Dream Weekends: Happy Trails

Want to play cowboy? On an overnight camping trip you can eat by a fire and soak in mountain views from a saddle.

By: Matthew Graham

My wife and I were two minutes out from Marriott Ranch, on the start of a trail ride and camping adventure, when a young woman in our group, Anna, lost control of her horse.

Anna had tried to take off her jacket. The flapping nylon had caught the horse’s eye and spooked it. The horse bolted at a full gallop as Anna shrieked. The trail leader, Bill, yelled, “Pull back on the reins.” Anna shrieked louder. Her horse eventually looked back and, realizing it was alone, galloped back.

Anna was fine, and it gave Bill and Judy, another guide, the chance to remind everyone about the proper use of reins and what not to do in the saddle.

Except for my wife, Karen, and me, our group consisted of coworkers from a window factory. They wore straw cowboy hats bought for them by the owner, Mike.

We rode single-file at a leisurely pace, passing beautiful landscape. We climbed up one side of a mountain and down the other on tight switchbacks. Tree saplings brushed my legs. We crossed streams and emerged into cow pastures with views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In a hay field we struggled to keep the horses from eating their way across. Bill shouted with a twang: “Don’t let ’em eat. It’ll just give ’em bad habits.” A breeze wafted across the tall green hay, creating waves. With the hay brushing their bellies, the horses appeared to be swimming across an emerald ocean.

After crossing a road, we passed the red-brick manor house of Marriott Ranch, the Inn at Fairfield Farm. The other riders commented on the quality of the windows.

Bill stopped on a hilltop clearing and showed us where Ronald Reagan used to fly in by helicopter to meet with J.W. Marriott for a day of riding. J.W. had purchased the 4,200-acre property because it reminded him of his boyhood home in Utah.

After three hours in the saddle, our group of 18 arrived at a campsite next to a creek. The site included a portable toilet and two bunkhouses, basically plywood buildings with floor space for about ten sleeping bags in each. A truck had dropped everyone’s overnight gear. Wanting more privacy, Karen and I had packed a tent.

While the setting was rustic, tables were covered in white linen, there was a full bar, and a chef was preparing dinner. Karen and I sipped Merlot and nibbled on hors d’oeuvres. The life of a cowboy.

We sat around a campfire and got to know one another. Usually this overnight ride consists of couples and singles with some riding experience. But the company outing included just two people who had ridden before—an old “cowboy” in snakeskin boots who had raised horses in his youth and a horseman from south of the border nicknamed Mexico.

The dinner bell rang. The feast included grilled vegetables; skillet potatoes; salad; bread; a choice of grilled steak, salmon, or portobello mushrooms; and apple pie with ice cream. One of Mike’s workers said he was surprised at how well he was handling “roughing it.” He was serious.

After dinner, a terrific bluegrass band, the Shenandoah Travelers, began to play. Everyone danced around the campfire. Fueled by alcohol, the dancing devolved into foot stomping and jumping up and down like kids. The band announced its last song at 11 pm, but Mike paid the band to continue two more hours. Karen and I, exhausted, headed to our tent.

At 2 am, Mexico started singing to the horses in Spanish—a slow, lamenting tune. He sang for a half hour as I dozed on and off. I thought I was dreaming.

Sunlight filtered into our tent at 5:30, with the fire still going. We downed coffee, scrambled eggs, and toast about 6:30, then saddled up and began the ride back by 7:30.

Our companions looked as though they’d had a little too much fun the previous night. Unlike the day before, we were quiet. Bill kept yelling back: “Are you guys alive back there?”

My horse was on autopilot, so I basked in the warmth of the sun and enjoyed the view. My horse, Socks, had a smooth gait. The return trip took just two hours.

Karen and I patted Socks and her horse, Custer, goodbye and drove over to the inn. I had booked a room for the day so we could take a hot shower.

It was fun to play cowboy—we saw more of the terrain by horse than we would have on a hike, and eating and dancing by the campfire was terrific fun. But playing cowboy was tiring; we climbed into bed for a nap.

I dreamt I was a South American gaucho singing to my horse.

If You Go

The Marriott Ranch is at 540-364-3741 or toll-free 877-278-4574; marriottranch.com/horse.html.

The overnight ride costs $175 a person and is held in May, June, September, and October. The rate includes dinner, breakfast, and drinks.

The ranch also offers trail rides, private rides, cattle drives, twilight dinner rides, Western Adventure packages with three days of riding, and a City Slicker package with lessons on riding and handling cattle. For many of these multiday rides, you sleep at the inn rather than camp.

Even if you aren’t riding, it’s worth staying at Marriott Ranch. The food and service are first-rate, and it puts you at the foothills of the Blue Ridge, a few miles from good vineyards such as Oasis and Rappahannock. Rates at the inn, which has ten guest rooms, start at $139.