Driving out to the location, one might be led to think her directions were wrong, or perhaps she had taken a wrong turn sometime after trading in the paved highway for dusty county roads. But alas, if that same someone continued traveling north and west, she would encounter an oasis in the middle of the desert; an oasis called the Burnt Well Guest Ranch.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, that someone is me. I’ve never claimed to be good with directions, so when I ventured out to the ranch by myself that Tuesday morning in November, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I knew it would take about an hour to get there, and I knew it was far enough out that cell service was non-existent. Those two facts alone left me petrified. I am nothing if not dependent upon my cell phone and its ability to either (A) Put me in contact with my husband, who is the direction guru around our house, or (B) Load my GPS. Since neither option was available, I pulled over on the side of the highway and studied Patricia Chesser’s email containing my driving directions in depth before I headed out to the land of dirt roads and no cell service.
The Chessers own the Burnt Well Guest Ranch, and Patricia is no stranger to giving directions. She has been living at the ranch most of her adult life and owns a business that depends upon people finding her. Fortunately for me, her directions were thorough down to the mile marker and distance between each turn. About 17 miles north of Artesia, I turned off U.S. 285 onto Highway 13 and headed west until I came to Old Y.O. Crossing Road, right between mile markers 26 and 25, just like she said I would. From there I traveled north again, and then west again, and then north again, passing her son’s place and eventually winding my way back to an adorable setting in the middle of nowhere. Upon my arrival, a man clad in a cowboy hat with a friendly face and a firm handshake met me at my Suburban. I could tell he had been working on the cattle guard straight ahead that I needed to cross in order to enter the property. After introducing himself as Kim, Patricia’s husband, he apologized for having the cattle guard torn up and asked if I would be able to squeeze through the nearby cattle pens instead. He ushered me in and told me he’d be up at the house shortly for the interview.
As I inched my way through the pens and made my way to the main house, I couldn’t help but smile. There was something warm about Kim’s greeting and genuine about the atmosphere there. Once inside the house, Patricia’s greeting was equally as warm and I felt an immediate connection with her. “Do you need to use the restroom before we get started?” she asked, already knowing the answer.
“I do!” I laughed. “How’d you guess?!” Like most guests to the ranch, the last restroom I encountered was quite some time before my arrival to the ranch, and gulping down a big bottle of water on the bumpy drive in didn’t help matters any. By the time I returned and began setting everything up for the interview, Kim had arrived and started a pot of coffee. It was around 10:30 a.m. at that point, and within minutes the whiff of something divine grabbed my attention. Is that a roast cooking? I thought to myself. Calm down and focus. You’ve got work to do, Staci.
The three of us made ourselves comfortable at the round table at the end of the kitchen and settled in for business. Like most people I interview, the Chessers weren’t sure what to expect, so I tried to set their minds at ease by starting off with small talk. I’m not one to write out a long list of interview questions when I’m working on a story. After years of writing, I have found that just visiting with people provides more than enough information, and it helps the process feel more like a conversation and less like an uptight interview. The Chessers and I talked about everything from growing up on the ranch to raising children on the ranch, from starting businesses to playing music. We talked about faith and family, food, animals and some of their most memorable guests. We talked about success and failure, religion and cooking. Before I knew it, five hours had passed.
A couple of hours into my visit the smell of roast continued to taunt me, making it increasingly difficult to maintain my focus. Somehow I managed. The
conversation between Patricia and I didn’t miss a beat as she got up from the table and began preparing some fresh green beans. She continued talking, answering questions without even realizing it, as she sliced the roast, took the potatoes out of the oven, prepared a salad and took some fresh cantaloupe out of the refrigerator. As she continued working her way around the kitchen, my mouth watered, and two thoughts kept running through my head: I hope she didn’t go to all this trouble just for me, and I hope that food is for me! It was. In all the years I have conducted interviews and written stories, this was the first time I had been privy to such a delicious home-cooked meal.
About half-way through our lunch—or dinner, as they called it—our conversation took an unexpected turn. We were discussing music and
Patricia’s love of bluegrass when I chimed in with memories of listening to my grandfather, who also loved bluegrass. I reminisced
about growing up listening to him play and commented on how much I used to love it when he would yodel. Kim asked me his name.
“His name was Wayne Bedingfield,” I replied, “but he’s deceased now.”
