I'm not the kind of guy who won't admit when he's too old to do something. I'll own up to my age, but I'm not aging gracefully. I hate every friggin' moment of it. I am still in the gym nearly every day when I'm home. And, if I had the dough, I'd probably be nipping, tucking and lifting at a rate that would make a washed-up Hollywood starlet envious.
Yet, I didn't give a second thought to the physical implications of heading to a couple of days of horseback riding at Eatons' Ranch in Wyoming last week. I went there with assorted buddies and fraternity brothers for nine years in a row beginning in 2002. I never had so much as a twinge of discomfort during the nine or ten 3-hour rides each of those trips entailed.
|Our merry band of misfits.|
Then, after a three-year hiatus, the brothers returned to Eatons' this year. OMG! What a difference three years makes when you have as many years in your rearview mirror as I have.
Unlike years past when I was there for four or five days, this year, obligations at home – namely covering the big Greenville food/wine/craft beer/live music event Euphoria for GreenvilleInsider – meant that I could only stay for two nights and three rides this year....thank God! As I stagger around the airport in Billings, Mont. for my flights home, I doubt I'd be more stove up and sore had I plummeted over Niagara Falls in a barrel.
Seven of us arrived in Billings around noon on Tuesday. An eighth – an intrepid soul indeed – flew into the Sheridan Thrifty Mart and Airport that same morning. I arrived in fairly good shape despite spending the three-and-a-half-hour flight from Atlanta to Salt Lake City in an aisle seat with a young woman balancing a three-month-old baby in her lap in the center seat next to me. Incredibly, the baby snoozed the entire way, rousing only when the plane's landing gear deployed upon arrival. Just writing about this stroke of luck brings a tear to my eye.
|Mmmm....so good and so good for you.|
Wrangler Rick – so nick named because he introduced us to Eatons' all those years ago and led the way on our trail rides that first outing – was on my flight into Billings where we would all mount up into a couple of rental cars for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to the ranch in Wyoming. With an hour to fill waiting on the other arrivals, we collected our bags and retired to the airport bar where the bartender introduced us to Pig's Ass Porter. As the rest of our crew drifted in, most, naturally, joined us in a Pig's Ass.
|A little shopping at Costco.|
For years our routine after arriving in Billings was to seek out the Costco where we would load up on Moose Drool Ale, peanuts in the shell – both staples of our ranch boondoggles – and whatever other sundries we thought we needed. We did the same this trip, but, sadly, there was no Moose Drool to be found. We came up Drooless. One of the cars, though, detoured into a package store as we neared the ranch to procure that necessity.
The only one of us arriving early enough on Day 1 to ride was the brother who flew into Sheridan (about 20 miles from the ranch). He squeezed in an afternoon ride that first day. The rest of us had to settle for unpacking, drinking Moose Drool and catching up for an hour or so before dinner.
|Moose Drool and peanuts: It's more than enough to sustain a cowboy.|
If you have anyone you can be out of contact with for months or even years at a time, get back together and pretty much pick up where you left off as though you were last together yesterday, you understand what this group is like. Everyone still pretty much fills their role of 40 years ago when we were all Fijis at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio, playing their part flawlessly.
|The living room in Big Graham.|
Eatons' is the longest running guest ranch in the United States, and I guess that means in the world. So, changes (read that: improvements) don't come easily. The first thing I noticed was the new living-room furniture in the Big Graham cabin in which I stayed the last eight visits. There is also a very nice bar in the main ranch house. When we first went to the ranch, you had to keep any alcohol on the down low. Slowly the ranch began to allow guests to bring it with them into the dining room. Eventually the ranch even stocked bottles of liquor, bottles of wine and six packs of beer, which guests could buy. Now there is a full-fledged bar with a happy hour with free draft beer and wine for the hour before dinner.
|The ranch's well-stocked and nicely furnished bar.|
Skeet shooting and organized fly fishing outings are also recent additions to the Eatons' activities menu. Because these would have interfered with our drinking, we didn't participate.
