Day Four: Muffins, Mountains, and “Doughies” (and Horses, Too)

This morning I had the best muffin I have ever tasted for breakfast. I thought it might be the way it was baked, but I’ve discovered it owes its singular “delectability” to the fact that, while still warm, it was rolled in butter and doused in cinnamon and sugar.

I somehow ended the day as I began it, reveling in the marvels of culinary wizardry (and frankly, butter) as Martha and I were introduced to a campfire treat known to the Johnson clan as a “Doughie.” With the help of Pillsbury biscuit mix and a patent-pending cooking device that I can promise you will all want once you’ve tried one of these buttery balls of coal-fired goodness, Kristin Johnson delivered, as promised, something far better than the traditional S’more. No kidding. Doughies are the next big thing (around campfires, anyway).

Sandwiched between puffed, buttered, and sugared pastry was a day high up in the Bighorn National Forest–well, we were actually mostly in the grasslands that are located in the Bighorn Mountains, and while some of it is indeed forested, much of it is open and provides grazing for a few hundred head of the Padlock’s cows, calves, and bulls. Ranchers can graze cattle in the Bighorns if they secure a permit to do so, and in tougher years when feed may be scarce, the additional territory can prove invaluable.

Today we actually moved cattle from one part of the permitted area to another, and while really a rather orderly and slow-moving affair, it proved exciting for Martha and me nonetheless. I actually obtained live “hat-cam” footage of this momentous event…unfortunately, the very large video file is proving difficult to download, so you’ll all have to wait.

Isaac Johnson led us all to as idyllic a spot in the world as I’ve yet come upon…at the foot of a rocky face that jutted out of the ground, piercing an untarnished blue sky, wound a cold bubbling river. Far off at the end of a not-unpleasantly boggy meadow we could see two cabins, barely visible at the edge of the woods. A fly fisherman was casting into the rapids as we rode the horses to the river’s edge. There we dismounted, offered the horses a drink and a chance to graze, while we each indulged in a few quite moments…with our horses, with each other, with the grasses at our feet and mountains surrounding us…it was easily the most profound 15 minutes of peace I have known–or at least that I can remember.

I wish that this property, its people, its ideals, and its timelessness, would make itself just a little harder to love and a little easier to leave. I can’t help but wonder, once the sun has set on this week, how I can possibly find a way back again.

Kristin Johnson’s Padlock Muffins (courtesy of Ree Drummond’s The Pioneer Woman Cooks)

Padlock Guest Lodge Hostess and Head-of-Kitchen Kristin Johnson highly recommends this cookbook, and after a glance through, I have to agree–the recipes are great and Ree shares charmingly written anecdotes that will surely make you smile. So will these muffins:

3 cups all-purpose flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 cup sugar

2/3 cup shortening

1 cup milk

Preheat oven to 350 F

Stir together flour, baking powder, salt, and nutmeg. In a separate bowl, cream the sugar and shortening, then add the eggs. Alternate adding the flour mixture and 1/3 of the milk to the creamed mixture, then fill greased muffin cups, bake for 20 to 25 minutes, and remove from the pan. Melt 2 sticks of butter and combine 1 1/2 cups sugar with 3 teaspoons cinnamon. Dip the warm muffins in  the butter, then roll them in the sugar and cinnamon. Seriously. And Kristin says you really should use 2 sticks of butter.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Day Three: Holdin’, Headin’, and Hurtin’ (But Not SO Bad!)

Today was our first “full day” at the Padlock, although our third in Wyoming. We awoke to French toast and sunshine (Steve’s wife Kristin does all the cooking…don’t even get me started on the chicken pot pie we had for dinner tonight). Marvelous.

I guess with consistency in mind and perhaps even kindness, Martha and I were once again assigned the same four-legged partners we had yesterday. Copper and Blanco have now had 48 hours to decide whether or not they will put up with our East-Coast ways–and I must say, bless them, they chose to be benevolent souls and carried us through the day with little complaint and a whole lot of downright reliability.

We had a task of sorts today, and that was to ride through the 10,000-acre pasture (ha ha, you might say, when somewhere in the midst of 500,000 acres) and check out the “replacement heifers” (those that are intended to take the place of non-productive cows in coming seasons) and steers marked for the Country Natural Beef program for foot rot–which has been described to me as something akin to athlete’s foot.

