“Cowgirl is an attitude really. A pioneer spirit, a special American brand of courage. The cowgirl faces life head-on, lives by her own lights, and makes no excuses. Cowgirls take stands; they speak up. They defend things they hold dear.” – Dale Evans
It was decided. We were going on a dude ranch this summer.
Cowboy hats and boots. Jeans and checkered shirts.
My daughters were going to be cowgirls in the wild west.
Vacation booked, I could already feel the pull of the pioneer spirit. Vibrant. Brave. Deeply connecting.
Destination, Marble Mountain Ranch. A 60-acre working ranch located in Northern California on the Klamath river, just down the road from the tiny town of Somes Bar. Owned and managed by the Cole family, it’s an oasis of good old-fashioned farm family values and life.
Homemade family style meals prepared with love, rich in comfort and extremely satisfying after our extended days of activity. Comfortable cabins with air conditioning to ease the heat of the day. Comfy beds we fell into each night; sleeping the deepest of sleeps while dreaming of horses. Meandering trail rides through the stunning river valley with towering mountain backdrops. Mastering the art of riding in the arena; horsemanship school for us city folks. White water rafting over class II and III rapids intertwined with lingering stretches of smooth river water; perfect for floating. And finally, shooting, archery, and tomahawk throwing; a new frontier for us.
A week off the grid. No work. No electronics. Time to reconnect with family, share in a community experience, and master the outdoors.
“All Horses in life deserve at least once to be loved by a little girl” – Unknown
Little girls and horses, they simply belong together. Horse pastures surrounded a tidy row of cabins. Each day, we were greeted with the soft early morning nickers from our four-legged neighbors. Walking to breakfast, there was a quiet busyness to the ranch as the wranglers saddled our horses, preparing them for our morning ride.
Charlie. Dakota. Sugar. Chigger. Our horses for the week. I loved Charlie’s soft muzzle, chestnut color, and easy gait. He was responsive and fun to ride.
Cool trails, winding up through the hillsides. Surprising pockets of open space with trees wrapped in miles of ivy. Bubbling rocky creeks presented a daily challenge, each horse stepping carefully through each crossing. My favorite ride was down a steep trail to the river. Riding on the rocky river bed next to the sparkling Klamath River, a rainbow of green surrounded us. Nature’s Crayola box. Intensely beautiful.
Ava immediately fell in love with her horse. Sugar. Her name was fitting as she was sweet by nature. In sync with the smallness of her rider, a friendship between the two was born. Daily rides grew Ava’s riding skills. She started on lead with a wrangler and by the end of the week was controlling the horse on her own. Confident now. Pleading to be the lead horse on the string.
Mia happily rode Chigger each day. She gripped the saddle horn with one hand while holding the hand of her wrangler. She took short rides on lead around the property. A slow gate, perfect for the littlest cowgirl at the ranch. Smile bright, she exclaimed, “Look at me! I’m riding a horse!”
“Cowboy up or go home”- unknown
“Cowboy Up,” is a pro rodeo tour slogan. Meaning no matter what happens in the arena, you get up, dust yourself off, and keep going. An important lesson to remember during arena time. Our wranglers were tough, yet inspiring. Challenging us to be brave. Driving us to try our best. We ran obstacle courses, relays, and around barrels with our horses. The personal challenge? Racing to beat your own time. Growing in our individual horsemanship skills. Turn left, turn right, stop your horse, turn in a 360 circle, run around the barrel, and race to the finish. By the end of the week, Ava was trotting her horse, Max, around the barrels like a true rodeo rider.
“By the time we reached Virginia City I was considered a remarkable good shot and a fearless rider for a girl of my age.” – Calamity Jane
Calamity Jane. Annie Oakley. Remarkable women of the West. It was these women, who inspired me when I tried my hand at shooting. For the record, I have never shot a gun or even held a gun. However, part of the whole ranch experience was to practice shooting daily. We jumped in the back of a white pickup truck emblazoned with a bumper sticker that said “Silly cowboys, trucks are for cowgirls!” Kids sat down in the truck bed with the adults hanging on to the bars attached to the sides.
The gun range was located at the top of the hill. A large dirt area with a variety of targets scattered across it. A large trap was set slightly to the right, ready to launch clay pigeons. I knew we would have the chance to skeet shoot, but I never expected that I would learn about such a variety of guns. Shotguns, rifle, pistol, and even a musket. The musket was the most interesting because I had to load my own gunpowder with a single bullet; packing it all down before even taking a shot. Upon firing the musket for the first time, I took aim at a log out in the field. Exhaling, I released the trigger and within seconds the log flew into the air and landed about two feet away. I let out a cheer of accomplishment.
Surprisingly, I enjoyed it. Satisfaction in aiming at a target and striking it successfully. It was challenging and frustrating at times, but I learned. I improved daily with guidance from the Adam and Jason. I felt a sense of accomplishment by the last day when I hit more targets than I missed.
My five-year old had the opportunity to learn as well. With the help of an adult, she could shoot a rifle with some skill by the end of the week. She practiced archery and tomahawk throwing. Not the usual set of activities for a city girl.
