It’s true that wonderful things happen when you least expect them. You fall in love, you get the promotion, you win the lottery.
And sometimes you find paradise.
I was on that kind of rite-of-passage road trip that women often take right before something big and exciting is about to happen. In this case, I was getting married and moving to San Francisco. My friend Glynnis promised to come along for the ride. Everyone we told about the trip liked to compare us to Thelma and Louise, the 1991 movie starring Geena Davis, Susan Sarandon, and a very young and chiseled Brad Pitt. In it, the two women are on a road trip because they are on the lam from the law. They ultimately drive themselves off of a cliff. We were hoping for a happier ending.
Paradise was the last thing we expected to find after an eight-hour drive across South Dakota. We planned to spend the night at a dude ranch outside of Buffalo, Wyoming, at the recommendation of a friend. We would ride horses the next morning and then pack our things and drive to Jackson Hole, where we would do a wildlife safari in Yellowstone National Park and perhaps take selfies with the Grand Tetons.
Wildlife essentially swarmed our car as we tried to make it out to the ranch. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
Bulging gray storm clouds threatened to burst over the mountains as we got off the interstate at Buffalo. My dog, Lady, our third traveling companion, went on high alert. The rusty ridge along her back rose, and she began to whine. It was just light enough that we saw a turnoff into the Bighorn National Forest. The GPS on our cellphones failed. From there gravel on the road turned to rocks and rocks to dirt, and we were certain we were in the wrong place and would soon be killed by vigilantes or Bighorn sheep.
Twenty minutes later we arrived at our destination but could only make out a cluster of rustic-looking buildings. We could see folks laughing and dancing in one that appeared to be a bar, but all we wanted was our bed. We located an office manager and were directed toward a cabin.
Seven hours later, I woke up bleary-eyed and cranky.
“I need coffee,” I bellowed.
“I think we may have died last night and gone to heaven,” Glynnis yelled to me from the porch of our little log cabin.
Lady Piazza was born in Brooklyn. The porch of our cabin was like an alien landscape to her. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
I gasped when I walked past her. Outside rolling meadows covered in wildflowers stretched as far as the eye could see, presenting us with sweeping views across the national forest. Below us 180 horses ran wild in the pasture. Pine trees stretched their arms skyward.
This was paradise.
How could anyone willingly leave this view? (Photo: Jo Piazza)
It quite literally is Paradise — Paradise Guest Ranch — a 100-year-old working dude ranch at an elevation of 7,500 feet on the eastern slope of the Bighorn Mountains within the boundaries of the Bighorn National Forest.
We had done little research on the place, save to learn that it was more or less on our road trip route from New York City to San Francisco.
We were supposed to stay for 18 hours. We stayed for four days.
See, every time we tried to leave Paradise, someone made a suggestion that made leaving impossible.
“There are homemade donuts on Wednesday morning. We eat them while they are still warm.”
The donuts were as delicious and warm as advertised. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
“You have to horseback-ride up to the mesa. There are herds of antelope there.”
“There’s square dancing on Friday night.”
“You can feed the baby lambs in the morning.”
We did stay just to feed the baby lambs out of a bottle. (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)
“We can take a fishing trip where you catch a trout the size of your arm.”
“Your cabin is available until Sunday.”
“But there’s a slip ’n’ slide on Thursday.”
Our cabin shouldn’t have been available until Sunday. Every single week at Paradise is practically sold out, due mainly to repeat visitors who have been coming every summer for the past 30 years. During our stay at the ranch, we didn’t meet a single other person who had just come there for the first time.
The entrance to the ranch in daylight. Fun is pretty much the motto here. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
Our adorable little two-single cabin just happened to be available the one week we would be driving through the West. Wonderful things happen when you least expect them.
Neither of us had ever been to a dude ranch. We had no boots and no plaid shirts. The only long pants Glynnis brought with her were a pair of American Apparel leggings with holes in them.
You can borrow riding boots if you didn’t bring your own. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
There’s no cellphone service at Paradise. There is limited Wi-Fi in the dining hall and the saloon and none in the guest cabins. Last time I had no cell service, I met and fell in love with my fiancé on a boat in the Galapagos.
