The view from the porch looks straight down Cucamonga Canyon, which we’d ascended that morning, our horses pacing the gradual climb to about 7,000 feet above our starting point in rural southeastern Oregon. The hillside is ablaze with golden fescue, yellow rabbitbrush and the first kiss of autumn in the trees.
I sit next to my friend Vanessa. She has Rosie, the resident cattle dog, curled in her lap with a wet nose tucked under her arm.
Tim O’Crowley, Steens Mountain Guest Ranch owner, strides around the corner of the cabin, dust flying off his leather chaps. Hands on his hips, he cocks his head at us and says, “You are ruining my dog.” Then his face cracks into what we’ve learned is his characteristic grin.
If we’re ruining Rosie, our trip to the guest ranch has ruined a few things for me — my favorite pair of jeans and my notions of what a working-ranch vacation would be like. Susan O’Crowley, Tim’s wife and ranch partner, puts it plainly: “This is not going to be a plush vacation. This is going to be an authentic experience.” She got that right.
The day before, Vanessa and I had driven south from Hood River to Bend, east to Burns and south another 60 miles. We turned off just before the town of Diamond (pop. 5) and found the O’Crowleys’ guest ranch looking out onto the broad flat beauty of Oregon cattle country.
Horses, curious at our approach, stir up dust in the corral, and a trio of orange kittens darts across the grass. Tim and Susan meet us in the driveway and usher us into their bright, rustic pine house. They built it from the ground up with the help of their six now-grown kids here on property owned by a local cattle family called the Otleys.
When I ask how big the ranch is, Susan stretches her fingertips north to south. “It’s three canyons wide and 25 miles long,” she says. At its easternmost point, the ranch butts up against the Steens Mountain Wilderness Area, a 170,200-acre preserve. In exchange for a place to operate the guest ranch, Tim and Susan look after the Otley family’s 600 Red Angus cows and their calves. That means calving, branding, fence building and feeding and moving cows. Their guests, like us, help out with whatever tasks are on the week’s agenda.
We stow our bags and sit down in the kitchen, where they quiz us about our horse experience. I recount that all the horses I’ve ridden were buckers, biters, stumblers or intent to scrape me off on a fence and get back to the barn. Tim marks me down as a nervous but athletic beginner. Vanessa, with a couple of lessons and several family ranch trips under her belt buckle, is ahead of me.
In the waning afternoon light near the barn, Tim talks us through a lesson in horsemanship with Big Red, a 12-year-old quarter horse that he’s still training. “The horse has a bubble,” he says. “You want to step into it, then out of it.” Connecting with a horse is all about communication through that physical space. “Words mean nothing to a horse,” Tim says. When he stands directly behind Big Red and grabs his tail, I close my eyes, expecting a blur of hooves. But Red is not that kind of horse. Nor are any of the 10 well-trained and cared-for horses that live here.
I’m paired with 11-year-old Little Britches, a Florida mustang. She is an alpha in the horse pecking order and greatly intuitive with people. Vanessa has Stony, a gorgeous silver-coated Arab and quarter horse cross. He’s spunkier, Tim says, and a bit of an airhead. We bridle, brush and saddle our horses then head out for an hour-long trail ride to the ridgeline above the house. (We learn later that this is a test ride, and we both pass.) Looking south, we can see Steens Mountain rising to nearly 10,000 feet above the immense Kiger Gorge, where we’ll end up in two days. Out east, the ancient lakebed of the Alvord Desert flattens out into the horizon. As we leave the barn for dinner, I realize that I’ve stayed on my horse, and I can’t wait for tomorrow.
Before bed, I open my door to the nighttime sky to look for stars. I hear the call of a great horned owl just outside the yard. As I fall asleep the quiet is sliced by the sharp song of coyotes on the hillside behind the house — yipping, barking and crying in a mysterious chorus.
Up in the canyon
Here’s what I thought a guest ranch might be like: Your host would let you help with some rudimentary task, praise you and hand you a gin and tonic. Tim tells me I’ve done a good job, hands me the chainsaw and tells me to carry it back down to the cabin. Two hours earlier, we’d huffed up the steep quarter-mile incline on foot to build two rock cribs to anchor a fence. That means pounding metal stakes into the ground, surrounding them with barbed wire and filling that circle with rocks — heavy rocks, lava rocks, rocks that must be dug out of the dirt with our hands.
