Monday, August 13, 2012

Leaving Paradise...

Well, yesterday was my last day at Paradise Ranch ... and I bawled like a baby as I drove up the driveway for the last time. I didn’t think leaving would be so hard ... but some sentimental goodbyes pushed me well and truly over the edge.

Of course, it’s not forever ... I plan to be back next year, and there’s always that cabin in Story I’m considering buying. But after 10 weeks of living and breathing ‘this place called Paradise’ (to quote Aaron’s song), leaving was one of the most difficult things I’ve had to do in a long time.

Things I’ll miss about Paradise:

Sunrise at Fan Rock ... Andy, I’ll be with you in spirit tomorrow morning!

Galloping over the mesa ... ah, my happy place. Thanks for the great rides, Flash, Kyoma and Andy (the horse). And thanks to all the wranglers for leading the way. Leah Bright, love you to bits, you are my number one cowgirl. And Jace, thanks for always hooking me up with a nice pony!

Turn out ... the best photo opportunities ever. And to see those horses running free really is something else. 

Cooked breakfast... this morning I had yoghurt and a banana. Back to the real world. 

Jen’s cookies ... Jen, you are an evil temptress. Aaron is going to get realllll fat!

Death metal music coming from the kitchen. No need to elaborate on that! Brian and Tim, you rock. Literally.

The dogs ... awwwww. So many lovely pooches, such different personalities. Jake the goofball, Deena the sweetie, my gorgeous Tanna Banana, adorable Rowel and his sticks ... good dogs. Jake, it’s your turn with Words with Friends, don’t be slack now!

Maurie and Maureen ... the clawing, drooling fluffballs. Cool cats.

Hiking in the mountains ... blisters and all. Note to self: must buy hiking boots.

The sound of running water. Music to my soul.

Rockchucks. Run little rockchuck, run! 

Talent night. Seriously. My favourite night of the week, just loved seeing what people can pull off.

Saturday night square dance. I hated this so much on my first one, thought it was interminable and ran away. Participation is the key - go Johnny go!

Sarah’s margaritas ... Sare Bear, you are a class act behind the bar! Love you girl!

Fireball shots. Even though after Saturday night, I’m never drinking again ...

Leah and Clay. What can I say, they are such gracious hosts and have been so kind and welcoming to this freeloader from Australia! Thank you so much for an amazing two and a half months. You haven’t seen the back of me ...

Finally, the amazing friends I have made. Living and working at the same location is an intense experience, particularly with a seasonal job like this. But in this situation, you forge deep and real relationships very quickly, bonding over shared experiences. I have had a blast with all the crew - what amazing, hard working, fun loving people you are. But special mention must go out to my peeps: free spirited, funny and beautiful Sarah; bright eyes Leah, my cool cowgirl; my adopted daughter Meg, who pulls my heartstrings like no one else; Brian, my adventure companion; and Dylan, my rock and the nicest man in the world. 

Casey Case ... my roomie ... I miss you and our evening chats already. I love you, girl. Thanks for being there from the first moment I stepped on the ranch. 

Now I’m crying again...

(PS ... I've decided to keep my blog going while I'm travelling through Wyoming for the next week. After all, this state is Paradise too...)

Friday, August 10, 2012

Chukka, anyone?

While out on my exploratory real estate hunt yesterday I stumbled across something most unexpected in this neck of the woods - a polo club. The Big Horn Polo Club, located just south of Sheridan, adds a touch of sophistication to the cowboy scene in north-east Wyoming; and what’s even more surprising is that the club has been in existence since 1898, with the club at one time being the premier polo operation in the world. 

The polo fields are located at the stunning Big Horn Equestrian Centre, a world-class facility with gorgeous stabling and three immaculately maintained polo fields in the shadow of the mountains. I just thought I’d poke around the Centre, but was delighted to find a game in process, horses thundering over the emerald pitch and handsome riders in full flight. There were probably around 50 or so spectators there, some in the bleachers listening to the commentary, others ‘tailgating’ in their SUVs or picnicking on the grass.

This was the first time since I’ve been in the area that I’ve heard languages other than English being spoken - there was a group of Italian women, as well as some Spanish speakers who were probably associated in some way with several players hailing from Argentina.

