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DUDES HAVE THE LIFE OF RILEY

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As your horse trots through the aspen grove, you hear a crackling of branches a few yards away. You turn to see a moose and her calf scrambling up the hillside. Above you, a hawk soars and a pair of sandhill cranes pull their long bodies across the sky. And all around you, wildflowers - lupine, Indian paintbrush, daisies, columbine - make the ground glow.

After a few days at the Flying A Ranch, all this seems unexceptional. Your jaunts on horseback or foot on the ranch's 360 acres or into the neighboring Bridger-Teton National Forest are filled with nature's glories.Fifty miles southeast of Jackson, Wyo., the Flying A perches on an 8,300-foot-high plateau between the Gros Ventre and Wind River Mountains.

In a region with lots of guest ranches, this one has some distinguishing characteristics: It is small, with just six cabins for a maximum of 12 guests; it is for adults only (unless the whole ranch is rented by one party); and it has survived the passage of time, having welcomed its first guests 60 years ago.

When the original cabins were built in the 1930s, logs were cut on the surrounding hillsides and pulled into place by horses. Furniture was crafted on site; many hand-pegged pieces remain in the cabins, and some old chairs still have their moose-hide thongs.

When guests arrived a half-century ago, they came by train to Rock Springs, 130 miles away, and were picked up in a horse and wagon. They stayed at least a month, and many remained for the entire summer.

After years of on-and-off use, the cabins were thoroughly renovated during the 1980s. All now have modern bathrooms and kitchens, and most have fireplaces. Their porches look out over mountains and a pond on which ducks swim and trout splash.

Guests are assigned their own horse for the duration of their stay. Half-day and full-day rides, short and long guided hikes, fly fishing, mountain biking, and other activities are available for each guest to schedule according to his or her whim. White-water rafting and fishing trips off the ranch are easily arranged.

Pinedale is the nearest town, about 35 miles away, featuring the Museum of the Mountain Man and a handful of stores that are less tourist-oriented and less pricey than the shops in Jackson. (By the way, the Flying A is not a City Slickers-style dude ranch. If you want to emulate Billy Crystal and look foolish trying to rope a steer, you'd better go elsewhere.)

The Flying A is run by Debbie Hansen and Keith Dagel. Both in their 30s, their energy and insistence on perfection infuse the ranch. Service is extraordinary, with nine staff members taking care of 12 guests. Rather than ritzy pampering, staff and guests share a laid-back approach. You are asked what you want to do, then a staff member helps you do it.

Informality is pervasive, but it does not detract from the first-class treatment guests receive. For instance, the cook wears a baseball cap rather than chef's toque in the kitchen, but he turns out remarkable meals, ranging from pumpkin pancakes for breakfast to tournedos with bernaise sauce at dinner.

Similarly, the wranglers know their horses and terrain thoroughly and are excellent company on the trail.

The atmosphere is more that of a house party than a formal resort. Each evening before dinner, guests gather at the Gilded Moose Saloon, a pondside BYOB bar where the day's adventures are recounted. Strangers quickly become friends.

Among the Flying A's attributes is its seclusion. From the state highway, guests drive seven miles up a dirt road to reach the ranch.

In this mountain-girded haven, wildlife abounds. At nightfall, moose amble down from a heavily treed hill to quench their thirst at a stream. Antelope prance across the sage-dotted plain. Hummingbirds buzz and chirp as they sip from feeders on the cabin porches. Snipes warble in the grass.

The essence of the Flying A is found in the combination of all these elements. The comforts of a resort, the Western romance of a ranch and the beauty of Wyoming envelop the guest in a splendid peace. That makes for a wonderful vacation.

Are you going?

WHEN TO GO - The Flying A's season runs from mid-June until the first weekend in October. In July and August, the minimum stay is a week. Some bookings remain available this season.

RATES - Prices for 1994 and 1995:

Until Sept. 5 - Per person, per week, double occupancy $1,100. Per person, per week, single occupancy, $1,575.

After Sept. 5 - Per person, per week, double occupancy, $1,050. Per person, per week, single occupancy, $1,500.

Rates include cabin, three meals daily, a horse for each guest and all ranch activities.

INFORMATION - From June to October: Route 1, Box 7, Pinedale, Wyo. 82941; (307) 367-2385. November to May: 3405 S. Cliff Ave., Sioux Falls, S.D. 57105; (800) 678-6543.