WINE ROUTE ON HORSEBACK:
To truly appreciate the Yakima valley in eastern Washington State, you have to drive with your nose in the wind. The valley's rich, fertile land bears acre upon acre of fruit and vegetables, and their aroma is a meal in itself. Apple trees give way to tomato plants, peppers dart into view, hops climb 20-foot twine and fruit trees stand in perfectly symmetrical lines.
With our noses as far out the window as possible, we're searching for the scent of mint at sunset. White Swan is our destination, a quick detour before we head to Zillah to spend the night in a teepee at Cherry Wood Bed, Breakfast & Barn.
We smell the mint fields before we see them: a waft of fresh, crisp mint that feels like a breath of chewing gum in the breeze. Then the fields are before us - acres of ankle-high greens that provide most of America's peppermint and spearmint oils. Once the mint plants are harvested and distilled, a single pound of their oil can flavor 12,500 sticks of chewing gum, 1,000 tubes of toothpaste and 50,000 candies.
It's dusk as we approach Cherry Wood, where a sign at the gate quips "horses prohibited." You'd have to know Pepper Fewel, the owner of this bed, breakfast and barn, to know it was a joke, though, for horses are her passion and the backbone of her Triple T Ranch in Zillah.
Pepper opened her B&B a decade ago, but quickly found demand outpacing her space. With a 78-acre ranch stretching before her, she bought a series of teepees, outfitting them with comfortable beds and linens, lights, air conditioners and refrigerators. A few feet from the teepee door flap there are clean Porta-potties, open-air showers and roofless bathtubs that offer starlit bathing after dark.
Guests loved the novelty of sleeping in a teepee, but they wanted to experience a chunk of ranch life too. That's when Pepper began offering orchard rides on her 28 horses. The five-hour excursions take riders through valley farmland with stops at a few wineries and lunch along the way. On a hot day in August, I'm on horseback with her daughter, Tiffany, moving gently through neighboring vineyards and orchards. It's peach season and the air is heavy with the scent of magnificent, ripening peaches. Tree boughs are heavy with the rosy-hued fruit and my horse, Pistol, needs extra persuasion to keep walking instead of stopping for a snack.
We stop at Cultura Winery, where Pepper's son Tad and his wife have spent the past three years cultivating red wine. Their rich, dry wines speak of desert fruit, warm sun and fertile earth, capturing in a single glass the wealth that surrounds them in the valley.
Back at the ranch, Pepper spends her days working with and riding the horses she loves. At least 14 of them she rescued from the feedlot, their final stop before they were to meet the butcher's knife. "We take the curs of the world and we polish them," she says, gazing at her horses fondly. "Unfortunately, not all of them are fit to be Cherry Wood horses, but for those that do make the cut, it's like they won the horse lottery."
Pepper puts her horses through a series of tests to ensure they won't be spooked by flapping plastic bags and tarps, the sound of plastic water bottles or ringing cell phones, all noises they will encounter as they carry guests on the orchard tours. Those that react well and are suited to working on the ranch get to stay. "All they ask for is respect," she says. "And here, they get it."
That night I marvel at the warm glow of light inside the teepee, its graceful arc into the sky and the feeling of protection within its canvas circumference. The silence is complete until the guttural whinny of a nearby horse startles me awake, reminding me exactly where I am: on a ranch surrounded by miles of fruit trees, ensconced in a teepee with nothing but a tie-down on its entrance to prevent the desert wind from exposing my little sanctuary inside.
Morning will bring more desert sunshine, a breakfast of fruit compote and perhaps another horseback amble through the orchards. Pepper strokes her horses lovingly and speaks softly to them. From the twinkle in her eyes it's easy to tell she's a woman deeply in love. "It sounds corny," she tells me, "but I'm living my dream."
IF YOU GO:
" Rates at Cherry Wood Bed, Breakfast & Barn are $185 per night, double occupancy, breakfast included, and adults only. Horseback Orchard rides are available at $175 per person, lunch included. Info: www.cherrywoodbbandb.com
" Yakima is a 7-hour drive from Vancouver or a quick flight from Vancouver via Seattle on Alaska Airlines.
" For general information on the Yakima Valley, contact the www.visityakima.com or call 800-221-0751
PHOTOS - as noted below:
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