The Guest Room
Musings, Memories & Epiphanies Inspired by Place
Sandpoint, Idaho: The Splendor of Going West
“What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind…”
Halfway down the dirt path to Western Pleasure Guest Ranch, I had a sudden realization of what life without technology and materialistic ideals would be like. As my husband Frank and I rode in to Sandpoint, in the panhandle of North Idaho, we were guided by blankets of daisies that outlined never-ending grassy landscapes that seemed to kiss the mountainside. I suddenly felt blessed to be a sliver within nature’s omnipotence. As we rode to the ranch, underneath a cartoonish-blue sky with sparse, cottony clouds for added depth, the scenery offered cows and horses and plenty of chickens, but no sign of high-tech life — just a few beef jerky shacks and a coffee shack along the side of the road, as well as a handful of modest homes where many ranch hands live.
Around the bend of a beaten entrance arch branded with the letters “WP,” the beauty of what lay beyond could not have been predicted by two Bostonians who had, unbeknownst to them, arrived in what can only be described as God’s country.
In the 1880s, the timber industry dominated the land where Western Pleasure now stands. Today, guests enjoy trail and sleigh rides in Sandpoint, but in the old days, this was where the sounds of saws dominated the 1,100 acres. Apples trees continue to thrive in pockets of railway areas where lumberjacks once tossed the cores of eaten apples packed for lunch.
Swept backward in time, we arrive during a Dutch Oven Dinner — Wednesday’s special at the ranch — where the aroma of freshly baked cornbread, open fire and fresh grass fill my senses. With nothing but nature as a form of entertainment, three ranch dogs run circles around children left to their own devices in having fun. Playing fetch with the dogs, tag with each other and running circles, giggling in the open field gave me a glimpse of a life I’d never known existed until now. Parents and grandparents aren’t hovering over the children, protecting them from what lies beyond, but gathered ‘round a campfire, enjoying the sounds of the Western Pleasure staff that play old-time songs on banjo, violin, fiddle and guitar. Cowboy boots, spurs and hats are the fashion staples that stand out at the ranch, but it’s the hospitality of Janice and Roley Schoonover, their family and its staff that are most noticeable, making this trip a genuine western pleasure.
Five generations have been involved in the running of the ranch, but it wasn’t until the mid-90s, when Janice’s father, Jim Wood, agreed to draw up plans to build the guest lodge. Growing from 60 to 300 guests each year, Western Pleasure has become a destination for travelers who want to experience the simple life.
From her early days growing up on the ranch, Janice recalls coming home from school to do her chores, which were to locate the milking cows while riding bareback — she was age 8. She continued to ride, but once she grew into an adult, she married her high-school sweetheart, Roley, and left Sandpoint for Washington State, where Janice worked in her brother’s restaurant, supporting Roley while he earned his business degree. After five years, the couple returned to the ranch, and Janice began to offer private horseback riding tours on request. Although the views and riding were second nature to her, these rides were so impressive to her guests that she decided to start a business. The first step was to build the main guest lodge, followed by individual log cabins, of which there are about four today.
Stunning from all angles, the main log cabin lights up at night, when guests gather indoors for a cup of tea before bedtime. A grand living area is walled with stuffed game heads, including an enormous white elk — all hunting prizes that go along with stories told gladly by Jim Wood, if you’re lucky enough to meet him while on your stay. We head upstairs to our room, where all guest rooms are named after the horses on the ranch, such as Miss Belle, the name of ours.
Horses are the mane event at Western Pleasure, beginning with the running of the horses at 8:30 a.m., right before the cow bell rings as the signal that breakfast is ready in the lodge. Guests gather behind the post fence in front of the lodge to witness 30 to 40 magnificent four-legged beasts as they stampede past, to the coral. After an afternoon and evening spent running wild in the gated pasture, as horses were meant to live, they are led in front and back by the wranglers, who prep the horses for two 2-hour trail rides. The horses gladly follow, simply by the prospect of munching on a bit of feed to spark the memory of good fortune upon return.
