the world’s largest outdoor rodeo. Taking place over 10 days, this annual event transfers this usually somnambulant city into a bustling boom town, with up to 200,000 people pouring in to watch the rodeo known as the ‘daddy of ‘em all’ . 
As well as the daily rodeo events, there are evening concerts featuring world-standard acts (I saw country legend Merle Haggard, who is still alive and kicking ... just!), city parades, an Indian village, free pancake breakfasts, art exhibitions and a carnival. It’s a sea of white cowboys hat and hot chap-clad asses, while the bars in town and at the fairground are swarming with drunks looking for a good time and the occasional fight. All in all, it’s crazy fun, and an authentic slice of western culture.

                                       (Merle looking a little haggard)
                                (the fairground from the top of the ferris wheel)
                      (the biggest collection of antique horse-drawn carriages in the world)

What really impresses me about this event, which is over a hundred years old, is that it’s all run by volunteers. There are only seven paid Frontier Days employees: everyone else - from the builders who construct and paint Wild Horse Gulch (the shopping arcade) during the year, to maintenance, cleaners, parking attendants and even officials - is voluntary. 
Three times a week, 400 Kiwani volunteers serve up a free pancake breakfast to up to 15,000 people; this alone is an enormous feat, with the whole operation a seamless production line of pancake flippers, coffee servers, syrup pourers and ham stackers keeping the hearty feast on the move.

                                                (pancake flippers)
                              (my friend Barb serving coffee at the pancake breakfast)
(pancake breakfast in Depot Square)

While Cheyenne isn’t exactly local or Frontier Days anything to do with life at Paradise Ranch, I thought I’d share some of my favourite photos from my little holiday off the range. I’ll be back with ranch business tomorrow, promise!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Kids' Stuff, Part 2

Continuing on the kiddy theme, today I’m writing about arguably one of the stupidest activities at the ranch, chicken chasing. The brainchild of our rather nutty children’s counsellor Meg, this Saturday morning madness has become one of the most popular spectator sports at the ranch, with parents lining the round-pen fence to watch their kids get an early start on animal abuse.

I’m joking, of course - no animals are injured in the course of this event, and if anything, the Paradise hens are getting quite used to being picked up. And there’s some chicken lovin’ involved as well, with the chooks getting their fair share of gentle pats.

Meg has devised several ridiculous chicken games, starting with the classic, 'Catch the Chicken'. Self explanatory, really. This is followed by her take on the children’s game, ‘Duck, Duck, Goose’ ... only it’s ‘Duck, Duck, Chicken', with the chosen child having to chase a chicken and catch it, bringing it back to the circle before the other kid.

Finally, there’s a slightly insane game called ‘Chicken in a Hen House’. The children pair up, a larger child and a little one, then they run around before having to do one of five pair positions: Lovers Leap (a piggy back), Chicken in a Hen House (the little one kneels on the big kids’ back), Chicken Bridge (hands joined in the air), Escaping Chicken (little one goes between the big one’s legs) ... and of course, Chase the Chicken. The last pair who completes the task is eliminated. 

For the record, the Paradise chickens are given a big feed of grain and put into their palatial hen house at the end of the event. They love it. Trust me.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Tween Camp

It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was 12 years old. Seriously. I remember how great it was to get away from my parents with other kids, that feeling of freedom of camping out and doing generally inappropriate stuff away from overly watchful eyes.
I also remember my own child being 12, and how happy I was to palm her off onto someone else for a night.
Every Thursday night at Paradise Ranch is ‘adults only’ night, with a gourmet dinner followed by music in the saloon. All the kids, from littlies to teenagers, head off to an overnight camp, separated into age groups.
The older kids ride off into the wilderness on horseback ... the younger ones (under 9) walk up to a camp off Ski Slope; while the tweens have their own camp up near Fan Rock. I joined the latter group for a couple of hours last night to check out what they get up to.
Let by the intrepid kids counsellor Meg with her Ninja Turtle backpack of supplies, eight kids aged between 9 and 13 headed up through North Pasture, pretty excited about getting away for the night. While some of the girls seemed reticent about sleeping in a tent, the boys were pumped and couldn’t wait to start exploring the rocky outcrops near the camp site. 

In fact, as Meg and Jeremy cooked the dinner of hot dogs and Mac and Cheese (unfortunately due to fire restrictions, they couldn’t cook over an open campfire), the kids pretty much disappeared, clambering over the rocks and generally running amuck.

Fortunately this group was quite independent, so keeping them entertained was not an issue. Meg had some games planned for later in the evening, but first up was camp popcorn and s’mores, everyone’s favourite camp treat.

I must admit to being more than happy to wander back down the hill around 8pm, leaving Meg, Jeremy and the tweens to their own devices... but I’m sure there was more fun to be had as the sun went down over Paradise Ranch... I'm just glad I wasn't there to witness it!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Our Happy Place

Just when I think I’m starting to get to know this countryside, it throws up new surprises. Yesterday I went riding on a trail called New Mesa, which takes you up over Hunter Mesa, down the far side, along a spectacular ridge towards the road, then back up the hill to the ranch.
I rode out with my fellow Aussie chick Sally - we were determined to have a ride, just the two of us, before she leaves on Saturday - and I left the choice of trails up to her. “Just take me somewhere pretty,” I said. Well, she didn’t disappoint - the views from the mesa are breathtaking, while the winding, precarious trail into the ponderosa pine-peppered valley is simply divine: dramatic, wild and silent.

                                   (Sally and Phoenix on the mesa)

                                    (the view into the valley)

                                         (Andy and I on the edge of the ridge)

                                        (heading back to the top)

Also plenty of opportunities to let fly ... which we did... thanks, Sal! I’ll miss you!

