Bluebird Skies Return to Southwest Colorado by Linda Ballou

An Anasazi Indian legend speaks of the Spirit Horse that appears as a flashing light in dreams. He seeks the rider untamed enough to follow him and the most honorable and outrageous dreams to grant. In the case of Gene and Jan Roberts he didn’t need to do much tempting to get them to climb aboard. Gene was an accountant and Jan was a nuclear medicine technologist when they met on a ski slope 37 years ago. They both suffered from an unrequited love affair with horses. Wilderness Trails Ranch, a 160 acre ranch nestled in the Pine River Valley, sheltered by “purple mountains majesty” is here today for you and me to enjoy because they doggedly pursued a dream to make horses, via a guest-ranch enterprise, the central point of their lives.

Located 35 miles east of Durango in Southwestern Colorado their ranch is hidden from the trappings of civilization at the end of a single track that travels around Vallecito Lake. When fires roared through the region in the summer of 2002, the isolation of the ranch proved to be a mixed blessing. Flames consumed the forests along the lake road and threatened to jump the ridge of Piadra Wilderness at their back door. Whether it was the prayers of the Roberts family; the protecting spirits of the Ute Indians, who pitched their teepees in the cottonwoods in Pine River Valley and considered it their sacred hunting ground; or the unswerving efforts of ten firemen working day and night to save the lodge and outlying cabins from destruction, the ranch was spared. It is as though a heavenly hand hovered over the lush valley, guarded by imposing granite peaks, and kept Wilderness Trails Ranch from harms way.

4abc8850As I enjoyed a hearty country breakfast in the dining hall of the rough -hewn lodge, I looked out over the pastures where horses grazed peacefully. The only remnants that I could see of the fire that flared through the Southwest  was a blackened ridge that silhouettes the remaining Spruce and Ponderosa Pine, stacked halfway up the steep bluff to the north. Gunmetal gray clouds settled in the cleft of the peaks at the head of the valley while morning mists rose over a small lake on the valley floor. Rust and muted green grasses and rangey Corn Lilies, bent low to the ground in the meadow, spoke of fall.

It is September, the end of a summer the Roberts will not soon forget, and it is adult week at Wilderness Trails. Gene starts the week as usual with an orientation to set the ground rules for visiting dudes. Whether you are a greenhorn who has never graced a saddle or a seasoned hand with your own horses at home, there are rides for you to enjoy and something for you to learn.

“Good horsemanship is good horsemanship,” says Gene, a certified riding instructor, who encourages the use of cross-training in clinics given at the ranch. He cut his riding teeth on cows, and the hard ways of cowboys used in bygone days. Today he believes dressage is the ultimate communication between rider and horse. When asked which trainer he emulates, he says he takes bits and pieces from all of them including Pat Parelli of Natural Horsemanship fame, Dennis Reis who works with police horses and makes them bomb proof; and Monty Roberts who the Robert Redford character in Horse Whisperer was based upon and was a guest at the ranch.

4acc8850“They all have a common thread. They try to understand how the horse thinks and how the herd communicates. We try to understand how a horse thinks and fit ourselves into their program not the other way around. In our training we strive for safety through control and understanding. We don’t want our guests to just be passengers. We want them to come away from the ranch experience knowing how to speak a little “horse” as well as have a great time.” Gene explained.

I asked if it was okay for me to post to the trot in a western saddle. “Absolutely, in fact it’s better for the rider and the horse,” Gene said emphatically. Jan added that she once confronted the local wisdom of western riders in the region on this subject. I was relieved to know that this English riding method that keeps me comfortable in the saddle and protects my back is condoned at Wilderness Trails.

In peak summer season the ranch is filled to capacity with parents enjoying time with their kids and is geared toward the family experience. Activities, like sing-alongs and hayrides around the campfire, are arranged for family fun together, yet, kids and adults get to have some time away from each other as well. They have separate rides for the kids, as well as short supervised hikes, and they can visit the foals in their pasture, or swim in the 72-foot heated pool. For the adults there is a bubbling spa and a masseuse on site to soothe muscles at the end of a days ride. It takes a full staff of 25 to cater to the families needs. During adult week the group is smaller, the staff is scaled down and rules are more relaxed.

Over one of the many scrumptious meals rustled up by Gary, the ranch’s Cordon Blue Chef, we talked about the affects of the fire. Gene said. “Even though we got smoked out and evacuating 80 head of horses was not a lot of fun, we needed that burn.”

4aec8850“The back country horsemen helped us get the stock out and neighboring ranches provided accommodations for our guests. Neighbors around the lake and in Bayfield called each other daily providing fire updates. It was the hardest of our thirty three summers at Wilderness Trails.” Jan said, blinking back tears from fire opal eyes.