“I’ll be right back,” Patricia said as she excused herself from the table rather abruptly. Kim sat there smiling from ear to ear, which confused me. I wasn’t sure what to expect. In less than a minute, she returned, holding something in her hand that unexpectedly brought me to tears.
“Oh my goodness,” I sobbed. “My grandfather made this for you, didn’t he?” I immediately recognized this work. I was looking at a fiddle my grandfather had made for her many years ago. Her own eyes brimming with tears, she answered with a simple nod.
“Look inside,” she urged me. When I looked inside, I saw her name and his. I sat there and wept while the delicious lunch I had eagerly anticipated grew cold. Patricia went on to tell me the story of how she came to be in possession of the fiddle, and in that moment, it was as if I had been there when it happened. I could almost hear my grandfather saying the words Patricia recalled him saying. By the time I regained my composure, Patricia and Kim were finished eating and my lunch was good and cold.
Kim headed back out into the cold wind to resume his work—that cattle guard wasn’t going to fix itself—while Patricia and I cleared the table, but my mind continued to race. I couldn’t help but feel even more of a connection with the Chessers.
“I’m so sorry I lost it earlier,” I apologized. “I don’t typically do that in an interview.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she reassured me. “I just can’t believe what a small world it is!”
After we were finished in the kitchen, Patricia and I put on our jackets and headed out for a tour of the ranch. The grounds were neatly maintained and well thought out. The area surrounding the house consisted of spaces for grilling or sitting; some were shaded areas and others were great for campfires. Rocking chairs dotted the porches while paved walkways led from one facility to the next. The first structure we came to was an adorable house the Chessers refer to as the “Casita,” which they rent out by the night. It was cozy and intimate with a kitchenette, a living room and a bed all occupying one space with no dividing walls, while upstairs was a loft with two twin beds. The only enclosed space in the Casita was the restroom. Immediately upon entering, I mentally began planning my family’s trip to the ranch and our stay in the Casita. It would be the perfect getaway for us where we can spend a couple of days away from the hustle and bustle of life, relax and spend quality time together, I thought to myself. Patricia explained that many families come to unwind and relax by the fire, ride horses and play board games at the kitchen table. It’s a short enough drive from Artesia or Roswell that a weekend stay is perfect.
I followed the pathway past the Casita to find the building that brings people from all over the world to the Burnt Well Guest Ranch: a sprawling facility with a rustic vibe and a ranch house feel. The Chessers call it the “Bunk House.” The ceilings were high and the décor was authentic to a working cattle ranch with cow hides hanging on the walls, giant wood beams supporting the structure and a large watering trough that took the place of a bathtub. The Bunk House even housed a small general store where guests could purchase authentic New Mexico-themed items and some necessities. “We just work off the honor system in here,” Patricia noted. “I used to set up hours when I’d come over and let them shop, but I found that it just made people uncomfortable. So now I leave a little charge tablet in here, and they can shop whenever they want. They just keep track of what they spend, and we square up at the end of their stay.”
It might seem like a brazen idea, but Patricia said business in the store has actually increased since she implemented the honor system, and she hasn’t had any issues with items being stolen. “It usually surprises people when I tell them I trust them to write down what they take,” she admitted, “but it works. They really seem to like it.”
The general store’s honor system was but one of the many aspects of the ranch that helps transport guests back to yesteryear when times were simpler and the pace of life was noticeably slower. There are no cell phones vying for guests’ attention and no Internet service to lure them away to the land of social media or online shopping. It’s just them and nature for as far as the eye can see.
Twice a day, full-service guests are treated to a home-cooked meal at the Chessers’ house, where they all eat family-style around the dining room table. “Our guests really seem to like eating around the table,” Patricia shared. “They like that they get fresh meals and that the beef and lamb come from right here on the ranch.”
Depending upon the season, guests can watch authentic ranch work being done, such as branding calves and doctoring ca
ttle, weaning calves and lambs for market, marking lambs and shearing sheep. For guests who are more hands-on, there’s an arena where they can try their hand at pole bending, barrels, roping, or cattle sorting and penning. Outside the arena guests can give horseshoe throwing a try or enjoy a game of pool or checkers. To help unwind and remedy those saddle-sore muscles at the day’s end, many guests relax on the deck or in the hot tub. And remember back when I told you about Patricia’s love of music and those areas designated for campfires? She and some of her musician friends will often play music around the campfire. The bright New Mexico moon shines above while you listen to local cowboy musicians and poets bring art to life around the campfire. If that doesn’t paint a perfect picture of the American West, I don’t know what will!
