It has taken me a really long time to put this trip into words, almost a year. This post is ultimately about my experience at a quaint, old-western family dude ranch in Antimony, Utah. The ranch is as lovely and fun as the name sounds, but the story behind how I ended up there in the summer of 2019 is just as important as this incredible ranch itself.
Let's begin with a little history on my Uncle Ralph. The people closest to me know he’s not my real uncle, he was my father’s best friend in high school and has always been in my life. My brother and I grew up calling him uncle and played together with his two children during our childhood. Our families spent many birthdays together. To me, he is a true uncle in every sense of the word. He is family, my closest friend and occasionally he does step in as a father figure in my life. You can find us finishing each other’s sentences and enjoying many of the same things. I think the most important thing we have together is undoubtedly my father and our crazy sense to give people joy and make them smile. There is something so beautiful about his spirit and I’m so happy he has been a part of my life for so many years.
I realize how fortunate I am to have grown up with a father who adored me, protected me and taught me things I didn’t know I needed to know at the time. He died fairly young and I haven’t exactly gotten over it. It is a huge void for me everyday and I believe it has hit Ralph pretty hard as well. My father was undeniably rugged, yet incredibly shy. I believe this comes from the fact that he had no hearing in one of his ears and in the other, it was minimal. He loved the outdoors; hiking, hunting and mostly, like father like daughter, he loved horses. I took many trips with him. We loved to hike together. He enjoyed researching and finding us new, exciting and incredibly strenuous hikes. Being with him without interruption was magnificent. He consistently spoke to both Ralph and I about going out west to ride some cow ponies, see the scenery and drive some cattle. He wanted to be the cowboy he was on the inside, if only for a week. This was his dream. I promise to tell you about all of the outstanding trips I took with my father but this particular story is all about the Rocking R Ranch.
At one of our many outings at Madison's in fancy Boca Raton, Florida, Ralph brings up the topic of wanting to finally take that cattle drive my father always longed to take. He pulls out his phone and is showing me options of places to go and ride into the wilderness. I cant see any of them as its dark, I need readers and we are at the bar but in my happy state of mind I blurt out “I am coming!”. This was the best “spur” of the moment decision I have I ever made and to Ralph, this was total commitment and this leads me to the infamous map.
Now, if you research cattle drives, you will find these ranches are just about everywhere. You can see why I may have felt confused by a map of Utah, of all the places, being presented in front of me on the dinner table in an Italian restaurant in Delray Beach. Ralph, my extremely excitable uncle, proceeds to point to a tiny place called Antimony. That’s the last we saw of that map as two of my good friends were dining up the road, showed up and the map was somehow destroyed. I am going to omit how this actually happened.
So, decision made and away we go... Ralph and I decide to fly into Salt Lake City the night before so we are able to explore a bit before we set out in the morning for Antimony. Salt Lake City is about 211 miles from Antimony, and the drive includes mostly winding, dirt roads with no phone service and rest stops you wouldn’t allow your children into. We are driving our “lightly used” SUV from an offsite rental place I have forgotten the name of on purpose. We are still unsure if either of us ever paid for this rental as we went through about 10 vehicles until we found one without completely bald tires and I could actually sit in without throwing up.
Four hours later, we pull into the Rockin’ R Ranch and it exactly what we expected from the description on their website. We are acting like two little kids on Christmas morning; overjoyed. It feels authentic, yet the lodge looks clean and well kept. I can see the small barn with a big white rearing horse fixed on top. I came to find out this is actually the tack shed as all the horses live outside in the fields. It is dusty here and the sun is shining. There is not another car in the dirt lot except our own. We hop out and stretch, breathe it in and look at one another knowing our adventure is about to begin.
The population in Antimony, Utah is 122. I learned some only come for the summer months but most are there full time and are very proud of their little town. There is one store we passed on the way in, The Antimony Mercantile, rightly nicknamed “the Merc”. Here is where you buy everything you need to live in Antimony, including groceries and gasoline and it also serves as the town restaurant where you can sit at the counter for a pretty incredible burger. There is a pet deer named Sadie, who was brought up by a local family and their dogs. She roams the streets freely wearing a dog collar so no one shoots her during hunting season.
It’s about 12pm on a Monday, we walk through the front door and into the main lodge to check in. There is a small desk directly in the front, behind it a small, darkly lit store with the resort name tee shirts and home made jewelry. We are greeted with a sign that says “All children left unattended will be given an espresso and a free puppy”.
