Recharging at the Ranch
Writer Shannon Severson
Photography courtesy Flying E Ranch
The romanticization of the Wild West is long and storied, and while much of the Western lifestyle has disappeared over the years, the ideal lives on in cultural vernacular, both in the United States and abroad.
Since the 1880s, dude ranches have entertained city slickers, giving them a hearty dose of ranch life, and the movement truly came of age in the 1920s, considered the golden age of the industry. At Wickenburg’s Flying E Ranch, the old days of personalized hospitality have never gone away. It’s a uniquely authentic experience that feels more like visiting family than checking into a hotel as another face in the crowd. They are just so cool. I’ve even gone as far to find ranches for sale, as owning one would be the dream! All the horse and cows roaming around. Who wouldn’t love that? One day.
Flying E was founded in 1946 when native Oregonian Lee Eyerly purchased 3,000 acres and constructed the original eight guest rooms, kitchen and dining room, Oregon-style barn and a 3,200-foot airstrip for use by both owner and guests (now a horse pasture). The ranch’s signature brand, an “E” with wings, is still in use today, designed by Eyerly to represent his name and his love of flying. That airstrip is what attracted George and Vi Wellik, the California couple who first fell in love with it as recurrent guests, and then purchased the ranch from Eyerly in 1952. George and Vi eventually expanded the land and ran the operation together from 1960 until George’s death in 1983, with Vi carrying on until her death in 2004. The Wellik Foundation still owns the 19,000-acre ranch (which also functions as a 120-head cattle operation), but day-to-day work is now under the attentive purview of Andrea (“Ande”) and Steve Taylor.
The love Ande and Steve feel for the ranch goes back to the 1960s. The couple first met at Wickenburg High School and, due to their involvement in local equestrian programs, Ande became friends with the Welliks’ daughter, Wendy. When the Taylors decided to marry, it was Vi who hosted the bridal shower on the ranch, and Wendy was the maid of honor in the wedding ceremony. Shortly after, Steve left for Vietnam and Vi offered Ande a job as a server in the dining room. Little did she know that someday, she and Steve would end up back on the ranch, working together and now celebrating 45 years of marriage.
“Vi was an amazing lady,” Ande says. “She was very particular about how her guests were treated, how things were done and how clean things were. I had first-hand experience with what her expectations were. I feel an obligation to the Wellik family to carry on their traditions.”
My family had the opportunity to spend a long weekend at the Flying E. For us, it was three generations enjoying horseback riding, swimming, hiking and home-cooked meals — a welcome respite from life in the big city.
Our adventure began with a warm welcome and property tour from Ande and the ranch staff before we settled into our unfussy, yet comfortable accommodations. With just 15 rooms and two family houses, the limited number of people on any given day allows guests to quickly get acquainted as they dine, ride and socialize together.
The children all became fast friends that weekend, playing hide-and-seek, garden chess, swimming in the heated pool, petting Taffy the resident ranch dog or taking advantage of the well-stocked game room. They were also the first ones to discover the always-full cookie jar in the dining room, where a guest log is posted with names, hometowns and how many times each guest visited the ranch. During our weekend, guests hailed from across the United States and the United Kingdom. One of our fellow “dudes” was celebrating her 22nd stay, and that’s not as uncommon as it may sound.
“I give guests special pins to commemorate every five visits,” says Ande. “Most of our guests average between 15 and 25 visits. That’s a testament to what Vi began. This year, I will give away three 50-visit pins.”
Flying E feels worlds away from civilization. The wide open space is punctuated only by picturesque mountains and cacti. Morning sunrises highlight the serene beauty of the desert, and evenings give way to dark skies bursting with bright stars. The quiet is punctuated by the occasional chirping bird, scuttling lizard or perhaps the laughter of guests playing pingpong or a competitive round of horseshoes. The only difficulty is holding on to the stress of life beyond what’s directly in front of you.
“We see families coming here to rest and recharge,” says Ande. “I think that’s what I enjoy most with our guests. I see them come in and they’re so wound up, and after two days they’re much more relaxed. In our society, tranquility is so lost. For us here at the ranch, we have to leave time for people to take time. It’s about recharging for a little while. You can’t just keep going at 100 percent all the time. Even a Tesla needs to be recharged!”
That first afternoon, horses were saddled up and ready for our first trail ride led by our wrangler, Brandon. Flying E gathers pertinent information about each rider in advance before assigning a horse for the duration of their stay. Our ride across flatlands and to the top of several impressive hills afforded breathtaking views in every direction. This lazy pace suited my husband, son and me just fine. My daughters were up for a little more adventure, with my eldest being ready to do some trotting on her second ride later that day. The attentive and exceedingly accommodating staff overheard my youngest saying she wanted to learn to trot and so found a way to grant her wish, arranging a private lesson with Brandon. Needless to say, she was over the moon.
Each night, adults can gather for a cocktail hour in the BYOB saloon, where mixers are provided. The deck out back has an idyllic view of the cattle pens, a rodeo ring and the brilliant Arizona sunset. When the dinner bell rings, we all dutifully (and eagerly) moseyed over to the dining room for delicious meals (included in the room rate), then found our seats at long, attractively-set tables. The friendly staff was ready to refill drinks or, in the morning, take orders for made-to-order breakfasts. Each evening had something special to it. On Veteran’s Day, Steve donned his Air Force uniform. Each veteran was asked to stand and be honored for their service, and dinner was followed by a crowd-pleasing ice cream sundae bar. The next night, several birthdays were celebrated with singing, candles, the best cheesecake I’ve ever tasted and gifts that Ande chose with each person’s preferences in mind, wrapped with cowboy-themed paper and twine.
One of the highlights of our trip was the Saturday morning trail ride to a generous, campfire-cooked, outdoor breakfast spread. Those who weren’t up to being on horseback were able to walk or hitch a ride out to the spot where fluffy biscuits were served from the large cast-iron Dutch ovens they were baked in, having been buried in the ground and heaped with hot coals. Massive spatterware tin pitchers of coffee were kept warm over coals, and the meal was followed by a spirited cow patty tossing competition — with prizes for the winners!
The Flying E has plenty to do throughout each season, which spans November to April: cattle penning, square dancing, BB gun competitions, special cowgirl weekends and casino night on New Year’s Eve, but the only obligation is to enjoy yourself. From young children to elderly grandparents, there’s something for everyone, and that draws a very loyal clientele.
“It’s been a gift to be here,” says Ande. “We’ve met so many amazing people from all walks of life, just genuine people. It’s not like we have guests; we have family.”