To a certain kind of American, big sky and open space have always been preferable to a day trapped inside. This month, we asked three guides and one gardener—all of whom spend their days outside working at rural resorts perfect for getting away from it all—to show us their corner of America the Beautiful. From the foggy hollows of Appalachia to the labyrinths of Southwestern slot canyons to the Rocky Mountains, it turns out there is plenty of space left to slip away to.
Adventure Guide in Amangiri
Canyon Point, Utah
The Colorado River’s path through southern Utah and northern Arizona remained unmapped by U.S. explorers until the late 19th century. There was too much steepness, too many trenches and slot canyons. Even today, guide Kyle Davis tends to repeat some variation of the phrase “hard to get to” when he talks about the spots he accesses with guests from the Amangiri resort.
Davis, whose father is half Navajo, grew up in Page, Arizona, a small town near the state’s northern border that abuts the Navajo Nation, the country’s largest indigenous territory. “We used to get in jeeps, and we’d just drive these dirt roads,” he says. “This was before GPS, so the only way you knew where you were going is if your older brother or sister figured it out beforehand.” They’d load up with gallons of water and blankets in case the jeep broke down. “Tell your parents where you’re going, tell them when you’re going to be back— hopefully don’t mess it up.”
Davis left those desert adventures for four years to study at Dartmouth College, returning in summers to work as a boating guide on the Colorado River. He studied neuroscience and psychology, contemplating a career in medicine, but decided he’d rather be outside. Fortunately, the year he graduated, 2009, a desert resort named Amangiri opened just 25 minutes from his hometown. Like all Aman Resorts, it offers a peaceful escape and attentive, customized service, while working to sustain local traditions.
Amangiri sits on 600 acres, surrounded by flat-topped mesas and within a day’s trip of national parks such as the Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon. The architecture echoes the landscape: Elegant walkways wind like slot canyons, a pool wraps around a sandstone escarpment, and the color palette blends with the desert. This month, the property has opened its latest accommodations: Camp Sarika, where ten canvas-tented pavilions offer unobstructed desert views.
As a guide here, Davis leads guests to remote spots, some on the property, some at national parks, some in designated wilderness areas. “We’re getting permits for locations most people don’t even know exist, let alone have a car that would be capable enough to get them there,” he says. He recounts a recent ramble through Coyote Buttes South, where the rock formations, sculpted by wind, look like dollops of whipped cream frozen in place and painted pink. “There’s nothing else out there,” he says. “You climb on top of the rock and you can see 90 miles in any given direction.”
The resort, too, has its own gravitas. A cave, visible from the front windows, contains 9,000-year-old petroglyphs—a visceral connection to the region’s long indigenous history. Amangiri also brings clients into the Monument Valley Tribal Park, and Navajo hoop dancers and storytellers visit the lodge, where the culinary program emphasizes local game alongside indigenous traditions such as the Three Sisters—corn, beans and squash grown together to help sustain soils.
“My father would always tell me [that my Navajo ancestors] were not big warriors,” Davis says, “but we knew the landscape. We knew the canyons. We knew the rivers.”
We knew the places to get water, the places to stay warm.” And now Davis knows those secrets, too: He drops offhand references to the region’s “cryptobiotic soils”— which, full of unseen algae and fungi, help hold the landscape in place. He mentions how the wonderful range of hues on the rock formations are due to varying rates of iron oxidation and is well versed in the millions of years of geology and thousands of years of human culture that have created this distinct place. Part of his job, he says, is sharing his love of his home, this outdoor world.
Not that it requires much explaining. Once you get to some of the spots Davis recommends and you take in the view, there isn’t much to say. “If anything, I’m a glorified map,” Davis says. “I showed you where to go, I walked in front of you. But I didn’t build that rock, I didn’t make that river. That living world gets reflected in a person, and shapes their lives moving forward.”
Equestrian Manager in Brush Creek Ranch
As a girl growing up in southern New Mexico, Caitie Hefner’s heroes were always cowboys—family cowboys, at that. “I saw my great-grandfather and grandfather and dad as my cowboy idols,” she says, noting that her great-grandfather was locally famous for his calf roping and her father, a dentist, was a part-time cattle rancher.
Hefner had a horse and a saddle of her own by age 10. In high school she was the “Otero County Fair Rodeo Princess and Queen”—part rodeo cowgirl, part beauty queen. But she left New Mexico for a very different dream: She was going to be a country star. After four years playing Texas barrooms, she grew tired of “living out of a tip jar,” as she puts it. In a bout of soul searching, she turned back to her first love and took a job as a wrangler at Brush Creek Ranch.
