My rucksack still smells of bonfire. That's because it came up the mountainside with us to a clearing where it sat and watched do-it-all Mike (but an hour earlier he had taken boy on his first horse ride around the arena) at work finishing off some succulent steaks on the fire in direct line with the billowing smoke. I don't think the memory of our weekend out on the ranch is going to leave me for some time. It took us a couple of weeks to trawl through the mess that is Google search to find a place that would have us, not so far from our Denver home and provide us with suitable adventures for the cowboy wannabes. Triple B ranch was the place.
We took our time getting there. Leaving the lofty skyscrapers of Denver framed by the distant snowy rockies behind us we headed south towards Colorado Springs. But a half hour into the journey the landscape became a breathtaking display of Mother Nature at her very best. Rocky crags against rolling green slopes and, in the ever approaching distance majestic mountain ranges, pine tree lined amazingness. Route 24 west took us through Happy Canyon, (we all were, most definitely) past a truck whose owner had proudly decided to paste on the back of the cab that it was "Running On Faith" and on towards Pike's National Forest. About 5 miles from the ranch the road took us uphill through the crags narrowly scraping by dramatic red rock jagging its way towards the tarmac. Around us Falling Rock signs. Snaking our way onwards we came upon Woodland Park. A town with a surprising little hub of activity and services, from an Aveda spa to a Bier restaurant and everything in between. In miniature. With green roofs and bricks the same colour as the rocks so as to almost camouflage them. Same went for the Walmart a few miles earlier though it stood ubiquitous regardless, as if it had been beamed in from outer space. We found a bakery and deli open and stocked up on delicious Reubens and salads (explorerers have calorific needs too you know) and did a quick about turn in City Market for morning essentials. I had never come across a strip mall with a grocery, liquor, hair and health food store squeezed up against an ammo stockist and chinese take out. No time to muse, a horse ride had our names on it and we were not going to be late. Once we had checked into our cabin room, boy overjoyed at the new found science of bunk-bedding. I stopped answering after the tenth time he asked me why they were built in this formation. Some time later he told me that he would wait to have a little sister before he slept on the top one. He may have to wait some time I fear.
We had just about enough time to slap on another ton of sun screen do a quick warm up on the mini basketball tarmac, breathe in the lusciously dry, clean mountain air, when Mike, came striding down the dirt path with Star on his arm, saddled and ready to take our boy on his first equine experience. As is usual with the Sam boy, any activity which induces a rush of adrenaline is usually met with verbal outpouring to over compensate. I don't think we heard a comma for that half hour. We were fine. I worried about long suffering Mike.
"You ready for your horse ride?"
"Yeah." said Sam with equal measures of nonchalance and enthusiasm, if you can picture it.
On he was popped, legs barely reaching any stirrups, instructed to hold on tight and that was that. All we could hear as they sidled into the distance was the ping pong tones of the boy punctuated by the short monosyllabic answers from Mike, when he could squeeze them in mind. They looked like a cartoon strip. After the second time around, Mike informed us that our son was "quite a talker." I think that was Coloradean for "does your kid ever shut up?!" or "you London lot need to shut up and breathe in this magical place." After the third time around, Dad suggested that Mum should do a pre trek warm up on the kindly Star. NOw, I had not prepared for this, and in all matters Horses I need several days of soul work before I can put my fear into check and saddle up as it were. Nevertheless, the suggestion ahd some wisdom behind it. I managed to get myself on just in time for Star to turn, look at me as if to say "you're an amateur woman and no 27 lbs boy at that" and we were off.
"Anything I need to remember while I am out on the ride tonight Mike?" I proffer, desperately grappling for any pro tips.
Looking out towards the mountains he simply tells me to go with the horse's rhythm, lean back downhill, forward uphill (hills? hills?!!! No one told me about hills!)and duck under branches. I don't remember booking us into the assault course horse trek. I was sure I had read steak dinner somewhere in the title, not dice with death. Which, by the by, I found out minutes before the ride, was my liability and mine alone. I disembark Star, who by the way tried ot bite Mike during our round about and storm to the cabin to make me some nerve calming coffee, down a few nuts, remember to breathe and generally psyche up my withering psyche. It was after all, my first ever ride.