This is the most welcoming sign I could’ve ever imagined. This is my home for the week. There is also a big, brightly lit white board hanging above the dining room and on it reads “Brandofino” in a bunch of different boxes. There aren’t any other names on this board, but there is a list of activities starting at noon with lunch, our first meal at the ranch. We are the Brandofino’s (this is Ralph’s last name) so we realize now we are alone in this amazing little horse village with a full day activities. We do eventually check into our identical, separate rooms on the second floor with the most amazing view. The rooms are cozy, decorated with western quilts and a headboard and dresser made from hand made logs. There is one lamp, also in a western motif and a light on the ceiling above. The sink is separate from the bathroom and shower. I like this touch. No closet, but a few hangers next to the sink for anything you may want to hang. The rooms, luckily for me, had two full beds so I ended up using one as a wardrobe. We were handed actual keys to enter our rooms with a big green tags and an embossed room number. Super old school, but I loved it. I attached that key to my belt buckle for the week. Ralph just left his in the room with the door unlocked. There are no phones, no TV and very limited internet access. There was cell service in a one foot diameter in the middle of the parking lot. Don't get used to it, it never lasts more than a minute. I do realize we have to somehow get our luggage up to those rooms. This is a week long trip, so my suitcase is slightly heavier than usual. As you probably already know, there is no bellman at the Ranch. I just stared at the steps for a while thinking this is going to take me some time, but Hercules, aka Uncle Ralph, somehow hauls those babies up a few flights of rickety stairs while I was in the lodge or perhaps he paid one of the kids, still not entirely sure.
We rush down to lunch which is already waiting for us in the empty dining room. No choices here, a pitcher of water on the table and a soda machine on the other side and the home made country food begins to appear. All fresh, all good and plenty of it, including dessert. We are full, place our dishes in the bins and set off for our first adventure of the day. Did someone say horses?!?
We quickly change into some jeans, boots and hats and giddy up over to the barn. There are two horses tied up and we are both assigned a horse. We are taught how to groom and saddle up our own horses as these become part of our daily chores. Yes, chores. I really do despise the word but I also want to learn how to put this western saddle on, so I am good spirited and ready to work. We hop on our horses, literally, as you are not allowed to ride unless you are able to get on from the ground. For all my English riding, Wellington based friends, no, there is no mounting block. We head to the arena for 30 minutes of the basics and I’m certain some rider evaluation.
We both know a lot about horses and riding horses, so this part was really the two of us learning how incredibly strong the sun is in Antimony and how additional sunscreen was strongly needed and we should have drank more water. Oh my lord, we needed a lot of water on this trip. Two Floridians in Utah. It was quite dry. We also learned quickly the hard rule at Rockin’ R, if you did not have a strap under your chin attached to your hat, you couldn’t wear it. Apparently, someone ruined it for everyone and had a hat flying, spooking accident. With Ralph’s barely sunned, bald head we were in a load of trouble but one of our young female instructors just up and gave him her cowboy hat. This was my first day watching Ralph become John Wayne. Truly blissful. I was so glad Ralph handed me a red bandana before we left our rooms as it covered up my neck and chest quite well. I laughed at it first, how cliché, a bandana, but it quickly became a part of my everyday. I keep it on my dresser at home as a reminder. It looks like we passed inspection and we are ready for our first trail ride.
We head out and I’m thinking to myself this should be a nice easy ride through some canals and fields, a time for relaxing, it’s our first day after all. We begin to travel through the wide open fields with grazing, free running horses, and what seemed like thousands of cows. We had the treat of meeting the two quirky donkeys named Batman and Robin for the first time. This eventually leads us to a narrow rock filled trail pointing up toward the sky and there go the horses, climbing without a care or a stumble. It was just Ralph and I and our two young, female wranglers. I begin leaning forward to go up and help this horse out a bit. Rocks were sliding downward and dirt was swirling through the air. I decided in this moment the horse knows better than I do, I let go of my controlling habits, let her have her head and pick her own path, which she did, brilliantly. Maybe an hour or more of this beautiful, quiet Utah country trail, a few unexpected leaps over bodies of water with these sure footed, confident horses and the start of some great photos and amazing conversation of the week.
