Can you have the Wild West and your blueberry mojitos, too?

Upscale Moab weekend shines light on old Western divide

Photo by Elizabeth Miller

Erin and I are off itinerary. It’s after 1:30 p.m. when we look up at the clock in the WabiSabi thrift store in downtown Moab and realize we’ve missed our lunch reservation by an hour. After scoring a second-hand Arc’teryx jacket for $10, we arrive back at the Sorrel River Ranch, two hours behind schedule. Lunch is an $18 salad.

In honor of the reopening of the desert after a scorching summer, I said yes to an invitation from the Sorrel River Ranch to come stay for a weekend. They set up an itinerary that detailed mountain bike tours, horseback rides, a patio lunch and dinner near a baby grand piano. After Erin’s summer gut-to-the-rafters remodeling projects and my adventures with a new foster dog, we thought we could use a weekend away.

But from the moment we opened the door to our suite, we’ve been looking at a long shadow cast between where we are and where we usually spend our time.

In the four years Erin and I have been friends, the one other time we’ve stayed in a hotel, it was squeezed to the seams with fellow climbers who jockeyed for the shower around pots of pasta on the stove. More often, the accommodations are tents or, on occasion, her RV, which is wall-papered with covers of the Mountain Gazette and stripped of the bathroom facilities to use that space to store more gear. We think a well-inflated sleeping pad makes for a comfortable bed, and hospitality is a tent swept clean of the dirt. And the only element of “on schedule” we ever seem to think about is when we need an alpine start.

While the ranch location boasts proximity to the Colorado River, red rock vistas and adjacent BLM land, what we see is easy access to the Porcupine Rim mountain bike trail and the climbing routes in Castle Valley. At the moments when other visitors might be talking about spaghetti Westerns, we’re revisiting memories of our Castleton and Ancient Art summits, the latter of which we started up at sunset and summitted in total darkness. (So much for the credit card commercial-abused views.)

Our suite at the Sorrel River Ranch is certainly larger than my apartment and probably bigger than the house she just bought near Leadville.

Suites at the Sorrel River Ranch | Elizabeth Miller

The first night there, we inspect and admire the finishes — the hammered copper table, the faux copper lamp, the cowboy-esque touches of ropes and spurs in everything from the chandeliers to the coffee cups and paintings of boots and horses hung on the wall. The country twang of a welcoming slideshow plays on the television screens downstairs in the main room to a queen bed made up with white blankets and skirted in denim, as well as upstairs to the two full-size beds, also done in white. Had we known there would be so much open mattress space, we might have invited six or seven of our closest friends. We unpack by unzipping our bags and letting our clothes spill out the belly of them like the guts of a disemboweled insect.

Outside, the temperature hasn’t plunged the way it often does in the desert at night. I sit for a few minutes in one of the Adirondack rocking chairs on the porch, listening to the breeze rattling in the trees and the sound of the Colorado River ruffling over stones, and looking up at the stars visible just above canyon walls. We’ve got an early morning to prepare for, and a full schedule someone else has mapped out. The question — which almost defies asking as we curl up with white cotton sheets and plump pillows — is whether two go-it-alone types can ever get comfortable in the pre-ordered, road-mapped, helmet-required lap of luxury.

We’re up before dawn and headed to Moab for a guided biking tour with Rim Mountain Bike Tours at Moab Adventures, which Sorrel River contracts with for off-site adventures. Erin has never done a guided anything before. I have, but not mountain biking. We’re both a bit skeptical. Our guide mixes a tour of the Intrepid Loop Trail with tips on mountain bike technique. It’s slower than Erin and I would have gone on our own, but we agree that the technical advice is a healthy refresher course. We stop at overlooks for the Great Pyramid and Big Chief Canyon and follow our guide’s key piece of advice — go fast — up slickrock, down jumbled sandstone and across sand pits.

The ride finishes with a brief stop at petroglyphs. We’re thoroughly inducted as tourists.

A post-lunch dip in the pool has us lounging in the sun, reading, talking. There are few other swimmers in the pool. I take a dip in the saline water, pleasantly cool after so much desert heat, and float, listening to the heartbeat pulse of an older man swimming laps next to me — bump-BUMP, bump-BUMP, bump-BUMP. A shiny blue dragonfly lands on Erin’s calf as we talk through sunglasses about the books we’re reading, the boys we’re dating. The whole thing feels like a Raymond Carver story, and I’m waiting for the martini glass to drop and signal a divorce is on the way. We’re only periphery characters in the plot, of course, the younger women at the pool who turn the heads of the older man who came here with the woman who was once his trophy wife but is older now, and spends her time in the pool gripped to the edge, flutter-kicking, hoping to revive her sagging glutes.

Photo by Elizabeth Miller

We rinse off and dress in time for an evening horseback ride, which sets off from the ranch barn. I’m saddled on Hunny Buns, so-named, the wrangler says, because of her sweet temperament. She can probably tell I’m as disappointed in her as she is in having to carry the weight of an adult. Every time I pat her, she pauses to excrete something else. We will not be friends. Erin’s on a horse that actually seems to want to get up and go. I’m on a horse I don’t even need to hold the reins for.

