But all joking aside, it’s actually home to NOLS – The National Outdoor Leadership School, Rocky Mountain Division and the county seat, Lander, remains a classic gem of an authentic Wild West town. The cowboy way of life as well as Dude Ranch vacations have become all the rage among families and young folks alike. There’s something about the freedom of the open plains and the true grit required to prosper in rough country that is just as romantic today as it was in yester-year. In fact, the cottage industry has its own special non-profit org, The Dude Rancher’s Association of America, set up specifically to ensure businesses and their staff not only protect the natural lands they share with guests, but also act as stewards for the local communities and economies they help support. So it is with that spirit that I share the lore of this land with you.
Privacy Disclaimer: Bob’s aunt’s ranch is still a privately owned working livestock operation – it is not a vacation destination, nor is it available for rent on AirBnB or VRBO. So to keep it all “in the family,” I won’t be sharing the exact location of the property or specific GAIA GPS coordinates like I usually do. But I will share the grand adventures Bob and I have as I source old topo maps from the local National Forestry archives and give my buddy a tour of the enormous tract of land that has lived infamously in his most favorite childhood memories.
To convey the true significance of this epic buddy road trip, I have to start at the beginning – where the idea of visiting “The Ranch” first took shape. How Bob got his nickname, The Barbarian, is another story entirely. But suffice it to say that, like any red-blooded 20-somethings, we took full advantage of our higher educations! I was focused on writing and producing in the movie business and Bob was getting a degree in International Politics & Economics. Now on paper, you’d never think we’d get along, but we had many mutual friends and since I have no siblings, Bob became my surrogate brother. These days, I live in Los Angeles and Bobby is based in Boston. But we still do an annual guys trip every summer to keep the good times and adventures on-tap.
The Ranch first came up when we were sophomores chilling with our pals over supper one night. In between sordid details of conquests with the ladies, Bob told me about this place that was still like the “Wild West.” Real cowboys driving cattle, working the land, apple orchards as far as the eye can see, roving mountain lions and even ancient Indian artifacts. It sounded like every eight year-old boy’s dream come true! So I just said: “Cowboys and Indians?! Pick a date and I’ll be there!” Well, here it is, fifteen years later, and we never set up the trip – until now…
As I got more and more into overland Jeeping (@overlandjournal) and doing my “epic road trips,” The Ranch became a destination that took on just as much of a mythological status to me as it did for Bob. I’d been hearing stories about the place for more than a decade and he hadn’t been back since he was a kid. So I finally just put Bob’s feet to the proverbial fire and said: “We have to do this before your aunt gets too old and is forced to sell the place. I’m driving up to Wyoming this June – and you better be there!”
“The Ranch’s” genesis began when Bob’s grand uncle purchased the land for pennies on the dollar after fighting in the U.S. Army’s famed 10th Mountain Division during World War II. A true Patriot, he believed a man’s work was his life and his life his work.
Through trial and tribulation, he managed to make just enough to pay the property taxes, but it wasn’t until he walked into the local bank for a loan to start the cattle operation that the true catalyst for his success came to be: You see, as local legend has it, the loan officer at the bank was a beautiful young woman named Nell. And Nell was a real hard-ass! So granting paper on a heap of red-rock and dust wasn’t exactly a sound investment – especially since the property was also known to feature one of the most rugged and inaccessible river gorges in Fremont County. Hell, she figured half the steers would wander off the edge of the cliff and the other half would be lost to the lions! And besides, how would one guy be able to rustle up all that livestock all by his lonesome?
But as any hard working business man knows, closing the deal often comes down to simply making the other side an offer they just can’t refuse. So Bob’s uncle went right ahead and got hitched that bossy bank lady! And sure enough, with a woman’s loving touch and a keen eye on the ‘ol books, not only did the cows get out to pasture, but they came all the way home and the family business took off like a rocket. During its hay-day, The Ranch had almost a thousand head – which for the times was quite a sizable seasonal haul.
Nowadays, Bob’s uncle and most of his long horns may be long gone, but Nell stills lives on the old spread with the same twinkle in her eye as the day she first set foot on that front porch. And supposedly the river still flows through the backyard just as strong and as swift as ever – stuffed with a trout for every cast of the line. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I still have to figure out how to get Bob in SLC and then drive another five hours north without falling asleep at the wheel!
Now, I really wish I had a shot of this because it’s as true as the sun rises in the east, but I drive into Salt Lake City International Airport and literally, standing in the Arrivals lane, is Bob The Barbarian doing what barbarians do best – being a f*cking barbarian! He’s dressed in his freshly-pressed button-down and khaki slacks with his roller-board in tow, waving me down as I arrive in my Jeep Rubicon covered in mud, fresh off the trail!
What a motley crew we made. Bobby throws his roller-board on my roof and gives me our classic bro high-five and hug: “It’s the Wild mother-f*ckin’ West, maaaaan!”
Oh boy, I guess this is gonna be one of those trips…
The road to Fremont County from SLC is pretty straight forward – right up the 80 and cutting across the 30. Now I have a pretty good idea what kind of a drive we’re in for, but being a city-boy, Bobby hasn’t a clue. So I keep the conversation light and after grabbing a quick dinner, we set off for the “dark part of the ride.” Bob’s curious what I mean by that so I cryptically reply, “You’ll see…”
The 30 cuts through SW Wyoming via the Seedskadee Wildlife Refuge that is just wide open country. Mostly grassy plains with very few towns and even fewer services. Jeeps are great vehicles for driving rough roads and blazing new paths, but what they are NOT good for is driving long distances between gas stations – especially when it’s 11PM at night in the middle of nowhere. The one gas station we did pass closed at 5PM and only took cash. We’d have been screwed anyway because we had a measly $20 bucks between us.
“How far you figure we got?” Bob says, holding his mobile phone against the roof as if it’ll make a difference in the total lack of reception. “My GPS is shot too,” I reply, “All I know is we stay on the 30 until we hit the 28 then head north on the 287 to Lander.” “How do you know when we get to those junctions?” Bob’s tone starts to sound concerned. “Well, there are these things called ‘signs.’ I hear they point in the right direction if you know which way you’re headed.” “Don’t mess with me, man. The last town we passed had a population of 11 and there hasn’t been a single street light or passing car in over two hours! How do you know you’re going in the right direction?” I just laugh: “Guess we’ll just have to wait and see!” I let the awkward silence take over for a good long dramatic beat as Bob tosses his phone into the console. And then, as if on-cue, my low-fuel alert chimes. Bob just turns and glares at me.
The funny part about moments like this is usually the better you know someone, the more upset they get because there’s an inverse-ratio of familiarity to patience. Knowing this little situation we’re in will quickly escalate, I take the opportunity to pull off to the side of the road and level with Bob:
“Way I see it, we’ve got two choices – we either shut it down here and try to hitch a ride in the morning or we keep driving and hope to hit some kind of a town where we can get fuel from a station when it opens. Either way, we’re spending a cold night in the rig. Sorry, buddy. It’s a Jeep thing.” The only way I can describe the look on Bob’s face is: TERRIFIED. This is clearly ground-breaking territory for him: “A Jeep thing?” he hisses.