This is New Mexico, where cowboys and cowgirls are as much a part of the culture as chile, with almost 9,000 working cattle ranches in the state. But I grew up — quite a few decades ago — back East. Saturdays my brother Barry and I headed for the local movie house and afterwards re-enacted whichever film had filled the silver screen that day. Folks my age remember watching the exploits of singing cowpokes like Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and wondering what it would be like to play cowboy . . . just one time.
Fortunately, living the dream is only a reservation away as our state hosts a number of guest ranches, offering Old West adventures like horseback riding, shooting, and roping, along with a few less taxing activities like bird watching, nature hikes, fly fishing, and, well, just lazing. Barry and I chose to live out our childhood dreams at Concho Hills Guest Ranch, sitting in the shadows of the San Mateo Mountains overlooking the Plain of St. Augustin near Magdalena. The ranch includes a main house, a bunkhouse with six rooms accommodating 12 to 14 guests and, of course, a remuda of experienced saddle horses. Owners Tim and Marilyn Norris grew up in the rural South, although both opted for careers as consultants for the nuclear industry. Theirs was a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Arriving in New Mexico in 2005, they revived their childhood love of horses and rural living. For them, New Mexico history and culture, in Tim’s words, “triggered events that led us to buy Concho Hills.”
While this is a guest ranch, they encourage participation in neighboring cattle ranch operations. “Mostly,” says Tim, “we want cattle to get fat and enjoy life. But there’s plenty of cattle work to do.” That involves locating cows, seeing they are healthy, fixing fences, and checking water tanks. Since it was spring, Barry and I were able to take part in a round-up to brand calves. With limited riding experience, I mounted a horse named Cap’n Jack and rode it around the round ring using knee pressure for control. “Cowboys control their horses with their knees,” Tim teaches. “They need their hands for roping.” That afternoon, we’re in the larger arena and, when Tim was confident we could control the animals, we headed out onto the range. We rode mornings and afternoons across the grasslands and into the San Mateo foothills. I can’t tell you how a septuagenarian feels forking the back of a horse. For a writer, that’s a sin, but my experience was magic. I was indeed 7 years old again, with Willie Nelson’s songs echoing in my head. Barry tried his hand at roping, using a cow mannequin. It looks easy. It’s not. I gained great respect for a cowboy effortlessly dropping a loop over a calf during branding.
Evenings, we sat on the porch, watching the sun slide down the western sky and listening to the yelps of coyotes. They’d bring down a calf, if they could catch one, but mostly they were after the cottontails that seemed to be everywhere. In the early morning hours, elk came out of the hills to feed. Tim leaves a gate open and hay on the ground for them.
In Roswell, Patricia and Kim Chesseroperate the Burnt Well Ranch. “I was born on this ranch,” Kim says. “I’ve lived here all my life.” He and his wife bought out family interests in 2002, intent on raising sheep and cattle. “But,” he adds, “there’s no way livestock would ever pay.” They turned to inviting guests and built a bunkhouse. It has a great room, full kitchen, and two bedrooms and baths. You can rent the bunkhouse for a reunion and cook your own meals. Horseback rides are extra, or you can take part in their allinclusive program with family-style meals, unlimited riding, and other activities. “In the fall, we have two cattle drives,” Kim explains. “My wrangler and I, and up to 10 guests, drive a herd to another ranch I lease. We separate the calves from the cows and then drive them back to Burnt Well.” During the drive, cowhands are issued bedrolls. They sleep on the ground and eat around a campfire. For a wilderness experience, Los Pinos Guest Ranch is your destination. Situated in the Sangre de Cristo mountains 45 miles from Santa Fe, this ranch began life in 1912 as the summer home of Amado Chaves, former Santa Fe mayor and speaker of the Territorial House of Representatives.
Alice McSweeney, who now owns the ranch Daughters of the two ranch with her brother Bill, says her New Jersey family frequented national parks in summers, which naturally led to moving to the West. They liked the Spanish culture of New Mexico and bought the ranch in 1964. “It was a guest ranch in the heydays of the 1930s,” she says, “and we just kept it that way.” The McSweeneys have welcomed guests for more than 50 years. Los Pinos provides guided trail rides in the Santa Fe National Forest. “We don’t have cattle,” Alice says, “but we have the sparkling Pecos River.” There are ample opportunities for fly fishing and hiking a forest adorned with wildflowers. Tucked away in the Gila National Forest, 75 miles north of Silver City, is Geronimo Trail Guest Ranch. It accommodates up to 16 guests. Their sure-footed mountain horses will take you in a slow walk to appreciate the scenery or, if you’re capable, loping across appropriate terrain.
Geronimo Trail Guest Ranch is an all-inclusive outfit with unlimited riding and access to the ancient Gila cliff dwellings. You and your family are sure to relive the days of the Old West at one of New Mexico’s guest ranches. And, if you’re like me, you’ll ride into the sunset, in your mind hearing Gene Autry singing, “I’m back in the saddle again, out where a friend is a friend.” I posted a podcast on YouTube about our experience playing cowboy. Type the title “‘Lynch’ Brothers Livin’ the Dream at Concho Hills Ranch” and look for the pretty blonde wearing a string of pearls and a funky black cowgirl hat. That’s better than all the words I could write.