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  • Writer's picturePru Warren

Wagons West!

July 24, 2023

I think I can announce, with grandeur like Maggie Smith on Downton Abbey, that I am now officially too damned old to be expected to keep my temper on a day of travel. It is TOO DAMNED EXHAUSTING.

My alarm was set for 4:15 in the morning, which meant that when I woke up at 2:15, I lay there thinking the pre-travel thoughts. Will I remember to grab my sunglasses on the way out? Will there be a long line at TSA at the airport? What have I forgotten to pack? Can I get on a horse without the horse staggering to the side and falling over because of my epic bulk?

My house was filled with sleeping people. My sister Lexie had opted to get a hotel room, but I had Stephen in the upstairs guest room (That’s Lexie’s younger son) and Douglas (her older son) was in the basement guestroom with his fiancée Trystyn and their four-year-old Tobi. Rusty (my son) was in his own room. All of them were—theoretically—sleeping. More likely, they too were lying inert in their beds wondering what they had forgotten to pack for a week at a dude ranch.

At 4:30, I summoned my troops. “Wake up, my children! Today we go to Montana!” The first to appear was Tobi, who must have been waiting just out of sight to dance into the front hall and grin up at me. “Hi!” he cried cheerfully. He was in adorable jammies and wrapped in a fleecy blankie.

“Hi!” I called back. “Want to come up here and help me make my bed?” Those little legs blurred beneath him as he came up, his perpetual motion powered by his grin. This kid is freaking adorable.

Tobi and I get things ready and wound up electrical cords and packed iPads and iPhones and Air Macs that we both KNEW would be next to useless at the ranch; no internet until you’re actually sitting on the porch of the cabin that makes up the office, as prescribed by Scripture. (Or the Elkhorn Ranch webpage.)

We found all four “children” in poses of sleeping alertness and grouped around the kitchen table (o well done!!) and Lexie was just arriving to add her early-morning cheer to the room full of blinking young adults. (Let’s see—Rusty is 24 so Douglas has to be 26 and Stephen 23. I don’t know how old Trystyn is, but around there.)

Here’s Lexie. She bought a hat for the occasion.

Impossibly, we managed to leave the house even before the requested time. (Flight boards at 8:15; allow two hours to get through the echoing vastness of the security hall at Dulles; throw in 45 minutes to drive to Dulles and ten minutes to leave the cars with the valet parking guys = leave at 5:15.) We saw the sunrise over the Fairfax County Parkway, which is not as romantic as it sounds. (What’s that? It doesn’t sound romantic? Oh. Well, you’ve got the image then.)

You just never know with TSA. We barely paused for long enough to put our shoes on again before we’d been shuffled off to our gate. Sometimes I’ve been stuck there for decades. Not this time.

We knew our plane was little (set up in a 2 x 2 configuration), which was confirmed when we were deposited at a gate with doors right out to the tarmac. We didn’t even get a jetway.

And then we waited.

Tobi is the best little boy. He’s very obedient to his mother and father, and also his Uncle Stephen, and he obviously loves his “Grammah.” (Lexie and I called OUR grandmother that; it’s funny and confusing to hear the word apply to her.) We sat at a gate—a place definitely not designed to entertain a four-year-old—for hours, and the kid did not complain.

Neither did the older children, although they didn’t look as pleased with their lives as Tobi did.

Towards the end of our wait, we were already getting on each other’s nerves, and Douglas and Trystyn were trying to avoid pulling out the various entertainments they’d packed to keep their baby peaceful on a five-hour flight but the charm of a small bag of goldfish crackers had worn off. Happily, I remembered that at least a decade ago, Jonathan (long-departed husband, gone to the great antique mall in the sky) had loaded something called “Tesla Toy” onto my iPad, and it still worked.

This is a cool and useless app. On a black screen, thousands of tiny dots drift aimlessly. If you touch one finger to the screen, the dots will all zoom in to cluster under your finger. When you lift your finger again, they’ll explode like fireworks to disperse again. Tobi was mesmerized.

“What happens if you use TWO fingers, Tobi?”

A circuit! And what about TEN fingers, Tobi?

Screams of delight. An app that held my attention for a few minutes was magic to a four-year-old. He was blissed. Success! Now, every time he sees me, he asks if he can play with the fireworks, which are usually somewhere at the top of a hill that I don’t want to climb, and then we have disappointment…however, for the last ten minutes before boarding the plane, I was a hearo.

The flight was largely uninteresting except that the heating and air conditioning was clearly on the fritz. Rusty, seated at the window, had freezing air blowing on him from that long, skinny vent that runs the length of the plane over the windows. At one point, ice literally fell out of the vent and landed on his arm. Twice the flight attendants turned the controls over to the pilots who were somehow able to turn the heaters on and then we baked for a while before coming back to bleak midwinter.