Among the majestic evergreens, my horse, Red, alternately walks and trots me up and down, along tricky mud-soaked, curved paths that lead through a land of enchantment. At the highest peak, I have never felt such a bond with nature; thoughts of building a log cabin on this very spot where Red stood overwhelm me as I absorb the tranquil beauty of the snow-capped mountains from the distance. It is July, and the temperature in the air where I sit on my horse is in the 70s, with no humidity.
Following the trail ride, we head out of the ranch, into downtown Sandpoint to taste some wines at Pend d’Oreille Winery. The French connection of Pond Oreille (pronounced “ponderey” and spelled differently for various businesses) is utilized throughout Sandpoint, where expedition-bound Lewis and Clark began their trek through Indian country in 1804. Pend Oreille was the name of the area’s Indian tribe, the bartender informs us as he pours wine made from Idaho grapes. This 2009 chardonnay proves to be delicious, with beautiful floral notes and butterscotch taste, oaked to perfection. Feeling like the 21st-century version of Lewis and Clark, we begin our own exploration, through conversation, to learn that Pend d’Oreille winery has been running for 16 years, making wine with grapes from South Idaho and trucked from Washington State and Oregon. The 2008 Primitivo, with Washington grapes, is delightfully different. This primitivo grape is parent to zinfandel. Unique to this winery is the spigot at the bar, part of a recycling program the winery has set up to fill bottles of either Bistro Blanc or Bistro Rouge wine
But it is the menu at Pend d’Oreille Winery that has caught my eye more than anything else. The newly opened Bistro Rouge is the talk of the town, offering tapas of pork belly, oysters, charcuterie, grilled porchetta, white bean and kale salad and pizza with prosciutto and cheese. Sandpoint is a hot spot for food, as it turns out, and Trinity at City Beach is our stop for dinner.
Seated at the outdoor deck, the view is spectacular. If you weren’t aware you were in Idaho, or if you didn’t hear the 40-50 cargo trains ride by each day, you’d think you were somewhere in the Caribbean. The beach scene is filled with dogs from a nearby “Yappy Hour,” and the view beyond is one of Lake Pond Oreille, 65-miles long, and where sailboats glide alongside the Cabinet Mountains, which are part of the Rocky Mountains. Just behind Cabinet Mountains is Montana, a 45-minute drive away from where we dine on halibut stuffed with Dungeness crab, and the freshest salmon. A seagull soars past us, posing us to question our whereabouts, but, yes, there are seagulls among the lake, apparently introduced to the area and loving it, as we are.
Another top spot for an outdoor dining experience, lakeside/mountainside, is 41 South across the Long Bridge on Lakeshore Drive. We relish in the scenery as we sip on huckleberry martinis; this berry is indigenous to the area, and we’ve been warned to stay away from picking, as these berries are the bears’ favorite snack. Because we’re in Idaho, we start with a cup of Idaho potato chowder that gives good name to the southern end of the state, where these potatoes grow. Avocado frites dipped in lime jalapeno aioli sauce are a must-order item for those who want something unique with a bit of spice. But what really catches my taste buds’ attention is the filet mignon, local beef cooked to perfection, topped with Dungeness crab meat and béarnaise sauce. Just as you think things couldn’t get better, there’s dessert. All homemade, we decide to split a bread pudding that has since become an all-time favorite. If we weren’t so full from dinner, we would have ordered another.
Wine and food are not the only specialties of Sandpoint, however. Mick Duff’s is the place to go for special in-house brewed beer. This brewery began with brothers who came in to a small inheritance, with the stipulation to use it as a source to “follow a dream,” not for education or housing. For lunch, after my husband devoured his Kobe burger topped with roast beef, with a side of waffle fries topped with gorgonzola cheese, washed down with two specialty brews, the dream was realized. Although we knew we must part Sandpoint, we had to return to this magical land before time, a land that contradicts its slow pace with its upscale food/wine/beer offerings.
Alas, we had to leave, and as Frank drove away from Western Pleasure Guest Ranch, I watched his eyes well with tears, and I knew he, too, realized the hidden gem that is Sandpoint.
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