Magazine article Sunset

An Ode to Spear-O-Wigwam

Magazine article Sunset

An Ode to Spear-O-Wigwam

Article excerpt

Novelist Ann Patchett (Bel Canto) wasn't a dude ranch gal. But one trip to Wyoming, and she was hooked on mountains, horses, and a bunny cake

ERNEST HEMINGWAY arrived at the Spear-O-Wigwam Ranch in 1928. He was still in his 20s, before anyone had started calling him Papa, though it was about the time the nickname became appropriate. He had just had a son in Missouri. His wife had had a difficult delivery and wasn't well. The baby was crying. It must have been a lot of bother. And so the Great White Hunter packed up all the pages he had of A Farewell to Arms and took off in search of quieter, cooler climes in which to write the final chapters.

He found what he was looking for at a guest ranch in the Bighorn Mountains of northern Wyoming. He rented a little cabin made out of lodgepole pine that sat beside a fast-running stream full of trout. There he holed up drinking whiskey and finishing his novel.

I am a novelist myself, and novelists can never get enough of these kinds of stories. I am both repulsed and fascinated by a writer who could walk out on his own son in search of better concentration. That is why I went to see Spear-O-Wigwam in the first place. It was 10 years ago and I was in Wyoming anyway so I thought I would drive up and look at the cabin. Driving is simply what you do in Wyoming - what's another hour or two?

It turns out to be a lot. The hourlong trip from Sheridan certainly out-thrills any amusement park ride. The higher up you go, the more clearly you can see the snowcapped peaks and the nestled valleys.

Spear-O-Wigwam sits at 8,300 feet, about 5,000 feet below the Bighorns' highest peak. The first time I came I stayed for an hour, long enough to stand in Hemingway's cabin and imagine the lonesome clatter of the man's typewriter keys over the gurgle of the stream. The second time I came to stay. I rented Papa's cabin for a week and plugged my laptop in under the desk. Hemingway slept here? Well, so did I.

There are seven lodgepole pine cabins scattered at a comfortable distance from one another in a field. They have names like Chipmunk and Porcupine (mine was called, understandably, Hemingway). They have rag rugs on the floors and pictures of cowboys roping calves. The overall effect is that of the best Scout camp ever imagined.

A bell is rung for meals and all the guests file into the dining room to eat what is served to them at a single long table. As to the 10-year lapse between my initial visit and my actual stay, I will admit it was the thought of family-style dining that kept me away. I wasn't sure I was up to it three meals a day. I was worried there would be hordes of grubby children fighting over chicken legs.

But when I gathered up my courage and went in for my first dinner, it all turned out to be fine. The food was uncomplicated, crowd-pleasing fare: steaks, roast chicken, potato salad, and enchiladas. As for eating with strangers, I had an ace up my sleeve: I'd brought my husband, Karl, along and he has the kind of familystyle conversation skills that can get a table of strangers chattering like magpies in minutes. The truth is the people at the dinner table were consistently engaging, not only the guests but the mostly college-kid staff.

Some Western guest ranches have become luxury resorts, Canyon Ranch places with swimming pools and facialists. …

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