Leaving it to the last minute, as usual, we arrive at the barn to find our fellow trekkies all be saddled and eager to go. Kelly, our guide comes over to me. She is strawberry blonde young cowgirl with a breezy bright smile and twinkly green eyes sporting a cowgirl hat and some fetching chaps that I quickly decide I would love to be wearing. She has strong wide shoulders that frame her lithe athletic build. She is sensitive to my nerves, which I whisper about to her, desperate not to expose these feelings to the Sam-man, who was so stoic on his little jaunt. She is calm and relaxed with me. Tells me how to steer my horse Ice, and, most importantly to me, how to ask her to stop. When we are all ready she tells the group it is usual to say a prayer before a ride. She takes off her hat and offers her words to the heavens. "Prayers?! Oh GOd." cries Debbie, a rider so nervous that she made me seem like a pro. A sort of Ghandi meets John Wayne kind of wrangler. I pet my horse and ask her nicely to work with me here. I hope we will be friends. And then, we were off. No-one holding on to me. No pony trek on the heath, this was proper riding. Ok walking, but still, high up, on a horse, on the summer solstice, clip clopping out into the rugged wilderness of Colorado.
It was just around 5ish as we left and the warm glow of the afternoon sun was basking the jaw dropping scenery in a picture perfect light. Apart from the occasional outburst from Debbie at the back, riding Star, there was a gorgeous quiet to the whole experience. I listened to Ice and she listened to me. Onward we treaded deeper and deeper into the pines. The trails got narrow and we brushed in and out of the trees. More than once the path would take us down a short but steep incline, at which point the words of Mike rung in my ears and it seemed that Ice welcomed my changing of positions. The steep descents would be followed by an ascent of similar grade at which point Ice would flex her muscles and edge towards a trot gallop. I didn't cling on for dear life though. I was overjoyed at my willingness to enjoy the relative change in speed. A few times she huffed and puffed a bit and I wondered if she was getting sick of me. Then I shut that little voice off in my head and decided to make my grip clearer and surrender to the animal. By the time we had reached the clearing, picnic tables laid for dinner, fire going, kitchen worthy of any plot holder worth their weight in compost I was positively shaking with exhilaration. From the beauty of it all, from the fact that I had conquered my fear and for the sheer gratefulness of being able to experience all of this. Sam and Cory looked just as flushed from their 4X4 journey up ahead of us (with Mike of course) that had wound up sharp corners and inclines on a dirt road which I found out about after dinner. The horses were tied up and the riders were invited to take a tin tray and load up. Sam could barely hold up his after it had been heaped with REAL cowboy beans, sweetcorn, homemade biscuits and baked potato. I had less trouble though I wondered how I would eat all of that plus a steak. Seems like it was an entire day of surpassing my expectations. All was capped off by strawberry shortcake and a few more minutes of chit chat with our fellow travellers including a very slim african american probably in his late thirties with his smaller stouter older, blonde German wife. In five minutes I came to find out that they had built their home in Virginia over 9 years, lived with her 80 year old mother, had weathered the storm of the economic crash and were now about to convince their daughter and grandson to move out to Colorado were the husband, I will call him Kojak (he had a lollypop in his mouth the whole time) had finally found a job. I didn't think he was doing too badly. Whilst talking to them I realised they had been the couple who had parked in front of our cabin an hour or so earlier in an open topped Ferrari. Just before it was time to return, boy announced it was time for a loo stop. Rather loudly. People were still eating.
I put my bag on my back, prepared for most eventualities, when the kindly Kelly directed me to the porta loo down the hill. The brown box had spiders and webs written all over it, but of course I strode down with boy with the gusto of a shopoholic on a mission. Once in, boy took a quick glance of the place and almost decided to give the whole thing a miss. I finally convinced him to sit down when he said, "Look at that big spider mum!" pointing just by the seat inside the pot. Stand up then I tell him. He does and job is done. Boy looks a little relieved. I ask him to balance whilst I fetch some wipes to clean him up when suddenly I spot a speedy spider making its way to my foot, I do the Sara spider jig and I think eventually step on him, for which I am not proud. The sudden movement spooks a resting moth who, texas sized, starts flitting about the tiny space. Boy freaks, confused by the brown butterfly with the body the size of a hornet and begins to wobble with his trousers down by his ankles. My attempts at re-inducing calm are thwarted by a second moth who starts to join his demented friend in a frenzied panic dance. The four of us are fluttering about the tardis. The smallest human is wailing like a banshee. The look of sheer terror on his little face was something I have rarely seen. I manage to wipe him and dress him in fast forward and once we are out in the bear infested air, we both quickly find calm. Once back at the table however, Debbie looks ashen. She had taken our screams to be that of two people meeting a rabied mountain lion or grizzly, which, by the way, Kelly and Mike nonchalantly tell us have been visiting the rubbish bins nightly.