When she arrived in spring seven years ago, the snow was melting off nearby peaks and the hillsides were bursting with new green grass. “I was absolutely knocked off my feet,” Hefner says.
In the 1880s the valley, which is threaded with cold creeks and studded with eerie rock outcroppings, was home to two brothers who harvested from what is now the Medicine Bow National Forest. Today, Brush Creek Ranch—which encompasses three separate parcels and more than 30,000 acres—offers luxurious, homestead-inspired cabins and lodges. There are 55 miles of trails, loads of outdoor activities—including fly fishing, rock climbing, archery and shooting sports—skiing at the resort’s private mountain, and tastings at the onsite distillery, bakery and brewery.
Today, Hefner leads a team of 20 cowboys and cowgirls who tend to 180 horses—mostly quarter horses, “the cowboy horse,” as Hefner says—and offer equestrian experiences that range from mellow ambles across the creeks and hay meadows to racing up logging roads and pausing for the view atop pine-studded mountains.
If you’ve ever wanted to learn rodeo skills like barrel racing or rope work, she teaches that, too, and takes guests along for cattle drives. Brush Creek is a working ranch, and cattle must be shifted to new pastures on a regular basis. For three hours, guests and wranglers drive the herd, and build an appetite for dinner at the Cheyenne Club, the resort’s Western-chic restaurant, where the tasting menu includes the ranch’s own wagyu beef.
As she works, the trust Hefner must place in the 1,000-pound horse beneath her feels, paradoxically, like “nothing short of freedom”—something she can share with guests. She remembers taking a group of Dutch women on a “pedal to the metal” sprint up a long stretch of logging road. “We travel a lot,” one told her when they reached the peak, “and this is the only place you can do this— just get on a horse and go.”
Ranch life has been rewarding in other ways, too. That first summer, she met an archery guide named Adam Hefner. Seven years later, the couple is married and still work on the ranch together. “We’re pretty well rooted,” she says, laughing at the unexpected result of her long-ago drive from Texas. Though ranch life has kept her busy lately, she sometimes plays in the lively barrooms down in Saratoga—a town that, despite having fewer than 2,000 residents, hosts music festivals and hoedowns each summer, along with a whole herd of fly fishers.
Not that she has forgotten her heroes. Sometimes she even brings her dad up from New Mexico to help out as an extra hand. But for all the responsibilities of running the equestrian program, sometimes Hefner is just an old-fashioned cowgirl: riding out ten miles to gather cows or spending a day fixing fences. “I love being a part of that Western way of life,” she says. “Part of the beauty is the space, the breathing room. You’re free to roam out here, to experience a glimpse of what the Wild West once was.”
Master Gardener in Blackberry Farm
Blackberry Farm, a 62-room resort tucked into Appalachian ridges just west of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is known as a culinary destination. The Barn, its fine-dining restaurant, has been nominated for 15 James Beard Awards and won three. But there is an open secret at the heart of this flavorful enterprise: a 77-year-old slow-talking Tennessean gardener named John Coykendall.
Coykendall’s grandfather was a congressman. His father was a banker. But Coykendall looks more like a prewar farmhand, forever clad in denim coveralls. He is a bit of a crank, especially when it comes to topics like the typical grocery-store tomato, which he likens to Styrofoam. “There’s only one group of people who love those tomatoes, and that’s your baseball team,” he says. “They use them for batting practice.”
Raised in nearby Knoxville, Coykendall has been visiting Blackberry Farm since the 1950s, when the property was just a rustic estate owned by family friends on a dusty one-lane road. The house became a humble country inn, and then, under the helm of the Beall family, a Relais & Châteaux destination resort. In 1998, Sam Beall— who had worked under Thomas Keller at The French Laundry— took over management from his parents. Among his first moves was recruiting Coykendall, who had become locally famous as a painter and collector of seeds.
“The Appalachian region is so rich in food heritage,” Coykendall explains, partly because poor farmers had no choice but to save their seeds to grow the food to feed their families. This resulted in an explosion of crop biodiversity. Some strains were grown in just one place, by just one family. Now they are disappearing—and with them, local culture.
As a teenager, Coykendall stumbled across an old seed catalog filled with myriad long-lost varieties. This was the beginning of a lifelong quest. As a painter searching the mountains for landscapes, he’d often also come home with rare seeds of okra, peas or squash. He now has more than 500 stored in his freezer, along with many Moleskine notebooks holding sketches of the fruits and their farmers, along with jotted stories of their heritage.
Coykendall plants some of these seeds at five acres of gardens and orchards at Blackberry Farm, which provide a cornucopia of produce to the resort’s two restaurants. “Everything we grow here is heirloom or heritage crops,” he says. “We don’t use the modern hybrids. We don’t use GMOs.”