It took some time and navigation of steep (yet beautiful) terrain to find our first lot of heifers and steers (at which point Martha and I both exclaimed, “Cows!”…yes, that would indeed identify us as the “dudes” we are). But we were in for some action. Isaac Johnson (Steve and Kristin’s son) rode through the herd as Martha and I “held” them in the midst of a massive prairie dog town. Note: Two things should be mentioned here–1) “Held” may be putting it strongly…we sat on our horses in a particular position on a hillside, as we were instructed, and I DID move back and forth a few times when a particularly brazen cow started to come my way; and 2) have you ever stood in the midst of a prairie dog town? The sound of the prairie dogs chastising you for your presence is almost deafening, and it is actually hard to find solid ground on which to tread, their holes are so darn prevalent.

Anyway, when checking a herd for foot rot, you move through the cows to get them to get up and walk or trot, basically affording you the chance to check them for lameness–a common symptom. If they appear off, they must be roped and checked and if necessary, given an antibiotic, which means they must be removed from the Country Natural Beef program (you don’t really want that).

Isaac found one that was suspect, and to our greenhorn delight, he and his father had to rope it and check it for the fungus, then mark it and release it–it made for exciting riding in and around Chez Prairie Dog.

There’s really nothing like having a cowboy gallop right by you, hot on the heels of a heifer, so close you can hear the rope whizzing through the air. Amazing, intense, and addictive.

So it only seemed appropriate that after dinner (that delicious chicken pot pie I mentioned earlier), we all meandered down to the horse barn for some roping practice on a wooden dummy (the cows were very thankful). Reata Brannaman, who is good friends with Isaac and Cooper Johnson and lives in Sheridan with her dad Buck and mom Mary, gave Martha and I a first-rate, first-timer’s introduction to the art of holding and throwing a rope. Both of us are pretty bad at the whole activity at the moment (let’s just say we have nothing to brag about and lots to be embarrassed by), but we’re surely destined to get better…

And miracle of miracles, despite the fact that we were on horseback from 8:30 to 4:30 today, and rode over varied terrain and at various speeds, neither of us is too lame to climb stairs, sit in a chair, or get in bed.

It really doesn’t get much better than this…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Day Two: Padlock HEAVEN

We ran around Sheridan this morning, determined to visit the famous KING’S SADDLERY (more about this stop on our main HorseandRiderBooks blog), as well as find Martha some shoes, and buy a case of wine before our 11 am pickup–luckily, Sheridan is kind of a one-main-street kind of town and it was completely possible to complete our to-do list. (Oh, and the Mint Bar opens at 10 am…so for all those readers who care, I DID make it there, and I DID take a picture of the huge stuffed wolf…and shook hands with the owner–very nice guy! I’ll write about it in a future post).

Steve Johnson picked us up to transport us to the ranch. He works there seasonally, along with his wife Kristin and sons Isaac and Cooper. Now there’s a lot that’s special about Steve…let’s start with the fact that he’s an accomplished artist. His paintings capture a wonderful authenticity that can make you laugh out loud or feel the sharp pang of nostalgia.

Steve’s also a cowboy and horse trainer, and following our introduction to our absolutely FABULOUS accommodations (slate showers, private deck access, incredible location) he gave us one of the best lessons in basic horsemanship I’ve ever had. Now I’ve edited a number of books, and I’ve also handled and ridden horse since I was five, but I still felt like I was learning something, and learning it well.

The Padlock Ranch spans almost 500,000 acres. Seriously. They talk casually about “ridin’ up to the 10,000 acre pasture.” The utter massiveness of the operation is astounding, and its beauty somehow matches that. The quiet skies (no air traffic), the lack of roads, the utter isolation within 30 minutes of Sheridan creates a space that feels freeing and yet safe; wide open and yet not lost; private and yet all yours. I haven’t been here long, but I can tell you it is like no place I’ve ever been before.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Day One: Dorie McCullough Lawson’s New Children’s Book TEX Visits the Wymont Ranch

Pausing to let the cows get out of the road on the way out to Wymont.

Martha and I landed in Sheridan around 1:30–the Beechcraft wound its way safely along the Bighorn Mountains and while I gripped the seat desperately and tried hard to think “pretty clouds, pretty clouds,” Martha assured me the ride was one of the smoothest she’s been on in a plane that size.

