So long as we call it “visiting a dude ranch,” sitting in saddles and sidestepping manure is fashionable.
Don’t let the stalk of Johnson grass hanging out of that real cowboy’s mouth fool you. He’s smart. So was his grandfather, who left that ranch to his father, who then passed it on to him. For all he lacks in finesse and fancy garb, he’s perfected a business model in which people actually pay him to do some of his own work.
I like fast cars, but I wouldn’t pay to do oil changes or fix flats. I like a lush lawn, too, but I wouldn’t shell out $200 a day to push a mower for a week.
Dude ranches are successful not because they put you to work but because they romanticize a lifestyle. Dude ranches offer a glimpse into a hardscrabble period in American history, a time when survival depended on hard work toward common goals. At the contemporary version— there are hundreds of them—you can do as much (or as little) of that actual work as you want.
Originally, these places were working ranches that swapped a bunk and grub for help with everyday chores. Now, for “fancy hotel” day rates, dudes and dudettes are treated to satellite TV, vegetarian meals on request and cozy quarters with private baths. Playing cowboy is optional.
You, the guest, can (and should, if you don’t already know how) learn to ride a horse, even if it’s just a reined walk around a corral. You should explore the place, on horseback and on foot, to get a feel for the enormity of a working ranch and the work that’s required to operate it. With or without dudes, all that work has to get done.
Contemporary dude ranches have evolved to meet a changing (read: softening) clientele, however, and also may offer “not-so-Wild West” experiences such as hiking, birding, kayaking, orienteering and—with apologies to real cowboys—cucumber facials.
A dude ranch “vacation” isn’t all riding and roping and shoveling…hay. It couldn’t be. If it were, there’d be no pretend cowboys. In exchange for unsubtle reminders of home and a teensy bit of pampering, the ranch and its guests both get genuine value from the experience.
Immerse yourself in the experience as best you can. There’s personal gain to be had from actually getting your hands dirty, mud on your boots and sweat on your brow.
You might even wind up sore for a day or two. Ibuprofen will fix that. The difference is that you can go back to your own home, back to doing whatever you do, and the aches will go away.
The cowboys will still be cowboys, and there will always be more work to do.