We finished our chores for the evening which included untacking the horses, all of them, and we head on our way back to our rooms. I’m not sure I mentioned this but Antimony is part of a dry county, much like most of Utah. No panic though, this was thoroughly discussed before boarding the plane and we were uber prepared. So we went into our coolers filled with ice from the "Merc", poured ourselves a drink and sat outside on some chairs on the deck in front of our rooms. We did bring our matching target to go cups into the dining room a bit later. The cups read “ Adulting is Hard.” They were an instant hit as we also were learning very quickly this ranch was basically run by "the kids". To be clear, good, church going, boisterous kids. After dinner we go on a hunt to steal some twine from the hay bails so Ralph can get crafty with his knife. We found the route to the top deck, not as easy as it sounds and sat in two lonely, old Adirondack chairs that were facing the sunset and I watched Ralph at work, cutting holes into my stetson lining and in a few minutes we had some colorful blue and green string to hold our hats on while we watched our first Antimony sun go down in a beautiful setting of yellow and orange. Perfect ending to our first evening. We were all set for day two of adventure.
The next morning we wake up to see a hike on the schedule with a goal to find Butch Cassidy’s real life hide out from the law. A local man named Jack brought us in his little red pick up with his little wonder dog, Titan. He told us to try and find Butch's hide out and basically let us run wild through the dry, cactus filled, mountainous terrain. Lesson one in the desert, don’t steady yourself by cactus. It was a lovely, brisk morning that began in a sweat shirt and ended in a tank top. I still may have a few thorns inside my left hand today, but it was worth it. I lost Ralph only a few times but eventually found him and the hideout and we made it back to the ranch for a meal and our next trail riding excursion.
Our days and nights were filled with amazing home cooked, heavier meals than I am used to and many hikes on foot and trail rides with the horses, every time a different trail, twice a day. The same working kids involved in all our activities were also behind the desk, working the store, delivering our food and cleaning up after us. We loved our time in the arena with the girls barrel racing. Another huge highlight. We learned to rope wooden cattle from the top of our horses and we both really took to the archery lessons. We rode a fake “bucking” bull made from a metal barrel while some the kids pulled on the ropes attached to four poles. The goal was to get us to fall off, which proved extremely easy. I think Ralph was helping those kids during my ride, it seemed a bit more violent than his. Hmmm…. We went white water tubing down a natural river with two of the kids from the ranch. Without any instruction, the fun began as I immediately tripped while trying to hop on my tube in a running river. I lost my balance, my tube, my shoe and yes went under and floated away down the river in a tiny panic. I got up as it was luckily still shallow at this point. Collected myself and prepared for round two. We got to try this again a few days later with success for me, but Ralph flipped over and went under, I think more than once. He also lost his glasses the first day but we miraculously found them later in the week, hanging from a tree. What are the odds? We went out to skeet shoot with Jack and one other boy. Okay, so this gun they gave me had quite the kickback and it just about knocked me over every time. Ralph had a good chuckle over it as he happened to hit that moving target just about every time. "Pull"
Ralph and I did get back into our posh SUV and took a ride to Bryce Canyon National Park one afternoon. Bryce looked to be about 38 miles from Antimony. It took us about an hour and a half to get there. Bryce is well over 35,000 acres with some of the most exquisite views of red, orange and white, giant natural rock amphitheaters. There were pink cliffs and endless vistas, each one had it’s own uniquely formed sculptures and named appropriately. This park is by vehicle and not by foot, so we decided to drive all the way to the top and stopped at about ten exhibits on the way down. It became a bit cold with the sun covered by a sea of clouds and lightly misting. I’m sure the elevation played a part as well. Ultimately, the two of us were jonesing for our new ranch life and prayed we’d make it back in time for another trail ride.
We did stop at a local joint on our way home for a beer because I strongly believe you should always try to hang with the locals in a new place and get the real feel and so we did… I think. Oddly, we were greeted by a lovely Asian woman as we walked into the Cowboy Ranch House at Bryce Canyon. The bar was completely empty with swinging barn doors and old cowboy movies playing. Loaded beer taps on the wall with lots of local selections and a few names you’d actually know. Our bartender was introduced to us as Stumpy, which seemed appropriate because of his interesting gate. We each ordered a local beer and Stumpy came back in a few minutes with some some chips he left in the fryer a little too long. He thought we’d like to “eat those for free”. He picked the right two people because we will basically eat anything. Later we realized by law, you have to eat something if you have alcohol and our bartender was actually named Scotty. Ralph still refers to him as Stumpy.