The Sheridan Airport is a HOOT! It is tiny, and it appears most (small) planes go in and out, with Denver as the primary destination. At one point when we returned our rental car later in the afternoon, Martha and I were the only people there…except a lone bunny rabbit we saw hopping along the runway.

TEX at the Wymont Ranch

Our rented Camry trucked us out toward the mountains to the Wymont Ranch, home of Mimi and Dick Tate, and the setting for Dorie McCullough Lawson’s forthcoming children’s book TEX. We brought an advance copy of the book to give to the Tate’s and enjoyed a truly amazing afternoon on their ranch, learning about the horse and ranching history of the area (I had NO IDEA polo was played West of the Mississipi!)

Mimi and Dick took us up to a neighboring ranch (Eaton’s–the oldest dude ranch in the US) and gave us the grand tour…introducing us around and being generally fabulous hosts.

For dinner they recommended the Wyoming Rib and Chop House back in Sheridan, so (by this point FAMISHED) we trucked it back to town for some MEAT (and wine). Best steak I’ve had in a long time, and cooked to MR perfection…

Alas, the Mint Bar was closed on a Sunday night….

This morning we’re off to King’s Saddlery, and then the Padlock…

What’s a Beechcraft Have to Do with Horses?

Tomorrow we leave at 8 am for Sheridan, which means we are at Boston-Logan at 6:15. For those who know me, they understand that the sleep I manage tonight is due to the exhaustion amounted in the days prior…as much as I love to travel, I HATE to fly.

People are often puzzled by my fear. I am not neurotic (or at least, no one has told me I am). I am fairly daring by nature, even foolish on occasion. I ride ski lifts without pause. I balk not at the flimsy fair rides that visit the local village of Tunbridge, Vermont, every year. I ride horses, for goodness sake.

But flying, oh flying. I count babies and holy men and take a pill and hope for sleep. And that’s on a BIG plane.

Tomorrow we are flying on a Beechcraft from Denver to Sheridan. These planes have propellers. Well, I know most planes have propellers, but these have propellers I can hear and see.

This post will either save me or doom me.

Tomorrow evening, we shall see.

Til the Mint Bar, I hope….I’m thinking of vast ranges and distant horizons….and getting on a horse, from the ground.

The Mint Bar–Whiskey, Please

The Mint Bar in Sheridan, Wyoming, has been the locals' watering hole of choice since 1907.

So, I’ve discovered that there is what we on the East Coast might call a “dive bar,” but what in Wyoming you call a “cowboy bar,” and it is right in Sheridan and perhaps even within walking distance of the hotel we’ll stay in on Sunday night, prior to making our way out to the Padlock Ranch some 20 miles or so away.

Imagine looking up and seeing this guy after a couple of drinks...

Nice barkitty....

They say the Mint Bar (I keep thinking of ice cream, don’t you?) has been around since 1907, catering to the gunsmiths, trail guides, and saddle makers who called the town home, and that it even hosted a speakeasy “in the back” during Prohibition (back then I guess it was called the Mint Saloon). Now, of course, it does a fine business of lining up the tourists–according to TripAdvisor, I should make it a destination because of a stuffed wolf from the turn of the century that is apparently larger and more impressive than any wolf one might come across today (does one come across wolves regularly in Wyoming??) However, when I visited the website, I was far more taken with the friendly badger and bobcat affectionately named “Barkitty.”

My husband and I have made it a habit to visit local watering holes wherever we might find ourselves–two of our very favorite happen to be Los Ojos in Jemez Springs, New Mexico, and the Mineshaft in Madrid (we have family in Albuquerque). Generally they do feature taxidermy, a pool table, and excellent local flavor–as a former bartender, I find them a great way to get a sense of a new place, its people, its politics, its music, and of course, its drink of choice.

At the Mint, I assume it will be whiskey.

Now, the question is, will Martha let me drag her there??

My First Ecotone

I’m an editor and a reader (at least, I used to be a reader back when I had time…) but for some reason I’ve never come across the term “ecotone” before tonight. I was doing a little “where-am-I-going-in-five days” research and I discovered that the Padlock Ranch (our destination, in case you missed it thus far) describes itself as follows:

“Padlock Ranch is located in the ecotone between the Big Horn Mountains and the mixed prairies of eastern Montana and Wyoming. This location provides a mixture of habitat types supporting a great diversity of plant and animal species.”

Huh, I thought. Ecotone. Wikipedia, here I come.