The guide leads our horse train on a meandering route between red hills so well coated in cryptobiotic crust that they look velvety. It hasn’t rained in a week and a trail of dust lingers in the air behind us, hovering low like fog and glowing gold in the late-day light.

I grew up in Western Colorado, I took riding lessons as a teenager and visited my cousin on her ranch every summer and rode horses there. I’ve ridden English saddles, Western saddles and bareback. I’m used to ponies. And these ponies are boring. But the sunset light on the mesas turns the rock a deeper and deeper red, and it looks like everything John Wayne’s movies ever promised the desert could be.

While Erin chats with the German couple on the ride with us, I talk to our guide, Emily.

She knows enough about biology (her backup college major in case the equestrian thing didn’t pan out) to explain details about the cryptobiotic crust and its life cycle. And she knows the local history of the early Moab-settling Parriot family and a Parriot son’s first ascent on what’s now Parriot Mesa — he climbed it in the early 1900s on God knows what gear. There’s a 5th Class scramble we can only hope was his path; the routes described on don’t come easier than a 5.8 aid route.

Emily’s stories about working the ranch — training horses through the quiet winter months to keep from going totally crazy, and adjusting to the roommates she’s had to bunk up with — have that streak of the authentic struggle the West is known for. She’s the horse-wrangling equivalent of some of the climbers Erin and I know, the kind that determinedly sets out for various destinations to do what they love, even if it means being broke. The kind of person who puts such a high price on quality of life that it overshadows everything from the impossibilities of pioneer access to supplies to the inconvenience of water restrictions in a drought. Even if it means never being able to afford a stay at a small luxury hotel like the one we’re currently bedding down in.

As we head back toward the barn, we can just make out the strains of a Scott Joplin ragtime tune playing in a pavilion, where the ranch is hosting the Moab Music Festival, and the uproarious applause that follows.

That night at dinner, Keith Battaglia, director of sales and marketing for Sorrel River Ranch, stops by our table just before our cocktails are served. Almost before he’s said hello, the words out of his mouth are “Boulder moms.” Just, “Boulder moms.”

He backs up. It’s the target demographic, he explains, and May is the month they should come. It’s a lull between the more frantic tourist seasons, when people crowd to the ranch from places all over the world, and the rates are lower. The desert will be warm, but not hot yet.

He’s probably onto something. The ranch has a well-situated capsule-like environment that feels like being in the great outdoors, but with a safety net. The pool doesn’t run deeper than five feet, the slope to the river ramps off, there’s a playground and the horses are well trained for carrying children. Kids could set off on an adventure while Boulder moms soaked or had feet scrubbed in the on-site spa. A 24-hour sauna could provide some reprieve after kids are tucked in bed.

Plus, they’ve tapped in to the farm-to-table movement, and are growing more produce on the ranch farm than can be served in its restaurants. They’re taking food downtown to the farmers’ market and were giving it away at the Moab Music Festival — along with cupcakes, lest you think this is all veggies and no fun.

He talks about a large table they set up in one of the gardens for a farm-to-plate dinner they’re hosting at the end of September.

Photo by Elizabeth Miller

At check out, the concierge’s note is only clear that the bike ride was complimentary. She wants to put the rest of the bill on the credit card I handed over at check in. It’s more than my take-home pay in a month. I explain, politely, calmly. At no point am I really concerned that I’m going to be paying this weekend off for months to come.

All weekend, I’ve felt like we’re the kids at the grown-up table. Or, to return to Western archetypes, the cowboys invited to dinner at the ranch owner’s house. Now, here it is again, that long reach between one world and the next that gets cast in relief every time the bill is handed out and someone reaches for a wallet.

Before we load into the car, I’m wandering the ranch and taking photos, and come to that 39-seat table Keith mentioned when he was talking about the farm-to-table dinner. The blonde wood chairs and tabletop are swept neat and waiting between rows of late-summer flowers and a row of late-summer tomatoes.

Though we’ve agreed that our next round up Castleton Tower might have to finish with blueberry mojitos at the ranch, I still feel like Erin and I are more likely to find a seat at a campfire than at that table.

We were both raised out West, but we’re young Westerners. I’ve gone rock climbing near where my grandmother grew up herding cattle and riding her horse to school.

But the West has always been, and will always be, a choose-your-own-adventure destination. The beauty of the Western landscape is that it has been big enough to accommodate the dreams of all the people who venture into it. Some people pay a lot of money to experience that. They always have — dropping the cash for everything from pavement to railways to the irrigation systems necessary to turn a red patch of earth green, an otherwise barren nook in a canyon into a plentiful farm and a luxurious resort.

But the desert is big enough for all of us.

Sorrel River Ranch is at mile 17 of Highway 128, Moab, Utah. Call 435-259-4642 or visit for more information.