Diane and I are driving fast along a lonely stretch of Interstate 25 in northeast New Mexico, where the weather and landscape appear consistently perfect — blue skies over endless, unremarkable prairies — because there is almost nothing for the fierce seasonal winds to actually whip except for our car. Oh, and the countless tumbleweeds skittering across the highway, five or six at a time, some like somersaulting little bunnies, others as big as exercise balls, making us wonder just how many of them it would take to actually stop a Nissan Rogue SUV stone dead, and then how we might go about unraveling them from the axles. I can only imagine how that AAA call would go — if there was cell service.

We are far from where we’re supposed to be, but we don’t know quite how far, because we’re headed to a place where Google Maps or Waze themselves get lost.

“We came from all over ... And all of us ... were actuated by a common purpose — we were going West to see the country and rough it. ... We were a daring lot and resolute; each and every one of us was brave and blithe to endure the privations that such an expedition must inevitably entail. Let the worst come; we were prepared! If there wasn’t any of the hothouse lamb, with imported green peas, left, we’d worry along on a little bit of the fresh shad roe, and a few conservatory cucumbers on the side. That’s the kind of hardy adventurers we were!” - IrvIn Cobb, on the way to the Grand Canyon in “Roughing It De Luxe,” Saturday Evening Post, June 7, 1913

It’s Vermejo Park Ranch, at over 550,000 acres the largest single piece of privately owned land in the United States: covering significantly more territory than Bryce, Zion and Canyonlands national parks put together. And it has been known for over a century as a place owned by illustrious public people who weren’t inviting you to visit: first a Chicago millionaire, then a group of Los Angeles millionaires, then Texas millionaires, and then Ted Turner and Jane Fonda. After the couple split in 2001, Turner started to slowly turn Vermejo into a wildlife park and very high-end hotel for 50 to 60 people a night. Today it is one of the most expensive places to stay overnight in the nation: The least costly room, during offseason, can run as high as $2,000 a night (for two people, meals included). The best rooms, in-season, are twice as much. It’s worth noting that Amangiri resort in southern Utah is actually twice as expensive.

Sunset on beehive-shaped charcoal kilns at Catskill ghost town (upper kilns), Vermejo Park Ranch. | Sean Fitzgerald

We’re going not only because I’m curious to see the place. I also have an intense fascination with the phenomenon of “roughing it deluxe” and its role in the development of the American West — beginning with the generations after the Civil War, when the West became the “new America” that people from the North and the South could still romanticize in a way they had once viewed the original colonies. And once the trains began connecting the country, not only was new commerce and migration possible, but so was a different kind of leisure travel — including the taking of trains to rivers largely unfished, herds of trophy animals unculled and intense outdoor experiences that could be over in time for a lovely lunch or tea.

Writing about this, for some, became a way of paying for their own experiences, and became part of the push for immigration to the U.S. and later the “See America First” push to compete with Europe for leisure travel.

The Southwest Detour is back

One of the first was Samuel Nugent Townshend, a columnist for the British publication The Field, whose work appeared in its “Travel and Colonization” section under his pen name “St. Kames.” After being sent to cover the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, he was chosen as one of a half-dozen foreign journalists — from Vienna, Brussels, Paris, Berlin and St. Petersburg — to travel the country by train and write about their specialties, his “being agriculture, stock-feeding, scenery, and shooting.” (Their journeys and writings are an offbeat history book or Netflix series waiting to happen.)

In some places, St. Kames stayed in decent hotels — he became especially fond of the first Fred Harvey hotel along the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway, in Florence, Kansas, where he loved it that the hotel employed a fishing and hunting guide named “Uncle Joe,” and the chef, William Phillips, was always willing to cook what you caught. But St. Kames also understood the challenges of the West and so traveled with his own collapsible rubber bathtub.

The author and his wife target shooting, one of many activities Vermejo provides for guests. | Stephen Fried
The author and his wife target shooting, one of many activities Vermejo provides for guests. | Stephen Fried

Another favorite is Irvin Cobb, reporter and humorist, who decided to go cross-country by train for a series of articles in 1913 — the first one focusing largely on his visit to the Grand Canyon, where he coined that phrase “roughing it deluxe.” Cobb saw himself as the Mark Twain of leisure travel and, much like St. Kames, made fun of the excesses he was seeing while also indulging in them. This is a time when some had cars but few had access to roads — rich people would have their cars shipped by rail to the canyon, so they could ride along the newly paved rim road; or ride mules down the narrow canyon trails, while posing for photographs that would be processed by the time they rode back up.

