My Wide Open Mistakes as a Dude Ranch Cook

Jody Jones and her bulging right bicep. (Photo: Jody Jones/TueNight)

Ever heard the Dixie Chicks song “Wide Open Spaces“?

It goes like this:

“Many precede and many will follow
A young girl’s dream no longer hollow
It takes the shape of a place out west
But what it holds for her, she hasn’t yet guessed”

Sounds inspiring, right?

I blame that song for one of the bigger flubs in my life. But, hey, at least it’s a good story now.

I was 28 and working as the features editor for a small-town, twice-a-week newspaper in Florida. It was a job I truly loved, but I was living below the poverty level. I supplemented my income by working both retail at Casual Corner and as a cocktail waitress for a cheesy, late-night club called Thunderbirds (seriously). Exhausted working from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m., I felt stagnant and thought some fresh, mountain air might do me good.

In my younger days I did a good deal of horseback riding — and was a budding chef — so when I found a job as a cook on a dude ranch in Colorado, it seemed perfect. I envisioned making savory sauces and exploring the verdant hills on horseback. No doubt the novel in me would flow from my veins. Making it even better: My childhood friend Tricia lived less than an hour away in Fort Collins.

I arrived in the spring, but it was still snowy in Livermore, Colorado. Pretty damned cold in comparison to the Sunshine State. But the place was picturesque as all hell up in the mountains and I was excited for my fresh start.

Well, the romantic vision never quite jibed with the reality.

I worked 14-plus hour days. Though I got to plan the menu (fun!), I had very little assistance with anything else. I took inventory, ordered the food, unloaded the food, did prep work, dishes, floor scrubbing and so on. To this day my right arm is more muscular than my left arm from peeling so many potatoes.

And I never even got on a horse.

Most of the people who worked with me — the waitresses and the hands — were much younger. Catty and sorority-esque, they hooked up, they picked fights and placed blame. There were a few who were down-right good folk, but they were few and far between.

The owners were complete, grade-A assholes, and I have worked for quite a few assholes in my time. They liked to belittle and berate everyone who worked for them. They forbade us from almost all fun activities, such as leaving the kitchen during the day, exercising at all during the six and a half days we worked and taking time off if we were sick. Also verboten was drinking with the guests, no matter how well we got along.

The best part of the job (and really the only part of it that was satisfying) was meeting and spending time with the guests. Most often they were grateful, happy and always hungry. I cooked the fish they caught in the river however they liked it. I made them rhubarb crumble fresh from the wild vegetables growing near the water. We square danced at the weekly roundup. And I sang during the bonfire up on the hill, along with the fiddlers on staff.

So it was an amazing day when the aforementioned  owners announced a surprise: Alan Jackson, the country singer and star, would be coming to the ranch the following week for a stay with his family.


Alan and his posse were fun, gracious and humble. They brought a giant tour van as well as Alan’s prized, yellow, four-wheel-drive Jeep. All week long they ran and played and rode and had a good ‘ole time. Alan even sang “Chattahoochee” at the bonfire.

I really dug the Jacksons, and I guess they liked me, too. The last night they were there, they invited me to come aboard their tour bus and drink some wine with them. In the name of hospitality, of course I obliged. We had many laughs before I bade them farewell fairly late into the evening.

The next day, the shit hit the fan. During a team meeting, the owners dug in and gave me hell in front of everyone. They went beyond admonishing me for my actions; they made it personal. Comments were ugly and I was told —  in front of the whole crew — that I was a bad and stupid person who would never amount to anything.

Well, screw that. Right?

So I packed up my stuff and left the next day, without so much as a goodbye. My time there had been horrible, and they literally (there’s that word again) added insult to injury by scolding me in such a cruel manner.

To this day I regret going to that stupid ranch. What was I thinking? I got absolutely nothing out of it except this gigantic right forearm, but even that’s only good in a Tom Robbins novel. And I got to meet Alan Jackson.

Damn you, Dixie Chicks! But I got sweet revenge. I stumbled into a job at AOL when I got back to Virginia and doubled, tripled, quadrupled my salary in three years. AOL set me up for an amazing career in media. And the ranch set me up for years of therapy.

But I at least I had room to make big mistakes.

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