It was certainly refreshing to find a different culture thriving in the heart of ranch country; and judging by the quality of the horse flesh on display, this is no hokey western version of the game, but a serious contender on the US polo scene. In fact, the Big Horn Polo Club is one of only three in the US to offer high-goal polo.

The matches are free for spectators, and I certainly recommend it as a fascinating insight into a Sheridan subculture. Games are played thoughout the summer months on Sunday and Thursday, with some Friday night games and mid-week practice sessions.

Furthermore, I think this may be the place to go to find a rich, horse-loving husband...

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Wyoming's Got Talent

Of all the activities at Paradise Ranch, there’s one that always catches me by surprise and actually tugs at my heartstrings without fail. 

The Talent Show. Sounds diabolical, right? Wyoming’s Got (Absolutely No) Talent? Well, that’s what you’d expect. But every week I drag my feet along to this event, only to leave not just entertained, but feeling like the world is a better place. True story.

Take this week’s offerings, for instance. Who would have thought a four-year-old girl’s hoola hoop display would be so goddamn awe-inspiring? Or how an eight-year old’s word-perfect rendition of an Adele song would have me laughing (at the inappropriateness of the lyrics) and shaking my head in disbelief (that she could actually remember every single word). 

                                  (Sophie doing the hippy hippy shake)

Other highlights: The Burkhardt families goofy three-act melodrama, complete with props and costumes ... little Leo singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, with the whole audience joining in... the Nydick girls’ cool ukelele version of You and I ... and Meg’s family’s heartwrenching acapella hymn for their grandmother. 

                                   (Clay gives Leo encouragement)
(the Burkhardts getting fresh!)
                                     (the Roach girls sing like angels)

Even the crew’s offerings wound me up this week, with Morgan’s violin accompaniment to Billy’s cowboy poem adding an extra dimension, and Aaron’s always hilarious fractured fairytales making me realise I’m really gonna miss this place and its crazy characters.

                                         (Morgan and Billy)

I don’t know why, but USA, you are a nation of entertainers! Australians in general are less inclined to show off their talents; rather than singing out loud and proud, we either break down in nervous giggles, mumble into our chins or refuse to get up on stage at all. Americans don’t seem to mind making fools of themselves; and in the process, only impress with their sense of humour, spunk and talent. Thanks for the laughter, the tears and the memories...

                                     (the Burkhardt clan - boo hiss, applaud!)

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Seven Brothers and a World of Pain

“Am I the slowest person you’ve ever had on an all day hike?” I ask hiking guide Andy Gosiak as I drag my weary ass up the final half-mile trail.

“No, but you win the prize for worst footwear,” he replies.

OK, I get it now - purple sparkly Converse are not the most appropriate shoes to wear on a 17 mile hike. The massive blisters I have this morning are testament to that.

But I made it, sore feet and all. I’ve never walked 17 miles in my life (I think that’s around 25km for you folk Down Under) ... let alone in shoes designed for walking around a shopping mall, not a rocky trail through a forest.

And I gotta tell you, very blister and aching muscle (of which there are also a few!) was worth it - the Seven Brothers Lakes in the Cloud Peak Wilderness is one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever visited, and the all-day hike one of the highlights of my stay at Paradise Ranch. 

Shoes aside, everything else about the day was perfect. The weather was divine - blue sky, cool breeze, moderate temperature; while fellow hikers Jeff and Cari were intelligent and entertaining companions (not to mention extremely patient with my old-woman hobbling!)

And while Andy is a brilliant, enthusiastic and informative guide, the man is a serious freak - half man half mountain goat (new nickname, Pan!), with boundless energy and more stamina than a man half his age. Mind you, this is someone who runs marathons without training ... and he has done the Seven Brothers hike 61 times, giving him a considerable head-start over us first timers. Only Clay’s dog Jake can give him a run for his money in the fitness stakes - those two really are peas in a pod (both in terms of goofiness as well as energy.)

Heading off from Hunter Corral around 9.30am, the going is fairly easy for the first few miles, a steady uphill trail past The Waterfall and up an established road to Soldier Park, before entering Cloud Peak Wilderness, where no motorised vehicles are allowed. Easy peasy, I’m thinking. And certainly no complaints from an aesthetic perspective, with every corner revealing a spectacular new vista of bubbling creeks, aspen groves and meadows backed by the dramatic grey peaks of the Big Horns. 