“The first river you paddle runs through the rest of your life. It bubbles up in pools and eddies to remind you who you are.” – Lynn Noel
The Klamath River is long, almost 300 miles and straddled between two states. It boasts long stretches of calm water peppered with exciting pockets of white water for those seeking adventure. We spent three different days on the river. The water cool and clear; ranging from green to blue in color. It was here that the girls discovered the fun of floating down the river and riding the rapids. We took long swims outside the boats. Face forward; feet pointed down stream. Kids floating in the water wearing bright yellow life jackets. Pint sized buoys bobbing in the river; squealing with delight. Better than any splash ride at the amusement park, the rapids cooled us on the hottest days. Dragon’s tooth, Rattlesnake, and Devil’s Toenail were some of the class III rapids we conquered. We took breaks midway and played on the rocky shore. Learning to skip rocks, catching tadpoles, and panning for gold. We cooled our heads under waterfalls. We witnessed amazing wildlife. Later that week, kayaks were made available as the staff challenged our group to run the rapids solo. There was much good-natured trash talk over who wouldn’t fall out of his or her kayak. Thirteen-year old Maddie was the most successful of the group and never rolled her kayak. Boats of kids chanted “Maddie is amazing, Go Maddie! Go!”
“The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope.” – John Buchan
Wednesday was fishing day. We climbed high into the surrounding mountains up to Fish Lake. A break from the intense heat back at the ranch. I hadn’t been fishing since I was a kid and the girls had never tried. Fish Lake brimmed with lily pads and vivid yellow flowers. Water like glass, the lake acted as a mirror reflecting the surrounding trees with extraordinary clarity. We rowed out onto the lake and were given fishing poles. With childlike anticipation, we cast our lines into the water, time after time, hoping to catch an elusive fish. After about an hour, we had only had a few nibbles. We ended up dropping Ava over the side of the boat to cool her off and let her hang onto the rope at the back of the boat. She happily kicked behind us for a few minutes. Although other boats had more success, pulling her back in was as close as we came to catching anything that day.
We made our way back to camp where the staff was preparing dinner. Standout of the evening was the pineapple upside down cake cooked over the campfire coals in a dutch oven. There was much fanfare when Doug flipped the cake over inside the dutch oven. Everyone clapped – it was perfect.
Then came the s’mores. Enormous sized marshmallows filled to the brim with chocolate; stuffed between two graham crackers. There is an art to cooking the perfect marshmallow. Holding the stick over the coals, I carefully browned it on all sides orchestrating the perfect harmony of marshmallow gooeyness and melted chocolate.
Ava was very neat about it all. She placed her cooked marshmallow on a plate and ate it with a fork. On the other hand, Mia was covered in stickiness as she met her s’more head on. Enjoying the trifecta of flavors that only marshmallow, chocolate, and graham crackers smashed together can create.
As the glow of the setting sun settled over the lake, Heidi gathered all the kids and herded them into the rowboat. As they left the shore, we could hear her leading a sing-a-long for her pirate crew of seven.
“Jeremiah was a bull frog…” echoed over the twilight silence of the lake.
The night enveloped us; we were wrapped in midnight blue with infinite sparkling stars.
By the time we returned to the ranch, the kids were exhausted and sleeping. Snuggled in our arms, we just rolled them into bed and closed the door.
“It aint the clothes that make the cowgirl, it’s the attitude and heart. ” – Unknown
You don’t have to be a big kid to enjoy the ranch. Mia was an honorary member of the “Little Buckaroo” club. Designed especially for the under four crowd, she shared her time with another little boy. Together with their caregiver, they explored the farm, rode horses on lead, made arts & crafts, and played with the smaller farm animals while we were out doing some of the big kid stuff.
They visited the farm’s buzzing bee hives and tasted fresh honey.
She held tiny fuzzy kittens. Impossibly small and cuddly.
She painted a wooden horse, decorated a rock, and crafted bird house. She swam in the pool and played in the game room. She challenged me to several interesting games of air hockey and foosball; each game defined by her own set of rules. Somehow, she always won.
Mia wandered the trails and explored the beautiful garden. Bushy with plants and bursting with flowers, it was all stitched together by cobble stone paths. She was convinced the garden was enchanted and small fairies were hiding in the wishing well.
She sat and spun in the tire swing. A favorite of all the kids.
She modeled her best poses on a bale of hay decked out in her Fourth of July finest.
Karaoke night on the patio, she sang a duet with great confidence and style.
She was a ranch dog favorite. Stopping for each dog to scratch a back or belly. They would see her coming and immediately lay down and roll over. Lazy licks to the face, giggles erupted.
“It’s the way you ride the trail that counts.” – Dale Evans
Family is number one at the ranch. We joined four other families, so there were just nineteen of us in all. Sharing in this unique experience bonded us quickly. At Marble Mountain, a community formed in less than a day. We took turns watching the kids spin on the tire swing, play in the game room, or run through the gardens. The older kids taught the little kids classic clapping songs like “Tic tac toe, give me an X, give me an O.” We dined together at every meal and learned about each other’s lives. We tried new things and shared in the excitement of mastering a new skill.
We laughed, a lot.
Lasting friendships were made.
“I would thank you from the bottom of my heart, but for you my heart has no bottom.” ~Author Unknown
Thank you Marble Mountain Ranch family for the unforgettable experience. An experience that changed each one of us. We formed new friendships and were reminded about the importance of the human connection uninhibited by social media.
We were courageous.
We were silly.
We were happily tired.
We were dirty. I gave up trying to keep the kids clean. It just didn’t matter.
Being a cowgirl is an attitude and both girls will always carry it with them.
And so will I.
“Happy Trails to you until we meet again.” – Dale Evans
Going on vacation at a dude ranch was unlike any vacation I had ever taken. It was a powerful story that took 2,000 words instead of the usual 500 to tell it. So for those of you who make it through this post, thank you for reading.