It is common knowledge that bears frequent the area, and that they are hungry at this time of year. Suddenly my appetite fails me. Whilst Mike, Sam and I watch the riders leave I find myself looking through the trees for the shadow of black fur lurking around the delicious smelling camp fire. I notice I am planning escape routes and judging how quick I could scoop Sam up and get into the truck unharmed. Down then we wind, very slowly due to the vertical incline and catch the horses in the near distance, bumping their riders up and down, all anxious to get back to their stable dinners and competing to be first in line. I am glad I chose the first leg. In truth it was more so I wouldn't ruin my dinner worrying about riding home. This way I got to go on my mini expedition and enjoy the food as reward. Bear or no bears.
Family and I took another turn around the ranch, checking out the donkey, who he-hawed so loudly before he poo'd that all we could do was stay rooted to the spot listening. We watched the longest day come to its reluctant end and then washed off the happy dust from us and cosied into PJs. Hoodies up and over our heads, blankets on our knees we watched the moon rise and shine, the stars slowly twinkling into focus in the night sky. Stories were shared just about long enough till mum realised the rubbish bin where the ole bears like to rummage was a matter of feet away and the family was convinced to retire. Boy fell to sleep easily, buldozed by the mountain air and ma and pa were not long behind. Cory tried to convince me to sit with him another while to enjoy the night, but the whole bear thing had me with ants in my pants. I explained I had spent all my courage on the ride. He laughed at me. Then we shared a Boddingtons (?) and curled up in the cabin. In the morning, when I found boys foot in my mouth I remembered him calling out in the night to find his sheets and pyjamas sodden. It was a relatively late rise for all of us though, and after a breakfast facing the mountains, wake up coffee, a quick hoop or two and family were onto their next stop.
Manitou Cliff dwellings sit nestled into the red rock by Manitou Springs a matter of a few miles from where we had been staying. There, we found rock homes of the Anasazi tribe dating back to 1100AD. In truth they have been preserved to a state that some would find it difficult to believe their authenticity, nevertheless it was wonderful to trail through them, reminding me of the neolithic cave dwellings I had roamed around in Sardinia when I was a child with my relatives. We stayed soaking up the atmosphere just enough time to buy a scorpion encrusted lollypop (in memory of Patricia!) and make an exit in time for a spot of lunch down in the town, at Stagecoach Inn by the creek. After replenishing we headed on to Garden of the Gods.
Never a more apt name given. In we drove suddenly coming across astonishing rock formations jutting out of the landscape, beginnng with smaller mushroom sproutings and then progressing to ever larger shapes. We stopped at the first parking section and took in the views. Well, mum did, Dad and boy scaled the rock face up to an enormous red rock which perched upon a flatter slab looking like it would topple at any moment if it weren't for the tiny bit of red cement fixing it together and off of the tourists. People were clambering all over this section looking like busy ants as they dotted about the red-ness. The park sprawled out beyond us yearning to be explored. You could hike for days here, and many do. At least that's what I assume all the RV-ers do, even if they do have satellite dishes fixed to their roofs on the camps we passed.
Time for a reality check, dad is a working man after all, and we began our reluctant return to the city. I say return, I ought to use that word lightly. I don't think I will be "returning" from that weekend for a long long time. I'm already picturing the family and I galloping the shores of Santa Monica or loosing ourselves in Yosemite. One day at a time. For now, it is for us to soak up the gorgeousness of Denver while we can and keep the memory of the mountains as fresh in our minds as that wonderful air.