Trip Wheeler 2.15.2022

Bio: Junior Wrangler 1976.
Descriptor: Trip’s father was a wrangler at White Grass and encouraged Trip to work at the ranch.  In 1976, he was a junior wrangler for Frank Galey where he lived in a canvas tent, wrangled horses off the mountain at 5:00 am, enjoyed the Sunday Barbecues, the dude ranch rodeos and evenings spent in Jackson bar hopping.

Trip’s Story: One of the best summers I can remember was as a “Junior Wrangler” at The White Grass Ranch the summer of my senior year in high school (1976).

My father, Ted Wheeler, was a wrangler at The White Grass when he was young. Frank and my father were great buddies back then and remained close until Frank’s passing. He visited several times as time went on as a Dude to enjoy the fabulous atmosphere as well and the lifestyle we all found so great.

Growing up, I learned to ride at a local day camp when I was 12 and caught the bug. After Tarleton Day Camp, I attended Camp Tecumseh for three years in New Hampshire where I worked in the stables to earn some tuition money. While working in the stables, I started teaching riding to the junior campers as well as some seniors and staff.

Knowing that I loved riding, my dad reached out to Frank Galey and inquired about anything I might do at The White Grass. Frank offered me a spot in the “Junior Wrangler” program. Having no idea what I was in for off, I went..

Travel to The White Grass Ranch: Eighteen at the time, I was not a frequent flier so the idea of an unaccompanied flight to Wyoming, to a place I had never been, to “work” for people I had never met was daunting. Nevertheless, I made the flight without issue and was met by a quintessential cowboy named Lee at the Jackson Hole airport. I can only assume that this task given to Lee was not fully welcomed. Be that as it may, he was nice enough and into a ranch truck we jumped. Lee had brought along some provisions for the lengthy ride back to White Grass consisting of two six packs of Coors and some interesting smelling “tobacco” rolled into home made “cigarettes”. Needless to say, I was not about to be ungrateful to my host on day one so I shared the provisions on the ride. When we arrived at the ranch, Frank was outside waiting for his old buddy’s son to arrive. When he opened the door to the truck, my first step landed me face first on the warm Wyoming soil. My first impression was complete.

My lodging for the next eight weeks was a large tent setup at the far edge of the ranch suitable for 8-10 cots. A wooden latrine had been constructed so that we could shower etc right there. When I arrived, there were two Philippine fellas about my age finishing up their stay at the ranch. They were leaving the next day, so I had the entire shangri la to myself.  One particular night very late, I woke to the sound of a baby crying. There was a light in the “bathroom” that stayed on at night so as to be able to navigate in the dark. As the crying continued, I noticed a small obstruction move into the tent in the space between the tent and bathroom. Very shortly thereafter, I was alarmed to see a much larger “obstruction” block most of the light in the bathroom as it moved into the far end of the tent. Not waiting until I was able to come in contact with the issue, I put on my boots, backwards, and hightailed it down to the lodge. This was my introduction to the local black bear community.

The White Grass Ranch had a weekly barbecue around the pond and one of the entrees was a pig cooked in a pit right there. The ranch had a dozen or more pigs in a pen that were kept for the purpose of the Sunday Barbecue. Not only did the guests, known as “Dudes”, enjoy the pigs when roasted but the local bear community would occasionally enter the pig pen and take one home to its family. The sound of that transaction was unbelievable as you can imagine.

As a Junior Wrangler, various jobs are required as part of the duties of the position. One such was to wake up early, around 4:00 am, and saddle up to ride up into the meadows on the mountain behind the ranch to listen for the bells hung around the more popular horses necks and herd them down the familiar trails to the paddocks for the days Dude rides. The sights and varieties of elk, moose etc amongst the Aspens was breathtaking.  Also very very cold. Multiple shirts and jackets were needed to keep warm enough during the journey. One particular morning while walking up a trail to the meadows, my horse Sheila stopped dead in her tracks. I attempted to continue but she wouldn’t have it. Suddenly from behind a bush close by, strutted a very large fully racked bull moose who probably weighed in around 1000 pounds or so. Both Sheila and I stood shaking while the moose eyed us up and thankfully kept moving. As the day warmed up, the layers would be shed. During the guest’s lunchtime a nice nap in the barn on some hay bales was a welcomed catchup break.

Daily rides to Jenny Lake, Phelps Lake and the abandoned ranch next door as well as The Chapel of the Transfiguration were great fun for all. Bagged lunches would be prepared by the kitchen and loaded into saddlebags on a pack horse that we would bring along. A few times each summer, a “Pack Trip” was offered. Usually a three day ride through the Red Rock mountain area or some other area that was usually beautiful.  Junior Wranglers duties were plentiful during all rides and pack trips.

Being a Junior Wrangler meant that when the Wranglers didn’t want to do something, they would “offer” an opportunity for us to handle the task as a learning experience or just part of the deal. During night times, we might be invited to the ranch hands bunk houses to engage in relaxation activities or parties celebrating the day.  On weekends, we might be able to head into Jackson Hole with the Wranglers for some fun. I visited The Silver Dollar Bar, which my father had told me about, The Cowboy Bar and other local watering holes. I witnessed a guy get his ear bitten off in a Cowboy Bar fight.  Ah the sights!

I was lucky enough to compete in the local rodeo with some of the WGR wranglers in the Wild Horse Race. Drunken cowboys, try to get a saddle and halter on an unbroken horse, mount it and ride to the other end of the arena and back. My job was the” ear biter”. A horse tends to stand still when someone/something has a clamp on its ear. That someone was me. Mouthful of hair but great fun.

The experience I had those eight weeks in 1976 will never be forgotten. My family and I went back to Jackson Hole in 2014. My daughter is an excellent rider, primarily english but picked up western immediately. We stayed at The Red Rock Ranch in Kelly. One day my wife and I drove over to The White Grass. I guess they were 75% towards completion of the Ranger Training Center. It was a bit bittersweet as the barn, The Galey home, the pond and many cabins were gone.  But it was great to stand there again. The caretaker showed us around and explained the renovations and had some old pictures that they used for reference.

I feel blessed to have been able to experience The White Grass Ranch in it’s day as a working dude ranch. I believe all who visited and worked there were lucky as well.