The dude or guest ranch is interesting concept. Is there another type of vacation in America where guests trade life-styles? If so, I’d like to sell people in Florida on coming here to my home in the Midwest for an authentic “snow removal” experience during the winter. See how we dig our cars and houses out in Chicago. I’d even feed you. How would that fly? Something is missing.
Dude ranches have a special ingredient. They are a product of the romanticizing of the Wild West that came about in the late 19thc. Nostalgic Easterners, encouraged by the ad campaigns of the Union Pacific Railroad headed west–a safer west, to be sure—for the cowboy experience.
When I was thinking about my characters for Desert Heat in the contemporary western anthology, Come Love a Cowboy, I was trying to imagine interesting lives for them, which after naming them, is sometimes the most challenging part of writing for me. I knew the hero, Boone Donovan, was going to be a fireman, but I wasn’t sure what the heroine, Angel Harper, would get up to.
Then I remembered our family vacation to a guest ranch outside of Phoenix and decided to make Angel a single mom trying to keep her small guest ranch afloat.
I based Angel’s guest ranch on the place, we stayed at years ago, The Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch http://www.saguarolakeranch.com/.
We’d already booked a suite of rooms at a fancy resort in exchange for sitting through their pitch about time-sharing. We weren’t interested in buying a time-share but money was short, it was spring break, and we had two young children to entertain. But we were only going to be there a few days and needed somewhere else to fill out the week. By chance we found The Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch using Google maps.
I admit when we first arrived at the ranch I was reminded of the movie Psycho. This quirky hotel in the middle of the desert consisted of a main lodge and a string of small guest cottages, unchanged from the 1940’s. Other than the built-in pool, there weren’t many clues to what century you were in. And we were the only guests.
The interior of the main lodge was filled with heavy western motif furniture with vintage fabric. On the shelves and walls was the kind of bric-a-brac my grandmother would’ve had. My kids were in awe of the four-sided fireplace standing in the middle of the common room made out of river rocks. It was cozy and inviting.
There was so much to see and do, none of us even cared there were no TV’s. We explored the area, went horseback riding, and ate fantastic meals, which were included in our plan. Because we were the only guests, it was like having our own private chef. Much of the food on the menu was from the hotel’s garden.
The history of the hotel was documented in photos on the walls of the lobby. The place started life as a work camp in 1927, a place to house workers building the Stewart Mountain Damn on the Lower Salt River. The main lodge was the mess hall, and the workers were housed in the small cabins on the property.
In the 1930’s when work on the damn was completed, the camp became a fishing lodge. Later in the 1940’s a new family bought the property and turned it into a guest ranch, putting in miles of trails for riding.
We left there and went on to the fancy resort, which was in town, surrounded by other resorts instead of mountains. At first the kids liked the change I have to admit. There were a number of pools with slides, a game room, and of course, the familiar TV. But we could have been anywhere. There was no unique flavor. I got to really hate being there after a couple of days and missed the wide-open spaces of guest ranch.
Back to writing Desert Heat, I generously gave Angel a guest ranch like Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch; only I made her financial situation precarious. I also gave her a good-for-nothing ex-husband who left her with a son to raise on her own.
I drew on my memories of my own vacation in creating the setting, including the guest cabins and main lodge. I gave Angel a fantastic cook, Rosa, left out the TV’s, and gave her lots of riding trails—though her stables are in sad shape.
I have a very clear memory of sitting on the edge of the pool surrounded by desert and mountains, and feeling like I was part of the landscape, growing out of the ground. I used that scene in Desert Heat. I did make the mountains redder though. I like red mountains.
Boone is a fireman but he’s also a cowboy. His family has had a cattle ranch for generations. I thought it was reasonable he and his brothers would run a trail riding business on their ranch as a sideline, and coming from two generations of firefighters myself, I knew firemen often had other businesses on the side.
Too bad Boone’s stable is in direct competition with Angel’s. That’s going to create some hard feelings.
Blurb for Desert Heat:
Sometimes it seems like Angel Harper is going to spend the rest of her adult life making up for her youthful transgressions—like running away with a two-timing, irresponsible cowboy on the rodeo circuit.
Now she’s trying to make things right. It isn’t easy for a single mother trying to run a small hotel on her own. She’s always two steps ahead of financial ruin, but determined to prove to herself and the memory of her parents she can do it.
A chance encounter with handsome cowboy and firefighter, Boone Donovan, awakens a desire she’d rather bury. But he isn’t going to let her get away that easily. Angel has been twice burned by love, and it’s not only her own heart she has to protect now. She has a son to think about.
Can she trust Boone enough to let love into her life again?
Excerpt from Desert Heat:
Her face was flooded with heat. When she fell back to sleep this morning, she’d overslept. Normally, Angel would have been up a couple of hours ago and had the stables mucked out by now. The flies were thick and buzzing in the air ripe with manure. She fought back the urge to explain all this to him. She owed this man no explanation, she reminded herself.
