Dude Ranch Diary
Map of area along the Idaho-Montana border
From Boise, we made the long drive along Interstates 84, 86 and 15 to the eastern side of the state. When we finally reached Dubois, Idaho not far from the Montana border our high speed tempo began to change. As we waited at the corner gas station for our host Butch Small to arrive, we noticed folks around Dubois didn´t move at the frenetic pace you often find in our capital city. They also seemed to know just about everybody who pulled into the station, and assured us Butch would likely arrive soon.
After a short time, a large mud splattered pickup pulled up to our rig with the man we´d been waiting to meet, Butch Small. Butch definitely looked the part of an ex-rodeo champ, sporting a cowboy hat, sturdy hands and a solid frame that used to sit atop bucking broncs. Now he and his family invite guests to check out the Western lifestyle at the Small Cattle Company. You might call it a dude ranch, but it´s a real working cattle ranch with roots dating back to the 1870s.
Countryside near Small Cattle Company
With Dubois disappearing in the rear view mirror we headed out to the real hinterlands. We passed large fields punctuated now and then with clusters of ranch buildings, but by the time we hit the dirt road that would take us to Butch´s cow camp and the dudes´ accommodations most signs of civilization had faded from sight. Now we were primarily surrounded by large treeless hills dotted with sagebrush. It reminded me of parts of the Owyhee country back in southwest Idaho. It was big, beautiful and empty.
What had begun as a pretty decent dirt and gravel road gradually disintegrated into a bumpy rut-filled track. With our four-wheel drive engaged, we bounced our way to the top of an impressive ridge, with vistas of mountains and valleys stretching out in all directions. We passed a few cows here and there, but most of the views were of the natural high desert scenery.
After about an hour of backroad travel we turned down a small draw with a few trees. In the sheltered draw was “cow camp” where we´d be spending the next several days. There was a large corral area, a rustic barn, several small cabins, and a large log building we´d later find out was the cookhouse and primary gathering spot for the guests. They were the only structures out in these vast wide open spaces.
The barn at the Small Cattle Company dude ranch
The cookhouse is pretty amazing though. We found out Butch and some friends built the whole thing out of materials they found in the area. It contains huge logs and beams pieced together in expert fashion. And the dining room table, an amazing centerpiece that can accommodate a grand gathering of guests, was fashioned out of a very large tree.
Butch told us the main group of guests was arriving in a couple days, and showed us our small cabins and the nearby shower house, complete with flush toilets. Other than these basic amenities this cow camp might have passed for something out of the late 1800s. We quickly figured out this wasn´t going to be one of those “pamper the dudes” kind of places, it was a working cattle operation.
We soon met some of the key players who helped keep the operation running smoothly — Butch´s wife Sheila and his daughters Molly and Mary Frances. We found out Sheila holds down the fort at the cookhouse while the two girls help out with the horses and other chores. Now in their early and late teens, they both showed all the skills that come with growing up on a ranch with a real cowboy dad. They impressed me with the accuracy of their rope throwing as I watched them practice their tosses on the horns of a wooden cow's-head target. And they showed me they could both handle all aspects of the horses, from feeding and saddling to riding. I also met Justin, a young man from the area who had all the cowboy skills to help Butch and the girls with the workload. It appeared to me that the guests would be in able hands.
Butch leads a horse from the corral
Monday morning, we headed out to take some scenery shots and wait out on the road as Butch arrived with his truck full of guests. We heard it was a group of gals from the Boston area, two who had been coming out to the ranch every year for the last decade. We soon found out why they are some of Butch´s favorite visitors. These are not young would-be cowgirls. They have many years of living behind them. But we found out they come here because they don´t want to be pampered and they don´t want a fancy hot tub. Instead, they want to live out their Western dreams in authentic cowboy fashion. Their attitudes were great; they were upbeat, full of fun, and ready to take on the challenge of riding the range.
With a couple other gal guests who had already arrived from Florida and Washington state, our group had a decidedly female edge. The only other male guests for this week, Olaf, came all the way from Germany. He´s a travel writer who was doing a piece on Butch and the ranch. I was glad Olaf was just about as green as I when it comes to ranching knowledge. But we both grabbed cowboy hats and tried to get into the lifestyle, even if our horse skills were a bit behind most of the cowgirls.
Guests prepare for an outing on horseback
In the afternoon, Butch, his daughters and the whole group of dudes gathered at the barn. We each received a little brush-up on horsemanship and then mounted our steeds for the real test — a ride up and down the nearby hills and ridges. Butch said if we found some cows we might even try a mini cattle drive. Now, I´ve ridden horses before but it´s mostly been on trails, moving along at a relatively slow pace on not too challenging terrain. While this ride started out tame enough, it wasn´t long before my skills were being challenged. My horse Fritz, didn´t like to get behind, he wanted to be right up with the lead horses, so I was constantly working my “whoa horse” skills to keep him in check. Fritz would try to move right up behind the horse in front of me, and some horses don´t really appreciate that, so holding Fritz back was another challenge. With a little coaching from the nearest cowgirls I managed to keep Fritz under control and actually started feeling pretty comfortable riding the hills of the open range.
