by Chris Kynaston
Grapevine Canyon Ranch sits close to the Mexican border in Southern Arizona , nestling in the Dragoon mountains where Cochise and Geronimo once rode with the Chiricahua Apaches. As you drive through the gate you pass a small box labeled “leave your problems here” – how appropriate as you enter another world away from modern lifestyles to experience how the West once was.
I first visited Grapevine in 2005 after spending a week touring Arizona taking in Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon along the way. It was my first experience of a ranch holiday and enough to leave me wanting more. There is something special about the place, something almost magical as you look out towards the Chiricahua mountains as the sun rises over them, sending a golden glow across the horse corrals at the ranch.
I travelled alone this time so it was with a mixture of excitement and nerves that I set off from Manchester with a midday flight via Atlanta on to Tucson . With a 7 hour time difference I landed at Tucson about 9.45pm collecting my hire car for the 1 ½ drive to the ranch. What I hadn’t anticipated was running into a thunder storm on the way. Fortunately the interstate was pretty quiet but once onto the almost deserted and unlit 2 lane highways I started to struggle. The directions were different to last time and I needed to find a small road to my right signed to Grapevine but it took me 3 runs till I finally found it. I must have added at least half an hour to my journey and was getting desperate – I was really tired (had now been up for nearly 24 hours). Then there it was, overshadowed by cones and warning signs (which in my tired state had drawn my attention). Instead of seeing the small ranch sign I had been too busy wondering at the “earth fissure” warning!
The last 5 miles or so are gravel and dirt so I had upgraded the car for a 4WD just in case the weather was bad (my last visit was in April – this was November) and could remember from before plenty of signs suggesting heavy rain would cause problems, but the rain cleared as I drove through the entrance and from then on nothing mattered.
Elaine had waited up for me and steered me to my casita (Mexican style cabin) which looked out over the horse corrals towards the Chiricahua Mountains . My head gratefully fell into my pillow but I was wide awake a few hours later and raring to go. I had planned this trip to coincide with their roundup which was scheduled for Wednesday, Thursday & Friday so my intention was to have a private lesson on Monday just to get me into the western style and to take my “lope check” without which there would be no round up for me or advanced rides. However on being introduced to my horse Hank, head wrangler Annie told me the roundup had been brought forward so I needed to do the lope check straight away so it was a quick trot and canter around the corral and then we headed out in search of cattle.
The other guests on the roundup were Sarah from Florida , Milos and Marianne from Pennsylvania , Steve from the UK , Barbara from Pennsylvania , and Thomas and Kristine from Denmark and what a lovely bunch they were. Sarah, recently divorced and made redundant was starting life over with a holiday – she was probably the most vibrant person I have ever met. Barbara was recently ordained as a minister in the Episcopel church. Milos & Marianne now from Pennsylvania were from Czechoslovakia and Germany originally and are annual visitors to Grapevine, Steve was also a regular visitor and was almost part of the staff, Thomas, I was to find later in the week, was a very competitive guy who along with his partner Kristine competes at dressage back in Denmark . There were other guests too who were there more to enjoy the scenic rides but we often came together sometimes riding but always socially, Linda from Rhode Island , Angela and Terry from the UK , Ken & Sheryl from Michigan , and Mark and Lynne from Maine.
The ratio of staff to guests was high so we split into pairs, Steve and I heading out with Danny the ranch cowboy. We spent the morning gathering cattle and moving them towards the pre-arranged tank (waterhole) but as we all merged the 300 and something head together near the target they stampeded! It took a while for them to be settled back but I guess patience is the best tool in those situations and eventually we got a hold on the renegade cow and couple of heifers that had led the revolt at the front and after allowing them all to water for a while we moved the whole herd back to Cobra Loma which is the base of the cattle operation where Eve Searle the owner of Grapevine lives, a few miles from the guest ranch headquarters. We headed back out in the afternoon to pick up any strays but only found half a dozen so I guess the mornings work had been pretty successful.
The following day was spent sorting the cows from the calves, putting the ladies through the chutes to be vaccinated, wormed and pregnancy tested. Sadly for Eve there were a high percentage of empty cows but the younger ones amongst them were given a reprieve and turned back with the herd. Wednesday was spent separating boy calves from girl calves, the boys being loaded for market. On Thursday we then drove the herd up over the mountain to their new pastures (I use the term pasture very loosely as this is desert and mountain terrain). We had tremendous fun with all of the cattle work – with a few bruises for evidence – it was hard work but an experience I loved.
With the “work” completed the second half of the week was just for fun taking scenic rides on different horses, tripping to the nearest town of Benson to do a little laundry and shopping, and then at the weekend taking part in the team penning game and the mounted games. Both activities brought out a side of us that we hadn’t shown to the others before – we could all get mean! The team penning gave us this first insight as team 1 set a steady but slow time penning their 3 cows. Steve, Barbara and I ran 2nd but the advantage we had with Steves experience was cancelled out when the wrangler in charge changed the rules for our run making us include 1 particular cow and exclude another. Our technique was sound – easier to break 3 cows together from the herd and bring them down than to fetch one at a time but we hadn’t planned on having a renegade in our bunch. All went well until we almost had them in the pen then she broke away and so did our chance – we had been within yards of setting an all time record. We got our revenge in the mounted games on Sunday though!
The riding was only half of the experience. As well as good quality food we enjoyed great evenings, we were treated to live music from the ranch band, played pool and table tennis, listened to Eve’s talk on the history of the ranch and the area, but the most memorable evening was the one when we played Spoons. Ever played it? You don’t know what you’ve been missing!
On Monday morning, after sharing contact details and shedding loads of tears, I took the scenic drive through Middlemarch Canyon on my way back to the airport skirting the town of Tombstone but sadly with not enough time to call in to check out Boot Hill. I had enjoyed another memorable stay at a very special place with very special people and wonderful horses and I can’t wait to go again…