Cobb sympathized with those mules. While it was contrary to their “religion and politics to slip off,” he explained, when his mule “came to a particularly scary spot, which was every minute or so, she would stop dead still ... (and) gaze steadily downward, with a despondent droop of her fiddle-shaped head and a suicidal gleam in her mournful eyes.” 

The phrase “roughing it deluxe” was coined in 1913 by Saturday Evening Post writer IrvIn Cobb, sent on a trip kind of like ours to explore something similarly fascinating and utterly American. 

As we drive north, we can see the whole history of how the railroads changed the West. Less than a hundred yards to our right are the tracks originally put there in 1879. And somewhere in-between — occasionally marked, usually in the name of a windswept bathroom stop — is the old Santa Fe Trail for wagon trains that the railroad supplanted. This tells much of the story of this part of New Mexico, the main value of which has always been connecting areas that are more populated (by people and livestock) in Colorado and Texas. 

We finally reach tiny Raton, and our directions are to simply turn left, and head west on state Route 555 for 35 miles. The first 32 are supposedly paved and then, according to the instructions, “the road transitions to gravel.”

As we drive along, I realize just how spotty my knowledge is of Vermejo. Since I didn’t tell them I was coming as a journalist, I mostly know what’s posted on their website, which is good-looking but doesn’t offer a lot of detail, and what I could learn doing online history research. It’s like the people who go there just already know.

After I prepaid for the room online, I got an email from our “reserve ambassador,” Sarianna, explaining we needed to reserve our “activities” from the “adventure guide.” For each day, each guest gets two activities — most are free and included, but if you want a private guide, like I wanted for fishing, it was another $350 for a half-day and $475 for a full. At certain times of year, because of the extremes in elevation on the property, you can ice fish up high in the morning and then fish in one of the lower melted lakes when the sun is high. So I reserved that.

Diane said that after years of COVID-19 quarantine, she just wanted to shoot stuff. So, I arranged for us to do his and hers “rifle shooting” as our very first activity after arriving. For a two-day visit, you get four total activities. We could have picked horseback riding, archery, various nature tours and walks, electric bikes — many options. But we wanted to keep it rough: shoot, fish, eat.

The author with one of the many rainbow trout he caught at Vermejo. | Stephen Fried

There seems to be a tradition in the Southwest that the more your property is worth, the crappier-looking your security phone system should appear. This is no exception. The dialing information is on a sheet attached by yellow plastic pushpins. When the phone doesn’t work the first time, I feel a little panicky because we are miles and miles from cellphone service. But, finally, on the third try, someone does answer and the gate — which says “Vermejo Park Ranch” in large, forged metal letters next to a silhouette of an elk head — slowly opens. We’re in.

For the first mile or so, the view is unremarkable — great clouds but, in New Mexico, it’s almost always a good cloud day. Then you realize the gate position was probably chosen for its “nothing to see here” quality. Because once inside, the road turns and you’re suddenly looking at a lush valley as far as the eye can see and, in the distance, snow-capped mountains, all of which are part of Turner’s property.

And suddenly the eight main buildings of the ranch appear, like a small beautiful mission-style college campus that was airlifted into the middle of Southwest paradise. Most of them were designed by Chicago architect Joseph Lyman Silsbee, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mentor, for Vermejo’s original owner, opening in 1907. There’s a 25,000-square-foot main house, Casa Grande, made of stone with endless arches inside and out, and a bright red roof. There’s a smaller matching building of bedrooms and porches that was originally called Casa Minor but is now Turner House. In between them is a newer, log cabin-style building (replacing one that burned down). And behind all these are five “cottages” with multiple bedrooms: The “help” used to stay in these, now they go for $2,000 to $9,600 a night in-season (with occupancies of four to 10.) Some 25 miles away (but still on his property) there’s a separate eight-room fishing lodge, with its own cooking staff.

We are met in the carport by ambassador Sarianna, a lovely young woman who has a guy not so much take our bags out of the car but just take our car; she says he’ll put the luggage in the room and park it. We’re led into the first room of the log cabin building, and standing there beneath a stuffed elk head as big as the nose of a plane is a tall guy in a tan uniform, holding a tray with two teacups and two towels, which we are informed are both hot and moist.

After checking in, we look at our room on the first floor of the Turner House. It has a big, dark wood king bed and a large sitting area in front, with bay windows overlooking the property. The bathroom is big enough to accommodate a square dance. And while the room has many nice small touches, it’s missing one big one: a television. The hotel pamphlet says that if you really, really must have one, they will grudgingly bring a smart TV to your room. But they’d rather you watch the ones in the public spaces. Or just get outside and watch the big show. 