Although some of the entrees proved a little too froo-froo for me, the food was damn good. We went a couple of years where the Donner Party ate better than we did. Quality wasn't an issue this trip.
|Some good sippin'.|
Our after-dinner activities typically consist of retiring to one of our cabins' porches and tossing back a few drinks while regaling one another with stories and lies. This year we had the added bonus of several bottles of high-end scotches, bourbons and ryes from which to choose.
|Some expert saddle fitting.|
Wednesday morning we gathered for breakfast around 7 a.m. By 8:00, we were at the barn being fitted for saddles. Our first trail ride kicked off at 9:30. Eatons' is unique in that, although they are available upon request, wranglers aren't required to lead the trail rides. Guests simply mount up and head out in whichever direction they want to go. During the shoulder season, there are morning and afternoon riding sessions, each roughly two-to-three hours long. More adventurous guests can take a sack lunch and head out on an all day ride. I've done a couple of all-day rides over the years and was not thrilled with the experience. Nope; I'd much rather take a break at noon, toss back a Moose Drool and have a sit-down lunch.
Once upon a time, we were much more adventurous. We took on the more challenging trails. Several of our group would take advantage of the sections of whatever trail we were on crossing into the plains to gallop. Not so much now. On this trip our primary goal was to stay in the saddle and avoid breaking anything. We were pretty much successful. It doesn't make for an exciting blog, but is certainly an accomplishment.
|Wrangling the mounts for our afternoon ride.|
Wednesday night broke with tradition on two fronts. First, during happy hour at the ranch's bar, our little group was alone in the room when two women joined our table. After dinner, they dropped by our porch. This, we later determined, was a violation of our ranch guys-only code. It has been violated before, but we really try to enforce it. The evening was sort of fun, but certainly the dynamic was much different. Second, we never play pranks on one another. However, as our group broke up that night, the five guys in the larger cabin discovered each of their beds had been salted with cashews. It was the Great Cashew Caper of 2014. Of course, the three of us in the smaller cabin fell under immediate suspicion. All I know is, it wasn't me. Actually as the investigation played out, all indications are it was one of the ranch staff. It's family owned and managed. We have been going there for years. We are now pretty sure it was some pot stirring by a ranch staffer.
My steed this visit was Hova. He appeared a bit reluctant during our first ride. For the afternoon's outing, I donned my spurs, which provided him with some needed motivation. He became wonderfully responsive.
I only made it out on the trail three times during this trip. Despite my premature departure, however, I later felt every second spent in the saddle. About two-thirds of the way through my last ride on Thursday morning, I remarked that if this was golf, at this point in the ride would be my 12th hole. That's usually about when, weary from concentrating, I would lose interest in the game and be ready to head back to the clubhouse. Thursday's ride was about two miles beyond my capacity to enjoy it. My knees and lower back ached, my thighs hurt and I was craving a Moose Drool. Even if I had stayed at the ranch another couple of days as everyone else did, I wouldn't have ridden Thursday afternoon.
I took advantage of the ranch's airport shuttle service to get myself back to Billings Thursday afternoon. I stayed at the least expensive motel I could find online. It was downtown, and had the advantage of being about a six-block walk from the Montana Brewing Company brew pub. There I sampled a Great White Stout while chowing down on fish and chips.
I had to order a taxi to haul me from the motel to the airport Friday morning. The motel's front desk gave me the number of a cab company and suggested I preorder it the night before. I was skeptical it would show at the designated time of 4:45 a.m., but arrive it did. It turned out to be $11 rather than the $7 the desk clerk quoted me, but I was just happy to have the on-time ride.
My flights home took me to Minneapolis and Detroit, but were uneventful. Landing in Greenville, I gathered my luggage, jumped in the car and headed directly downtown for Euphoria, the reason for my leaving the ranch early.
My tenth, and perhaps final, Eatons' trip is history.