When we finally arrived at the ranch, Tom, the slow-talking wrangler, ambled out to greet us. He breaks, trains and breeds horses, knows all there is to know about them and likes them a darned sight better than most humans. Molly, the owner, was friendly and welcoming though somewhat vague and absent-minded - but I guess that's what comes of living your life in such an isolated place, 25 miles from the nearest town, without television or radio as a distraction. In 50-odd years she had only been off the ranch overnight twice. When I asked her what people did all day if they didn't want to ride, she replied: 'Oh, some folks just sit out on the porch.'
Klaus, the only other guest, had apparently just turned up out of the blue with no reservation and claimed to speak no English. It was a pretty strange dinner that night. Tom's conversational style was a drawling 'yep' or 'nope' after an immensely long pause, Klaus did not speak unless spoken to and then said only 'ja' or 'nein', while I tried to hide my disappointment at the small, single course Molly put on the table. When I asked for a drink, she eventually produced two cans of beer which a previous guest had left behind.
We had our first riding lesson the next day. Pepper, my grey horse, wouldn't move at first, so I sat there like a fool until my husband came trotting down on his huge mount as if he had been riding all his life. Then Pepper immediately started following him about, ignoring my timid instructions. In theory we were practising turning, starting and stopping, but in Tom's absence Pepper decided to return to the stables, completely oblivious to my squeaking and twisting about. Finally, Tom rescued me, saying I should have been firmer with him. Well] I'd only been on a horse for five minutes in my whole life.
We then went for what seemed like a long ride across rolling range and through dense woods. I found the trotting very painful and frightening and was constantly losing my left stirrup. I was very conscious of how high up I was with no hard hat, and how little instruction we had had. My husband had none of these problems, however. When he helped me down I was astonished to find myself bent at every angle, with knees, hips and ankles locked in agony.
Next day we were very pleased to be joined by a young couple from Philadelphia and during our morning ride I found out for myself that if I stiffened my legs in the stirrups, leant forward and stood up a bit, cantering uphill was actually quite enjoyable. Three hours is far too long for a complete beginner, however, and I was in pretty poor shape when we got back. Tom didn't appear for dinner that night, so we all fell starving on his helping of ribs which Molly had put out - one rib per person. By now I was so hungry at mealtimes that I was filling up with bread and butter.
That was two years ago, our first American ranch holiday. Although it was frankly too rustic for my taste, we learnt enough about riding to want to try again, but somewhere else (for else, read 'better'). Having decided not to use a tour operator this time, we consulted Gene Kilgore's Ranch Vacations. This really opened my eyes to the huge range available: from operations catering for up to 400 guests in rooms with fitted carpets, television and air-
conditioning, to outfits where you ride on your own horse for eight miles from the nearest road to the ranch and take your food with you. We shortlisted three along our route from San Francisco to Seattle; the first choice turned out to be just about perfect for us.
The Highland Ranch, 125 miles north of San Francisco, sits 1,000ft high on a plateau up 4 1/2 miles of dirt road winding through a dense forest of redwoods and other native trees. When we finally emerged from the forest, we swept round a meadow with a lake bordered by reeds and cat's-tail with a small dock, one canoe and a floating raft. The ranch house and cabins, with two tennis courts and a small swimming pool, appeared beyond the next rise. As we arrived, four other guests were watching the blacksmiths at work in the stables. A couple from Los Angeles and a brother and sister from San Francisco came forward to greet us. Shortly afterwards the owner, George Gaines, who was supervising the shoeing of his horses, strolled up and offered us a glass of champagne in the cool of the lodge's spacious living room.
Later on he listened patiently while I explained my previous unhappy riding experiences. He then went to considerable trouble to put me at my ease, adjusting the stirrup lengths and emphasising that riding was supposed to be fun, not some sort of competition or endurance test. Four of us went riding that evening through splendid woods - covering 100 miles of trails of varying difficulty - enough to satisfy a range of competence from beginners to expert horsepersons.
Dinner is served in the ranch house family-style, on long gingham-covered tables. The marinaded steak, jacket potatoes, giant corn cobs and salad followed by blueberry pie and cream were produced by the ranch owner's daughter, Caroline Blair. Good Californian wines flowed freely, and afterwards there were liqueurs around a blazing log fire. We kept George up until 2am as we swapped stories.
We also got to know our fellow guests better. Mr Los Angeles was very rich - you could tell by the amount of jewellery his wife was wearing. She had diamond stud earrings the size of marrowfat peas, four diamond-
encrusted rings on both hands and bizarre two- and-a-half-inch long varnished fingernails ('I would dah without my manicurist'). She was totally unabashed about her wealth and only asked me one question in our short acquaintance - 'Do you have a pool?' Next day Mrs Fingernails abandoned her ride after 10 minutes. She had broken one of her nails and had to lie down to recover.
Mr San Francisco was an entertaining gay wine consultant who did brilliant impressions of Robin Williams. When George asked what we fancied doing next day, I replied 'shooting'. This was deliberately misinterpreted by the wine consultant as 'shooting up' drugs. 'Oh my, there goes the day,' he drawled, admiring his purple suede cowboy boots.
Next day we were joined by an earnest couple in their twenties from Los Angeles. The fellow had been to Yale - you could tell because it was written on his T-shirt. The ride through the woods to Peterson Ridge that morning was excellent. At the summit you have a 360-degree panorama of the Anderson Valley with the Navarro River twinkling below and the Pacific Coastal Range mountains far away on the horizon. And chilled pink champagne is always ready out on the redwood deck for folks coming back from their morning rides.
The next thing I tried was mountain- biking, though I hadn't ridden a bike for years. As I swooped down the hilly grass surrounding the cabins I called out 'Hey, look at me]' as I came round a sharp downhill bend. I turned too fast, braked too hard and crashed over the handlebars, rolling in the red dirt.
That hurt] I struggled back to the ranch house covered in red dust, some bruises and injured pride. George said: 'Stick to horses, they're safer.' I then had to change very quickly to join everyone else to go skeet (clay pigeon) shooting.
The gun felt amazingly heavy, I couldn't keep the end from waving about as my left arm trembled with the strain, so I was astonished when I blasted both stationary clays cleanly away. We were all pretty useless at hitting the flying clays, though - except for Mr Yale, who was naturally very competitive.
In the cool of the early evening we had our last ride with George, deep into the woods near the ranch, to check out a new trail. I learnt a lot by experimenting with different saddle positions, finally concluding as we rode back into the paddock that if you work out how to sit correctly you suffer no discomfort whatsoever afterwards. Unfortunately, I figured this out five minutes before getting off.
The Highland Ranch is the perfect place to unwind, recharge your batteries and relax in the company of educated Americans at play. No radios were heard during our stay, and the satellite television was only switched on briefly for the basketball finals. At night, the loudest sound was the bullfrogs croaking by the catfish ponds behind our cabin.
A week later, when we had reached Portland, Oregon, which lies 700 miles to the north, we cancelled the rest of our holiday plans and drove back down to the ranch for a further three days of bliss.
Highland Ranch is 125 miles north of San Francisco, about 2 1/2 hours away by car. Daily rate dollars 150 per person, including room, all meals, cocktails, wine, riding, tennis, shooting, fishing. Children under 16 half adult rate, infants free. Two-day minimum on weekends and Bank Holidays. No credit cards. Contact George C Gaines at Highland Ranch, Philo, California 95466 (tel 0101 707-895 3600). Ranch Vacations by Eugene Kilgore is distributed by Windrush Press, priced at pounds 12.99.
(Photographs and map omitted)Reuse content