Those experiences, combined with a need for supplemental income, are what prompted the Chessers to start the Burnt Well Guest Ranch nearly 14 years ago. At the time, the working cattle ranch that has been in Kim’s family since 1950 was the couple’s only source of income. In addition to Kim and Patricia, the ranch also provided income for Kim’s parents. Times were understandably difficult and Patricia started thinking about ways to supplement their family’s income. That’s when the idea for a guest ranch entered her mind. “I started working on a business plan for a dude ranch, but nothing would gel,” she revealed. “I learned later that I was getting the cart befo
re the horse in a lot of areas.”
Then one fateful Sunday morning a couple who owns a dude ranch in Colorado visited the church in Ruidoso that the Chessers attend. “Kim glanced over during the service and noticed manure on the guy’s boots,” Patricia smiled. “We knew we needed to talk to them!” After church the Chessers talked to the couple, who suggested the first thing they do was join the Dude Ranchers’ Association. That’s exactly what the Chessers did. “We joined as association members so we could go to a convention in Albuquerque, but when we got there, the dude ranchers were so different than what we were expecting.”
She went to on to explain, “We are a working cattle ranch. Most dude ranches have cattle to entertain their guests, but ours are our livelihood, and the dude ranch supplements our ranch.” Although they were taken aback by some aspects of the convention, they were also encouraged by it. “We met a lot of people who encouraged us to do this.”
“They were excited because in general, dude ranches have been getting away from being real working cattle ranches,” Kim interjected.
At the end of the convention, something happened that perhaps altered the trajectory of the Burnt Well Guest Ranch forever. “There was an auction and they had donated a [web]site on Tim Gordon’s website (Gordon’s Travel Guide),” Patricia reminisced. “It was an $1,800 value, and I decided to bid on it and won it for $1,200 for a year.”
With Tim’s permission, the Chessers paid for the site but decided to wait to activate it until they had actually started the ranch. “That was the point we jumped off the cliff!” she beamed. “We weren’t going to invest $1,200 that we really didn’t even have and not do something with it. I felt like I was freefalling.” The Chessers canned their initial business plan and started fresh. “The main thing Tim told us was, ‘You have the passion; put that aside. We’ll unleash it when the time is right.’”
Other than a brief stint in the hardware business in the late ‘70s, the Chessers didn’t have any experience owning a customer-based business, so their desire to open a dude ranch surprised many people. “We couldn’t get a bank to loan us the money for it,” Kim remembered. “Everyone laughed at us. We still have people to this day who say they thought we had lost our minds when we told them we wanted to open a guest ranch!”
The critics were eventually silenced when the first guests started arriving in August 2003. Among those guests was a lady from back east named Margaret with her three children. As a member of the Sierra Club environmental group, Margaret became upset when she found out some of the local men were hunting coyotes. Once the group came upon a rancher’s sheep that had been killed by coyotes, however, she changed her tune. “They were lying to us!” she protested; she had been led to believe that coyote hunters were brutal and cruel, hunting just for the fun of it. She now saw that coyotes killed ranchers’ livestock, so hunting coyotes was a necessary part of ranching in the southwest, not just a barbaric form of entertainment.
When they got back to the Bunk House, Kim handed Margaret a copy of Range magazine and asked her to read it to “get the other side of the story from environmental groups. She got all the copies she could find and took them back with her. It’s not that they are stupid, but they are ignorant to the facts, and they haven’t heard the reality.”
Patricia added, “When we first started, we wanted to expose guests to the western way of life, to our family and our faith. And low and behold, our first guest was blown away by this Range magazine. One person at a time, we will make a difference!”
Kim expanded upon her thoughts, adding, “A lot of people have misconceptions. They think ranchers are just using the land for nothing; they think we abuse the land. But since we started the guest ranch, we’ve had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people about those misconceptions and educate them about ranching.”
Another perk? Getting to know people from everywhere and hear them share their stories. “We have been able to travel all over the world sitting right here at the kitchen table,” Kim concluded.
To learn more about the Burnt Well Guest Ranch, log on to burntwellguestranch.com or call toll free 866-729-0974.