                           (our happy place - on the back of a horse!)

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Leather man Matt Moran

If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my time at Paradise, it’s to never underestimate a cowboy. I’ve discovered there’s a lot more to these guys than just horse skills and hat hair, and I’m constantly amazed by their hidden talents, whether it be musical, artistic or literate. 
For custom leathermaker Matt Moran, diversifying into his leather business was a matter of necessity, borne from his background as a seasonal ranch worker. Earning, as most cowboys do, a modest no-frills wage, Matt learned to improvise simply to make ends meet. 

“I started making my own gear instead of buying it,” Matt tells me. “Pretty soon I was making gear for everybody. I finally quit and started making cowboy gear full time.”
Of course, it helps to be incredibly talented and have an eye for style. A Buffalo local, Matt produces leathergoods of every description in his workshop in the little town of Story, making custom saddles, chinks, handbags, fly fishing gear and wallets - you name it. While 75 percent of his business comes from custom orders, Matt also visits local ranches like Paradise, selling ready-made handbags, wine holders and fishing gear to guests. He also has a lucrative side business renting out chinks to visiting dudes; and on occasions, the guests buy their rented chinks as a cool memento of their vacation. 
The hallmark of all Matt’s work is quality. One touch of Matt’s extremely stylish handbags and you’ll recognise superior craftsmanship, durability and top-notch materials - it’s hard not to keep fondling these tactile and beautiful pieces. Of course, I personally couldn’t resist - I started out interviewing Matt, and ended up buying his latest creation, a butter-soft buffalo-leather tote with large silver rings made from horse hobbles, a style he calls ‘The Equestrian’.

Amazingly, Matt has never had any formal training in leatherwork, apart from a couple of weeks spent with saddle makers. “I spent a week with Dale Harwood who is a saddle maker out of Idaho; and I spent two weeks with a guy in Montana who taught me how to build the saddle trees, and thats about the only formal training I’ve had,” he tells me.
Matt puts his success down to trial and error - and he humbly admits there’s plenty of the latter!
“If you don’t think you can kill a cow twice, come to my shop and I’ll show you how to do it!” he laughs.
Matt’s custom saddles are simply divine, decorated with his signature mermaid logo and Sheridan-style stamping, with flowers and vines intricately intertwined. “Most of my orders for saddles come from out of state,” he says. “Most of it is from when I cowboyed around, gypsied around, you meet this network of guys and they pride themselves on who makes what for them. Kind of like owning a Gucci purse. 
“I guess I’m getting a bit of a reputation. 15 year overnight success story! Eventually.”

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Top of the World

My buddy Brian, chef extraordinaire at Paradise Ranch, is obsessed with fire lookout towers. So it was his goal to check out the three remaining towers in the Big Horn Mountains, which we’ve been doing over the course of several weeks.
Most of the fire towers in this state have been decommissioned, though there are still a bunch that are used in the west of the state near Yellowstone. The ones here in the north are either sporadically manned, or are no longer in use at all. But for visitors to the area these historically important sites are fascinating places to visit, allowing access to unbeatable mountain views and pristine environments, all within relatively accessible reach.
The easiest one to access from the ranch is High Park Tower, located off Highway 16 about 14 miles down the road just before the Meadowlark ski slope. You can actually see the tower from the highway, perched on a rocky outcrop. It’s an easy drive in a standard two-wheel drive car, then just a 15-minute steep hike to the top.

                                           (High Park Lookout Tower)

From the tower - built, as many of the carbon-copy two-storey towers were, during wartime by the Civilian Conservation Corps - there are killer views across Meadowlark Lake and over the Cloud Peak Wilderness. At an elevation of 9477ft, the air is clean and cool up here, with a carpet of wildflowers even in mid-July. 

                                     (the view over Meadowlark Lake)
                                (high altitude meadow at the foot of High Park)

Unfortunately, all the windows are boarded up in the tower, but we managed to sneak a peek to check out the fire navigational equipment and the living quarters with a bed and little kitchen area. Power is still connected to this tower, which leads me to believe it is occasionally used by the forest service.
The Sheep Mountain tower is also accessible from Highway 16, though it’s a longer drive inland on a rough road which may not be suitable for a standard vehicle. The road, however, goes right to the base of the tower, so no hiking is involved. From this rarely-used tower (check out the outhouse, a loo with a view that has unfortunately collapsed into the hillside), there are amazing 360 degree views of the Big Horns - you can see as far as Buffalo to the east, and out to the wilderness towards the north. A truly spectacular location where you feel like God looking down on creation...

                               (Sheep Mountain lookout)
                                            (loo with a killer view)
                             (view from Sheep Mountain, earlier in the season)

Our excursion yesterday took us towards the final tower in the area, Black Mountain Lookout. To get here we headed north to Sheridan, then out to Dayton where we climbed the ridiculously steep highway into the northern Big Horn Mountains. However as we turned off Highway 14, bad weather set in, and by the time we viewed the tower, looming spookily on a rocky outcrop shrouded by rain clouds, we knew this was an impossible undertaking. 
My pathetic little Nissan Versa rental car was never going to make the rocky crawl up the mountain to the elevation of 9492 ft (despite Brian’s most valiant efforts to push it over boulders and through bonnet-high creeks!); and after scraping the undercarriage several times, we abandoned the venture. 
This tower, however, dominating the peak and looking somewhat like a spooky Scottish castle, is the most intriguing of them all ...  so we’ve vowed to return, this time in Brian's pimped out Toyota truck which can take on any terrain in these ol’ mountains...

                                      (Black Mountain Lookout)
                                    (need to save this one for a sunny day!)