It's hard to be a rough-and-tough cowboy when your horse is named Snickers. But Snickers was sure-footed and high-spirited, a stately brown mustang who was much better at his job than I was at mine.
There I was, a New Yorker on vacation for a week in southern Montana at the 12,000-acre Lazy E-L Ranch, a few miles from the town of Red Lodge, with eight fellow gay and lesbian adventurers (five men and three women). And while I was there on holiday, on this midday morning it sure felt like work, since we had been on horseback since 7 a.m. and the July sun was beating down on us.
I had but one job to do: Prevent a certain heifer from escaping the perimeter we'd formed with our horses so the ranch hands could rope her, hold her down, and administer medicine. Inside our circle of horses were hundreds of fat, lumbering, and ornery cattle -- they reminded me of nothing so much as frat boys at a bar, spoiling for a fight.
The setting was certainly stunning, encompassing a grassy, sloping hillside dotted with sagebrush, a roiling river below us, and a dense pine forest above. The Beartooth Mountains, the highest in the state and snowcapped even in July, rose up in front of us, making the perfect stage set for a cattle drive. It exceeded my expectations of beauty and certainly outdid the brochure that gay-tour group OutWest Global Adventures (OutWestAdventures.com) provided when I signed up for the trip.
I was abruptly snapped out of my landscape reverie when I heard my name called, with an order, "Flank her on the right!" The heifer was making a break for it. Buck, the 18-year-old blond ranch hand who could have a career as an Abercrombie model if he wanted, yelled down the hill at me, "Close the circle!" I pulled Snickers to the right, but he pulled against me. He didn't want to move, and there was a patch of clover he was eyeing for lunch. The heifer was fast, though. The riders on my right tried to close up the space between us to head her off at the pass, but she got through and charged down the hill toward a group of 20 other cattle.
It was my big moment, and I blew it. We got back to the ranch and put away our saddles-several hours later, with no breaks-and I expected some kind of ranch-style rebuke as I entered the cookhouse for lunch. Would I have to clean the stables? Do the dishes? Ride an angry steer in the town square in front of jeering locals?
Instead, as we sat down for hamburgers with the ranch hands and members of the family who own the ranch, our trip leader, Rusty Clark, told us we were some of the best riders he'd seen. In the days we'd been on horseback together, we'd formed a little family unit of sorts, and the temporary failings of one member could be made up for by the others.
We had a huge range of abilities: Jack from North Carolina seemed like he was born on a horse, while Julie from Boston was skittish around the animals and always fighting with her ride. (But she was clearly having the time of her life too.) What we all had in common was an utter lack of interest in sitting around doing nothing on our vacation. If we weren't riding, we were hiking or white-water rafting down the deceptively named Stillwater River.
The ranch itself certainly encourages a family vibe. It was established by Malcolm Mackay in 1901 and is still in the hands of his descendants (35 in all), who run it as a group. Mackay's gay great-grandson, Aaron Kampfe, founded OutWest, and not surprisingly, the very first trip he organized was on his family's ranch. (Now OutWest takes gay travelers all over the world, from Costa Rica to China.) Most of us stayed in the Summer Cabin, a charming log structure framed by a grove of birch trees, where the Mackays themselves have summered for more than a century. The Lazy E-L offers four gay and lesbian dude ranch weeks per year at $2,275 per person.
Getting up at dawn, spending long days outside, and drinking lemonade with dinner-it's not exactly lounging by the pool on a gay cruise. But Kampfe has been clever about developing active adventures for those of us who love them. "Growing up here, I always felt a bit different," he told us one night. "So when I founded the company in 1996, I thought, So why can't I have a place where my gay brothers and sisters can enjoy the same activities I love-horseback riding, rafting, and hiking?"
Even though those very activities had me feeling more sore than I had ever felt in my life, I couldn't have agreed more. After that day on Snickers, the possibility of ever sitting down again seemed remote. But then Rusty said the sweetest words I had ever heard, ones that you crave even on the roughest Western adventure vacation: "The masseur is here."