The alarm goes off at 6:43 AM. The sun is already blazing through my window, a sign that it’s time to go to work. Baggy t-shirt, shorts and Chaco sandals, sunglasses, a water bottle, a quick yawn, and I shuffle through my door, down the hallway, and out into paradise.
The mountains, looming and ominous, reflect the strong morning sun. They rise, high and mighty, nestling the HF Bar Ranch in a bowl of green and brown. The 9,000 acres of land on the HF Bar are dedicated to entertaining anywhere from 30 to 120 guests from mid spring to early fall every year. This same land has been doing so since 1912, making it the second oldest guest ranch in the country. The seamless transition from mesa to pine forest, from sandy cave to wildflower pasture, all give the property its little-known yet magical allure.
The ranch staff is already hustling and bustling by the time 7 AM strikes. Wranglers race through the mountains, pushing the 200 horses in to the corral to prepare for morning guest rides. Cooks fly around the kitchen, getting ready to feed the hungry diners and the even hungrier employees. My fellow cabin keepers and I discuss the day of cleaning, bed-making, and towel-folding that we have ahead of us.
I first ventured to the HF Bar at the age of 11. I grew up in Connecticut, rode horses for a while through my childhood, and lived as a part of an outdoor-loving family who wanted so desperately to head west. I had no idea that this new vacation spot would become our family’s escape from reality for the following eight years. Nor did I know that I would get the chance to fall in love with horses all over again, or that I would shoot my first .410 target load, and I certainly didn’t realize how an annual week in Wyoming would completely change me as a person.
Pretty soon, it became quite clear that my employment at the HF Bar was inevitable. Tears would stream down my face as we drove away after one week of vacation, meaning that I just needed to be there for three months of work instead. I submitted my application, got my job offer, and started counting down the days until my sophomore year at Emerson College in downtown Boston was over. I flew into Gillette on May 20th, and was instantly greeted by the smallest airport I have ever been in. This brought me so much joy; I was so excited to spend time living a simpler, quainter lifestyle than what the east coast had to offer.
Three months later, I can say that this was the most educational, eye-opening and fun experience I have had in my 20 years of life.
We work hard. We work really hard. HF Bar employees hold an interesting perspective on the hospitality industry. We have to be able to create a guest experience that is rustic, luxurious, active and relaxing, all at the same time. This is a tough balance, and all positions must work together to strike it. My boss told me something on my first day that will stick with me for the rest of my life. She said, “If you don’t do something, someone else will have to do it. And if you do it wrong, someone else will have to fix it. So do it, and do it right.” We all operate on that mentality. Every day tends to be a general success because of it. There is nothing that this group of 60 people, aged 18 to 40, can’t get done.
We play hard. We play really, really hard. It takes a special kind of person to fly to the middle of nowhere and spend three months with solar-powered wifi and no cell service, work in ninety-five-degree heat, flying dust and bugs and snakes and other creatures, solely for the love of being in the mountains. In a world of simulation and contentedness with mediocrity, we find refuge in our shared sense of adventure and curiosity.
We are the kids who spend our weekly day off pouring sweat on ten-mile hikes, just to see the views along the way. We are the kids who dance with reckless abandon into the wee hours of the morning, in our cramped dorm rooms with no air conditioning. We are the kids who camp all night, then rise with the sun to get to work on time, just to be able to wake up in the woods next to a roaring creek. We come from everywhere; Virginia, California, New England, Kansas, Georgia, Ohio, small towns, suburban hubs and large cities, all are represented. We find common ground, however, in having hearts capable of unconditionally loving a place like the HF Bar Ranch.
As the day comes to an end, we all convene on our lawn and sit down on a random assortment of broken and sun-bleached patio chairs, stare out at the wide-open spaces that we get to call our backyard, and laugh over the stories of the day. There is an unspoken understanding of how lucky we are to be here, living on some of the most beautiful land in the country.
Under the fiery blaze of the setting sun, if you look around at all the faces at the right time, you might just find a smile on every single one.
Photos and text by Katie Hill, HF Bar employee