Back in the Saddle Again at Sunset Ranch Hollywood
Last weekend my parents came to town to celebrate my father’s 70th birthday. From cowboys to covered wagons, my father has always loved the Wild West. I grew up watching countless Westerns with him and hearing the stories of legendary cowboy film stars and their equally famed horses. So naturally, when it came to putting together the ideal birthday weekend, I searched the city limits for California adventures any 70-year-old farm boy from eastern North Carolina would consider a good time. I wanted to get as close as possible to recreating that Billy Crystal in City Slickers moment for my dad without sending him to the hospital in the process. Short of panning for gold, operating an oil rig, or roping cattle, I decided on Sunset Ranch Hollywood’s “Best View and BBQ” 2-hour horseback ride up to the Hollywood sign.
Not knowing what to expect, we drove up the windy North Beachwood Dr. past the fancy houses nestled in the canyon until we reached the Sunset Ranch Hollywood gates. Despite the heat, we followed directions and wore long pants and closed-toe shoes we didn’t care about getting dirty. Thankfully none of us exceeded the weight limit of 240 lbs.
After the nice farmhand with the gate clicker checked us in, we walked up the hill to a red barn where chickens roamed and a sizable horse-herd grazed and drank water. As we finished signing our lives away on the dotted line, we swatted flies and let our noses get used to the stench of horse dung while we waited our turns to be fitted for helmets and paired with horses.
Having marked “B” for beginner on our forms, we listened attentively to the tutorial on the basic “do’s and don’ts” of horseback riding. Despite being told that we’d need to gently kick our horses and pull their reigns at certain times to indicate the direction we wanted them to go in, we were assured that the horses were happy with friendly dispositions—just nonchalant and in need of a good nudge now and then.
Doc, Beaugie and Colonel Mustard carried the three Banks amigos and not without incident either. My mother was absolutely terrified in the beginning as her horse Col. Mustard started wandering around bumping into other horses while a rancher steadied him. Why does he keep moving around so much, she shrieked! I’ll admit; if you’ve never ridden a horse, that initial mount can be intimidating. It’s like having a car with a brain that operated independently of your commands. On top of that, the car would have biological instincts, feelings and emotions, and a well-known inclination to easily get scared. Could you imagine your car getting spooked on the freeway and driving off in the opposite directions without your instructions? Luckily, the competent staff was there to assist us in every step of the process, which included calming our nerves.
Once everyone got the hang of it—accepting their role as horse commander instead of passenger—we we’re ready to slowly trot off into the sunset through the hills of Griffith Park. My horse was Beaugie. He was slender and very agile. He responded quickly to my gentle kicks and gave me no grief whatsoever. Like me, I have a feeling he wanted to go much faster than the rest of our beginners’ group. Along the way the guides gave us tips on riding, like making sure to lean forward and support our own body weight while the horse climbed up hill to relieve the pressure on its back.
Though I would have liked to go faster on my horse, I found the ride to be peaceful, meditative and stunningly beautiful—especially as the sun began to descend—blanketing the landscape with amber light. As we made our way towards Mt. Hollywood, I got comfortable standing up in my stirrups and leaning down to rub Beaugie’s neck and whisper words of encouragement to him. I took in the incredible 360 views of Los Angeles. We saw the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys, Rancho Palos Verdes, the Pacific Ocean and downtown Los Angeles. I’d never seen the Griffith Observatory from that vantage point and had never been that close to the Hollywood sign.
Back at the ranch a live band played music while we ate brisket, smoked chicken, baked beans, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, and corn bread slathered in honey butter courtesy of Bludso’s BBQ on La Brea. A donkey rolled around in the dirt while one of the farmhands fed a potbelly pig some potato salad from a spoon. I have to say, I felt a little guilty eating pork in front of that adorable pig, but the delicious Texas-style brisket and my ravenous appetite made me get over it.
I would highly recommend taking advantage of this wanderlust excursion. It was thrilling to get out of my comfort zone and connect with animals and nature in a new way. Exploring Los Angeles with my family this weekend reminded me that I don’t always have to go far for great adventures. Sometimes the best ones are right in your back yard.