ROTHBURY, Michigan: Frederick Jackson Turner famously declared the American frontier closed in 1893, and our national psyche has yearned toward the spirit of adventure represented by the untamed West ever since. Just the words "dude ranch" and "horses" were enough to get me in a car with my family on a Friday afternoon, fighting 200 miles through Memorial Day traffic from Chicago to the Double JJ Ranch, just north of Muskegon.
We wanted riding, cowboys and adventure, and we got it, though first we had to pass through an initiation of sorts.
No matter how much research you do, vacationing in a new place is something of a trust drop. You close your eyes and pitch backward, hoping the unfamiliar place will catch you in a pleasant fashion.
At first, I thought the Double JJ was going to drop the Steinberg family. We arrived at the quaint Western town, complete with jail and ice cream parlor, that is the center of "The Back Forty," the family section of the resort (there is also "The Ranch" for adults only, and "The Thoroughbred" for golfers) at 8:30 p.m. on a Friday, hours behind schedule because of snarled traffic and the one-hour Michigan time change.
The front office was mobbed—I counted 17 people milling before the check-in desk—and when our turn came, a pale young clerk was maddeningly vague about exactly what amenities the resort had and how we might gain access to them. As she mumbled her "yeah, maybes" as if she wasn't quite sure where she was working, my wife and I locked eyes and I had that plunging "what have I done with my weekend?" feeling of doom foretold.
Thankfully, it was smooth sailing from there. The cabin was woodsy, but new and clean, with an upper loft for the boys and a bedroom with a big Jacuzzi for the exhausted adults. By the time the pre-dinner cocktails arrived at the handsome Sundance Steakhouse, overlooking the resort's championship 18-hole golf course, we were adjusting ourselves to the place.
It was the next morning, however, that we really started to love it. We signed our boys up for the beginning corral rides—they like horses and I like putting them on horses, and they came prepared in their cowboy boots, belts, shirts and hats. The Double JJ has more than 100 horses and 1,500 acres of lovely Michigan property, and I could tell right away that this was no "walk 'em in a circle three times and call it a day" type of horse experience. Even at the most junior levels (my boys are 5 and 7) there was an emphasis on teaching them how to handle the horses, putting them through the paces of turning and stopping. You couldn't spit without hitting wranglers—at one point, with eight kids on horseback, I counted six staffers in the ring, helping them in the most gentle fashion.
After the lesson, the kids were tested. I admired the way the wrangler, Nicole, kindly gave my 5-year-old his ribbon, while letting me know with a meaningful glance that he wasn't ready for the trail yet. So while he was hanging out with a group of kids and counselors, playing golf and doing crafts (one of the beauties of the Double JJ is there are activities for kids that you can hand them off to—even overnight cabins—then pluck them out as need be) my wife and I and the older boy spent a pleasurable 90 minutes on the trail, going through some of the scenic woodland and farm. The younger boy barely noticed we were gone.
The rest of the weekend was a blur of activity—we swam in the pool and rode down the towering water slide, went on a hay ride and watched a pleasantly corny "stunt show." The ranch has about 30 sled dogs—they have dogsled races in the winter—and my boys insisted on walking one. I loved the frantic scene of the four of us, hanging on to this leash for dear life, being pulled along at a fast clip by one of these enormously-powerful, 80-pound wolfish animals.
There were also cattle drives and camp fires, a pig roast and a rodeo—which, though we missed it, all the other guests were raving about, and seems to be a must-see.
The best way to think of the Double JJ is as a Western summer camp for families. Guests who didn't wear their rustic name tags were called to the front of the dining hall (the food was tasty if unextraordinary) and compelled to sing—a fact I neglected to tell my wife until after she was caught tagless.
Still, she kept calling the Double JJ "perfect" and vowed we would we return. And when we left, the boys were practically hanging out the windows, calling their goodbyes to their various horses by name. It was a rare, special weekend, and I'm glad that we went.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, June 15, 2003
The Double JJ Ranch is still going strong, and you can learn more about it here.