Cowgirl Vacation: A Women's Escape at a California Ranch

PHOTO The Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort is nestled in the Santa Ynez Mountains, up from the Pacific Hills and a stone?s throw from Michael Jackson?s infamous Neverland, some 45 minutes away in Santa Barbara.

"Y'ready to lope?" my wrangler asks, playfully challenging me. I'm sitting atop the first horse I've ridden since taking a Palomino named Sunset through the break of the waves along the sands of Bermuda some 10 years prior.

Beneath my fitted denim shirt beats the heart of a true frontierswoman; to my mind, I've been loping ever since I first watched Miss Barbara Stanwyck take her mount on my favorite TV western of the 1960s, "The Big Valley," a show set in some mythical California landscape not unlike this one where the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort is nestled in the Santa Ynez Mountains, up from the Pacific Hills and a stone's throw from Michael Jackson's infamous Neverland, some 45 minutes away in Santa Barbara.

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My horse, Redman, is no more prepared to lope than I am, as he meanders up the steep climb, past Alisal's verdant topography with three centuries' worth of red oak and amber density covering its 10,000 acres. My "trusty old steed," as the Alisal staff refers to him, has seemingly devoured half the countryside since we saddled up an hour before, stopping to nibble every branch within reach. But I haven't traveled all the way from New York City just to graze, or let a man give me directions.

This all-female weekend is empowering, so I tear a tree branch from Redman's bit to let him know who's boss, while nudging him into submission -- and a quick trot! -- with my stirrups. As I steady myself in the saddle, adjusting to the speed of his motion and commanding the reins, I feel like a true cowgirl.

We're loping, all right, moving at quite a clip past Alisal's endless sycamore groves, as my wrangler rewards our progress with a shortcut that finds us first to our lakeside seafood barbecue. We dismount and tack our horses while we await the other 16 cowgirls of all ages and from all across the United States who have joined this popular weekend, many by referral from other friends whose idea of a great getaway for girls excludes chaps, unless they can be worn to ride in.

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Somehow, I skipped the adolescent craze for ponies that excites so many girls. The stuffy restraint of English riding, with all its rituals and regulations, too much resembled the regimen of my all-girls' school. What was the point of getting on a horse if you couldn't blaze a trail like Belle Star?

That my cowgirl points of reference were limited to television and movies probably had something to do with my signing up for the Cowgirl Boot Camp at Alisal Guest Ranch amid the Santa Barbara wine country.

Over the course of four days, I'd learn to wrangle a herd of faux steer, cook a mean rack of ribs and ride the frontier of some 50 scenic trails. Never mind that "roping doggies" usually means putting my dachshund on her lead, or that the term "cowboy" seems less a lifestyle than a fashion statement; none of that deterred me. I'm a girl, after all, who spent her fourth decade mastering sky-diving, surfing and ice-climbing. If I could crest the steepest mountain in Vermont, with pick still firmly in hand, surely herding cattle and squashing spiders at Cowgirl Boot Camp would be a snap.

At the Alisal, I told myself, this Annie would finally get her gun.

Countless dude ranches across the country give guests the chance to don Stetsons and step back in time to the Old West. But at the Alisal's four-day all-inclusive Cowgirl Boot Camp, that break from modernity doesn't mean you have to forego the creature comforts of stellar cuisine and comfortable bedding; but here, unlike some other well-known "ranches," the emphasis is on adventure, not facial peels, and this break from vanity -- and menfolk -- is like a return to the sleepaway camps of our youth: Only this time, "bug juice" wears the labels of Petron, Don Julio and other fine tequilas, and most of us happily greet a 10 o'clock "lights out" plum tuckered from a full day's itinerary on horseback, despite the fact there are no curfews.

The challenges of life in the Old West are distilled to an introductory level of horsemanship and herding, their focus on accomplishment is tempered by a sense of fun and camaraderie, all for $2,250 and a chance to leave the boys behind and indulge in a Western utopia that includes fireside massages and the reserves of some 60 fertile vineyards in the nearby Santa Barbara wine region.

For more than 60 years, this working cattle ranch, owned by the Jackson family, has been hosting guests like John Travolta, Barbra Streisand and Michelle Pfeiffer (who preceded my visit by a week). They vacation here, where Mother Earth meets two championship, 18-hole golf courses, a tennis complex, fishing and boating on a private 100-acre lake, for the tranquility of unspoiled horizons that surround the Alisal Ranch.

My complimentary straw hat, which greeted me along with a gift basket of lotions and healthful snacks when I arrived at my converted cattleman's cottage, crowns my head.

Even with the costume, I'm no Calamity Jane, but nor are the other cowgirl wannabes: the Richmond Hill gang, four happy housewives from Orange County, who love horses; or the assortment of other women, who treat this weekend as an annual escape. Most are in their 40s and 50s, rediscovering the joys of hitting the road with just the girls, back to a time when careers, marriages and children, and the workaday demands that find many of us juggling all three, corralled the kind of freedom the open spaces of the West still represent. As if Thelma and Louise died for our salvation.

