For six months, I thought we were going to a Nude ranch. Bringing the three boys seemed a bit odd, but my wife always handles our vacation arrangements so I let it go.
Then the informational packet arrived from the Pine Grove Dude ranch in the Catskill Mountains. Not an exposed buttocks in sight, unless you count the horses. Just snapshot after snapshot of cowboys and cowgirls hiking, milking, camp-fireing, and, did I mention it already, horseback riding.
Now, I’m just not an “animals” kind of guy. Don’t like to pet them, feed them, or especially mount them. So when I read that horseback riding was the primary activity at the Pine Grove, I visibly winced.
“It’ll be fun,” my wife exclaimed.
“That’s what Washington told the troops about Valley Forge,” I replied. “Besides, don’t you remember Santo Domingo?”
Fourteen years, eleven days ago, I went horseback riding for the first time at a resort in Santo Domingo. It rained so heavily that my size 8 riding helmet shrunk to a skull-pounding size 5. The horse I rode was called “Diablo” and should have had a Surgeon General’s warning branded on his backside. Every time we encountered rocky terrain, “Diablo” would break into a gallop ,then jerk to a halt when we reached a smoother surface. I iced my groin for three days after our brief engagement.
“Just try it once,” my wife implored. “Give riding another chance.”
We arrived at the Dude ranch around 4pm Sunday. We all ate “cowboy steaks” for dinner then a magician from New York City entertained us. The first horseback ride was scheduled for 11am Monday. We retired early.
It was hot on Monday morning. Garbed in a long-sleeve denim shirt and blue-jeans, I was sweating more than a Texas prisoner in solitary confinement.
“We like to match the horses with the rider’s personality. What type of horse would you like, Mr. Fusco,” the perky cowgirl in the corral asked me.
“How about a horse that’s really lethargic,” I replied.
They paired me with Luke, an animal whose hips were wider than a two-door garage. As I was trying to rub the cramps from my thighs, the perky instructor rode up to inform me that Luke had recently developed the cute little habit of brushing riders against the tree-branches along the trail.
“Don’t let him do that to you. Show him who’s boss,” she smiled, not revealing the management technique I would need to control a 900-pound misguided associate.
For forty minutes, I tried cajoling, pleading, shouting, then finally strangulating Luke. For my efforts, I collected a lovely bouquet of twigs and leaves in my hair and ears, an Al Capone-like scratch on my left cheek, and a deep shoulder-bruise.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it,” my wife asked, looking fresh as a daisy after her initial jaunt with Chestnut.
“No more chances,” I replied.
I spent the rest of our time at the Dude ranch immersing myself in non-animal activities. Preparing for retirement, I played plenty of shuffleboard and learned the intricacies of Bingo. I finished second in the ping-pong tournament to a 12-year-old with a wicked slice then black and blued my elbow trying archery with my nephew. I watched my oldest son win the free-throw contest and my niece scale the rock-climbing wall. My vast knowledge of serial killers helped my Trivial Pursuit team finish 2nd and I entertained some vacationers from Westchester County with my Karaoke version of Loudon Wainwright III’s “Dead Skunk”.
I also donned the mantle of Dude ranch “Food and Beverage” critic. I warned the other patrons that the hash browns at breakfast were strictly for decor, but reassured them that the drinking water that smelt like rotten eggs was just sulfuric not poisonous.
By Friday afternoon, my wife was galloping on Chestnut like a Pony-Express woman. I had a sudden urge to give Luke one more try until I saw a man with twigs and leaves in his hair and ears at lunch.
“Still up to his old tricks,” I smiled.
“That’s the last time for me,” my fellow vacationer exclaimed.
“Amen, my friend,” I replied. “How about a nice game of shuffleboard!”.