At first all I can think is, “Rattlesnake, rattlesnake, rattlesnake.” Pretty soon I’m thinking, “One rock, two rocks, three rocks.” I count to 75 before I lose track in the rhythm of the work, the banter with Tim and Vanessa and the hum of crickets in the hot afternoon sunshine.
Our day had begun at 5 a.m. with a big cowboy breakfast. Saddling up Little Britches, I rode behind Susan and Vanessa with Tim following on Big Red and leading the packhorse, Scooter, with tools, food and clothing for two days. We pace along a rushing stream in the shadow of the steep canyon, past the ruins of an old log cabin and through scratchy stands of juniper. During our three-hour ride, we cross the stream 12 times, back and forth, the horses picking their way carefully down the banks and then surging up.
At first I have to remind myself: Heels down, lean back on the descent, weight forward on the climb. But by mid-morning I’ve forgotten to worry, and I let go of my memories of past scary rides. I’m in love with Little Britches, the smell of horse sweat, the sound of her snorting as she kicks up dust in her face, the clack of her hooves against the rocks. My legs brush up against the sage, releasing the pungent smell into the air. I’m so relaxed that I nearly fly off when Stony, the airhead, spooks and rears up, bumping us from behind. The danger, it turns out, is a couple of fawns springing up from the long grass. “Thanks for that,” Vanessa says, rubbing her neck.
Without cell service or Wi-Fi, without the nag of connectivity, our conversation runs easily. We talk about our families, our day-to-day lives, the horses, the landscape we are riding through. The O’Crowleys met in high school in rural Idaho. Susan’s dad was Tim’s Scout Leader. They are now proud grandparents to 10. Tim, a career cowboy, realized he had a talent for talking to people and decided he wanted to use that skill to share this place with others. He and Susan hope to help people improve their lives by bringing them out here. Vanessa and I share our stories, which are intertwined since we’ve known each other since third grade. And I’m reminded how precious old friendship is.
We wind through aspen and willows along the streambed. An antelope bounds up the hillside at our approach, and the sun finally crests the steep canyon sides and warms our shoulders. A red-tailed hawk soars overhead, screeching as we pass through his hunting ground.
After three hours, the cabin comes into view — a rustic one-room affair constructed from fallen aspen milled on-site. We release the horses, eat lunch, and start our gate building and rock-crib work. In the afternoon, Vanessa and I cool our bare feet in the stream and watch the horses browsing on the hillside below the cabin.
Dinner is a genuine cowboy affair: Dutch oven buttermilk biscuits, fried chicken and brownies. We sit around the campfire and watch the sun fade over the ridgeline. When I ask them what they like the most about their business, Susan and Tim both say the people they meet are number one; A close second is working for themselves. “For us, there’s the freedom. Though we work longer hours and harder hours, we work our own hours,” Tim adds.
The O’Crowleys notice that guests lose track of their usual worries when they come here. Tim says most people are drawn by the idea of working with the horses, but what they remember is the physical work. They leave with a sense of accomplishment. This past summer one repeat guest, on leave from his corporate life, spent an entire day gathering deadfall and brush with Tim in the rain. “This is hard work,” Susan says. “And at the end of the day, he said to me, ‘You know, I feel like I’ve found a part of myself that has been lost for a long time.”
As we lie in our bunks, the full moon casts a silver blanket over the ghosts of downed aspen and juniper. I drift off to sleep, hearing the wind in the trees and the horses whinnying to each other in the dark.
The next day we’ll ride up the Davidson Draw and look out into the dramatic expanse of Kiger Gorge, one of four gigantic valleys formed here during the last Ice Age and home to wild mustangs. We’ll herd cows down the mountain through stands of juniper and rock-strewn hillside.
Vanessa will plan a return trip with her children, and I’ll find myself surprised by the lasting reverberation of these days once I’m back in my normal life — the sounds of horses in my dreams, the memory of surging up the hillside after the cows, and the sense of calm and beauty just being present. Just as Susan promised, it’s been an authentic experience.