With our gunplay appointment still an hour and half off, we get back in the car and start touring the property. It is stupefyingly beautiful and intriguing, in all kinds of ways. There are picture-postcard vistas, there are large herds of wild animals that don’t come close — this isn’t a petting zoo — but are close enough and active enough to astonish even when they are just hanging out, being animals. We pass herds of elk and deer and one very lost bison; we see wild turkeys and pheasants; and we see what looks like a lone bobcat but on closer examination as it runs off may have been a wolf. (All these identifications, of course, are based on the knowledge of wild animals we have accumulated while watching cable television in center city Philadelphia.) There is also gorgeous devastation. At one turn we encounter a run of very old, very large dead trees, like a football-field size sculpture about mortality.

What we do not see, much to our disappointment, is antlers. We received a notice that this is “shed hunting season” at Vermejo, when the male elk shed their antlers. Not only may guests keep up to two sets each, but the resort has its own antler packaging and shipping service.

So, in lieu of antlers, I give Diane a little bit of background on what we’re looking at.

Vermejo is part of what used to be called the “Maxwell Land Grant,” a huge swath of territory on the Colorado-New Mexico border, over 1.7 million acres, which was first taken from the Apache and Ute tribes and, later, after local Latino farmers tried to carve out little corners of it for themselves, it was taken from them as well, when courts ruled it was private land.

The Maxwells’ WS Ranch pastured cattle and sheep on the land. Around 1900, William H. Bartlett, the Chicago grain millionaire, bought one-third of the grant, partly as a retreat for his son with tuberculosis. Bartlett commissioned the original cluster of mission-style buildings that still make up the ranch. He also created the first of its many stocked trout lakes (part of the effort to introduce trout into New Mexico waters, to compete with Colorado for fishing tourists.)

Ted Turner bought Vermejo in 1996, while he was married to Jane Fonda. | Jerry Fitzgerald/Disney general entertainment content via Getty

Then, in the middle of the Roaring ’20s, a group of 96 high-profile Los Angeles businessmen and movie stars, led by Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler, chipped in and bought it together to start their own private fishing, hunting and what-evering club. The group included Andrew Mellon — who was a member of a private fishing club in Pennsylvania that had caused the 1889 Johnstown Flood — as well as Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Cecil B. DeMille and Herbert Hoover. Actress Mary Pickford was one of the few female members, and had her own fishing cabin. 

After the Depression killed the club, the Chandlers held onto Vermejo until 1945, when they sold it to Fort Worth, Texas, oil millionaire W. J. Gourley. He was said to have pampered the massive property “as if it was his half-acre backyard,” and changed the culture of Vermejo visitors from Hollywood and media types to Texas good old boys. He dramatically expanded the cattle ranching done on the property, brought in several new species of game and stocked more lakes and streams. He also sold coal and timber rights, beginning the mining and tree cutting, which continues to this day. Gourley died in 1970, mercifully before he could put in his planned golf course, ski slopes and airfield.

In 1972, the federal government almost bought Vermejo. The bill to fund the $26 million purchase passed the Senate, but failed to get traction in the House. So in 1973 it was sold to Houston-based Pennzoil, as a perk for company president and Bush family friend Bill Liedtke. In 1981 the firm donated the 100,000 acres farther from the ranch buildings to the Forest Service for a huge tax break. And then, in 1996 Ted Turner and Jane Fonda bought Vermejo, made it their private home, and set out to restore it in every way possible as long as it was natural and sustainable. The rest is living history. They divorced five years later, but Vermejo has been a living, growing project of Turner’s ever since.

Much of his work has been focused on the vast lands and infrastructure: The original eight buildings of the ranch were tastily refurbished and the log cabin fishing lodge was entirely reimagined. Turner also had the environmental science there taken more seriously: It’s not uncommon for research done there on bison genealogy or trout husbandry to be covered in Nature or other serious journals.

But in the past six years especially, there has been more focus on making Vermejo a very special year-round family oriented hotel, and not just a hunting and fishing retreat. (There are early 20th-century lodges all over the country trying to make similar transitions from private or group ownership, with varying degrees of success.) Prices used to be closer to the highest end of hotels in New Mexico and Colorado, $500-$700 a night. But then the decision was made that Vermejo should instead be competing with the most exotic nature hotels in America, Africa and elsewhere. Turner hired Jade McBride, who worked at Amangiri in Utah, and The Ranch at Rock Creek in Montana. He added electronic bikes and other family-friendly activities, and the room rates were more than doubled — but made inclusive of everything but alcohol (New Mexico doesn’t allow “all you can drink” deals), guides, and special meals and cooking classes.

