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Monday, July 7, 2008


My Horse for a Week
When I was ten and living in Blaine, Washington, I was meandering through the grocery store with my Mom, and we came across a contest in the meat department. Above the wieners, Bar S had some entry blanks displayed, offering a free week-long vacation at the Flying Horseshoe Ranch in eastern Washington near Cle Elum. The lucky winner would even have his own horse for the week! The entry blank began with: "I would like to go to the Flying Horseshoe Ranch because..." and contestants needed to fill out the rest in twenty-five words or less. We tore one off the little rack and took it home.

Usually I don't have trouble writing anything, but I remember pondering over this entry blank at the kitchen table with a terrible case of writer's block. Finally I said to Mom, who was washing dishes, "I don't know what to write." And she casually said, "'...because...' it would seem like a dream, and I want to know what it would be like to be dreaming when I'm wide awake." That sounded pretty good to me, so I wrote it down and we sent it in.

Our Bunkhouse
Months passed. I turned eleven, and we moved to Allen, Washington, about fifty or sixty miles south, and forgot all about the contest. I think Mom was patching my pants or something, and I was in my underwear when a car drove up. I remember fussing about the inconvenience of it all, hissing, "Why does someone have to come now!" Then we noticed a "Bar S" sign on the door of the car. The man said he had spent some time trying to track us down, and that I had won a vacation to the Flying Horseshoe Ranch!

This was my first time away from home. At first I was excited and happy, but then was stuffed into that highly overrated situation called socialization. The Ranch was founded and run by the Blackburn Family, who are super wonderful people. All who worked there were great. And the girls there for the week were nice, and I remember one being impressed after finding out what my twenty-five-words-or-less were. But the older boys tended to be dolts, and they got the greatest kick out of putting down the younger boys. I picked two of the younger ones who were picked on the most, and befriended them. The three of us were inseparable. One was fat, and one was little and skinny, and when the older boys ran them down, I would speak up for them. The older boys seemed to have a tradition of giving the younger ones disgraceful nicknames and call them by these names all week. I don't remember what they called my thin friend, but the fat one they called "Lard Ass." They called me "Pwe." It didn't make sense to me so I asked them what that means, and they said, "Prick with ears." I was naive and somewhat sheltered, being the son of a Methodist minister, and (believe-it-or-not) had never heard the term "prick" before used for, well, you know. To me, "prick" meant "little stab," and so, to me, it seemed like they were calling me something about giving a little stab with ears. It made absolutely no sense to me, and I just assumed they were unimaginative boys with a big problem. I felt fortunate that week, having a nickname so innocent and non-offensive as "Pwe."

The food there was good, the whole ranch was really cool, and I did indeed have "my own" horse for a week--a nice pinto. The ranch hands took care of her, saddled and bridled her, but whenever we went horseback riding, she was the one carrying me. The first rule I learned was to mount the horse always on the left side. As seems always the case with kids, the stirrups weren't adjusted short enough, so I was constantly at the mercy of sliding this way or that, gripping for dear life onto the saddle horn, and bouncing horribly whenever the horse trotted. I felt so sorry for the big white mare that carried my thin friend. She was too gentle, too slow, too kind, and so my friend would constantly kick her and complain about how slow she was. And I would constantly tell him to be nice to that nice horse.

Except for a parade in Ellensburg at the end of the week that we younger boys, for some reason, didn't get to participate in, I remember only one lengthy horseback ride--a mountain trail ride lasting most the day. The trail in some places was very narrow and on the side of a steep hill, and several times my horse sincerely impressed me by keeping me alive.

My two Best Friends at the Ranch

Staying in a bunkhouse was a real treat for most boys. They felt like real ranch hands in TV westerns. But for me it was where I suffered the worst homesickness, lying in a strange bed on the other side of a mountain range from everything familiar to me. It was a long, long week.

My favorite place, though, was sitting around the campfire in the late evenings. This was the socialization I enjoyed--especially the creepy stories. One older boy there told us about the monster, like Bigfoot, that was known to frequent the area. And afterwards we were delightfully traumatized as we made our way in the dark to the bunkhouse. But one story in particular I have remembered and retold ever since, to frighten kids out of their wits: Alice had come over to spend the night with Susan. Susan's parents told the girls that they had to go out that evening and wouldn't be back until late. So Alice and Susan didn't wait up for them, but went to sleep in a double bed on a balcony which overlooked the living room. Later, Susan was awakened by the sound, creeeak, creeeak, creeeak, creeeak, and she recognized it as the sound of her mother's rocker in the living room, where she often sat knitting, and was comforted knowing that her mother was home. She reached over and felt that Alice was lying beside her, and then fell back asleep. Later Susan was awakened again. Creeeak, creeeak, creeeak, creeeak. She reached over and felt that Alice was still lying peacefully next to her, and fell back asleep. Still later Susan was awakened again by that sound. Creeeak, creeeak, creeeak, creeeak. And she thought, goodness, Mama is staying up awfully late. She reached over and felt Alice still lying in bed, but by now she was concerned, wondering why her mother seemed to be knitting so late into the night. So she quietly got out of bed to look down from the balcony. It wasn't her mother in the rocker. It was a maniac pulling the hair out of Alice's severed head!

Stories like this made the week worthwhile, and my nice pinto horse, and the ranch's gift shop, where I bought for my parents plastic replicas of a mare and her foal, labeled "Pride and Joy," and delicate bone china figurines of a family of deer. At the end of the week, the ranch hands heated up the Flying Horseshoe branding iron, and we were invited to bring whatever we wanted to be branded, for a souvenir. I had bought in the gift store a stand-up wooden nameplate, saying "Dale," and had them brand the back of that.

It was so good to get home after that homesick week, but of course, after the fact, I was thrilled that I had gone. And to this day, I have a warm spot in my heart for the Flying Horseshoe Ranch, which, by the way, still exists now forty-eight years later, an active dude ranch near Cle Elum, Washington.

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  1. Received this email from a member of the Blackburn family and current owner of the Flying Horseshoe Ranch:

    Hello Dale!
    I finally had a chance to read this…what a kick! I’ve never heard the scary story…we told plenty…but never that one! Thank you for sending it. It seems that more and more “Old Timers” are finding us and either stopping by or writing…and we do enjoy that. Mr. and Mrs. B are both gone now and so is my husband…George Jr. A camper from ’58 – ’61 stayed with us for three days this summer (she lives in London) and it was so fun…she was beside herself with memories! She kept saying that around every corner something popped into her head! She was a delight to meet. Well it sounds like you’re living an interesting life…thanks again for writing. Penny Blackburn

  2. I went to the Flying Horseshoe ranch in 1966 and 1967. I kind of thought the picture of the horse you had for the week looked very familiar, so I went looking for all my old photos. Sure enough that was also my horse both years. His name was "Perk"
    Thanks for the memories, Chris

  3. That is really neat, Chris! I had forgotten the horse's name. He was really nice, as is proven by his putting up with me.