In mid May, 2012 I traveled from Columbia, S.C. across this great nation to visit the 100,000 acre bison preserve and nature conservancy called Zapata Ranch. Within moments of arriving I felt privileged. It was as though my eyes gazing upon this sacred place gave me an insight that few others will have the chance to see. If you go anywhere in your life, go to Zapata. See what I saw. Feel what I felt. Know you are privileged to see this untouched world.
I flew into Denver and chose to drive nearly 5 hours through scenic highways 285 and 17 in northwestern Colorado. Do yourself a favor and make this journey. The land twists and turns around you; Mountain sides scrape your left while vast prairies and canyons nip at your toes from the right. The land here feels magnificent, untouched, unspoiled and vast as the imagination of a child. It is unending in its size and its beauty.
When I arrived at Zapata I’m not ashamed to admit that I was a bit intimidated by some of the other guests. They were experienced riders and when asked “Western or English?” I stared at them blankly as though I were an alien. I was a novice to say the least. The staff greeted me with such warmth and comfort though that I found myself excited at the prospect of mounting a horse the next morning for a ride through the Great Sand Dunes National Park. Carla, my guide, was superb. Not for a single moment did I feel like the novice that I was. We walked carefully and slowly, stopping often for pictures of the great dunes as they cascade down the hills and rise sharply up the banks of the mountains they rest upon. This would be the first of several occasions wherein Carla, Asta, Kate, Mike and other staff members made a profound impression upon me.
Zapata’s beauty lies in two places: The earthly things that are within its gates and the unearthly things which exude from their staff member’s hearts. Each came to Zapata under different circumstances yet each profoundly made an impact on my stay.
Mike, Zapata’s chef, brought more than a fine meal to each table. He was at the lodge in the early morning as I drank my coffee on the patio watching the moon fade away and the sun rise over the great Cottonwood trees. Our conversations about collard greens and local potatoes which are bountiful in the area gave way to conversations about the ranch and the lifestyle lived upon it.
Branding and herding were other exceptional experiences that proved hard on my hands but soft on my heart. There is something quite powerful about the sense of accomplishment one gains after holding a calf during vaccinations. It is not as hard to watch as one might imagine, but rather a vital part of ranch life that protects these precious animals. An abandoned calf was discovered en route which we later bottle fed and named “Thomas”.
There is nothing at Zapata you cannot do. In fact, you can do as much or as little as you life. I recommend the former, though, for when in your life will you have the experience again? Seize everything Zapata has to offer. Take it with both hands, hang onto it as fiercely as you grip your horses reins and Zapata will give back to you tenfold.
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