Whether you believe the stuff you read on that website or not, this is what “they” (in the much broader sense, of course) had to say:

An ecotone is a transition area between two kinds of landscape--Padlock Ranch, our destination next week, describes itself as just such a junction in time and place.

“An ecotone is a transition area between two adjacent but different patches of landscape, such as forest and grassland.[1] It may be narrow or wide, and it may be local (the zone between a field and forest) or regional (the transition between forest and grassland ecosystems).[2] An ecotone may appear on the ground as a gradual blending of the two communities across a broad area, or it may manifest itself as a sharp boundary line. The word ecotone was coined from a combination of eco(logy) plus -tone, from the Greek tonos or tension – in other words, a place where ecologies are in tension.”

This got me to thinking, as words often do, of how appropriate language can be at times (in contrast with how frustrating, confusing, an uninspiring it can so often be on a day-to-day basis). Here Martha and I are, about to leave our familiar landscape, our native roots, our comfort zone of similar foods, accents, and political views, and we’re setting off for a place altogether different. We will indeed be fed and housed on the land that joins our country’s distant coasts; we will observe, learn, and experience in an attempt to blend what we know of life, rest, scenic beauty, and horsemanship with that which we have never seen before in person. Will sharp boundaries be apparent or will we transition seamlessly from our East Coast world to the West?

Without hesitation, when I tell others about the long-dreamed-of trip that now lies in our IMMEDIATE future, they respond quickly and enthusiastically, “Oh, you’re going to have a BLAST!” But I, perhaps because of a tendency toward angst, think this experience will be about more than good times and great photographs. I’d venture to say it could even be a sea-changer. Once we have viewed a new patch of land, a new stretch of vista, and new corner of starry sky, will that not color our opinion of that which we left back home? Upon returning, will we not love it more or less than we did before Wyoming?

Transitions, by nature, are difficult fodder–for the body, mind, and spirit. And yet by choice we are headed to a bit of space that identifies itself as the very place transitions occur and where the rise and fall of area ecosystems–minute and grand–are borne out.

I think somewhere, deep within, we all know where to find what we’re looking for.

Pink Leopard-Skin Riding Gloves–Totally Tough or Nowhere Near Tough Enough?

To wear or not to wear? Will my fashionable riding gloves stand up to the rigors of REAL riding?

I am faced, for the first time since I left for my freshman year  of college, with a “What to Bring List.” If you have spent the last decade either composing such lists for others or avoiding events that involve them (at all costs), then you are likely unfamiliar with my current restive, stressed, and dare-I-say harried state. Do I have what I need? Is what I have good enough? Will what I wear label me and therefore ensure my week-long bliss or (far more likely) completely undo me at the outset?

I have various forms of the requisite riding gear. This includes britches, chaps, paddock boots, and hats. I have a raincoat (streetwear, but it will survive) and rain pants (my husband wears them while biking). I have the water bottle, the sunglasses, the sunscreen, the swimsuit (for the blessedly present hot tub).

All of this I feel comfortable will transition from East Coast to West, from occasional-use to intense-abuse. All of this I am prepared to lay out, roll up, and pack tightly into a duffel for the trip ahead.

But then there’s the gloves.

I love my riding gloves. They’ve always elicited (complimentary) comments whenever I wear them, and I (luckily) haven’t been in any riding situations where I felt completely out-of-control and therefore foolish flaunting them. They are pink, and they are “faux” leopard skin. And they are totally fabulous.

And something tells me they’re not quite right for working cattle.

As I ponder this possibility, faced with the need to acquire “real” riding gloves somewhere between now (after closing on a Sunday) and a week-from-now (when we leave) in a city not especially known for its rugged outdoors-wear (Boston has more of a prep-scene), I’m left wondering how what’s “tough” on the street ain’t nowhere near “tough” in the saddle.

Seriously–if you met a (thirty-something) woman in the grocery store in pink leopard-skin leggings, you’d look twice (well, depending on your neighborhood) and then either shake your head, raise your eyebrows, or walk briskly the other way (again, depending on your neighborhood). But regardless of your reaction, if you spend the time to ponder the woman’s choice of fashion, you’d likely think her daring, dangerous, or perhaps misguided…but on the edge nonetheless.

I might call such a woman just a little bit “tough.”

But the same color and print encasing your hands on a horse in Wyoming?

I’m willing to bet that’s nowhere NEAR tough enough.