It’s an intriguing experiment and still a stunning work in progress. But now it’s time to go shoot things. 

We return to the main building to be picked up for rifle shooting by a tall, bearded guy named Eric. For most events, guests are transported in one of a small fleet of white, surprisingly clean four-seater pickup trucks. When we get to the shooting range, it’s all pretty straightforward and casual — as we would come to learn all of the service is at Vermejo — and he sets up a 17 HMR-caliber rifle. Diane has never fired a rifle before, so she goes first. Her aim is true, her trigger finger unflinching and, Eric has to admit, she’s a natural. The targets are nothing elaborate — a little red metal fox at 50 yards, a metal gopher at 100, some dangling red circles that spin around when you hit them. Diane makes contact on over 90 percent of her shots, which is borderline Annie Oakley.

I shoot far worse, but it’s still fun. A wind comes up, the sky is becoming overcast — and that’s a lot of sky to get suddenly darker — and I try best to aim well, but keep pulling the trigger rather than squeezing it. I do hit one of the targets at 200 yards — once — but constantly miss the closer ones. I do not feel manly at all. But I am fascinated by how much Diane likes this. When she finishes, she immediately announces that we will need to find a place for target practice in Philadelphia.

Eric has brought another rifle in case we want to try it. It’s much bigger and the 6.5 Creedmoor bullets — based on my knowledge that comes directly from TV police dramas — look like armor-piercing shells. I decide to take a try, just to show off for Diane. On the first shot, the rifle and my shoulder have a bruising rendezvous, and who knows where the bullet goes. I finish the clip so I won’t look like a wuss, but my true aim is not to hurt my shoulder again.

“Oh, it’s getting late,” I say halfheartedly. “Better get back for dinner.” So, we drive back to the ranch, Diane beaming.

Bison are so big they seem like an American version of an elephant or a giraffe. That’s part of how Vermejo is being marketed, as a sort of American savannah nature preserve. 

Dinner is served in the log cabin building. Tonight it’s buffet style, but far from a typical buffet. The hand-sliced red meat choices are chateaubriand, elk loin, bison flank steak and lamb. The beef is amazing, and I try the bison because Turner is obsessed with bison and I don’t want to insult him. (He’s not in the dining room at that moment, but I always feel he is watching. He actually had been there that day fishing; we didn’t see him, but I did see his bag lunch in the cooler, because everyone’s is in there.)

When Turner bought the place, it had been a working cattle farm for generations. He got rid of the cattle and instead encouraged the proliferation of bison, which have been depleted in the West ever since the rampant shooting of them — sometimes, appallingly, from train windows — which began with the coming of the railroads. It’s a symbol of undoing one of the nation’s most glaring environmental wrongs with an added bonus. Bison are so big they seem like an American version of an elephant or a giraffe, allowing Vermejo to be marketed as a sort of American savannah nature preserve.

We go to bed early because I have a big day of fishing ahead. I have already learned, by email, that ice fishing isn’t going to work out. Recent temperatures have been just high enough that the ice will no longer hold us. This is ironic, since, when I wake up, the temperature on this March morning is 27 degrees and there’s snow on the ground.

I meet my guide, Kevin, at 8 a.m. — an hour earlier than he normally starts, but I want to get the fullest day possible of fishing in. As we drive to one of the 19 fishable lakes on the property, Kevin explains he is from Colorado where he guided before getting a full-time job at Vermejo five years ago.

There are two kinds of fishing guides: the strong, silent types and the yakkers who fill every quiet moment with fish-shtick. Kevin is largely quiet.

There’s an eerie haze over the lake when we arrive, the rising sun fighting a losing battle with layers and layers of low gray clouds and rising mist. There’s nothing fancy about the fishing gear. Two spinning rods, two fly rods, basic green metal three-seater flat-bottom fishing boat.

By 9 a.m. we’re silently motoring across the water, freezing under five layers of clothing, but warmed by the hope that a fish will rise.

Within a few minutes, one does. I reel it in, and we discover it’s not only small but a little peculiar — part of its nose appears to be missing, from birth defect not injury. It turns out this is a known deformity of rainbow trout, but Kevin wants to get a picture of it for the folks who do the lake stocking and fish research.

