Saddle Up for Time Travel

Project, Advertising & Data Manager
Published 4/23/20
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While vacations are postponed until the COVID-19 crisis passes, it’s the perfect time to revisit trips from your past. Open up physical and digital photo albums, find journals and memorabilia of places you loved; maybe even loved so much that you visited again and again. Post #ThrowbackThursday photos and rekindle warm memories with your travel companions.

Here, Miles' Project, Advertising & Data Manager Laurel Bookhardt shares fond memories of her family's adventures at one of their favorite destinations, Wilson Ranches Retreat located in Fossil, Oregon. 

A Unique Welcome

Wilson Ranches Retreat is a place our family returned to many times during our children’s wonder years. It's off the beaten path, but well worth the trouble of driving far from city sprawl and, perhaps your comfort zone. Our first trip was for spring break in March 2001. With an eleven-year-old and a six-year-old in tow, we trekked east from Beaverton, OR in search of warmth and sunshine, charting a course through the John Day Fossil BedsSheep RockPainted Hills and a final stop at the Clarno Unit.

We had booked a couple of nights at Wilson Ranches Retreat, close to the Wheeler High School Fossil Beds, where we hoped to dig up some treasures. The thought of staying on a working ranch held promise of adventure for us city folk, and we got a little more than we bargained for almost right away. About a quarter mile in from the main road, we were enveloped in a stampede of cattle. Bulls, cows, calves were all galloping straight toward us! The thousands of pounds of bounding, snorting heft racing full-tilt parted, magically, just before crashing headlong into our minivan. 

We began to relax as we saw cowboys driving the herd toward a complex of corrals. Whew! No longer spectators of the quiet natural beauty of the painted hills, we’d received the red-carpet welcome to cattle country and stumbled smack-dab into the middle of spring round-up. 

Home on the Range

After the herd passed, we gathered our wits and drove down to the ranch's bed and breakfast. We stayed in the Homestead Room. With a king bed and two queens, it accommodated our crew nicely. What’s this? No locks on the door? We city folk had a little adjusting to do. After a dinner trip to a favorite local spot in town called the Shamrock, we nestled into the quilts and serape blankets. My husband Gary threw wood on the fireplace for roasting marshmallows and soon the gentle crackling became a soothing lullaby.

The heart of the B&B experience at the Wilson Ranch is the big breakfast. The huge community table is handmade from a single tree trunk. Elbow-to-elbow with cowboys and guests, we sipped coffee and juice while hosts Phil and Nancy Wilson brought plate after plate heaping with sausage, eggs, toast, oatmeal and all the fixings. We heard about the triumphs and shenanigans of yesterday’s round-up and learned that today, the calves would receive their vaccines, ear tags, and branding and have their horns cauterized. The lucky males would get the bonus of castration.

That afternoon, we sidled up to the corral for a front-row view. The kids climbed a few rungs up on fence. Calves were separated from the herd and wound through a series of pens. The first calf was vaccinated, then released into the large corral. From that point on, it was pure rodeo! From horseback, one cowboy roped the calf’s head and a second roped his legs. When the calf was down and stretched, the rest of the team quickly branded, tagged, burned horns and neutered. Rocky Mountain oysters were tossed into a bucket in the back of a pickup truck. The calf seemed a bit stunned but ran at a healthy pace when released. We had a new appreciation for the big breakfast; those cowboys needed every heaping helping to power them through the day.

We were hooked! On day two, we took to a horseback ride with Nancy. There’s nothing like a view of the ranch from a butte, and there’s no better way to get there than by horseback. We saddled up and set out for a meandering ride through the pasture and brush of Eastern Oregon. The kids grabbed the saddle horn and reins tightly, surprised when their horses leapt over an irrigation creek.

The more adventurous guests rode with the cowboys, rounding up strays, checking fences and settling the cattle back into their pastures. The Wilsons are a hard-working, big-hearted, salt-of-the-earth family, and guests are invited to participate in the ranching life as much as they like.

Stepping Back in Time

Relaxing back at the B&B, it was as if we’d been transported to a slower time when life was savored and conversation valued. The common room was stocked with books and games instead of televisions. We met some new arrivals and swapped stories. They’d been to the Fossil General Mercantile Company and the wooly mammoth sculpture and recommended we check them out on our way to hunt fossils. Nancy whet our appetite by showing us the fossils her family and other guests had found. Ebedded in beige colored shale were fossils of leaves, branches and plants that grew along a nearby shallow lake about 33 million years ago. There were a couple of fish and shell fossils too, but we were told these were rare finds.

The following day, we headed out with trowels and buckets in hand. The plan was to stop by Fossil Mercantile for lunch and drinks. We quickly found everything we needed, but stayed to browse. There was something to see at every turn. Quilts hung from the rafters, trophy antlers were mounted on the walls and a beautiful antique cash register stood frozen in time. The Mercantile has been around since 1883 and is packed with history and the necessities of country living.

Next we stopped to marvel at the town's towering, metal wooly mammoth sculpture. Never did we expect to see a life-sized rendition of a wooly mammoth on a side street of a small, rural town! We soon learned there's evidence of a herd of Columbian Mammoth in the Oregon high desert.

Our last stop was the Wheeler High School Fossil Beds. There, we found an honors-system box for fossil hunters to deposit $5 per person ($15 per family) and a poster identifying the types of plant fossils often sighted: the ancestors of modern sycamore, maples, oaks, rose and alder. The most common fossil is the metasequoia.

The landscape had changed dramatically in 33 million years. We squatted on the high-desert hillside, where wetlands, grasses and deciduous trees once flourished. Now, there's no shade as you trowel away layers of dirt and shale. Only a few minutes passed before our son yelled, “Found one!” That was just the tip of the iceberg. Over the next few hours, we unearthed about 15 plant fossils. Most were small and faint, but several were recognizable at a glance, casting in soft stone a permanent replica of the living plant they'd once been.

Decades of Memories

This was the first of many springtime trips to Wilson Ranches Retreat. While living in Oregon, we came back five times, twice with friends. We love reliving those times as we flip through photo albums. On one trip, the kids watched a calf being born and got to bottle-feed the little fellow. Another year, we saw the rings around Saturn through the eyepiece of an amazing telescope a guest brought to take advantage of the clear night sky. What wonderful family memories we built at the Ranch in the company of the Wilson family!

In 2020, Wilson Ranches Retreat celebrates its twentieth anniversary, and much has changed in two decades. The Shamrock has closed, the wooly mammoth sculpture was moved to the Willamette Valley and dear Nancy has passed. A friend we introduced to the Ranch recently went back for a stay. She said Phil and Nancy’s daughter Kara is now the B&B's hostess, and that many of the things she loved haven’t changed. The stars still shine like diamonds in the night sky. The morning air is crisp and clean. The big breakfast is still "Big" with a capital B. You still get saddle sore after a ride to the butte, but it's still so worth it. For a few days, she was able to return to a place where life is savored, and conversation is valued.

Now it’s time for you to relive your favorite vacations. Share your stories with family and friends, fill in the details for one another, laugh a little and celebrate beautiful places and meaningful experiences. Or, saddle up and begin planning a trip back to a place you love or to one you’ve always dreamed of exploring.