This is the story of a man who gives up a comfortable life to follow his dream. The timeframe for this tale is during a turbulent decade—the 1960’s.
It was late in the evening during the fall of 1958 when Dick Elder placed a call to two friends…Jim Dodson and George Horton. He asked them to come over to the Northeast Ohio Equine Institute and give him and Dr. Vasko a hand getting a horse on which they had just operated into the recovery stall. Later that evening at the Horton home, Dick and his friends talked about leaving Ohio, quitting their jobs and comfortable lifestyle to go out west and buy a dude ranch. Dick had been to a dude ranch several times and concluded that being a dude ranch owner would be the perfect lifestyle. His failing marriage, the resulting infidelity, his lack of enthusiasm for his job and his passion for training and showing horses led him to believe that he could never be truly happy unless his life took a completely new direction with horses playing a major part. That evening the boys stood around a table studying a map of the western United States. Where would be a great place for a dude ranch? Jim put a finger on the map and said, “How about here where these four states come together?” Elder asked, “What’s the name of that town you have your finger on?” Jim removed his finger and said, “Durango. Durango, Colorado.” None of them had ever heard of it. During the year that followed, the idea of starting a new life blossomed into something more….much more!
Ignoring good advice and without a commitment for a loan or investment from others with which to finance the enterprise, the trio purchased five-hundred acres of land near Durango, Colorado for $35,000 and set about to build a dude ranch from scratch. They were, as Dick’s dad put it, “Nuts!” Regardless of the reality and unmindful that what they wanted to do was virtually impossible without proper financing, The Elder’s sold their lovely country home, said goodbye to friends and family and along with the Dodson family moved to the only building on the land they had purchased…an old log cabin that lacked even the barest amenities. Of course, they operated on the hope that they would be able to get a loan before all the funds they had invested were gone. But no bank or individual was willing to pour money into what most thought was an ill-conceived project that had virtually no chance for success.
They hired a local contractor and began construction of a 5,600 square foot building (The Lodge) which would hold the dining room, kitchen, sleeping quarters and utility and storage areas. Before the Lodge was completed and still unable to secure a loan or additional investors, all of their personal funds were gone and work had to stop. Jim and his family had no choice but to return to Ohio and find work while Dick and his family remained in Durango. Down to his last ten dollar bill, Dick finally finds work as a disc jockey and time salesman at a local radio station which allows his family to survive, but his meager salary means that the good life they once enjoyed is gone. Life becomes nothing more than a hard grind. Dick’s wife and children go to California to live with her parents. Dick takes up residence in one room in a Durango motel.
Dick continues his search for investors without success. Banks aren’t interested but one banker suggests he try the SBA (Small Business Administration). Eventually he gets the SBA loan and construction is finally completed. In 1963 after fighting for the life of his ranch, Dick opens for business but there are few guests during the summer and the business shows a loss. About this time another enterprise was under construction north of Durango…The Purgatory Ski Area planned to be completed and ready for skiers that winter. Dick is initially hired to supervise the construction of the Day Lodge and later Ray Duncan, the owner hires him to run the food and bar operations. Dick spends the following five winter at Purgatory.
During a road trip, the purpose of which is to sell ranch vacations, Dick meets Maryann in Phoenix and over some months the two fall in love. When Maryann learns that Dick is married, she tells him to never see or call her again. Dick is devastated but after his divorce is final, he tries a clever scheme to see Maryann. In the end and with the help of friends, Maryann agrees to the meeting which ultimately results in the two marrying.
Unfortunately, up until 1970 the ranch loses money every year and the SBA is ready to foreclose when Dick and Maryann have a heart to heart talk with the regional head of the SBA who reverses the foreclosure decision, reduces the annual payments thus allowing the ranch to work through their problems and become profitable. Every succeeding year brings an increase in the number of guests and a renewed vitality amongst his stockholders and those persons who ask to buy in.
During the years until he retires in 1997 Dick, through innovation and out of the box thinking, leads his Colorado Trails Ranch into a preeminent position amongst dude ranches in the west.
While the synopsis you’ve just read may portray the story as sterile, lacking in excitement and high adventure, nothing about Which Way is West is slow paced or without humor, romance, pathos or boring. The characters you’ll meet throughout this story are brought to life in recreated scenes that leap from the page with fiery dialog, humor and realism. Readers of this book, originally published in 2002, have written: “Whether or not you are interested in dude ranches per se, Elder’s book cuts across subject matter to the heart of the American experience.” Another reader writes: “This book gives you a concise picture of his struggle to build what eventually became one of America’s great dude ranches. His tenacity to overcome a myriad of obstacles to achieve his goal and his willingness to reveal his personal and private experiences, make for a terrific story.” Here’s another review: “I couldn’t put it down. I was riveted to the story and then I wished for more. It’s a remarkable adventure of grit, grinding labor, persistence of hope against odds and faith despite adversity. The author didn’t recognize that by any rational standard what he was trying to do was impossible. Thanks to his comfortable writing style, this impressive yarn has a smooth flow. The punch of the story is in the details and the unusual cast of characters.”
The reader will re-live with the author, those moments of joy and elation, the romantic interludes, the finding and blossoming of true love, the frustration and depression, the wild range of characters that were all part of the struggle and eventual jubilation in his search for that pot of gold at the end of a long and often arduous trip across a rainbow. Find out for yourself in Which way is west.