In the sagebrush and massive mountains of Wyoming my wife Jane and I met what people call an American original. Best I can tell that translates into being hard working, fun loving, and a stand-up guy. Ray McCoy spins tales with a contagious enthusiasm that belies his sixty-eight years.
Peering through his oval-rimmed glasses, Ray sports an 18-inch handlebar mustache that required 15 years of growth to be able to spin, and wax it. He’s decked out in a fringed vest, chaps, leather wrist cuffs, silver spurs on his dark boots and a charcoal gray Western derby hat.
Cowboy get-up aside, its clear he has that singular knack of being one with his horse. Count yourself lucky to be invited into his world at Crossed Sabres Ranch.
The ranch opened for business in 1898 initially as a stage-stop then six years later it became the first dude ranch in Wyoming and the west. Six miles below the eastern entrance to Yellowstone Park, the ranch sits at 7,000 feet elevation and is in the heart of the Shoshone National Forest flanked by the Absorka and Washakie wilderness.
A year ago Ray, his wife Linda and two partners took over the reins at the ranch. The lodge, cabins, corrals and grounds all under went an extensive renovation. The couple and their staff offer Wyoming hospitality at its finest. You can enjoy an early evening cocktail by the lodge’s tall stone fireplace or on the porch in a burnished rocking chair while gazing at the stunning beauty of the Absorka Mountains.
The Main Lodge includes the dining room where we enjoy hearty homemade meals. Dress code for dinner in the lodge is “clean jeans.” Guests are mainly from Rocky Mountain States and California. We swap that day’s adventure stories.
Fifteen hand-peeled log cabins offer a rustic mountain flavor, each individually appointed. An antler functions as the door handle to our warm and inviting home. Fifteen feet from the front door runs the Libby Creek’s rushing waters that chilled a bottle of wine and eased us to sleep in the evening.
An exceptional mountain run-off delivered waters that tumble wildly, so our fly-fishing was shelved. Instead, we mapped out three separate rides into parts of the Shoshone National Forest-- a captivating mix of rugged mountains, quiet, open meadows and boot-high streams.
Each morning we head down to the corral that holds a string of 22 horses. Most are Quarter horses, others paints, palominos and Appaloosas as well as a handful of leggy ones with plenty of thoroughbred blood.
“The Mantles have the largest single family owned horse herd in North America,” said McCoy. “I’ve helped gather their herd from their winter pasture and lead a caravan of nearly 1000 horses twenty miles to their ranch. Linda and I will go over there in April and they’ll ride them for us. We’ll lease a few new ones, but mostly we use the ones from previous seasons.”
Like the rest of the dwellings on the ranch, the wooden barn and tack room exude Western charm. Saddles adorn their racks, while halters, bridles and chaps hang on hooks on the wall. The sweet smell of leather is in the air.
Ray is our guide as we trot across a wooden bridge above a swollen stream and out to the trailhead. He’s spent two decades in and around the Yellowstone and Tetons region. Most of his jobs have involved horses, but he’s also carved out stints as a snowmobile guide and drove trucks hauling cattle. Prior to taking the reins at Crossed Sabres, the McCoys hung their hats at a guest ranch near Jackson Hole.
Jane slips a boot into a stirrup and tugs herself onto a worn saddle. The reins sway in her hands as she settles in on a palomino named Golden Boy. Bailey, Ray’s ever-eager border collie, is on the point. Ray sits atop his handsome paint horse Fritz.
“Ol’ Fritz has pulled me out of a lot of wrecks,” McCoy related. “He’s always right there if I need to go back and grab another horse.”
I’m straddling Thunder, a seven-year old Quarter horse, a handsome chestnut with a wide blaze. He marches along through the glacier carved valley that places us literally on the edge at times. It’s a premier wildlife corridor nurturing native elk, deer, coyotes, antelope and grizzlies. We hustle our mounts on a long trot through rocks and muddy gullies. An hour into our four-hour trek Ray raises a hand, climbs off Fritz and circles a grizzly paw print on the trail.
We break for a sack lunch in an open meadow and hitch our mounts to nearby trees then sit on massive fallen timber. Up a ridge a there is herd of 50 elks. The only sound is the whispering of a light breeze through the trees and the steady rush of the North Fork River at our backs.
We zigzag through a paradise shaded by aspens and log-pole pines at an elevation of 8,000 feet then traverse open slopes of scree and loose rocks. We come upon a steep uphill climb. Our sure-footed mounts respond, easily finding their balance and smoothly rocking us in our saddles.
We’re gaining elevation in hundreds of feet. I gaze out at a crest of the Absorkas that spills into a meadow dotted with a rainbow of wildflowers. I lean down and pet Thunder. Neither of us wants to leave.