Santa Ynez

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When you go out for a ride at Alisal, there’s not a lot of yacking. Once you’re out on the trail, people seem to settle in and keep their mouths shut. Sort of like going in to a church. Talk just isn’t necessary.

So today I’m going to let the pictures do the talking. I’ve focused primarily on the cowgirls at Alisal—both the professional ones and the young ones just starting out. Just look at the photos—I think that’s all you need to know.


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The Firestone Sisters

Mary and Lucy Firestone

The Firestone sisters, Mary and Lucy (or maybe it’s Lucy and Mary), with my favorite lady wrangler, Haddie Tal. Photo by David Lansing.

At the Waggin’ Tongue Lounge at Alisal I met Lucy and Mary Firestone. They noticed me rudely staring at them and so turned around on their bar stools and introduced themselves. Very civilized.

The reason I was staring at them, in addition to the fact that they were obviously very attractive, is that I was trying to figure out if they were twins or not. They looked remarkably similar and yet, there was something about them that suggested otherwise. Finally I just asked them.

“No,” said Mary (or maybe it was Lucy), “but we get that all the time. So don’t feel bad.”

They gave me their business card (they blog as the Firestone Sisters) and that night after dinner, I went back to my room and, I’m rather embarrassed to admit, checked them out. I don’t want to put words in their mouths so here’s what their blog says:

“We are not Twins! We are commonly confused for each other (we will confess that we do look a lot alike).”

That was reassuring. At least I’m not the only one who thinks so.

On growing up together: “Our fondest memories include: sister bonding road trips up and down the Eastern seaboard (most without the permission of our parents), realizing that foam parties were overrated in Mojaca, Spain, and climbing the Great Wall of China together in 100% humidity.”

Confession: I don’t know what a foam party is and I’ve never heard of Mojaca.

About their childhood bedrooms: “Mary’s room was perfection in pink. Adorned with collages made from high fashion magazines, designer and vintage clothes strewen about, Mary’s room was a shrine to Hollywood Glamour Queens. Stacked beside her bed were cherished biographies of Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn, and other divas of the silver screen.

“Lucy’s childhood room was blue and lined with shelves crowded with sporting trophies. Lucy was the adventurous tomboy and natural athlete, playing boys hockey and baseball and becoming a high school all-American.”

Extraordinary. I don’t think I’ve ever read a blog where people included scenes from their childhood bedrooms as part of their bio. But there they are. The Firestone sisters.

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In my bungalow at the Alisal Ranch. Photo by David Lansing.

I’ve become quite fond of my bungalow at the Alisal Ranch. I like its quirkiness. For instance, there’s no TV but there is wi-fi. No phone but a very nice coffee maker. I’ve got a wood-burning fireplace and every morning an elderly gentleman comes by and asks me if I need a few more pieces of oak. The walls are decorated with poster-sized black and white photos of the cattle operation on the ranch in what looks like the 1950s, and next to the fireplace is a rusty corrugated tin painting of a cowboy on a bucking horse.

This morning, after a breakfast of coffee and huevos rancheros, I took the complimentary Wall Street Journal and went and sat in a plush outdoor chair set up under the shade of a hundred-year-old oak out on the lawn. Guests in their cowboy boots and Western hats filed by, giving me a “Howdy,” on their way to the barn while I sat sipping my coffee and reading about the financial struggles in Greece–every bit the epitome of an urban cowboy.

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Alisal’s lady wranglers

Miss Haddie Stella Tal, a wrangler at Alisal. Photo by David Lansing.

This here is Haddie. Haddie Stella Tal, if you want to know the whole handle. Haddie was the lead wrangler on our ride to the Old Adobe at Alisal. She’s a spitfire. Just before the ride, someone asked Haddie what kind of a cowboy hat was it she was wearing. Haddie thought about it for a minute and said, “I guess it’s a Haddie hat. I don’t know what else you’d call it.”

You see what I mean.

Haddie has been working as a wrangler at Alisal for four years. Before that she was a wrangler with an operation in New Mexico and before that she  worked as a packer and back-country cook for an outfit in the Sierras.

As Haddie says, “I’ve been doing this kind of work my whole life.” Yet she is only 27.

Haddie is engaged to another wrangler at Alisal named Jesse. Jesse James Townsend. Jesse also works the rodeo circuit as a team roper. Right now he’s at some rodeo in Reno or someplace like that. Haddie and Jesse plan to get married in Alisal’s rodeo arena sometime next year. They don’t know when, exactly. Haddie isn’t big on details like that. She says, “I want one bridesmaid to be in charge of the food and another one to take care of the flowers and someone else to figure out the music and such. So I can just show up and have a good time and not have to worry about anything.”

Very practical advice for any woman thinking about wedding plans, I’d say.

I asked Haddie if it was unusual to be a female wrangler. “Not here,” she said. “During the high season (summer) when we have maybe 17 wranglers, 11 of them will be women.”

Like me, you might wonder why that is. Haddie has a theory: “Alisal is a very family-oriented place, with lots of kids, and women wranglers just seem better at interacting with the kids. And we’re softer with the horses.”

I asked her what that meant–being softer with the horses. “Our voices are softer, our manners gentler. I guess you could say we pay attention to the details more than the guys.” Not that she thinks there’s anything wrong with her male counterparts. “They’re the best in the industry,” she says. Still, she thinks the female wranglers might just be more suited to the job–at least here at Alisal.

I asked her what was the best part about being a wrangler and she said, “Seeing the kids develop.” She told me this one story about a little girl named Maddie who came to Alisal the first summer Hattie worked here. “She was eight and had never been on a horse before and we spent the week together, me teaching her how to ride, how to respect horses. She’s come back every summer since. Now she’s 12 and she’s got her own horse at home and sends me pictures of the two of them. I love that. There’s just something about little girls and horses. I don’t know what it is, but it’s there. And it’s magical.”

Having spent the morning riding with Haddie, I’d have to agree.

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It’s Always Home

I’m on my way to Alisal, the upscale dude ranch (and resort) half an hour north of Santa Barbara in the Santa Ynez Valley. I get there Tuesday afternoon, just in time for cocktails at the Waggin’ Tongue Lounge . My host has advised me that the suggested attire for dinner that night is “casual Western.”

I’m not sure what that is. Jeans and a clean shirt, perhaps? Since I don’t own any boots or cowboy hats it better not be any more complicated than that.

Wednesday morning, I’m getting up early to go on a breakfast ride to the Old Adobe. I wrote about this recently; how I was assigned an uncooperative nag who refused to budge so I ended up riding in an old pick-up with Jake Copass, Alisal’s in-house cowboy poet and long-time wrangler who passed away in 2006. Jake and I had a good chat that day. It was because of Jake, and our little talk, that I ended up going to Arizona Cowboy College. And it’s because of Jake that, for better or worse, I’ll be getting back on a horse to get myself out to the Western breakfast at the old adobe Wednesday morning.


Anyway, in honor of Jake, I thought I’d reprint a poem he wrote over 20 years ago, called It’s Always Home, that was published in his book of cowboy poetry, It Don’t Hurt to Laugh.


It’s Always Home

We all drove down the old dirt road,

My sisters, my brothers, and me.

It wasn’t too easy to figure it out,

Where the old home used to be.

Guess the old house had been torn down,

The windmill and the old corral.

The little tin chicken house is still standing there

In the brush, there is still a dim trail.

You could hear the Bobwhites in the distance,

Cows munching grass up to their knees,

I’d swear that’s the same old mockingbird

Perched high in that old apple tree.

No matter what else has happened,

There’s some things you cannot erase,

The joys we all had together,

On our folk’s little sandy-land place.


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