For the next two hours, we fish joyfully through what seems like five different weather systems: light powdery snow; then a bit of sun; then big almost rectangular snowflakes like floating ash, as if the sky is simultaneously burning and freezing; then another break and the sky is blue and sunny; and then it starts snowing little round balls, hail the size of Rice Krispies. Through it all, I’m catching trout on a spinning rod with a complicated set of lures tied on, and Kevin is catching them with a fly rod off the back. We decide I’ll try to keep three fish of good enough size that the chef can cook them for Diane and me for dinner, so we assess each one for eating potential.

Morning light on Munn Lake, Vermejo Park Ranch. | Sean Fitzgerald

Kevin explains that a lot of people don’t need guides, for the lakes, or even for the streams which are stocked with cutthroat trout. He notes I could have gotten all the gear we’re using — including the boat and the motor and pretied flies and the bag lunch — from Vermejo. He sees I pretty much know what I’m doing with a spinning rod — most of my time fishing in New Mexico over the past 30 years has been by myself — and after a couple of recent lessons I can even fake fly-fishing, and catch a nice one on the fly rod.

What I don’t tell him is that I like fishing with a guide because it flashes me back to being a kid fishing with my father. My dad taught us to be self-sufficient. But when we fished with him, he still always did a lot of that stuff for us. When we tangled up our rods, he’d hand us his while going to work on the reel. I liked that feeling, it connected us. He’s been gone for 25 years now and when I fish I always think of him; when I net a trout, I thank him under my breath. Having a guide — especially one working behind me, so I can’t see him — lets me imagine that my dad is still there letting me fish without thinking.

By the time we’re ready to break for lunch at 1 p.m., we are in the middle of a complete whiteout snowstorm, with big flakes zipping horizontally past our eyes. Kevin takes a picture of me holding the three meaty fish we kept, which I figure means he’s hoping I’ll want to go back to the ranch after a bag lunch and warm up by the roaring fire. Our conversation in the truck cab is an interesting bit of strategy because he doesn’t want to do anything that makes me feel he’s trying to cut our paid day short — he’s too nice a guy and of course there’s a tip at risk. But then he makes a strategic blunder. He tells me that caught fish have to be to the kitchen by 3:30 to be served for dinner. So that means there could be two more hours of fishing available, if we’re willing to go back out into the squall. Which I am.

So, we go back out on the boat and start fishing again, with snow piling up on my knees and in the top of my hoodie but I don’t care. Because the fish are seeing the snowflakes hit the water and think it’s food! So they just keep biting. 

After a half-hour, the snow starts tapering off but the sky turns a color we haven’t seen yet, so dark it’s hard to believe it’s midday. I say to Kevin that the light suddenly reminds me of Fredo Corleone’s final fishing trip. He laughs and then admits that he only saw “The Godfather” trilogy for the first time a few weeks ago. His dad made him watch it. Poor Fredo. I don’t think he even caught anything before they killed him.

We actually catch a bunch more fish, and the sun comes back out again. And we get the fish back in time to be prepared for dinner. So when we sit down to eat, everyone at the other tables has menus. But our food just arrives.

First out of the kitchen is a heaping bowl of pieces of trout meat that have been dredged in blue corn flour and then lightly, perfectly fried. They are served with homemade tartar sauce and they are transplendent. Fileted trout is the entrée, appointed with multicolor baby carrots with parsley, onion, cilantro and olive oil, and more of that good cowboy broccolini. Diane says it is the most delicious meal she ever had. The trout literally melts in our mouths. 

The next morning, I get up for one more “activity” — some fancy shotgun shooting with “pigeons” being launched not only the normal way for skeet shooting, but from five other positions behind me, beside me, all over the place. I’m a little better with a shotgun than a rifle — although for self-defense, I think I’d probably be more accurate casting a sharp lure at an attacker — so I do what I can, chong my shoulder again with the kickback, but have fun.

The last thing you do at Vermejo is tip, and it’s daunting. They recommend that you tip 10 percent to 20% on top of your bill — which is the equivalent of me “recommending” that all my books should be immediate bestsellers. You can tip in cash, you can tip on your card, you can tip and let it be split in the pool of all staff, or tip individuals. I almost call my accountant for advice on how to proceed. When we check out, our bill is a gasp-worthy $4805.19. For two days.

As we drive away, I ask Diane what I know everyone is going to ask us.

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“Is it worth it?”

To which she replies, “Whatever it cost to see that smile on your face after you caught those delicious fish was totally worth it to me.” 

Stephen Fried is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author who teaches at Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania.

This story appears in the June issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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