We made our way down to a large pasture near a stream where there was a large herd of cattle. Butch asked us to spread out and start pushing the group toward another nearby grazing spot. He said he likes to keep his cows moving so they don´t overuse one location. Well, one of the big challenges with this pasture was the occasional strand of old barbed-wire fence that was on the ground. Butch warned us to be very careful about the strands, because if your horse´s foot gets tangled in wire it could be a big problem for both of you.
Driving the cattle to a new grazing spot
Well, everything was going well, I was riding my horse, the group was moving the cattle, and it was feeling real Western. Then, Miss Elly, one of the fabulous four gals from Boston, came to a quick and total stop. Her horse had stepped into the middle of a ring of nearly hidden barbed wire. But Miss Elly calmly called to Justin the ranch hand who was nearby, telling him she wasn´t going to move and asking for some help out of the tenuous situation. In no time Justin was off his horse and was working to move the barbed wire away from Missy Elly´s mount. In a few minutes we were back in business. But the event provided a little extra excitement for the group.
We continued pushing the cattle toward a narrow trail heading up a hill. Before long we probably had one hundred cattle or so moving steadily forward. It was all working and I felt like I was getting a real feeling for the cowboy life. After a couple hours we decided we´d moved the cows far enough and headed back to the camp.
By the time we returned I felt like I´d made some progress on my path from greenhorn to cowboy. Of course, even though it was a relatively short day, for me, it felt really good to get off the horse and head back to the cabin to relax. It got even better a couple hours later when I heard the supper bell ring at the cookhouse. A couple things I learned from this trip were that cowboys eat really well and beef is well represented on the menu.
A hearty ranch breakfast was ample motivation to get up and prepare for another day out on the range. After pancakes, steak and eggs our energetic group headed for the barn for the daily ritual; brushing down your horse, adjusting the saddle and assorted gear, and then climbing on board your four-footed buddy.
Moving cattle toward the main herd
We learned our mission for this day was to follow a creek bottom and move any wayward cows toward the main herd in that area. With high spirits we trotted toward the far hills. With each cresting of a new ridge, I marveled at the scope of the landscape, and the fact that our group of riders were the only ones out here.
Eventually, we made our way to the creek bottom and gave our horses a well deserved drink of the cool water. At first we didn´t find many cows, but as we worked our way deeper into the canyon groups of animals began to appear. By the time we hit a large open area we had assembled a sizable herd.
With Butch orchestrating the movements of our band of riders we continued to push the herd north along the valley. We were now very close to Montana and the Continental Divide. This slightly higher country was now dotted with groves of trees, and here and there you could catch some of the wonderful colors of fall. With a few final yips of encouragement Butch and the crew coaxed the last of the herd into a sheltered draw just short of the state line. The big chore for the day was complete, and it was time for the long ride home.
The trip back to camp began as a somewhat leisurely trek back down the paths we´d already traversed. Then I felt a little drop of moisture on my shoulder and heard a low rumble. The blue skies of the morning were disappearing into a bank of grey and the rain drops fell with more frequency. All the riders wished they would have brought their slickers, or at least have dressed a little warmer. When you´re hours from camp and there isn´t much shelter along the way, all you can do is sit tall in the saddle and endure the elements.
While I was getting thoroughly soaked, I asked Butch about his longest ride in the rain. He wryly answered, “All day, and the day after that. Of course, I usually remember to tuck a rain slicker into my saddlebags.” The rain finally eased just as we were hitting the homestretch. As we trotted into the corral, there were a lot of wet riders who thought those little rustic cabins looked pretty terrific.
Getting to know each other over a game of cards
Everyday at the ranch brought some kind of new adventure or challenge. Sure, there were the regular routines of dealing with the horses, riding the range and then resting and waiting for the dinner bell. There were also the long conversations around the table at the cookhouse, maybe a game of cards or horseshoes and then flopping tired bones into bed. But each morning you could look forward to a slightly different task, a ride into new terrain, or an unexpected encounter with wildlife.
I remember spotting a moose making its way through the sage, an eagle gracefully floating over tree tops, and deer bounding away in long leaps. Another great memory for me was the evening ride to the tallest ridges near the camp. As our horses climbed higher and higher, the full glory of the Continental Divide unfolded before us. The sinking sun glistened on the far mountains, layered in overlapping layers of purple and blue.
And the fantastic part about riding a horse is that you don´t have to constantly look down at where you´re stepping, rather you can sit back in the saddle and take in the surroundings. This was a classical Western scene — silhouetted horses slowly ambling into the sunset, surrounded by the wide open grandeur that epitomizes the West. That´s one moment among many that I will remember when I think about my trip to the “dude ranch.”