From Sunset, August 2015. Photographs by Taylor Glenn.
By Kim Brown Seely
A LOT OF US HAVE HAD THE SAME CRAZY DREAM: you stumble across an abandoned ranch beside a gin-clear stream jumping with trout. You decide to buy the place, restore it, and run it as a working guest ranch – your whole family actually rolling up their sleeves, and learning how to ride horses like barrel racers, while they pitch in.
But how many of us actually wake up the next morning and do it?
Driving home from a day of rock-climbing north of their home in Jackson, Wyoming, three years ago, Hans and Nancy Johnstone saw a RANCH FOR SALE sign.
“Let’s go check it out,” Nancy remembers saying.
The couple turned down a long road edging a wide valley, crossed a bridge over the Buffalo River, and discovered a bank foreclosure that had once been one of the oldest continually operated ranches in the West: Turpin Meadow Ranch. Just past the property, the Tetons marched off into 2.5 million acres of wilderness.
The Johnstones, avid outdoors people with three teens and a 22-room B&B to run in Jackson, had taken big life leaps before. Both are former Olympians – Hans, nordic combined, Calgary, 1988; Nancy, biathlon, Albertville, 1992. They’d adopted their daughter Sasha, now 16, from Russia in 1999; then two more kids – Masha, also 16, and Vladimir, 14, who along with two dogs make up their hyperkinetic, big-hearted family. But nothing had prepared them for this.
They popped open two cans of beer, sat on the sagging wraparound porch with its knockout views of the Tetons, and “fell in love with the place right then and there,” as Hans tells it.
“We thought, This is unbelievable,” he says. “You could sense the proximity of the wilderness, just sitting there on the porch.”
THAT FEELING IS EXACTLY what lured the first paying “dudes” – Easterners who wanted to experience cowboy life – 125 years ago to guest ranches in the West. Theodore Roosevelt’s 1893 articles about his ranch years in the Dakota Badlands, called “In Cowboy Land,” fed nostalgia for the vanishing West, and later, Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey westerns galloped away with our collective Wild West imaginations.
At the same time, hardworking ranch families settling harsh terrain were more than happy to have extra hands around – particularly those willing to pay for the privilege. In the early 1900s, guests paid $10 a week to ride and help out with chores at Eaton’s Ranch, in north-central Wyoming, which is considered the first “dude ranch.” And that spawned a whole range of guest ranches, many of them near Jackson, due to its proximity to Yellowstone National Park. Some catered primarily to Easterners, requiring references for prospective dudes. Others had guests come for a month or longer to ride, fish, and help out with branding and cattle roundups.
The heyday of dude ranches was in the 1920s, with about 20 clustered in the Jackson area. By the 1930s, there were even “divorce ranches” sprouting up in Nevada, then the divorce capital of the country. (Remember how, at the end of Mad Men’s third season, Betty is on her way to Reno to wait out her six-week divorce from Don?) And who can forget Billy Crystal and his saddle-sore sidekicks in City Slickers?
Turpin Meadow Ranch has its own storied history, as the Johnstones soon learned. The ranch dated back to 1887, when a cantankerous character named Dick Turpin built a cabin at the very edge of the Tetons. It began welcoming guests in 1932, including Mrs. Herbert Hoover, astronaut John Glenn, and Bob Dylan. The property grew, more cabins were added, and Turpin passed through at least four owners before the Johnstones arrived.
THE JOHNSTONES’ CLOSER LOOKS at the cabins weren’t promising. “They were disgusting – moldy carpets, dropped ceilings, decades of mouse poop,” Nancy recalls. “You practically needed a hazmat suit just to step inside.”
Still, the couple was unfazed. “We knew the bones were good,” Hans says. He remembered how, during ski competitions, they had stayed at family-run inns in Europe that managed to retain the charm of the old, yet were comfortable and modernized.
Restoration turned out to be an Olympian task, taking two years. The Johnstones eventually moved all the cabins and laid new foundations. They hauled worn-out couches and moldy mattresses from the old structures, sandblasted the interior logs, refilled the chinks, and tore out the dropped ceilings. “For the first year, it was just us, every weekend,” Hans says. “The kids got pretty sick of it, but they were good at ripping stuff out.”