His produce, he says, is the raw material for the artistry of The Barn’s chefs. And they agree. “I didn’t fully understand grits until I had John’s corn, freshly ground then slowly cooked,” says executive chef Cassidee Dabney, who is a finalist for a James Beard Award this year. “The depth of flavor and layers of history floored me in one bite.”
Every Saturday in August— peak tomato season—Coykendall hosts tomato tastings at Blackberry Farm with just a large cutting board, a sharp knife and some sea salt if you want it. “The tomatoes speak for themselves,” he says. “I don’t have to say a word.” On Monday nights throughout the month, dinner is served in the garden. Guests can also take a morning tasting tour—including samples not just from the garden, but the Farm’s creamery and brewery and butchery, too. Or they can work alongside Coykendall, hands in the dirt, and head home with a few seeds of their own.
The Smoky Mountains are a land for both adventure and slowing down. Blackberry Farm offers fly fishing and wakesurfing, hikes along foggy trails, paintball and archery, and in 2019 added a 5,200-acre sister resort, Blackberry Mountain, set atop a nearby ridge. There are guided meditations through the woods, as well as herbs to be plucked and tucked under a pillow for a good night’s sleep in rooms appointed in English-country decor.
Coykendall is something of a model for slowing down. He only recently bought his first cell phone, at his wife’s behest, and is happy to report that it was promptly stolen from his truck.
Coykendall has watched the food world change: He can remember when collard greens were something left for the “poor folks,” rather than clamored after by New York City chefs. Still, he knows his kind of farming remains just a small sliver of American agriculture, and that there are many seeds yet to save. “We’re in the 11th hour,” he says. “My biggest regret is that we didn’t start 100, 150 years ago.”
Apiarist and Activities Manager at The Ranch at Rock Creek
“I could talk bees a lot,” Kelsey Bruns warns me when I ask about the hives she keeps in rural Montana. The 35-year-old Bruns, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, arrived in this western corner of the state—nestled between Glacier and Yellowstone national parks—four years ago, to work as a guide at The Ranch at Rock Creek. In her job interview, she was already babbling about bees.
Rimmed by mountains and big sky, the property has cold creeks running through it, while herds of elk wander in from adjacent wilderness areas and golden eagles can be spotted overhead. The land lends itself to hearty Western pursuits such as riding horses, shooting guns and casting flies at wild trout. Cattle graze on the property’s 6,600 acres. To help guests slow down and absorb this bounty, The Ranch offers painting classes and photography workshops. In addition to maintaining her five hives, Bruns leads naturalist walks, which last two hours but are so focused on nature’s intricacies that they might only cover one mile. The point is to help guests— many of whom come from big cities—settle into a quieter world of detail. She relays a story of a rather tall visitor crouching down on his hands and knees to get a better look at nearly invisible mouse tracks in the snow, to see what kind of story they told about the ecosystem. “That’s a special gift we can give guests,” she says. “Having that aha moment—we’re connecting with each other, we’re connecting with nature.”
I catch Bruns amidst the busy springtime season. Her hives— which The Ranch added in 2017, thanks to her suggestion—over winter in a lower, warmer valley, and she has recently returned from driving them back up to the property. July is peak nectar season, with the bees busy among the wildflowers blooming on the hills. Bruns stays active, too. Each Thursday, after a day of rambling, she hosts Live Hive at Five. Over honey-infused cocktails, guests peer into a Plexiglas-walled demonstration hive. Kids quiz her on where wax comes from and adults wonder about the fate of bee populations, which have been plummeting. “Bees are a great platform to talk about things bigger than yourself,” she says.
Bruns harvests the honey at the end of August and turns it over to The Ranch’s culinary program, which uses it to sweeten grilled chicken wings or drizzle over local cheese. “I can definitely eat it by the spoonful,” Bruns says. Guests can, too, purchasing jars at the ranch’s Mercantile—though supply is limited by the bees.
Autumn is a tough time to stay in the kitchen, though: “The fishing is really good,” Bruns says with a laugh. Weekends offer a chance to slip into the nearby Pintler and Sapphire mountains. When she’s not at work, Bruns is almost always outside: skiing mountains in winter, floating rivers in springtime—often for a week nonstop, just drifting and fishing and camping on the banks. “I like big open spaces, and me the only one in it,” she says. She gets a calming sense when she’s tucked away amid mountains and streams. “There’s something in your soul that makes you feel complete.”
The bees, too, are calming. After all, you can’t think about anything else when you’re opening a bee box, she says—for your sake, and that of the bees. “But also the buzz—it blanks your mind,” she says. “It takes you out of yourself, and makes you focus on them.”