Bouncing along in the back of a horse-drawn wagon, ten-month-old Joshua Roberts cooed and giggled, his head swiveling as the family crossed the Little Laramie River.
“Are you having fun?” Joshua’s mother, Rebekah, asked the infant, before turning to her husband, David. “I think he really likes it.”
David nodded with a smile and adjusted Joshua’s straw cowboy hat to better shield him from the midday sun.
The family was one of many touring the Vee Bar Guest Ranch Sunday about 20 miles west of Laramie on Wyoming Highway 130.
“We were looking for fall activities this weekend, but everything we pulled up was in Fort Collins, (Colorado),” David explained. “But someone told us about the fall festival, so we decided to check it out. It’s been pretty amazing so far. We’re hoping to come back next year and make a tradition of it.”
Originally a stage coach stop and post office, the Vee Bar’s main lodge was constructed in 1891. For more than 100 years, the land served a dozen different purposes including cattle ranch, buffalo ranch and government-operated boys school. In 1994, Lefty Cole and his son, Kelly, purchased the ranch, seeing the potential for something more, said Lefty’s granddaughter Kari Kilmer, the Vee Bar’s manager and co-owner.
“(The dude ranch) didn’t have a huge business base when they started,” Kari said. “So, they added the riverside suites and the John Wayne Saloon.”
Lazily winding through the 800-acre plot, the river bubbled quietly, a stone’s throw from the main lodge. On the south side of the building, a wooden bridge led over a tributary to a shaded copse decorated with pumpkins in celebration of Vee Bar Hay Days.
“This is the first year we’ve tried the fall festival and pumpkin patch,” Kari explained. “I really wanted the fall festival to be something available to the community, especially families.”
A three-year old boy raced into the lodge and climbed into the ranch manager’s lap, showing her his dirt covered hands.
“This is Jasper,” Kari said, blushing at the boy’s interruption. “He’s our middle child.”
Family owned and operated, the ranch cultivates a healthy environment for children and adults alike.
“From our family stand point, it’s a great place to raise our kids,” Kari said. “In the summer, culture travels through our doors daily, and they get to experience so many things and different points of view.”
Hay Days was created, in part, to share that experience with other families in the Laramie Valley, and also as a fall destination.
“We wanted to offer the community a fall activity that didn’t require a drive to Colorado,” Kari said.
Outside the lodge, Davis & Maverick serenaded guests with acoustic renditions of popular country and soft rock songs as one of Vee Bar’s wranglers pulled children around a golden meadow in a sled trailing the cowboy’s horse.
Spread throughout the last three weekends of October, Hay Days provides attendees with several activities including archery, a petting zoo, lead-around horseback rides and a barn dance.
Born with two left feet and observing the long queue for archery, I decided to hop on the horse-drawn wagon and take in the sights the old-fashioned way.
While the ride imbued me with a deep respect for the person who invented shocks, the wooden benches were comfortable and the open air provided a connection to the environment long since lost to car culture.
“C’mon, boys,” Vee Bar Wrangler Lindsay O’Brien called out to Decker and Goliath, the massive Percheron horses pulling the wagon.
A 21-year-old Maryland native, Lindsay said she’d vacationed at the ranch as a teenager with her mother. Vee Bar stole her heart and for the last two years, she’s spent her summers working as a ranch hand for the Kilmers.
“I do a little bit of everything,” Lindsay said. “I take out rides, work the dining room and do some housekeeping.”
Boasting nine cabins and four rentable rooms in the main lodge, there’s always plenty to keep a ranch hand busy around the Vee Bar, she said.
As we headed back toward the barn, a wheat-colored pup with eyes reminiscent of a clear winter sky scouted the trail ahead.
“That’s Levi, the cook’s dog,” Lindsay said. “He’s a ‘Pom-e-sky,’ a Pomeranian, husky mix.”
A brazen glow washed over the dude ranch as the setting sun signaled the festivities’ end. Following the trickle of guests heading for their vehicles, I stopped on a bridge over the Little Laramie, taking in the aroma of fall and picturesque views of a simpler time.
Climbing into my pickup, I checked my phone, as is habit, and realized it was the first time in several hours I’d even thought about the digital ball and chain.
While the Vee Bar provided a delightful afternoon filled with outdoor activities, the disconnect alone was worth the trip.