The Prince and I: Prince William's Secret American Vacation, 20 Years Ago

Special to ABC News: Young prince spent time in Montana during parents divorce.

ByABC News
April 27, 2011, 6:03 PM

April 28, 2011— -- I was a ranch hand in Montana during the summer of 1992. My daily routine consisted of milking cows, chasing bears on horseback and mending miles of fence.

It was also my duty to hammer a nail high into a cottonwood tree, hang a 10-year-old Prince William by his shorts from said nail, and then spray him with a hose. All in a day's work.

To be fair, he was asking for it, and by that I mean he actually asked me to do it. He was getting to be a bit of a good-natured smart aleck, and I warned him that if he didn't watch it, well then, he'd get his.

When he asked what sort of retribution I had in mind, I looked around and came up with "I'll hang you in that tree by your shorts and hit you with the hose." He said he thought that sounded refreshing. So, the prince got the hose and an epic arboreal wedgie. He loved every minute of it.

And that's the point of the story I have to tell, one that I and many others have kept secret for nearly 20 years.

That summer, Princess Diana and Prince Charles' marriage was falling apart. Every excruciating moment was playing out in the glare of the paparazzi's camera flashes.

In a plot to get him as far away as possible from the media circus, Diana arranged for William to take a secret vacation to the E Bar L ranch near Missoula, Mont.

I was 21 years old at the time, and on break from Yale before my senior year, I was spending my second summer working at the E Bar L. I loved the place for the people, the land and the effect that long hours of hard work had on me: no time or energy left to worry about what I was going to do with my life after college.

Suffice it to say, the marital woes of Britain's royal family were the furthest things from my mind when William was successfully slipped out of England, bound for Big Sky country.

Just a day or two before he arrived at the E Bar L, the ranch staff had been called together for a meeting, where we were stunned to learn that the incoming "special guest" was Prince William.

He's coming, we were told, for privacy and for the very same reasons anyone else comes to the ranch: to ride, to fish, to shoot, to dance, to make friends and enjoy the beauty of this place. So just act natural.

Right! Act natural with the heir to the British throne. No problem! Well, we'd do our best, whatever that meant.

For the first day or so, William was polite but shy. Understandable enough. He was thousands of miles from home, surrounded by strangers at a terribly difficult moment in his young life. He kept his baseball hat down low.

But the E Bar L's breathtaking landscape began to work its magic on William. Within a day or two, he came out of his shell and dove into daily life at the ranch. The baseball cap was replaced by a cowboy hat, which he wore tipped back on his forehead, just like the rest of us.

View more of Paul Beban's pictures of Prince William and read more about the prince's visit to Montana HERE on the website

A few days into his visit, William and his bodyguards (two warm, terrifically friendly and funny guys), decided to host the first and quite possibly the only cricket match ever played in Montana.

They showed us how to lay out the pitch, which I helped mow into the outfield of the lawn where guests and staff normally played softball in the evenings. Two cricket bats were whittled -- that's right, whittled -- in preparation.

The bodyguards served as referees, dressed in white suits, black ties and straw hats, while William instructed us in proper batting and bowling form. Then, it was game on. I raced William back and forth between the wickets, trading taunts about American versus British athletic ability that can't be repeated here.

Afterward, William helped serve guests and the staff tea and cucumber sandwiches. The ranch didn't normally have cucumbers on hand, so someone made an extra 50-mile grocery run.

It was later that same day that I hung the dusty, tired, happy young heir to the British throne in the tree and sprayed him with the hose. At his request, remember.

While William's visit to the E Bar L was of course something very special for all of us who were there, the reason it was such a success was because we all acted as if it were nothing special at all. We treated him like what he was: a regular 10-year-old boy who needed a safe place to let down his guard and just be a boy.

Nearly 20 years later, I thought that maybe revealing this hidden episode could serve as a reminder that while he is, of course, the future king, he is also just a man and he was once just a little boy.

I don't want to overstate my own significance to William during his visit to the ranch -- no doubt he connected with a lot of the staff and thought of them as friends. But part of me can't help but hope he remembers exactly who hung him up in the tree and blasted him with ice-cold Montana spring water, and that he still smiles about it. I do.

Paul Beban is a former ABC News writer and producer. He is an Emmy award-winning correspondent currently working for HDNet World Report.