“Once we were out there working, there was no turning back,” Nancy recalls. “One day, it was about 20 below, and all the pipes burst in one of the buildings. I was standing in freezing water up to my knees, water was pouring out of the pipes, and there were these electric heaters floating around.” Looking back now, she admits, “It was crazy, but you just had to keep your head down and keep going. There was a new challenge every day.”
As for the kids? “What’s not fun about getting filthy dirty and setting things on fire?” Nancy says. “They got to drive the backhoe; they learned to use crowbars and hammers and drills. They were game, and they worked hard.”
STEPPING INSIDE EACH dark brown log cabin today, you find surprisingly light-filled one-or two-bedroom spaces with floors of rough-sawn fir, spacious new baths, and sitting rooms with gas-lit fireplaces. “I always loved that in Norway,” Nancy says. “You’ve got these old alpine huts that are dark on the outside, but then you come in and – wow! There’s this beautiful lightness.”
Custom beds of clear vertical-grain fir are made up simply with iconic Pendleton blankets. Floors are warmed by rugs that Nancy picked up at rural antiques stores and auctions; walls are hung with pieces that mean something to her, whether they’re vintage wooden skis or a colorful mixed-media painting by artist Nancy Gervais of Hailey, Idaho.
The first thing you experience settling into the 80-year-old cabins is profound quiet. Sitting on the porch, you can feel your mind releasing – sort of like a fish that has been thrashing around and is suddenly set free. And indeed, there is space: You’re a day’s ride from the Continental Divide here, a place where lynx, bobcats, wolves, moose, and grizzlies still thrive.
What you won’t find is much technology – no television and no cell signal. When you wake from a nap, there’s a deep hush, as if the entire valley were blanketing you in distance.
THE JOHNSTONES WELCOMED their first “dudes” to Turpin last summer. My husband and I were among them. Minutes after our arrival, Nancy asks, “Hey, want to go for a ride?” And suddenly half the family is saddled up: Nancy, holding one of her rescue Chihuahuas; Hans, riding enormous chestnut brown Comanche; ninth-grader Vladimir; and blond-ponytailed wrangler Carly, a Wisconsin state rodeo champ.
It’s almost dinnertime, but the heck with all that: Our small group takes off in the late-afternoon light – Tetons backlit by sun, horses crossing the Buffalo with their bellies fighting the current, and ranch dog Cowboy swimming hard. I immediately feel like part of the family. And at a dude ranch, I realize, that is entirely the point.
IN ADDITION TO HORSEBACK RIDING, Turpin offers fly-fishing, mountain biking, guided wilderness pack trips, and in winter, 9 miles of groomed Nordic trails. At dusk, we gather with fellow guests in the lodge’s bar and – instead of generic red or white – sample glasses of Stags’ Leap Merlot, martinis, and signature cocktails.
The “dudes,” I notice, come in all ages and have been up to all kinds of adventures: A young family from Florida is back from a day trip to Yellowstone, where they glimpsed a grizzly; the couple celebrating their anniversary tried fly-casting; and there’s a group of outdoorsy 30-somethings with a young baby, mountain bikes, and several dogs (staying in pet-friendly cabins) in tow.
ON DAY TWO, my husband and I mosey out to the stables again. The plan is to ride south with our fly-fishing gear, then try casting the Buffalo. After saddling up Blackjack, Curtis, Gunsmoke, and Comanche, our small posse wends its way south. Wrangler Aaron Deschu leads a big bay, aptly named Cadillac Jack, transporting canvas packs stuffed with waders, fly rods, and a picnic.
It’s hot on the ground but delightful moving at horse height through the forest. A light breeze stirs the trees. When we reach a wide bend in the river, we tie up the horses and pull on our waders, then clamber down the steep banks and spread out.
A small cutthroat nibbles my fly, and I’m nearly paralyzed with happiness when I manage to hook it and reel it in. Hans lands a 16-inch cutthroat, a beauty. Then we all sit on the banks of the Buffalo and eat our turkey and avocado sandwiches. Although I love adventure as much as the next girl, I note how peaceful it is being a dude. I feel thankful to be here.
So, it seems, does Nancy Johnstone. “One day, we were sitting by the corrals, and three grizzlies came right into the pasture,” she says. “It was so cool. People go all the way to Yellowstone, hoping to see that. And here we get it all – the black wolves, the golden eagle who stands on the fence post, coyotes, ospreys, all the elk coming through – it’s just part of life here, and it’s pretty amazing.”
Kim Brown Seely. All rights reserved.