It seems that this was training for Montana. I’m writing cross-legged on my bed at 7:17 in the morning and the temperature is—well, I don’t know what the temperature is because my phone can’t get a signal. But I’d be willing to bet it’s about 45 degrees. By midday it will be in the mid 90s. So the plane was our (ho ho) warm-up act.

I paid to have Elkhorn pick us up, and Lexie rented a car because Tobi needed a good booster seat, so we had to do a little after you no after you dance of how we’d coordinate things. We tried to have lunch together but we were all on the desperate edge of fussy and eventually the two vehicles decoupled. Kaitlyn from the ranch took Rusty and me, along with Stephen, in her [insert car type here because I can’t remember; was it really a Suburban? Not quite a truck but big old honking Driving Through The West Mobile, right?] and we headed to the ranch. Lexie had Trystyn, Douglas, and Tobi and they went to WalMart to buy whatever incomprehensible things they couldn’t do without. Without which they simply couldn’t do.

Kaitlyn is lovely—our first indicator that the Elkhorn people are drawn to work there because they’re all generously kind and don’t seem to have eye-rolling muscles at all when confronted by Easterners with absolutely no idea what to do on a ranch. She works in the office but is working on getting her certification as a guide. She kept her cheer as we attempted to keep our little convoy together and then again when we separated with pleasure.

We stopped for lunch and made it to the ranch by around 2:15, 2:30. Lexie and I chose the Elkhorn because my mother had been here in the late 40s, early 50s with her parents. She used to tell us stories and had promised to take us all one day. Lexie, who never got over the third-grade-girls-love-horses phase, was much affected by that promise. After Mom died, we were gathered with our cousins at the memorial for Mom’s sister (Aunt Betsy) and discovered that the cousins had been promised the Elkhorn Ranch too in their youth.

“We’ll never get there now!” we all wailed…and then we looked at each other—all of us graying and wrinkled and fully-functioning adults with disposable incomes and children of our own—and decided we needed to take ourselves.


Everyone bailed on the plan except Lexie and me—and now I was driving through the gates of the place. Unlike Narnia, you really CAN get to the Elkhorn—you just have to want it enough, and also exist on VERY little sleep.

The area was formed geological ages ago by the tectonic plates that thrust the Rocky Mountains into the sky, and by the Gallatin River, which flows at the foot of the valley. The Elkhorn takes up a gently-sloping side-valley about 20 minutes past Big Sky. The lower half of the property (the visible property, of course; I have no idea where the property lines are) is turned over to the horses, who wander through vast meadows of grasslands. Barns and stables and garages pop up out of the grasses, nudged up against the hillsides. Owners cabins and staff houses come next as the land begins to rise. The dirt drive goes up a hill to the next region, which is dominated by two-footed species. Waving people were clustered at the broadest part of the drive, ready to greet us. The office (home to fabled internet access; coo!) is here, that’s the youth barn (not their name), where kids under 12 or maybe 16 have a home base for the kids’programs, along with a pingpong table, a piano, and a blond grizzly pelt nailed to the wall. This building over here has lemonade, iced tea, and ice water available 24 hours a day along with two or three kinds of cookies and a vigorously working ice machine. C’mon, let’s keep going!

That cabin has laundry facilities. This one is the boot-and-hat cabin; head in whenever you’re ready to find boots and hats that fit you for riding. Here, Stephen—this is your cabin. Stephen had a cute little one-bedroom cabin, rustic and dark, with a nice front porch to sit on.

The cabin farthest up the hill (sigh) is the cabin assigned to me and Rusty. This caused us confusion; during my discussions with cheerful KT (not to be confused with cheerful Kaitlyn or cheerful Gail), I thought I’d made it clear that Rusty needed his own space. But that got lost somewhere down the telephone wires crossing this vast continent. Instead, Rusty and I have been thrust into an Untenable Situation.

Our cabin, named “Highlight” because, I assume, it’s the highest cabin on the property and I can’t tell you how SINCERELY HAPPY that makes my weary, fat old body, not…our cabin has a front porch and then inside is a moderately large room with a queen-sized bed. Through a very low door is a bathroom. Through the bathroom is a very small bedroom with a twin bed in it.

Wait. Hang on. Gail, where is Rusty’s room?

Right here! See? It’s got it’s own door outside! She unlatched the hook-and-eye and attempted to open the door that had clearly been chain-sawed into the side of the cabin. It grudgingly gave about two inches before wedging itself against the floor, letting in the sight of wildflowers growing in exuberance over a door step that hadn’t seen a footfall since Sally and Betsy roamed the ranch. “Oh. I can get maintenance to see if they can get this door open…”

No, no. Rusty and I don’t want to share a bathroom. He’s a 24-year-old guy. He needs room and space. This isn’t what we talked about.

The ranch is fully booked this week.

This is what we get.

