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You're-the-wrangler vacations.

In the beef bonanza days of the 1870s and 1880s, they say a rider could cross the Western plains and almost never lose sight of cattle. It was a landscape painted by Charles Russell and Frederic Remington as one vast and savage rangeland: parched valleys awash with steers, wild-eyed longhorns stampeding into rocky georges with drovers in hot pursuit.

Ranches in those days could buy long-horn steers for $5, fatten them on free range, and three years later sell cattle for $60 a head, according to the 1886 Breeder's Gazette. And a new royalty was born--the cattle baron. In 1888 Theodore Roosevelt wrote, "The great free ranches, with their barbarous, picturesque, and curiously fascinating surrounding mark ... what is perhaps the pleasantest, healthiest, and most exciting phase of American existence."

Times have changed. Today, ranchers strugge with high land taxes and declining demand for beef--Americans eat 20 percent less than in 1976. To survive, stockmen must be efficient and tenacious, employ sophisticated technology and marketing, even rear different breeds (Limousin, Charolais, and Simmental are joining Hereford and Angus standbys).

Yet in some ways, ranch life has changed very little, especially on the small family spread where mechanization is too costly and many jobs are still done by hand.

A few working ranches take in guests, giving outsiders a change to taste life on the range. The best way to sample this unembellished existence is to visit ranches that don't have the frills of "dude" resorts--no pool, television, tennis court, or sauna. Sometimes it's literally lights out when the electricity shuts down for the night. Pleasures here are homespun--tossing horseshoes or joining a sing-along, riding untracked valleys in the crisp air, plunging into the green depths of an icy swimming hole, rocking on a veranda in the gathering dusk. You can even help with the chores.

On a ranch, season dictate the work: in spring, cattle must be rounded up, calves branded, stock drive to grasslands; in summer, new horses trained, cattle moved between pastures; in fall, hayfields harvested, bales loaded, the herd driven to winter pasture. And always there are fences to mend, or a vegetable garden to tend, cows to milk, rabbits and chickens to feed, eggs to collect.

It's a fairly inexpensive vacation; prices of $150 to $650 (usually less for children) per week include lodging, meals, and horse (some ranches request a one-week minimum stay, usually Sunday to Sunday). You don't have to be an expert horseman--your hosts will teach you to ride. You can be active or just loaf. And it's a great family vacation; we saw guests as young as 8 with 70-year-old grandfathers. "I loved it because you see how a ranch really works," says guest Jeri Meacham of Englewood, Colorado. "And you can help out with as much as you're safely able to."

Though the West has hundreds of guest ranches, we describe and list no-frills operations where stock raising is the mainstay--26 ranches in five states.

It's best to reserve early (deposit required)--July and August fill up fast. At Arizona's desert ranches, winter holidays are peak times. First bell to lights out: a typical day

You won't need a clock. The first clang of the cookhouse bell rouses you from sleep; the next gong calls you to table. Meals are hearty, simple but abundant fare often using vegetables from the owners' garden, milk and eggs out of their barn. Some ranches pride themselves on home-baked breads or special desserts. Dining is usually family-style, and you may eat with the owners and their children.

After breakfast, you and 10 to 50 other guests meet your best friend for the week: your horse. A wrangler will size you up, ask your riding ability, and match you with an appropriate mount. If you treat your steed right, you both should have a good week; if you think you can't handle him, request a change.

Most likely you'll take an easy morning warmup ride; often children split off on gentle terrain with their own guide. A trail ride can turn into a surprising wildlife-watching experience: one afternoon on a Wyoming spread, we spotted white-tialed deer, pronghorn antelope, and a Rocky Mountain goat.

How much you can help with chores depends on how mechanized and diverse the outfit is. Ranchers have your safety in mind and won't let you tackle anything too tricky; youngsters are always closely sueprvised. But typical morning chores include collecting eggs, feeding chickens, and milking cows.

After lunch you may take a longer trail ride or join the hands to "ride herd"--riding through cattle to check for new-borns (in spring), strays, or sick or injured cows. If the herd is in pasture, it must be moved periodically to prevent overgrazing; often you can joint these small-scale trail drives. As you maneuver cattle toward a specific point (an open gate, for example), you may be amused at how nitwitted cows can act; they cower over a tiny gully, balk at trickling streams, bawl and skitter at the gate before crashing through.

If you want to do some heavier work, most ranchers accept help clearing trails, wrangling (rounding up) horses, and riding fences to look for breaks in the wire. In haying season, you can load bales on a flatbed truck. And in spring and fall, you might lend a hand with branding. Says rancher Terry Reidy, "You're welcome to do whatever work I do--I can use the help. If you're in shape, you might even keep up with me."

Day's end may offer a ride to a cookout under the stars, poker around a cleared-off dinner table, horsehoe pitching, a wild ride on a barrel-and-springs "bronc," or a guest rodeo in the corral, with barrel racing, calf catching, and sack races. At some outfits, you can learn square dancing, join campfire sing-alongs, or dive into the costume box and act in your own gaslighter melodramas. Lodging, food, ranch etiquette

"I didn't expect luxury--I piled on the blankets at night and hurried into my clothes in the morning," recals Jackie Edwards, a guest at a Wyoming ranch. "But what surprised me was how much gracious hospitality and good conversation I found." Accommodations vary from charming rustic log cabins to cozy bunk-houses with individual guest rooms to carpeted houses with tasteful furniture and central heating. A shared bathroom is common.

Meal quality is hard to determine ahead, but if ranch owners boast of home-baked breads and home-grown vegetables, then good food is probably a top priority. It's often serve-yourself buffet-style, so portions can be as generous as you like.

Simple courtesies from the guests are appreciated: if you're a night owl, keep it quiet for those who turn in early; if you bring a radio, keep the volume low. Pets are not allowed, and some guest ranches prefer you don't bring liquor; ask ahead. Tipping is optional but generally done at week's end; a 10 to 15 percent gratuity is standard. And remember that these places are remote--be frugal with water and electricity since they can be costly. A plan-ahead primer

It's best to call ahead to get a complete picture of the place: ask about activities and chores for guests, events for youngsters, how many riders are taken on an average trail ride (a small group is preferable), if meals include fresh local produce or special items. Ask for references.

If you plan to arrive by rail, bus, or air, inquire about a pickup. And finally, find out about attractions you may want to include on side trips, such as fishing streams, forests, an dnational parks.

Plan for changeable weather since many of these ranches are in high country (take activities slowly until you adjust to the altitude). As days can be blazingly hot, bring cool clothes and things to protect against the sun. For riding, have boots, jeans, and gloves. Afternoon rain is common, so pack a slicker or poncho. Also have warm clothes for chilly nights. The family ranch: is it an endangered species?

As encroaching development and high costs put more pressure on small ranches, some cattlemen fear this Western institution is threatened with extinction. Even in its heyday Roosevelt prophesied, "As the country grows oldeR, stock raising will in some places die out...and the ranches will be broken up."

But the tenacity of the independent rancher is a force to reckon with. As cattleman Stanley Hunewill says, "You work 12-hour days because the place is yours. A big business just can't give a small ranch the love and attention it needs to make the land blossom." Polly Milliken of Two Bars Seven sums it up, "This ranch has been in the family for three generations. We're going to hang on, and that's that."
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Title Annotation:ranches
Date:Apr 1, 1984
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