Between wine tastings with local vintners, grilling lessons with executive chef Pascal Gode -- a Gallic version of the corpulent Hoss Cartwright, a TV character from "Bonanza," another of my favorite childhood cowboy programs -- and endless miles of riding, I have challenged the idea that a city gal loses some of her moxie when taken out of her urban habitat. This is the kind of life I could get used to.

I'm certain that lessons in fly-fishing will find me a quicker study than our wrangler's riding class. After demonstrating the colorful array of lures we fasten to our lines before pitching them wide, our handsome fly instructor reaches back and gently throws his own rod and line toward the lake, assuring us that the bass and bluegill in the Alisal's waters are ripe for the catch.

I'm rather pleased with my aim but the rules are clear: Alisal Lake is a catch-and-release protected area.

By midday on my third day, I have some important decisions to make. We've been given the afternoon to do as we wish -- to take advantage of the ranch's facilities, from golfing to mountain biking and hiking. Most of my group is eager to hit the streets of nearby Solvang, which improbably resembles a storybook Danish village, a town torn from the pages of Hansel and Gretel (really -- it even has a Hans Christian Andersen Museum).

Buying trinkets is the furthest idea from my mind, especially when a Jacuzzi and a frozen margarita are some of my other options. A siesta before the evening's line-dancing lesson to rest the tired muscles I've used casting my lure or hugging the sides of a horse with my legs is in order, if I'm going to hit the town this evening.

Generally, I'm a girl who can't flee fast enough from group dancing; there's something silly about trying to mimic all those synchronized steps when the best part of dancing -- the physical expression -- is so studied. I've never been a Hustler, and the Electric Slide is, as I see it, one big power outage.

Still, I'm at Boot Camp, where the whole point is the participation, so I remain open-minded. Lisa, our instructor, sets down a small boom box in the recreation room off the main lodge. The furniture has been removed and the Indian-weave carpets rolled up to reveal a barnlike setting, with unvarnished hardwood walls and floors and very little in the way of decorative distractions. She selects Shania Twain's "Oh, No."

My sentiments exactly.

Within 20 minutes, though, I'm actually catching on to the boot-boot-heel-heel-step move, just before backsliding into the boot-heel-fall-flat-on-the-floor-and-rise-for-more-cardio torture.

Determined, Lisa continues her Sisyphean battle to ready the group for our two-stepping public debut, chiding us for giving up too easily when we don't quite coordinate the steps, and warning us that we can either master the dance moves here, or suffer our fates before an audience of inveterate two-steppers. Cowed by the prospect, we make every effort to catch on.

A couple of the Richmond Hill girls, old hands at this sort of entertainment, assist Lisa with some of the more difficult dancers, like me.

One hour later, we load a bus and hit Solvang's Maverick Saloon.

That personal attention has paid off. I waste no time cozying up to a man that wrangler Lori tells me is a noted bronco rider and ask him to dance. I'm unsure of the social customs in these parts, but after a couple days on a recalcitrant Redman and the fly-fishing that was neither, I can't handle being a wallflower to boot.

"Do you understand the 10-step?" the bronco asks curiously. I shake my head sheepishly, and hope it won't matter. "Might be best then if we wait for the two-step," he suggests.

Chivalry, I can attest, has never left the old West.

Some of the other gals have also surrendered themselves to the attendant cowboys sipping Budweiser from long-necked bottles. Thankfully, my bronco, James, never once bucks at my awkward footfalls; instead he rewards me with an airborne twirl and a polite, "Thank you, ma'am." Cowboys who dance seem to have the lightest touch. Maybe it's because they save their strength for creatures on all fours.

Whatever the basis for their courtesies, this is still a culture where even a cowgirl gets treated like a lady, and I mean that in the best sense possible. Coming from a big city like New York, where so many people seem afraid to be nice to others, there was more to James than just being a gentleman; he was being neighborly too.

What I realized from boot camp was that the key ingredient to being a cowgirl was the recognition that you were simply free to be.

Western garb and two-stepping aside, the main attraction is the ability to release oneself from the confines of a regimen that leads so many of us to seek respite from weekend packages like these. But the attention at Alisal isn't just cosmetic; there's something very emancipating about getting in touch with one's inner child, in a place where fresh air and the open road come standard.

That's why so many Easterners sought the West in the first place. If a cowgirl's life spoke to the free spirit in all of us, I knew I could forego, guilt-free, that last morning trail ride and opt for my fireside massage instead. Besides, I wanted a jump on planning my next frontier.

Sue Carswell is a reporter/researcher at Vanity Fair, a former senior story editor at "Good Morning America," a contributing launch editor for O, The Oprah Magazine, former executive and senior editor for Random House, Inc., and Pocket Books. Carswell is an adventure columnist for www.wowowow.com.

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