Pennsylvania: Ranch dressing


dude ranch usaThe stuffed moose over the fireplace looks down on us in cross-eyed bemusement as we enter the main reception of the dude ranch. The smell of saddle soap, barbeque and the great outdoors pervaded throughout and we know we have arrived, if not in the Wild West exactly, certainly outside the city limits

After 3 days in the Big Apple, my husband, teenage sons and I are feeling a little stewed. We have covered New York with the enthusiasm of first-time visitors and have the blisters and cut-price purchases to prove it. We’ve been from Staten Island to Top of the Rock, from Central Park to Harlem. We are all ready for the gentle welcome of the rolling, Pennsylvania countryside which greets us only an hour after the last honk of New York taxi drivers was heard.

A weekend of shooting, fishing, horse-riding, campfires and rodeo, beckon. Health and Safety experts may shudder at the freedom given to guests to ride without helmets, and to fish and shoot bows and arrows without either instruction or supervision, but the old-fashioned amongst us may suggest that this harks back to times when people were trusted to use common sense (although every guest is required to sign a disclaimer certificate to release the ranch of liability in the event of an accident.)

I wonder if we will be hanging our boots by the campfire at night and am somewhat relieved when we are handed the key to a cabin (somewhat basic, but clean and comfortable.) There are even some surprising touches of luxury-an indoor swimming pool, a games room and a gift shop selling the obligatory

Yes, there is sense of pantomime-not least when the ranch manager appears every night at dinner with a “Yee-ha!” and loudly requests a response from all the guests. But, when that is followed by generous amounts of home cooked food served communally at large tables where the talk is of horses ridden, guns fired and fish caught, you soon begin to genuinely feel the cowboy spirit. A loud whoop elicited by a total power cut at dinner one evening epitomises the hardy nature of the ranchers.

Friday night is campfire night-less whiskey and wild stories than toasted marshmallows, hayrides and stories for the young, Saturday nights bring wagons full of bulls and cowboys for a rodeo that lasts until the small hours. On the weekend we are there, there are 31 contenders. There is no doubt that much of it is for show, but equally, one gets the sense that these are timeless traditions.

The guests range from New Yorkers who visit every weekend to tourists from as far as New Zealand, Sweden and Iran. There is no shortage of interesting characters, from the millionaire business man now retired and dabbling in the music industry to the war veteran trundling around in a wheelchair with an American flag attached. The staff members are many and varied but, without exception, positive and helpful; it is a token of the success and vibrancy of the ranch that staff travel from miles around to work there on a voluntary basis.

Dude ranches reinvent the idea of the traditional Wild West and make ranches accessible to city dwellers and the less adventurous traveller, combining cowboy with comfort, rodeo with Rodeo Drive. They provide the opportunity to be as active or as sedentary as you wish, to spend your time roaming the hills on horseback or sitting back and taking in the country air. . They won’t need a lasso to make us city slickers return.

About the Author: Fran Conley is a travel writer and teacher! She lives with her husband, two children and numerous animals in North London, UK.

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