By JOHN DEINER
Darkness has fallen and dinner is winding down at Ho's Ponderosa when the conversation turns to a recent wildlife sighting, as likely a topic as any at a dude ranch. But here the subject is one of nature's unheralded battles, the titanic clash of bald eagle vs ... sea gull.
"I was enjoying the sun and watching the horses in the fields when the eagle just swooped out of nowhere and grabbed the gull," said a ranch employee. "Poor little guy must have strayed inland from the Gulf of Mexico.
"Never seen anything like it."
It's not antelope rutting or bears attacking, but that's okay. At Florida's only dude ranch, you take what you can get.
So many questions, but Ho's Ponderosa co-owner Jill Hoch swats them away like flies off a pony's back.
"My father always wanted his own dude ranch, and his favorite show was 'Bonanza,' " said Hoch (pronounced "ho," solving another riddle). "He figured the question wasn't 'Why Florida?' but 'Why not?' "
The elder Hoch died last year, but not before seeing his dream take form. Besides choosing most of its two dozen horses, many of which were saved from abusive homes, he found its location. "He knew what he was doing," says his daughter. "The weather is great, and plenty of people around here are looking for diversions."
Where it is: "Around here" is Bushnell, a pinpoint on the map in north-central Florida. But it's less than 90 minutes from both Tampa and Orlando and, more important, their airports. Although the Ponderosa hasn't exactly caught on with the hordes bound for the mechanized wonders of Disney World and Busch Gardens, it has attracted a disproportionate number of foreigners looking for a "real" American adventure.
That explains the presence of John and Jenny Butcher, my new British best friends and the only other guests at the ranch during a recent weekend visit. (Ask them what part of England they're from and they respond, "Gatwick Airport." Huh? "No, really. We can walk to the terminal.") They're also the bravest travelers I've ever met: They committed an entire week to Ho's based solely on its Web page -- which, until it was updated this month, made the ranch look more dud than dude.
"No way we were going out West. Too cold, too far," said John, a retired postal worker. "As long as it was warm, I was ready for anything."
Setting: Set on 60 acres beside the mammoth Withlacoochee State Forest, the ranch seems a lot more secluded than it is.
Off the interstate, detailed directions quickly lead to a dirt road dead-ending at the Ponderosa, which, much to my surprise, actually looks like a dude ranch. Horses are meandering in sprawling fields, brown from months of drought, and a tidy compound of log buildings sits in a valley amid rolling hills.
First up is the lodge, where hearty, stick-to-your-ribs meals are served buffet-style thrice daily; a clanging bell alerts guests when the grub is ready. Nearby, the bunkhouse contains two shared baths and eight nicely decorated rooms that sleep 20. There's also a tin-roofed picnic pavilion with two hot tubs and the stables.
It's a brisk winter afternoon, but this being Florida brisk, it's 65 and partly sunny. I'd be content to sit on a swing and watch the clouds drift by, but Hoch will have no part of it.
"You want to go horseback riding, right?" she asked. I'm here on the $99.95 "Taste of a Dude Ranch" package, which includes a room, breakfast and dinner, entertainment -- and two trail rides.
Hitting the trail: And hit the trail I must. I'm assured by Hoch that the ranch caters to folks just like me: city slickers, scaredy-cats, hopeless rubes.
"We prefer to call them 'inexperienced,' " she said.
An hour later, Marti and Sheila, two of the ranch's wranglers, are introducing me to Farley, whom I will get to know intimately during the next 24 hours. A gorgeous Arabian mix, Farley is among the Ponderosa's newest residents and one of the more interesting: He's a former circus horse whose previous owner never divulged all of his tricks. The wranglers are still trying to figure out what he can do, like a Christmas toy whose directions were misplaced.
Clambering atop Farley is easy; staying there is another matter. About 42 seconds into the ride, I look at my watch and start squirming. Then we actually start to move.
Marti and Sheila lead me and eight other dudes into the forest, and it's here that the Ponderosa's dissimilarity from its western counterparts becomes most apparent. No snow-peaked mountains, rushing streams or lush green hillsides in these here parts.
The trail is sandy, and dust kicked up from the other horses soon coats my sunglasses. At one point we trot along the barbed-wire fence of a correctional institute, and later, a gunshot rings out in the forest.
Still, it's a lovely area. Seas of palmettos form a green cushion beneath tall pines, and sweeping prairies are speckled with the shadows of dive-bombing hawks. Deer skitter across the trail. I soon become lost in my thoughts, as well as direction -- I'd have no idea how to get back to the ranch on my own. When the ride ends, I'm sore but eager to do it again.
The next morning, after breakfast with the Butchers, I meet Farley anew and set out on a longer ride with a smaller group.
This time, I leave my watch behind.