There were truly too many beautiful trail rides to mention them all. Every one of them was a build up of majestic Utah scenery. Getting to know these young kids was becoming a joy for me. They were all from different backgrounds and had their own stories to tell. I gave them advice and shared my own life experiences. I became protective of them and their lives and looked forward to the next moment with each and everyone one of them. One of our longer rides, we stopped for lunch and we were able to take a drink from a natural spring. It was the most luscious, green spot I had seen while riding in Utah. The natural springs were hidden in a small, beautiful cave filled with greenery climbing the walls and wet, slippery mold covered rocks as the floor. When you cautiously walk inside this magical garden of Eden, there is a little man made spigot on the far wall with a few drips of the natural mountain springs continuously forming. I put my hands underneath, as instructed, and watched as they filled to put my head down to take a drink. They packed a saddlebag with a boxed sandwich lunches for all, complete with a piece of fruit, granola bar and a pudding. We ate on the ground as part of this picnic landscape along with the ants and other unknown critters. Our horses tied up to a few trees only a breath away. The air smelled like flowers and it felt moist and so fresh. The conversation with these two beautiful, young ladies this day was so lovely and invigorating. As we left, the sky became overcast and it looked to be steam filling the atmosphere. The dark clouds were covering the view of the mountains on our way back to the ranch. I feared a down pour coming and I mention the obvious out loud to everyone. The wranglers didn’t seem to mind in the least and told us a funny story of all the workers out one day on the horses and the sky decided to open up on them all. The horses were a bit crazy and most ran home, through the rocks and mountains. Everyone was completely drenched, horses and people alike, but when they told it with those smiles as I believe there may have been more to the story, it seemed a very good memory. We did get lucky as we made it back without incident. The thoughts of crackling thunder, strokes of lightning and spooking horses dissipated from my mind. At least I knew if they did take off at a gallop, they knew the way home.
I did start this story off with mention of a dream cattle drive. We decided against the actual drive as it’s long days in the saddle and camping out. It was important to me Ralph enjoyed every minute of this adventure without any distraction, but here’s the thing, we did get to move the cattle for hours one afternoon, complete with cattle dogs. This may have been my favorite day. A huge landscape of green grass, we traveled up to where the cows were hanging around, some grazing, some sun bathing. There was tiny building up there made of wood and I remember thinking maybe someone lived up here at one time. We used our horses and our voices to get them up and going, exactly like the movies, and we continued to move them down into another field. I learned we are not supposed to make them run, just stay together, keep them safe and get them to where we needed to go. We crossed large canals and rode into the gorgeous rolling hills. We moved them for miles. I believe they probably had to get everyone to move them back the next day as this was possibly just a treat for Ralph and me. We were also invited out one very early, extremely chilly morning to round up all the horses needed for the day. Another incredible moment as they were running full speed from the field, complete with ditches and rocks. Horses were everywhere, even crossing over an old wooden, noisy bridge missing a few slats and through the roads of the farm into the arena. This was their normal, we were the new factor. A top speed excursion for us. I realized my horse knew her job well and was eager to do it. I loved picking up the last of the strays as a few had some super personalities and had us running around the lakes and up to the lodge. I was a real cowgirl both those days and it was true exhilaration. I think Ralph may agree.
I was in awe of all the foals they had at this ranch, a special section of mothers and their babies out in one field. Obsessed, I was continuously reaching my arms through the barbwire fence and cutting myself just to get a touch of those pretty little heads and faces. I fed the goats at night and I laid in the grass most days playing with the family’s dogs. It was a real working ranch family life. I was also able to ride a different horse everyday. A personal dream of my own..
Our last trail ride was to Cowboy Rock, exactly what you think, a huge rock that actually looks like a cowboy. One of the girls picked my horse this day and she was amazing. We trailered the horses half way up the mountain in a truck I was unsure would actually make the trip, but wranglers shared their stringy plastic like fruit snacks to take my mind off it. They were actually pretty good. I wonder why my mother never bought those when we were kids. Once we were at the front of the trial, we take the already tacked up horses out of the trailer and we ride up the second half through a magnificent canyon. The path was particularly treacherous this day but there was no worry because we had cowboy Nate with us and he really shined. Every time on top of a horse he shined, but this day he had this little chestnut cow pony making it's own path for us. He would forge through trees with low branches, through the brush and rock. He was doing tricks on a horse I’ve never seen before. A real life cowboy with every skill imaginable. A true horseman in every way. He wore a spanish style full rimmed cowboy hat made of straw and a fitted vest that had to have been made just for him. He always had a rope attached to his belt buckle, ready for anything. A cool natured, mature red headed kid with a smile for days and the confidence of a man twice his age. I hope to watch him grow up, fall in love, get married, have children of his own and be famous one day. I know he will always be on a farm somewhere teaching us old dogs new tricks. We rode up to the infamous rock with Nate and Ben. Ben whom I thought was just the chef at the ranch, suddenly driving the trailer with a horse of his own loaded in the back with ours. I learned he had become a cowboy by default and a pretty darn good one at that. He also keeps the place afloat all winter long. Also a man with an interesting story, but that’s his story to tell. We had lunch sitting in some hollow formed, cave like orange colored rocks, which we climbed up onto because it looked like little benches to sit on. We ate and quietly gazed at this cool vision of a man with a perfectly formed cowboy hat made from nature. I’m not sure I stopped smiling during or after this ride as it was our last one of the trip. I made the very best of it, tested all the rules, upped the pace with my favorite partner and rode side by side with the others until I was asked to get back in line. I understand why the rules exist, if a less experienced rider got on that same horse, they may find themselves in a ditch with their horse just grazing away and without the knowledge of how to get it back to the group. I am sorry about that, but cowboys Ralph and Jill were already formed and could barely be stopped in that moment.