Now whenever Rusty or I want to use the bathroom, we have to warn the other not to come in or go out. If he wants to leave, he has to walk through my bedroom. I really like Rusty; we get along. But part of WHY we get along is that we both respect the other’s need for privacy. I mean, COME ON. I’ve been lying here thinking about who would be happy in this space, and the answer is…um, no one? Maybe a super-controlling Master of the Universe who could lie here next to his fearful wife and know that his nervous son or daughter was all but locked into the tiny bedroom? None shall pass without my knowledge and permission!

I was just fatigued enough to complain to Gail, and then, because there is a LOT going on on move-in day at the ranch to KT as well. As I said to them, I know they can’t build me another cabin in the next 15 minutes, but if someone had to leave unexpectedly, I’d be glad to move Rusty into his own place. They smiled graciously and offered me no reassurance or apology. This is the way it was. Have a cookie.

I would have stomped around some more if I hadn’t been so tired. Fortunately at that point, Rusty, Stephen, and I were put into the hands of Jack The Fishing Guy, who gave us a clinic on how to fly-fish. Jack is as kind and friendly as everyone else at the ranch, and he nudged me out of my bad mood by getting me to focus on tiny wrist movements. By the end of the clinic, I was flicking a fly into the pond, and Rusty was sending his zizzing across the surface for about three times the distance I was getting. Rusty ALSO managed to hook his own neck. “Well, you’re not bleeding!” Jack said, impressed, as he unhooked my son. Giggles all around.

It was a great deal of fun. We began with how to use the flexy nature of the rods to whip a fly out. Then we discovered that the reason fly fishermen whip their flies overhead a bunch of times before launching is (a) to flick off any water from the fly itself and (b) to add more length to the line; each flick back you pull out another foot of line from the reel, each flick forward you send that extra foot down the movement to put the fly farther into the pond. That was mesmerizing. It’s quite hard to do, but every now and then I got the angle of the rod just right and the weight of the fly would pull the extra line from my fingers. Victory!

We were flicking and whipping like grinning dudes when Lexie and her trio finally pulled up. We waved and cheered, and they got their tour. We didn’t regroup until Jack forced us to surrender our poles. “Time for the meet-and-greet!” he said happily.

He wasn’t the first one to refer to a meet-and-greet with such joy. Apparently it’s the done thing to stand around and have a cocktail and meet strangers. Well, I don’t drink, and my ability to meet a stranger was at a tidal ebb. Even flush with the buzz of fly fishing, I was tapped out. And then the wind picked up, carrying epic dust storms along the dirt driveways. And then the smoke from far-distant forest fires darkened the sky. And then the darkness turned out to be drizzle. And the dinner was served from the chuck wagon in the middle of a field. In the rain.

I lost what little calm I had. Tobi was having tantrums on the office porch because he couldn’t play with the fireworks and because it had been a damned long day and because where the fuck was dinner??! It was only the fact that I would then have to get back up that stopped me from lying on the porch and having a tantrum right beside Tobi. We could have wailed at the general unfairness of life together. Rusty, meanwhile, was meeting and greeting people like a career diplomat.

I am a failure as a human being. But I raised a good kid.

I got my barbecue ribs and stalked up the hill to the dining room, followed by my cowed extended family. I found the light switches (hidden in the KITCHEN, damn it!) and lit the place up. I don’t know why we were the only ones to resort to eating under cover; the other guests were still vigorously meeting-and-greeting on the porch nearest to the chuckwagon, where the cooks stood in their damp and grinning lines, waiting to dish out corn and quinoa.

Grimly, determinedly, I hoofed it back up the hill. SO far up the hill. And staggered into our unacceptable cabin. Rusty looked at me and said “You poor thing. You really need some sleep!” He was right, of course. I was awake just long enough to take photos of the sunset through the cabin windows.

I’ve awoken with a headache, which bodes ill…but I feel like my spirit has been restored somewhat. If I can get on a horse without it staggering to the side, I shall feel the day will be ajudged a success. Time to get up and meet Lexie, at least, at the breakfast table. After which I shall brave the Boot and Hat cabin. The Wild Wild West awaits!

Here's a photo I got this morning, on my way down to the office to get a fix of imy internet addiction. The nearest cabin is being used by Unknown Persons. The middle one is where Tobi, Douglas, and Trystyn are, with Lexie in a posh cabin attached and to the side. The final roof is Highlight, where everyting is just a little off and a grumpy woman can do some rightous First World Problems complaining. I do feel better, though--I have cowboy boots from the Boot and Hat cabin, and am ready for the corral!

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Jul 24, 2023

So I'm thinking we have to send you out on the road more often just so we can all enjoy these travelogues. But fair warning: next time we get together, I, too, want to play the fireworks game, so make sure you bring that old iPad!😍


Jul 24, 2023



Jul 24, 2023

I am so excited to join you vicariously on this adventure. I hope the internet connection on the office porch holds up.

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