It's not just about horseback riding and rustic Western living at dude ranches these days. Gourmet meals, ropes courses, yoga, fly-fishing, massage and mountain biking pamper and challenge today's dude-guests. So when I booked a week at Hidden Creek Ranch near Harrison, Idaho, I was ready to get back in the saddle, try some new activities and relax.
After a mellow drive along the Coeur d'Alene Scenic Byway and a short jaunt into the Panhandle National Forest, HCR's staff greeted me as if we were old friends.
"This is our home, and from the moment you arrive, you are treated like family," says Iris Behr, who owns the ranch with her husband John Muir. (Yes, he's related to the famous naturalist and author.)
At the end of my tour of the ranch in an open wagon drawn by draft horses driven by a gristled wrangler named Sarge, who punctuated the tour with his wry and colorful humor, I felt like I'd come to the ranch for a family reunion. And it seemed even more like a family reunion at cocktail hour that evening on the lodge deck when I met the rest of the 30 dudes with whom I would share this week-long experience. Among the varied guests, there was a family from the English countryside with four children ranging in ages from 6 to 11, a family of four from Germany, a grown daughter and her father from Wisconsin, a couple from Georgia and a retired professor from Moscow, Idaho. All were here to relax, horseback ride, challenge themselves and be pampered a bit.
There were also three families that had come to HCR for healing. A family of three from western Washington had recently lost their son and brother in the war in Iraq, just as had a couple from Oregon. A man from Texas had brought his wife with him to pay his respects to his sister's ashes that were scattered at the ranch after her death from cancer. HCR offers healing retreats through the Body, Mind & amp; Spirit Foundation, which grew out of its program to help survivors and those who lost loved ones in the attacks of 9/11 heal from their experiences.
"Aside from acquiring some badly needed rest, survivors of 9/11 have been able to trade in some of their emotional baggage at the ranch," Behr says.
The public nonprofit charity procures funding for retreat services, and works with support groups and military offices to select the participants. Through the foundation, the ranch offers counseling for survivors, provided by Dr. Greg Wilson, a local clinical psychologist who specializes in post-traumatic stress treatment and grief counseling.
"Having an experience where trauma victims can gain mastery helps them regain control," Wilson explains. "It becomes a springboard for them to be able to cope with other situations in their lives."
And there are plenty of opportunities for mastery at HCR. As with any dude ranch, there's horseback riding -- and lots of it -- in the hills and valleys surrounding the 570-acre ranch. But first you've got to meet the horses -- on their terms. It begins with the horse roundup just after 6 o'clock the next morning. Rousing myself from the comfort of my down-covered bed and cozy cabin decorated in Native American motif, I made my way down the hill to warm up with cowboy coffee by the campfire. In the dewy cool of the morning, the dudes lined up along a split-rail fence, waiting for the horses that had been weekending in the hills. With loud whoops, the wranglers drove them toward us. In a mass of pounding hooves, snorting nostrils and flying mud, the horses sped past us. I got the distinct impression that the horses were showing off as they eyed this new crop of dudes, wondering who would be their mount for the week.
We soon found out. With a herd of 80 horses, HCR staff matches riders perfectly to their steeds. Grease, a sturdy bay, was a good fit for me. Though a bit headstrong, Grease could pick his way among the rocks like a bobcat, even as we descended the hillside trails. During that evening's ride to the outer reaches of the ranch, I drank in the awe-inspiring views of Blue Lake illumined by a half moon as the last pinks of twilight streaked across the sky.
"Our horseback riding orientation and instructions are designed to allow the riders to feel a partnership with their horse and to develop body language and communication with that animal," explains Elaine Steele, a Centered Riding instructor at HCR.
The ranch's Adventure Challenge Course offers more than mountaintop views. The ropes course can be a real confidence builder as well as an adrenaline rush.
"This is all about stepping out of your box," said Behr, as she explained safety procedures to the guests.
The dudes in this course ranged from a 12-year-old boy to a grandmother, and they were ready to take that step -- right up a 58-foot climbing tower, the second-largest in the country. Two at a time, the harnessed climbers inched their way up, stretching for hand and foot holds peppered on the wall, as other guests cheered them on. The brave souls who made it to the top triumphantly rang a bell secured to the wall's summit.
Guests who wanted to live out their dreams of being tightrope walkers could do just that on the Burma bridge. I watched as the Texan, Brent Haas, harnessed and safety roped, climbed like a lineman on huge staples driven into the side of a lodgepole pine until he was 30 feet above the ground. Balancing on the cable, Haas steadied himself on two ropes strung taut at arms' height as he made his way to a pine 35 feet away.
"It's exhilarating," Haas told me after he was lowered to the ground. "The only thing that bothered me up there was my loud heartbeat."
The children were just as exhilarated as they took turns at the Kids' Challenge Course. The flying squirrel was the most popular activity.
"Ready to fly," yelled 6-year-old Henry Thacker, who was full-body harnessed to one end of a rope. The "mule team," consisting of the rest of the youngsters and two counselors, complied. Pulling on the other end of the thick rope, they ran one way as Henry ran in the opposite direction. "Yeee heee!" he screamed in delight, as his feet left the ground and he flew 30 feet in the air. "Now I really flied!" he exclaimed when back on terra firma.
All too soon, the week drew to a close and it was time for the rodeo. Just after breakfast, the kids were raring to show off the skills they learned with their horses. Weaving their steeds through cones and around barrels, and even making figure eights, the young riders drew appreciative applause. Galloping around the ring for their victory lap, they gave their best rodeo waves to the crowd.
When it was the adults' turn to ride the barrels and "pole bend" (wrangler lingo for cone weaving) with their horses, we all did our best to work with the horses we had come to know during the week. Then came the real challenge -- cow herding. Working in teams of four, the dudes attempted to drive the cows around the small arena and herd them behind a gate. "C'mon, guys," urged Scott McCrae, one of the Body, Mind & amp; Spirit guests. "Let's show these cows who's boss!" As McCrae took charge and showed his three teammates how to drive the cows, I marveled how much McCrae had changed from the quiet introversion he displayed at the beginning of his week at the ranch.
"We never would have come so far so quickly in healing from our grief if we hadn't had this week at HCR," Scott's wife Terri told me.
Later that afternoon, the dudes gathered in a circle outside the saloon to burn the brands we made the night before into a wooden plank. Wanting to take a piece of the ranch home with us, we offered boots, gloves, hats and back jean pockets to be seared with the HCR brand.
While the kids headed to Tipi Village for a cookout and sleepover, the adults went off to change into their casual best for the final seven-course candlelight dinner. After champagne and appetizers, we feasted on shrimp scampi over angel-hair pasta, passion fruit granita, hoisin-glazed Cornish game hen with jade bamboo rice, and chocolate truffle tort with caramel sauce, all accompanied by a variety of fine wines. We celebrated all that we had experienced that week and reveled in each other's company for the last time.
"Um-ni-saw, you will be back," pronounced Behr and Muir, giving us a local American Indian blessing during an after-dinner ceremony.
Yes, I will go back to Hidden Creek Ranch, like many of those who experience the calming and often transforming week or weekend there. After all, my daughter wants to fly out over the swimming hole on the zip line and ride Pebbles again. I want to experience the sweat lodge ceremony. I might even have enough courage to make it to the top of the climbing wall this year.
For more information on Hidden Creek Ranch or the Body, Mind & amp; Spirit Foundation, visit www.hiddencreek.com or call (800) 446-3833.