It is a sunny Sunday afternoon in October when my plane descends onto the Idaho Falls airport runway. This is my sixth trip to the McGarry Ranch in Rexburg, about 30 mi. northeast of Idaho Falls. The ranch is run by Theron McGarry, a fourth-generation rancher who participates in the day-to-day cattle operations and guest activities. I smile as I think about Theron coming to pick me up with his wife, Jean, and her dog, Shadow—especially since my husband and I were just here in September.
Our first encounter with the ranch was in September of 2010. We had wanted to vacation at a working cattle ranch. Our family and friends thought we had lost it—in our 60s and actually paying to work on a ranch. We were told that you arrive at the ranch as a guest, but leave as a member of the ranch family. There is no truer statement.
It feels like coming home when the Suburban passes through the ranch gates. I hear the cattle before I see them—weaning calves, bawling moms. Horses are grazing in the pasture. It smells and looks like fall. The Snake River runs through the ranch in several places. Jean has cleaned up her vegetable gardens yet some of her beautiful flowers remain despite the frost.
The ranch has five cabin units and a large bathhouse with individual bathrooms in the building. There is always plenty of hot water, soap, and towels for after long, hard days of riding. The house has an open door policy and I stop in to ask Jean if she needs help with supper. “Come back later and I will have something for you to do,” she replies. So, I go and pick out my favorite spurs for the week, finish unpacking, and wander out to the horses to say hello to my favorite “rides.” This week, I’m on Cash and Badger.
Derk Morton, Theron’s son in-law arrives to feed the animals. Another guest who has been returning to the ranch for over 15 years joins me to say hello to Derk. Theron has returned to the airport to pick up four additional guests and two more will arrive later. The ranch typically takes only 8-10 guests weekly. This week the guests are from South Carolina, Connecticut, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Germany.
During supper, there is a lot of laughter and talk about horses, riding, our jobs, and families. I can tell it will be a good week. We retreat to the cabins after helping Jean clean supper up. It’s early to bed with the sounds of the cattle and coyotes in the night.
Monday: Breakfast is at 7 a.m., but coffee is always on before then. There is never a shortage of good, homegrown food so if you leave the table hungry, well, that is your own fault.
We make our lunches, which will be placed in coolers in the trucks. Then it’s out to the barn to grab your horse, brush it down, and saddle up. Lana (one of the wranglers) and Derk are there to help us as needed. We load the horses into the trailers and head for the mountains and cattle.
At this time of year, in preparation for the final cattle drive to the ranch before the big snows arrive, cattle are being moved from BLM pasture areas and brought lower down the mountain to property known as “The Lease.” We find an uncooperative bull and several cows, calves, and heifers that give us all a run for our money—those willows along the streams make great hiding places for cattle. We repair a broken gate and check several others, one of which required a little body wrestling—Theron told me to think of it as a challenge! Then, I lost two head up a hill in a dense Aspen grove at Burn’s Creek, which makes me wish I had the cattle dogs with me to flush them out. We return to the ranch around 6 p.m. and prepare to have supper at 7 p.m., before showering and heading to bed to rest up for another day. The sky is clear and it seems like I could touch the stars.
Tuesday: Today we head to Sheep Creek where we find lots of cattle and ride in some really rough terrain with lots of timber, brush, and willows. We each carry a radio for communication purposes. Another guest and I are all twisted up in the dense timber and have separated from the others. Derk and the cattle can get through, so, why can’t we???
Derk is like the wind—he appears and vanishes suddenly, only to reappear somewhere else. It’s almost eerie. The sun is intense so I position myself in the shade of the pine trees while “holding” a large group of cattle before trailing them further along. Some of the other guests have gone with Derk and Lana in search of stragglers. We trail the cattle far today and it makes for a long ride back to the trucks.
Wednesday: This morning, we sort cattle on foot in the ranch pens before heading for the mountains. It’s a good way to run off that big breakfast we all consumed.
After sorting, we trailer up the mountain and ride to the top of Bear Pass. The ground is covered with Aspen leaves. It’s an easy ride today (not many cattle), but still long. On the drive back to the ranch we see a cow moose and her calf.
Thursday: It is “preg-checking” day! We sort more cattle in the ranch corrals after breakfast and Derk dons his garb to check over 70 cows and heifers. Some of us help with the vaccinations, worming, and removing of insecticide ear tags. We eat lunch at the ranch and head for the mountains around 2:30 p.m. to locate more bulls to bring back to the ranch. We only find two and they are very easy to trail.
It’s 65 degrees and sunny, which we all enjoy on this mid-October day, at least until the sun goes down and takes the temperature with it.
We load the bulls on the trailers (separated from the horses, of course) for the drive back to the ranch. We see more moose and the young German couple in the truck is singing country songs in German while we listen to Willie’s Roadhouse on the radio. We don’t have supper until 8:00 p.m. because we have to unload the bulls and put the horses away first.
Friday: Well, there was a plan for this morning, but the plan came to a screeching halt! After breakfast we discover that a large section of the ranch corral fence is down. Something must have really spooked the cattle during the night. It takes all of us to get the fence fixed before we can head to the mountains. Once there, we round up 150 head, cut out some more bulls, and start the 10-mile trek to “The Lease.”
It’s a very slow moving herd. A calf with a foot injury really slows down the drive. Then, all of a sudden, well, we sort of lose control of the situation. Cattle are off the trail and in the trees and brush—everywhere. As a result, we don’t get to complete the 10-mile drive. Instead, we end up putting the cattle in two very large corrals along the way. We are all tired, bruised, dusty, and sore, but tonight is steak night and no one grills steaks like Theron McGarry!
Saturday: It’s my last day of riding and my favorite breakfast of sausage gravy with biscuits. We sort more cattle on foot in the corrals before bringing the horses in and then head back up to the mountains to finish trailing the cattle we’ve been holding in those corrals since yesterday. Theron’s family and friends are helping us and several loads of calves are trailered back to the ranch. The remaining cattle will pasture until just before Thanksgiving, when the big cattle drive down to the ranch happens.
It’s a sad drive back to the ranch and our truck is very quiet as we realize that the day and this ranch trip are coming to an end. I turn Cash out after telling her to behave until I return and say goodbye to my other favorite horses, Badger and Peek-A-Boo. At supper, I can tell the other guests have also had a great week. Picture-perfect weather and scenery, great wranglers (Lana grilled the burgers tonight), good horses, and hosts who treat us like family.
Sunday: We’re served homemade sticky buns this morning and I walk to the pasture for a final look at my four-legged friends before I finish packing and head off to the airport. I exchange sad goodbyes with my new friends and Theron and Jean. More guests will be arriving after we leave to experience the cattle-ranch life.
So ends another week at the McGarry ranch. I hope that anyone who may read this article will want to share in this ranch experience. There are no hot tubs, pools, or golf courses, but the accommodations are comfortable and clean. The ranch family, well, there are just not enough words to describe them and their hospitality.
To all at the ranch, stay safe and well until we return.