Nick Fedorka is ecstatic — and sweaty, and grimy. My guess is that his patients in Saegertown, Pennsylvania, where he's an oral surgeon, have never seen him this way.
"Just got back from an all day fishing trip," he tells me. "Wonderful, just wonderful. Everybody needs a place where there are no phones, no cell service, no pagers — a place where you can just be with your family and enjoy doing what you like."
Neither my husband nor I are serious fishermen, like Nick, nor are we dedicated horseback riders, like his wife, Carole. In fact, we don't know much of anything about either sport, having never cast a line and having only been on a horse once or twice. But like them, we want to "get away," have quality time with our family and experience the beauty of one of the more remote areas of the United States. To that end, we've come with our son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren to spend a week at Paradise Guest Ranch in north-central Wyoming, surrounded by more than a million acres of Big Horn National Forest.
The nearest town is Buffalo, population 3,900 and a good 16 miles away. (The last three miles are on dirt roads, making driving slow.) The nearest airport is Sheridan, 40 miles away; flying requires a connection in Denver or Salt Lake City. Paradise isn't easy to come by.
Yet, most of the guests, like Nick, have been coming to the ranch for years. The first night, when all the guests gather in the ranch's saloon — wine for the adults, Shirley Temples for the kids — we learn that the Fedorkas, who are on their eighth year at the ranch, are actually relative newcomers. The couple from Massachusetts has been coming for twelve years, the family from California for seventeen, and the group from Texas for twenty-four. Even the woman from England was on her second visit. Out of twelve families, only three (including us) are first-timers.
Gradually the days take on a pattern. A hearty breakfast between 7:30 and 8:30. Lunch at 12:00. Dinner at 7:00. And in between, our choice of activities — horseback riding, fishing, hiking, swimming in a heated pool, or simply zoning out on the cabin balcony, looking out at green mountain meadows awash in wildflowers.
The ranch is good for novices, but it's even better for folks who already know the basics of riding and fishing. While there are calm horses and feisty ones, easy trails and challenging ones, short rides and long ones, the wranglers see themselves more as guides than instructors.
When we made our reservations, we said that we were "beginners," but as we walk down to the stables, I suspect we're about to give new meaning to the word. The wranglers bring out the horses they've assigned to us. Mine is huge; someone has to help me mount. Six-year-old Jeremy can't make his move. Nine-year old Samantha's horse rears back when she pulls too hard on the reigns and I can’t get my horse to stop.
But we also give new meaning to the word "determined." That afternoon a supemely patient wrangler takes us into the arena for a course in Horseback Riding Basics. By the next morning we're ready for a trail. Our horses plod single file across the stream, up a rocky path, down through the meadow. The kids are elated, and so are we.
By day three we're trotting, by day four we've attempted to lope, and by day five we're judged capable of riding our horses up to the chuckwagon dinner. A family of City Slickers has turned into a group of Sort-of Cowboys. Not bad for less than a week!
Paradise Ranch has an extensive program of children's activities, and the kids have a ball. They do crafts, prepare an act for talent night, devour special children's dinners (macaroni and cheese rather than prime rib and asparagus) and have a grand overnight, complete with sleeping bags, s'mores and spooky stories.
Meanwhile, the adults are free to indulge in their own activities. My daughter-in-law and I take a long (for us) hike — proudly puffing our way along trails that rise to an elevation of nearly 8,000 feet. Our son tries his hand at fly-fishing, and my husband finishes two books and starts a third. "It's a way for families to be together but yet have time to do some things individually," says Diane Konjura, a guest from Marshall, Minnesota.
Accommodations are first-class. The ranch has eighteen cabins, ranging from cozy one-bedrooms to a sprawling four-bedroom, three-bath mini-house. The six of us are in a three-bedroom with two baths, a full kitchenette, a large living room with fireplace, even laundry facilities. I feel as if I'm at a luxury resort.
And as for the food — everything is fresh, homemade and terrific. A typical dinner is a huge salad, inch-thick prime rib, grilled vegetables and the best home-made chocolate tart I've ever had.
On Friday the kids want to search for a Wyoming souvenir, so we make a quick run to Buffalo. It's been five days since we've been in a car; for us that's a record.
The town is a delightful surprise. We find the souvenirs in an old-time drugstore, complete with a soda fountain that serves cherry cola and thick, creamy milkshakes. Next door is a terrific antique store, down the street is a trendy casual dress shop, and across the street is a craft store that rivals those in cities a hundred times the size.
We mosey for an hour, but then find we're eager to get back to the ranch. "That's why we have a minimum stay of seven days," says ranch owner Leah Miller. "It takes that long for families to unwind. We literally see the progression as the week goes on. People relax and reconnect."
Jim Russell, who's been coming with his family to the ranch for six years, sums up the experience of all of us. "Here there's everything to do and nothing to do. That's the beauty of it."
Carole Fedorka, who's standing nearby, laughs. "No wonder they call it Paradise," she says.
In addition to travel writing, Irv and Andrea have founded LEGACY PROSE™, a company that helps people pass on their stories and values to their children and grandchildren. www.legacyprose.com