                             (..and this is just the start of all the f-ing beauty!)
                                  (Jake and I entering the Wilderness)
                                  (I'm starting to drop behind already)

After around eight miles and a series of fairly challenging switchbacks up a mountain trail, we finally arrive at the first of the Brothers, a sparkling lake so beautiful it brings tears to my eyes. But there’s no time to linger - man-goat Andy wants to get us to the final lake by 2pm, so we forge up the final mile along a piney trail, past crazy-beautiful vista after vista of the gorgeous azure lakes, sparkling in the sun. 

                                       (first of the Seven Brothers)
                                (Brother 3, or is it 4?)

It’s not until we reach the seventh brother that we are able to drink in all the beauty, however. And what a spot. Surrounded by sheer cliffs on three sides, we sit on a sandy strip - yes, an actual beach! - on the one accessible shore to eat our lunch; Jake and Andy wade into the glacial water thigh deep to cool off, before Jeff strips off and throws himself into the deep end in a fine impersonation of James Bond. Soaking my by now weary feet in the icy water is enough for me - though at this point, I’m fairly proud of the way my pathetic shoes have held up.

                                     (Not a bad lunch spot!)
                                   (Jeff's James Bond impersonation)

The real test is on the downhill run, however - and I’m afraid that’s an epic fail. The trail back through the pine burn is rough, rocky and interminably steep, and I drop further and further behind my companions as I pick my way carefully over the treacherous ground. By the time we reach Buffalo Park and the final few miles, I’m in a world of pain, hobbling like an 80-year-old and ridiculously footsore.

Cari admits that she, too, is suffering, with every step across the open meadow an effort. Somehow she has a better way of hiding her pain than me, though ... 

At the completion of our 17 mile marathon, however, is the promise of a margarita and a soak in the hot tub ... and that’s what keeps me stepping out over that last painful mile.

Never have I been so grateful to climb into the back seat of Suburban at Hunter Corral. But what a sense of achievement - I pushed myself beyond my limits, and managed to set a record for the stupidest footwear on an all-day hike to boot. That’s what I call as awesome achievement!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Adventure Ride

After a week of glorious, blue-sky warm weather, last Friday dawned grey and cold, the sky shrouded in smoke from wildfires in Montana. And although I assumed the haze would lift and the day get brighter, instead it just got damper and more bleak as the day progressed ... quite the anomaly during this glorious Wyoming summer.

So it probably wasn’t the best day to choose to go on an all-day adventure ride ... but the prospect of exploring deeper into the Big Horn National Forest with my home girl wrangler Leah and long-time guest Alex Lesko was too tempting to resist. Alex, who has been coming to Paradise for 20 years, loves to find new trails, and it’s her ambition “to find a trail from Paradise to China”. She can often be seen hiking or riding, map in hand, following coordinates and happily getting lost.

                                     (Alex and Leah studying the map)

Our destination for the day was the evocatively named Cougar Canyon. This is one of the established all-day rides, but Alex wanted to try a different route, forging a new trail from the back of the Chuckwagon meadow, along a jeep trail, then down a rocky minor trail marked with pink ribbons before emerging in the canyon.

As we entered the pine forest at trail marker #42, the ambience just got spookier and spookier. There was an eerie, dim light in the silent forest, and it was at least 10 degrees cooler in there. As we picked our way down the trail, a grove of pines began to blow in a gusty breeze, creaking as if they were about to fall. It felt like a scene from a Japanese samurai movie; I half expected to see ninjas flying backwards through the treetops.

                                         (spooky pine forest)

Emerging from the trees into the mouth of Cougar Canyon, our movie location shifted to medieval Scotland. The light was soft and grey, the hills shrouded in mist, and the jagged bluffs were stark against the broody sky. The canyon is indeed spectacular, red cliffs soaring above rolling green meadows cut by a creek - nearly as dramatic as Crazy Woman Canyon, only so unexpected. 

                                  (the mouth of Cougar Canyon)

I can’t wait to see this gorgeous location on a sunny day; it must rate as one of the wildest and coolest places I’ve come across in my riding adventures.

With the weather refusing to warm up, we decided to take a short cut back to the ranch, forging yet another unmarked trail up a mesa and back past the French Creek Cow Camp. This was my first time seeing this far up the creek, and I was blown away by how pretty it is. 

