Magazine article Sunset

Cowboy Quarters

Magazine article Sunset

Cowboy Quarters

Article excerpt


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 buy the place, restore it, and run it as a working guest ranch-your whole family rolling up their sleeves and learning how to ride horses like barrel racers.

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 been one of the oldest continually operated ranches in the West: Turpin Meadow Ranch. Just past the property, the Tetons marched off into 2.S 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 LAmour 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 northcentral 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. …

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