This was also our last night at Rockin R Ranch. This night we lined danced to a local band and when they split, Emma and I sang with some of the wranglers playing guitar. I mean, of course they play guitar. We laughed all night and we hugged. A lot.
Before I get to the end of this incredible journey, I want to share with you what happened to me at our group campfire evening because what’s a ranch without at least one proper campfire? We had one scheduled after one of our amazing dinners. We had to walk over to another side of the ranch but it was simple to find because you could smell the wood burning and see the heavy smoke forming high into the air. We gathered around with a few of the new comers that had arrived that night to stay for the weekend. We all sat in a circle on hand cut logs placed around the roaring fire. This was a big contained fire, my eyes burning from the smoke filled breeze. Ralph and I stumbled into the gathering carrying our to go cups, mine full of whiskey and Ralph, the Tito’s man. We had asked at the desk after dinner that night to please allow all of the wranglers join us. We wanted them all to have some fun. To our surprise almost all of them trickled into the party. We had fun joining in the conversation with the new folks we hadn’t met before. They gave us all the fixings for s’mores and one of the kids was even playing the fiddle as her brother held a flashlight up so she could see the music. It was the most appropriate way to hold a campfire. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute and once the fire started to die down after a few hours, Ralph and I were ready to get our tired bodies off the low sitting logs and retire for evening once again. As we turned to walk away, one of the newer couples and their seemingly troubled child followed us closely behind. I figured it was pitch black and they thought we actually knew the way back. Silly, really. The woman slowly approached me on my right side and kindly utters in a friendly, polite manner, I have a sister named Jill. I thought to myself, that’s sweet, she knows my name. I smiled at her in the darkness and probably said something stupid like, good strong name and made a muscle with my stick arm. She continues to tell me, nobody ever calls her Jill, we all call her Sissy. What on earth did she say? Does she know me? And then it begins to happen, both my ears ring and my knees slowly buckle. I stop walking. I look at Ralph, who hasn’t caught on yet. I say outloud, Pat (my father's name) is here. He has been here riding along side us every day. It clicked. You see, my name happens to be Jill and my father always called me Sissy my entire childhood, until I believe one day in my terrible teens, I likely told him to please stop. What are the chances this woman would feel the urge to tell a complete stranger named Jill, about her sister, also Jill, with a nickname that was my nickname? I even named my dog Sissy because I had rescued her after my father passed and I just liked saying the name a lot. Although she is famous as her full name is Sissy Spacek.
So, to all those free spirits like myself, as Keith Urban would say, “Let Your Horses Run”. If you truly want a real cowboy experience with well trained, sweet horses and riders of all levels welcome, this is for you. A true gift of a working ranch with friendly, fun faces and some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen. This is a place where you and the kids, someone special or a group of city slickers will learn a plethora of new skills and never have to think about what you want to do as someone already has it all planned. I loved that part. Check out this fabulously cool Rockin’ R Ranch. Don’t forget to look up as the sky at night because the stars are as clear as day and you can see every constellation. Maybe give a wave to Pat if he’s still hanging around.
Rockin' R Ranch
My father is always with me. I see his eyes looking down from the sky at night, I feel him in the breeze and I am drenched with his spirit everyday as the sunlight touches my face. I am thankful for his love of the outdoors, love of horses, the passed down knowledge he gave to me daily, but mostly, for just the plain old unconditional love for his little girl. I toast him today with his favorite, Sambuca Romana (I didn’t forget the three coffee beans, Dad, don’t give me that look).