With my time at the ranch rapidly drawing to a close, I’m hoping to squeeze in at least one more adventure ride - I just get can’t enough of this glorious location!

                                     (riding through the aspens)

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Paradise on Parade

Today I fulfilled a (not-so) long-term ambition to ride in an American parade. Well, I sort of hitched a ride for a block, but at least I got to experience the cheering and adulation from adoring townsfolk...
The occasion was the Johnson County Fair Parade, an annual event where the whole town of Buffalo turns out to watch marching bands, decorated floats, vintage cars, trucks and high profile citizens strut their stuff down Main Street.
Representing Paradise Ranch were teamsters Ed and Billy, driving our Belgian princesses, Betty and Beauty in a vintage ambulance dating from 1910. With their curled moustaches and old-time western gear, Ed and Billy looked quite the part, while the girls were big, bold and beautiful, especially in comparison to the miniature ponies in tutus which paraded in front of them. 

In fact, I could practically see the disdain on Betty and Beauty’s faces as these piddling little critters ducked and weaved in front of them, creating irritating stop-starts instead of a smooth passage.
Halfway down Main Street, I took advantage of a pause in proceedings to jump on board, getting a patient-eye-view from the back of the ambulance. And that’s when the cheering really started ... 

The theme for this year’s parade was Dancing with the Steers, so as you can imagine, mirrored disco balls were well represented, along with tap-dancers in cow suits, plastic cows in heels and a couple of guys dressed as sheep, who changed the theme to ‘dancing with the sheers’.

The parade finished up near the Johnson County Fairground, where the week-long fair culminates in a rodeo this weekend. I took a quick look around - actually, I was looking for the fair, before realising what I was seeing - a couple of sheep, pigs, goats, horses and chickens in stalls - actually was it. Not exactly a national standard agriculture show, but sweet and intimate.
The most fascinating thing for me was the ‘exhibition hall’ where displays of prize-winning quilts, cookies, art work, photography and flower arranging were on show. I was a little non-plussed by the flower-arranging, which looked like a bunch of wildflowers shoved in a vase; while the photography inspired me to enter my own shots of Paradise next year.
Apparently Clay entered a photo last year and came second. He won the grand total of $2. He hasn’t cashed the cheque yet. Bring it on!

Friday, August 3, 2012

Gourmet Night

The food here at the ranch is pretty darn good - the extra kilos I’m carrying around my waistline is testament to that! (damn you, Jen, and your delectable desserts!) ...
But on Thursday nights guests are treated to something special - a gourmet feast fit for a king. This is an adults only night ... and while the kids are away on their respective overnight camps, the parents get to indulge in some good food and wine, a night out dancing in the saloon and some valued child-free time.
Our talented chefs have been taking turns designing the menu for Gourmet Night, trying to outdo each other with their innovative and mouthwatering creations. Last night is was sous chef Tim Methven’s chance to shine, and boy was he on fire! 

                                              (sous chef Tim Methven)

Kicking off the night in the saloon before dinner - to the accompaniment of Jim Niner’s cowboy tunes - was a delicious ahi tuna ceviche appetiser, a subtle fruity blend of red peppers, mango and mint served up on ciabatta toast. I could have downed the whole bowl, it was so delicious.

                                           (ahi tuna ceviche)

Over a bottle of my favourite Oregon pinot noir, Firesteed, we were then treated to a salad of mixed field greens with poached pear, candied walnuts and gorgonzola, followed by a choice of entrees: filet mignon with chipotle candied bacon and a bourbon dipping sauce, or blackened salmon with herbed goat cheese and a triple berry habenero sauce. I went with the latter, and was not disappointed, the berry sauce complementing the tangy goat cheese perfectly.

(blackened salmon with goat cheese - yum!) 

Catering to a broad spectrum and bound to set menus, ranch chefs tend to be a little shackled in terms of creativity - but the Paradise gourmet night gives them an opportunity to cut loose, to showcase their talents and to take some culinary chances. And if the compliments I heard buzzing around the saloon after dinner were anything to go by, the customers were certainly satisfied!