I found the single landline at the ranch to call him to tell him where we were, that we were ok and that I would see him at some point in the next week.
“And just like the Galapagos, I have no wifi!” I exclaimed.
“Who knows what will happen this time?” he said. “Maybe you’ll fall in love with a horse. We can keep him in the park across the street from our apartment.”
I fell in love with several horses. The ranch offers twice-daily riding treks, plus daylong excursions for all levels of riders. I grew up around horses. My mom, Tracey, was something of a riding phenom back in the day in Colorado. These days I ride three or four times a year, mostly when I travel.
I’m not exaggerating when I say that the horses at Paradise were some of the best-behaved and most well-trained horses I have ever ridden.
“You want to lope?” my wrangler, Will, asked me that first morning at breakfast as I hungrily devoured the finest lemon scone to ever touch my lips.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Do you lope?”
This was a verb I didn’t know. I wanted to tread carefully.
“I’m not entirely certain.”
“Can you trot on a horse?”
“Of course I can,” I said indignantly.
“And can you lope?”
“I can canter and do a slow gallop.”
He nodded and walked away.
Apparently cantering is loping in Paradise.
Feeling a little bit like Calamity Jane. (Photo: Glynnis MacNicol)
Getting a guided tour of the Bighorn forest. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
Glynnis is even less outdoorsy than I am, so I was surprised when she agreed to join a fly fishing excursion to Crazy Woman Canyon. Part of me thought she went just because she liked the name Crazy Woman Canyon, but then she woke up at 4:30 the next morning to do it all again—this time for twelve hours in a top-secret uber-trout fishing location. She hiked so far off the grid she was only reachable by helicopter, fishing in waist-high water in a rushing river with blue skies overhead and rock formations that had formed millions of years ago.
Fly fishing came quite naturally to Glynnis. Who knew? (Photo: Dustin Arnold)
After our second night at Paradise, people from outside of the ranch began wondering where we were.
“I thought you were just spending one night in Wyoming?”
“Why aren’t you getting any of my calls?”
“You’re not coming back, are you?”
“Are we still getting married?”
We told ourselves that we would leave the next day.
But we didn’t. How could we?
You can see all the stars at Paradise, not just a few, not just the constellations you can name, like the Big Dipper and Orion. You can see all the stars. On a clear night guests hike the half-mile up to the mesa to lie in the prairie grass and stare up at the stars for hours. Some mornings they rise before dawn to hike up to the top of Fan Rock, a local landmark, to see the sun splendidly rise over the Bighorn Mountains.
Related: Wild West Smackdown—Montana vs. Wyoming
We found our dream cabin in the woods. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
A good crew makes a good dude ranch. At Paradise everyone knows your name. Literally. Everyone. The crew and the guests are on a first-name basis with one another from day one. All guests receive a full list of who else is staying for the week and a binder filled with color photos of the staff.
You can tell that everyone who works at the ranch feels lucky to work there, from the wranglers to the folks cleaning out the cabins. That’s not easy to come by.
Ivy, a wrangler at the ranch, is incredible with a fiddle. (Photo: Jo Piazza)
Everyone had a story, and every story was equally fascinating. Ivy Givens, one of the wranglers, is a serious fiddle player who performs in Nashville, when she isn’t majoring in English. Stacy Kempher, another wrangler, operates her own organic farm and is working on a Paleo diet cookbook. Laura Brewer, who works in the kitchen, just completed a bachelor of arts in art history. She is working on her goal of visiting all 50 states.
The staff was kind to us from the very start. When we arrived late at night, Chef Joey came out to make us dinner even though it was two hours past dinner time. A wildly talented pastry chef, Joey handed me a chocolate peanut butter whoopee pie that actually made me cry.
“But I have to fit into a wedding dress,” I said with frosting covering my upper lip.
“We don’t count calories at Paradise Ranch, Joey said to me. “We count happy memories.”
Check out our original adventure travel series, “A Broad Abroad.”