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A RETURN TO THE WILD, WILD WEST: WAGONS HO!

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With a slap of the reigns on the horses' backs and sudden jerk of the wagon, time steps back . . . 100 or so years ago.

Cowboys days. Riding, roping and campfire cooking. A little dust in the air, and the smell of sagebrush, sweating leather and working horses. And beyond the creak of the old wagon, the rolling wheels and the clopping of the horses, there's the calming silence of the open spaces.Earlier this month Scott and Shelley Woolstenhulme started the wagons moving out of Hardware Ranch for the first time for summer adventures.

It is, says Scott, "Something I've always wanted to do."

Briefly, visitors go by wagon or horseback to a mountain camp, and there simply do things early westerners did. They eat good old western meals, sleep in cabins, ride horses, learn to toss a rope and sit around the campfire at night spinning yarns.

Scheduled trips leave every Friday. Pre-arranged trips can leave any day of the week, says Woolstenhulme.

Wagons pull out at 4 p.m. from the Hardware visitors center. People have the option of traveling by covered wagon or horseback.

First, the wagon train rolls through the Hardware elk pastures, and then by the elk corrals. There are currently about 20 elk in the pens, 14 of them with calves.

About 2 1/2 miles from the corrals is camp. It consists of eight small cabins near an open meadow, a running stream, Curtis Creek, some log benches and tables, and an open campfire.

Settled in, people have a number of choices.

"They can learn to rope, if they want, or to drive a team of horses. Or, if they want, they can go riding. There are 46,000 acres on the ranch and beyond that is a national forest," he notes.

That evening, dinner consists of all-you-can eat ribs and chicken, beans, corn on the cob and bread . . . and live entertainment around the campfire.

"Which varies," says Woolstenhulme. "Sometimes a cowboy poet, or a singer, or a mountain man to tell stories of living as an early explorer. It's all very western, very real."

The cabins are made to sleep eight - double bed for the parents, bunks for the kids. Outside, the creek rumbles over the rocks, owl hoot and coyotes yelp.

At first light the campfire is roaring and people are stirring. Mid-morning breakfast served, a good old western breakfast of hotcakes, potatoes, eggs, sausage and milk.

The rest of the morning can be filled with any number of activities - fishing nearby beaver ponds, volleyball, horseshoe pitching, hiking in the nearby mountain, wading in the creek, or more horseback riding or roping.

Woolstenhulme says there has been interest for some time in extending Hardware's winter use into attracting summer visitors. He simply put his ideas on paper, presented it to authorities and the rest is history.

Wagons began to roll on June 1 and will continue through September. Cost for the entire package is $37.50 for adults, $20 for children 15 and under. He also offers an abbreviated tour on Saturday of the wagon ride, dinner and return trip after the entertainment. The number of people for the overnight, broken down into families and/or groups, is limited only by sleeping space.

As for the adventure, consensus is that it's a nice jump back to when wagon rides were more common and life moved more slowly.