Thursday, August 2, 2012

Ten Sleep

When the Sioux tribes ruled the northern plains of Wyoming, a rest stop halfway between their camp near Fort Laramie in the southeast, Yellowstone National Park, and a camp near Bridger, Montana, was given the name Ten Sleep, as it was 10 days’ travel - or 10 sleeps - from each place. 
Today, this town on the western side of the Big Horn range is still pretty much in the middle of nowhere. It’s around 60 miles from Buffalo, and the closest grocery store is in Worland, 25 miles away. Billings, Montana is the closest big city and airport, and that’s 2.5 hours drive.
However, with Highway 16 passing straight through en route to Yellowstone, this sleepy western town does get its fair share of passing traffic. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the landscape is mindblowingly spectacular, with the drive through the red-walled canyon unlike anything else in Wyoming.

In fact, it’s hard to believe how quickly the landscape changes throughout the Big Horns. As you come over the pass near and through the western Big Horns, the scenery changes rapidly from high alpine lakes and meadows to dramatic red canyons, switchbacks revealing a new spectacular vista around every turn. It also changes from lush green to arid sage brush ranching country, and before you know it, you are in a Wild West movie set.

The town of Ten Sleep is also classic Western, with several log saloons (one with a sign saying, “Cowboys, scrape the shit from your boots”), Dirty Sally’s souvenir and malt shop and not much else. You can almost here the Sergio Leone soundtrack as you wander down the main street, preparing to draw your guns at high noon...

I had actually headed to Ten Sleep to look at some properties for sale there. One, a classic log cabin, was butted against the fiery walls of Signal Cliff (where Indians used to send smoke signals and drive buffalo over the edge) and on the banks of the Nowood River; unfortunately, it was also within ear shot of the highway, which I wasn’t fond of. 

The other was an A-frame house on subdivided ranch land, backed by a soaring white cliff and with views of red canyon rocks and farming land. I really liked this place ... but it was so incredibly hot and dry, that it reminded me of outback Australia. And while I thought it was a cool place, what I really love about this area is the pines, aspens and mountain streams ... this side of the range, to be honest.
Weirdly, every photograph I took inside the A-frame was ghostly-blurry... even weirder, when I went to download my Ten Sleep shots this morning, they were all gone. Every other shot I’d taken on that camera was still there, just not the Ten Sleep shots. Spooky.
But with a place as desolate, atmospheric and history-laden as Ten Sleep, nothing would surprise me...

(*NB - since I lost all my pics, the ones on this post are stolen from the tourism website. I figured they wouldn’t object too much!)

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Story - my kind of place!

You may have gathered by now I’ve become quite fond of this part of the world - so much so that I’ve been looking at real estate here. I’m not even sure if I can legally buy property in the US or what the laws are for foreign investment, but I figure there’s no harm in dreaming and seeing what’s available, just in case.
One place I’m really taken with is a little community called Story, located halfway between Sheridan and Buffalo at the foot of the Big Horn Mountains. For a start, I love its name - what better place for a writer to live than Story, Wyoming? - but it’s also incredibly cute, right out of a storybook, pun intended. 

Jammed up against the National Forest, Story is basically a collection of cabins and small cottages nestled amongst pine trees. Two creeks and several seasonal runoff streams provide the constant burbling of running water through aspen groves; and with just two main roads which go nowhere, it’s a peaceful enclave with a pine-scented, wildlife-strewn character all of its own. 

Saddle maker Matt Moran, who has his studio at Story, told me “if Jimmy Buffet lived in Wyoming, he’d live in Story.” And of its 900 residents, many are artists, musicians and writers - that’s just the sort of people it attracts, those of independent means and a free spirit. Like me. This is the sort of place to retire, to create your next artistic masterpiece or to write the Great American novel; well, that’s what I intend doing, anyhoo!
From a visitor’s perspective, Story is well worth diverting off the I25. There are several top-notch restaurants in town including the Tunnel Inn, recently taken over by the former chef from The Virginian in Buffalo and offering fine dining in what appears to be a roadside pub. There are also several craft and art galleries, including a collective called Story Art Station where local artists display paintings, jewellery, designers clothing, western art and some really cool pots made from coiled rope. Then there’s the ever popular Fish Hatchery, open year round with an educational centre and hatchery trout ponds.
The town is also rich in history: for instance, there were several bloody battles in the area between Northern Plains tribesmen and the military, including the epic Wagon Box fight of 1837. A monument has been built to commemorate those lost in the battle, while visitors can also visit Fort Phil Kearny, a partially reconstructed army frontier post which now contains a museum and bookshop.