“Lending a neighbor a helping hand is what our Western Heritage is all about.” Gene chimed in. He is the Vice-President of the Dude Ranchers Association and works co-operatively with over 120 dude ranchers sharing information and helping to maintain standards for guests at member ranches.Gene and Jan’s son, Lance, gave a talk to guests about the fact that forest soils, grasses, and wild flowers are reinvigorated by the natural process of fire. Fires in Ponderosa and Lodge pole Pine forests such as the ones that surround the ranch, clear out small trees and needle mats and release nutrients to stimulate fresh undergrowth of grasses and forbs. Burns create new openings in the dense forest canopy that are beneficial to wildlife as well.

“We plan on helping mother-nature by clearing the trees near the lodge and cabins then spreading some grass and wildflower seed.” Gene said. These efforts combined with the often 300 inches of snow that comes to the valley each winter should add up to an abundant spring bouquet. One of the guests interrupted the talk about fire to complain that “Food should not taste this good.” I had to agree. I broke “training” during my stay, unable to turn down chicken and ribs with tangy BBQ sauce, chicken-cheese enchiladas, prime rib, roast pork all served with fresh salad vegetables and homemade desserts. Eggs benedict, pecan pancakes and my personal favorite, the Mediterranean omelette, were a few of the breakfast specials. I still haven’t stepped on a scale. Vegan meals are provided upon request.

During adult week the wranglers, who work during the summer, go back to college leaving Jan and Gene along with their daughter Erika to lead the rides. Smaller groups ranging from 3-4 riders afford the opportunity to trailer the horses to less-traveled trailheads. Erika’s cross-training includes cow punching, dressage, jumper classes and a couple of weeks of fox hunting in Ireland thrown in to test her metal. She is the barn manager at Wilderness Trails and is studying to be a veterinarian. She offered to be my guide for a day-ride when the rest of the group opted to take the Mesa Verde day trip offered by the ranch.

Mesa Verde, the largest archeological preserve in North America with some 4,000 known sites dating from A.D. 600 to1300, includes the most impressive cliff dwellings in the Southwest. The Anasazi, referred to as ” the ancients” by their Hopi descendants, chose sites sheltered by immense sandstone arches that protected them from predators and the elements. There are many theories about why they left sophisticated dwellings that often took more than a century to build, but it is presumed that they simply exhausted their natural resources. There is a fine museum next to Spruce Tree House and an inspiring walk along the rim of Spruce Tree Canyon. At the top of Park Point, the highest plateau in Mesa Verde you can enjoy a 360 degree view that takes in the four corners where Arizona, Utah, New Mexico and Colorado meet.

4adc8850Though dark clouds swarmed overhead, Erika and I decided to take our chances. We tacked up and loaded our horses in the trailer. At 7,800 feet the weather can be moody, but the upside is that there are very few insects and no poisonous snakes. My mount, a robust quarter horse named Copper, was invigorated by the crisp air, and felt eager to stretch out. We moved into a ground gathering trot along the trail that winds up a rugged canyon on a shelf overlooking the Pine River into the depths of the Weminuche Wilderness, the largest roadless area in Colorado. The smell of blue-tipped Spruce and Ponderosa Pine filled the air. Chartreuse aspen with golden crowns stood in sharp relief against staggered layers of deepening green that sheath Granite Peaks. The mist turned to intermittent rain, but we were snug in our slickers.

Birds flitted amongst boughs dripping with glistening droplets. The clouds broke up and the sun, flirting with the clouds, brightened the leaves of maidenhair ferns, and wild rose, making the green world sparkle. When we reached the “Steel Bridge,” six miles up canyon, we met a man carrying a full backpack coming down from the old mining town of Silverton, 80 miles away. He had hiked alone through some of the “gnarliest” terrain the state has to offer.  Most folks reach the tiny western burg via the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, another popular daytrip offered by the ranch. The track, laid 122 years ago for the coal-stoked train that chugs through Animus canyon at 18 miles an hour, is still considered an engineering marvel. We had a quick lunch beside the bridge that spanned the gushing upper Pine River, bulging from recent rains. On the way home Erika let me take the lead, which she often does during adult week, if the rider demonstrates good horsemanship.

4afc8850Waterfalls tumbled down the sheer gray rock walls glistening with seeps. Towering white cumulus clouds mushroomed through a patch of bluebird sky. My heart was as light as the day and my mind was set free to wander. I loosened the cinch on my own spiritual steed, and thanked him for the plaintive whinny that lured me to the Southwest, a land of dramatic desert mesas and plateaus, rugged 14,000 foot peaks, and the allure of open spaces. I thank Gene and Jan Roberts for following their dream to blend the authentic western experience of the past with the creature comforts of the present in a land that demands endurance, and inspires undying love.