This week’s dream
Wrangling cattle in Colorado
The first day you spend at Chico Basin “imbues you with an immediate urge to become a more capable human being,” said Candice Rainey in Condé Nast Traveler. Unlike most other Western dude ranches, “where visitors might follow up their leisurely trail ride by playing 18 holes or dozing off on a massage table,” Chico is a working cattle farm where there’s real work to be done, and guests are expected to help mend fences, move and sort cattle, and even brand calves. From the moment I clamber into the saddle of my moody horse, “I am instantly aware I am not riding a Disney creature.” But I learn quickly. “I dig rugged individualism,” and, being a native of Utah, I want to prove I belong.
At Chico and two other state-owned Colorado ranches run by a company called Ranchlands, the goal is to keep ranching alive by educating visitors in the whole way of life. I’m game for the challenge up through our first afternoon of herding cattle out in the “seemingly endless” grasslands. But then it’s time to guide the cattle into narrow chutes and onward to be weighed, and “I’m quite frankly scared s---less,” because these half-ton animals are dangerous when anxious. I manage to help guide one through a gate, though, then another, and by the end I’m both exhausted and glad I didn’t quit, because “I’d have missed out on that distinctive afterglow that only washes over you when you feel you are, well, necessary.”
I spend the end of my trip at Zapata, a Ranchlands property that’s “a little less rough around the edges.” I enjoy the indoor showers and private baths at Zapata’s rustic but comfortable lodge, where warm community meals are served at long wooden tables. Guests can work here, but they can also rock climb, geek out with the on-site naturalist, or spy on the bison that run wild in the neighboring national park. One day, I learn how to ride a horse running at full stride in a creek bed. As she picks up speed, cool water sprays my back. “The feeling is like falling but not falling—controlled serendipity.”
At Chico Basin Ranch (chicobasinranch.com), a six-night working ranch experience costs $1,995. ■