“When’s the last time you had the fire inspector out here?” he asked, his back still to her, his hands on his hips.
“I don’t remember. Maybe a couple of months ago.”
He turned around to face her, his hands still on his hips and his coat pushed open to show the tight t-shirt underneath with suspenders riding up a lean torso.
“You want to try that again? I can look it up, you know?”
“I’d have to check. It’s been a while.”
“That would be my guess. I can see at least five violations just from where I’m standing.”
With a tight throat, Angel watched him walk around and inspect the horses one by one. “At least your horses look healthy. I can tell you take good care of them.”
He walked back over and stood in front of her. Too close. She stepped back. His eyes went to her chest. She looked down and saw to her horror her nipples were not only very visible beneath the thin t-shirt, but were standing at attention.
His eyes grew dark, and he swallowed hard. She could see a vein throbbing in his neck. Angel crossed her arms across her chest, feeling weak at the knees with this big hunk of a man standing before her.
Boone took a step closer, eyes now lifted to hers, lips parted. She could hear the breath coming hard out of his flared nostrils. He was so close, she could take in his scent. All man.
Her arms fell to her sides. She took a step closer so their faces were inches apart. A familiar thrumming moved through her body. Desire rearing its head.
“Mom! There are firemen in the yard! They said I can climb on the truck if that’s all right with you.”
Boone took a big step back. He practically jumped away from her.
Rory stood framed in the door, still in his pajamas, dark hair, sticking out all over his head. There was a dried patch of milk in the front of his top. On top of everything else she now looked like a negligent mother. He pushed his glasses back and looked at her.
“Yes, go on Rory, but then get dressed.”
Angel looked back at Boone, the look of lust in his eyes replaced by a blank expression. She was used to that. Men were interested in her until they heard she had a kid. Her anger, which had been at a slow simmer, went up a few notches to boiling.
“Not so interested in getting to know me better now, are you? Kids have a way of taking the mystery out of a woman.”
“I don’t have a problem with kids. It’s husbands I have a problem with. Are you married?”
“If I had a man around here do you think things would be in such a state? I’m trying to do this all on my own, which is why I don’t appreciate you stealing business away from me. You know that, right? The contract you signed with Star was formally mine,” she spat out.
“Hey, first off I didn’t steal your business away from you. I didn’t go out looking for it. Clint came to me. And yes, Clint told me who you were after you left. Then when I was left holding two bowls of ice cream last night, I guessed you had it all figured out by then. I wanted to talk to you. To clear the air.”
“There’s no clearing the stench out of this air,” she said, instantly regretting her choice of words, because the un-mucked stalls reeked of urine and manure.
“I’m going to call the fire inspector and make sure he comes out here next week.”
“You spiteful…You’d do that to me because I stood you up?”
“I’m going to call him, because I’m worried about your horses. If there’s a fire, you’re in danger of losing more than a contract. Tomorrow when I get off my shift I’m coming back out here and bringing this place up to code. The brush needs to be cleared away from all sides of the stable, and these cobwebs are a fire hazard.
He gestured overhead. “You don’t have cages around those bare bulbs. You have extension cords running all over the place not to mention all the other things scattered around that would make clearing the horses out in an emergency a problem. And when we pulled in there was a low branch over the drive we weren’t sure the engine could clear. You’re a disaster waiting to happen.”
With that he pushed past her, brushing against her as he walked by.
“You don’t have to do that!” she called after him.
“Gonna do it anyway,” he said walking away, his back to her.
“I don’t want you…”
Without a glance back he waved to her.
You can find Patti Sherry-Crews at:
Patti, my family stayed at a dude ranch and the girls and I loved the experience. My husband, not so much, but he was a good sport.
Caroline, one of the reasons we started going to dude ranches as a vacation was that we found there was something for everyone–my husband was a great hiker and my daughter and I are riders so it worked well for us. Glad your husband was a good sport though!
Andi, thanks for the great post from Patti. Very interesting how she drew on her own experiences. I’ve only been to one dude ranch, did it for our kiddos when they were little. Never felt the need, having grown up around real ranches and worked on them, too. So, for me, it’s interesting from a different POV.
My daughter and I have now stayed on about 28 ranches of all different kinds, including working cattle ranches. I don’t fool myself that visiting a ranch is anything like living the real thing–I’ll be writing about our experiences in relation to Bad Boy, Big Heart here in May–but it is an experience and a great vacation.
Hi gals! I know a family from the east coast who have been going to the same dude ranch once a year for generations now. I would definitely do it again. Our experience was odd because we were the only guests! I imagine socializing with the other guests and staff is part of the experience. My husband would love that, but I am less social than he is.
LOL Hebby! You live the dude ranch life. I must seem strange to you that people pay to stay on a ranch.
I think, Patti, that repeat vacation is quite common on dude ranches. My daughter and I went every Easter-time to the same Tucson ranch for something like 8 years, and we have friends who went to another AZ ranch for even longer.