My guess is I’ll take them, along with my pillow and my toothbrush and the hairdryer I will never use (ah, sweet memories of summer camp), and maybe by Friday I’ll feel comfortable enough amongst my peers and in the saddle to let my true colors–as daring, dangerous, and misguided as they are–show.

We’re getting close!

–Rebecca Didier, Senior Editor, Trafalgar Square Books

Ranch Horse Wishlist: A Feeble Attempt at Building the Perfect 8-Hour-Ride in the Vain Hope that Perhaps It Does Exist…

Despite the fact that Martha kindly offered the opportunity to hop aboard her Morgan earlier this week, I still haven’t ridden in preparation for our Wyoming riding adventure. In fact, as I alluded in my last post, DESTINATION PADLOCK RANCH has taken on a slightly forboding tone, primarily because I was kindly reminded that “chafing” isn’t always paired with the word “dish.”

Have I shown you where we are staying??? Yep, the guest lodge totally rocks.

Nonetheless, I remain confident (although perhaps falsely so) that my years of experience in the saddle and on different speeds-and-breeds will do me well. I have a hard time imagining giving up the dream of having nothing to do but “ride the range” (and, er, I guess whatever the boss hand tells me to do?) because my muscles hurt and the view from the guest lodge deck beckons (along with the hot tub).

So, with a nod to the “rules of attraction” and the “power of positive thinking,” I will set aside my warmup moans-and-groans and instead concoct a horsey cocktail that is sure to leave me feeling good about the world, swell about my riding skills, and certain that everyone I just met is indeed my best friend.

I give you my Ranch Horse Wishlist:

1. I wish that you will be smart. Not “S-M-R-T” smart. Not solving calculus equations with your hoof smart. But something comfortably in between so that I can count on you to save my sore butt when I choose the wrong dogie to wrangle.

2. I wish that you will be tall. But since you are a Quarter Horse (most likely), I’ll settle for big-barreled.

3. I wish that you will still have a sense of humor despite the fact you have worked the range for (probably) 20 years, through all seasons, all storms, and with all manner of imbeciles in the saddle. I hope you can laugh (with me…not at me) when I ask you dumb questions or forget which leg goes where.

4. I wish that you will have a nice eye that softens when you look at me (once I bribe you with the sugar that was meant for my six a.m. coffee) and brightens when I visit you in between rides.

5. I wish that you will be cuter and faster than Martha’s horse.

6. I wish that you will have a wild mane for me to rub and tussle when we do something fun (and that it is long enough for me to grab when I start to fall off…)

7. I wish for you to have an independent spirit and curiosity so we can venture away from the group, just the two of us, with neither of us feeling lonely.

Is my "wish horse" waiting for me? (Or running away??)

8. I wish for you to feel spunky in the morning and satisfied after a long day’s work (mostly to make up for my own sorry self).

9. I wish for you to have a smooth, sure-footed lope that covers miles without my noticing (fat chance, you say…and I know, I know…)

10. And finally, I wish for you to fall just a little bit in love with me, as I’m absolutely sure I’ll fall for you.

Why Is It You Have to Work HARDER to Not Work At All?

We're working hard in anticipation of not working...although, "working cattle" might qualify as STILL working?

Preparation for time away from work kills me. It always means long days, long nights, and endless hours “sweating the small stuff” as I go over and over what has to get done, what should get done, and what I’d like to get done in the waning moments prior to leaving my desk.

In this case my “trip of a lifetime” lands splat in the middle of that uber-busy time of a book-publisher’s year when we’re planning for the next season (spring) and putting the new catalog to bed, along with the books going to the printer (three) and the covers to be designed (six).

So, as I climb Mt. Work, one foot doggedly placed in front of the other, all the while imagining sunsets from horseback and vast plains I’ve never laid eyes on before, I can’t help but ask myself, IS IT WORTH IT? Does it EVER make sense to go on vacation when it always inspires a mad struggle for the vaguest semblance of professional control prior to making a break for it?

And now, the kicker is, the FEAR has begun to set it. That is, our casual laughing, joshing, and joking about sore muscles and sunburns has suddenly acquired a rather dark side. And then Sean Patrick, former pack guide and author of THE MODERN HORSEMAN’S COUNTDOWN TO BROKE, made a comment something along the lines of, “Bring plenty of cornstarch and Advil.”

Now what the devil do we need cornstarch for???