This is part of Travel Firsts, a new series featuring trips that required a leap of faith or marked a major life milestone.
When you ride out at Eatons’—a 140-year-old dude ranch in Wolf, Wyoming—no wrangler accompanies you. In fact, there are very few rules at all: You can drive your rental into town and bring back all the liquor you want; you can smoke your Marlboro Reds on the patio; you can share a drink with the staff. But one activity is expressly forbidden: Under no circumstances—not if your horse is excited, nor if it’s your last day and you’re high on adrenaline—are you “to come in hot.” Horses walk into the stables, never run, I’m told. And as I quickly learn during my time here, it will be me who is responsible for my horse’s slow and steady return to stable.
The town of Wolf takes a while to get to: you can connect in Denver to fly into Sheridan or drive two hours from the Billings airport to get there. Either way, you come in slow and stay slow during your stay. My grandparents first brought my father and his brothers to the ranch in 1980. My uncles started taking their own families back a decade ago. However despite Dad’s best efforts, our branch of the family is less adventurous, and we were never able to pull it together and go. Last summer, however, we received a wake up call when my grandmother Hazel passed away. Those of us remaining and available—my granddad, both uncles, one aunt, a handful of cousins, my parents and siblings, and me—made the plan to convene at the ranch for some of the overdue quality time that Hazel held so dear.
There are many fabulous things that I can say about Grandma, but one of the greatest reasons for our family’s closeness was her commitment to us all traveling together. The first time that I left the country was not with my parents, but with her, my grandfather, and my twin brother Jack on a trip to Italy. Our biggest trip, 13 of us total, was to Turkey in 2011, where we wandered the ruins of ancient Troy and took dips in the Mediterranean off the coast of Antalya. (I was 13, and as such there are many regrettable photographs of me at these once-in-a-lifetime locales decked out in board shorts.) Eatons’ was to be our first proper convention outside of Connecticut, where most of us are based, on this side of the pandemic—and our first big family trip without Grandma.
As my Aunt Ginny puts it, “It’s not chi-chi.” When you check in at Eatons’, you don’t get a key. Your cabin, which comes with rocking chairs and a porch, has no locks. You eat the same meals as everyone else, at the same time as everyone else. The food each day is delicious and simple: barbecue, salad, steak, salad, sandwich, salad. Yet a frequent conversation that plays out among my aunts and uncles is how to improve the place, if the family who have long owned the ranch would only listen to them; everything from general housekeeping (“in all these years, they haven’t fixed this one window!”) to overhauls of the itinerary (“we should ride before dinner, not after!”). Such talk always ends at the same place though, which is that to change a thing would mean that Eatons’ would no longer be Eatons’.
This is my first time on a ranch, and I am no equestrian. But to my surprise I spend most of the trip either riding horses or waiting to do so. Before my arrival, I could count my times sitting on a horse on a single finger. Needless to say, I do not once break the rules and “come in hot” when returning to the stables. The primary reason for this is that I submit readily to authority, but even if I want to, my horse would never allow it. Kyle is handsome and he knows it, with killer eyes of icy blue and a white coat offset by the occasional brown splotch, meaning he is troublesomely stubborn and disinterested in doing much of anything. He does not care to gallop, even in the widest of open spaces, although getting him up to a trot is a feat I do accomplish several times.