In 1950, my grandparents bought 478 acres of Georgia farm and forest. As the sole grandchild for the first twelve years of my life, I undeservedly assumed implicit rights and obligations to the land, presumptively vested in me by hours and days spent wandering the fields and forest, rifle in hand, swimming and canoeing in our pond deep in the pines, and refighting famous battles in the pastures and barns around the main house. As it does with all children, the world revolved around me, a fact that I assumed would never change. My other constant; the land.
Now I occupy an odd age that sits astride a gap between that of my forebears - for whom land was power and self-reliance - and modernity in which mobility and access are everything, one in which being tied to land seems purely constraining.
But to me, land is identity. It is where you are from, it is where you go when the outside world proves hostile, it is refuge, an asset and a badge that says, “I am someone of a place. When you spend time here, you know me better.”
That sense of place and identity may be the reason that I fell in love with the 7D Ranch in the Sunlight Basin, sixty short miles north of Cody, Wyoming this past summer and part of why I think you might fall in love with it, too.
The Sunlight Basin is a stunning swath of the Absaroka Mountains. Bordering the Shoshone National Forest it’s where, since 1958, the Dominick family has owned and hosted guests at the 7D Ranch. The 128 Acres of the 7D is a partnership amongst members of the Dominick family though it is are currently managed by Meade and Andrea Dominick, a couple who met as backcountry park rangers that absolutely personify the Die Living ethos. Once a year for a family week, the Domenicks gather, maintaining a connection to their roots and their land.
Meade, Andrea and their children spend their summers at the ranch during the guest season, while they spend the rest of the year in Cody, where Meade heads a backcountry guide service specializing in once in a lifetime hunts for elk, bear, deer, and mountain goat. But rather than selling an image, they are preserving their way of life and the identity of their family while allowing people who appreciate that identity to step outside the lives they’ve constructed with our cell phones and picture posts, offering us a chance to just breathe a minute.
There’s something meaningful about the notion of escaping pursuit in a world where someone can access us all the time, where my finger constantly itches to tap a screen for the Pavlovian dopamine blast as my “like” count climbs. We all desperately need to unplug from the 24/7 all-access lives we lead, and the 7D is a refuge that allows each of the thirty-two weekly guests staying in ten cabins to reconnect with the people and sensations that actually make us human. It reintroduces us to the corporeal realm with the sight, smells, and sensations of reality that the wilderness offers. The 7D Ranch is a charmed place where you can get internet access if you want to work for it, but you might as well leave the phone in your cabin.
The 7D Ranch specializes in seven-night vacations. Guests arrive and depart on Sundays. Most people fly into Cody or Billings, Montana and rent a car but the ranch will pick you up for $125-300 a van load, each way. Prices vary according to pick up time. Arrival is no earlier than three on Sunday.
Pick up some booze and groceries to have in your cabin, but the meals included in your guest fee are all exceptional and in great quantity so just buy what you want to indulge in. Individual cabin refrigeration is the cold creeks that run throughout the cabin area. Each cabin gets two milk crates to put in the creek, an arrangement that keeps everything in them plenty cold. The first meal is served on Sunday night. Thereafter, it’s three delicious meals a day, served family style. But these are just some of the details. They are not the primary reason I will return to the 7D Ranch. I will return because they are holding a line that protects a way of life that has all but disappeared for the main of the nation.
A typical day at the 7D starts with family-style breakfast. Think bacon, eggs, fresh-squeezed juice, fresh fruit and granola put on by a professional, full-time chef and staff. Got a picky eater? They have you covered. Got a vegan/vegetarian/fruitarian/whatever? They have you covered. Just let them know at the start of the week what to plan for and the team at the 7D will make sure your needs are met.
After breakfast comes morning activities. Horse riding for equestrians of all levels? Yep, just tell them how adventurous you’re feeling. The Absarokas are literally the 7D’s backyard and you can easily ride off the ranch and into the Shoshone National Forest with one of their wranglers as a guide. Maybe you want a hard trail run? Cool. Check in with the office, get some bear spray, and head out. You can head out to the skeet range, fly fish the river that bounds the main ranch property, or get one of the two on-staff fishing guides to take you to their secret spots. I even found a squat rack in a shed. You can even climb the same hillsides that Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce did in 1877 while trying to escape the United States Cavalry and make it the 1800 miles to Canada.
If you want, just sit and relax. It’s your vacation. After your morning adventure, it’s time for lunch, where you can return to the main lodge for a four-star sit-down or enjoy the packed lunch the staff at the 7D sent you out into the wilderness with.
Afternoons are more of the same unless you’re undertaking an all-day trip. One afternoon, I took off and ran up a mountain while my family rode horses. Another day, my wife and I piled in a Jeep with some other freed up parents, forded two rivers that flooded the floorboards, parked, and spent three hours climbing a mountain to a trout stocked glacier lake at 9,000 feet.
There was snow on the ground in July and the glacier melt was running so fast and so cold it felt like razor blades. My sixty-eight-year-old mom and eight-year-old daughter went on the daily kids’ program that included sledding on a glacier that day.
For a family adventure, my daughter, wife, and I climbed up a pretty steep hill to a cave. It maxed out my daughter and gave her a taste of the Die Living ethos.
Another day, while my wife took a more challenging horse ride, my mom and I went fly fishing on a remote river and my daughter tried archery, loving the feeling of being out of her parent’s orbit for a few hours.
For my me, that may have been the coolest thing about the trip. I grew up roaming those aforementioned woods by myself when I was her age. Where we live now, I stand on the porch to watch and verify she got four doors down to the neighbor’s house. She’s never on her own. But at the 7D, she was a free-range kid, running in a gang of other six-to-ten-year-olds. That’s as it once was and as it should be today.
The kid’s program is a full day of legitimate fun for the littles ones that will often have them learning some new skill. My daughter went from tearfully waiting to climb on a horse the first day to riding solo and weaving barrels five days later. The kids spend a week on horseback, playing in rivers, and sledding on glaciers. The excellent staff at the 7D gives you peace of mind, knowing that your kids will be with you when you want to do kid-level activities as a family and that they’re well taken care of and legitimately entertained when you want to notch up the adventure to reach adult Die Living expectations. The 7D has something for everyone.
So, what does all this cost?
I’m not going to lie, this is a vacation that us regular people have to save up for. A family of four (two adults, two kids under thirteen) is looking at about $8,000 before airfare (kids under two are free but I think I’d wait and pay the two-to-thirteen rate). It’s a steep cost but really when you break it down, it’s not as bad as it may seem. Rates are all-inclusive and include lodging, three meals a day and snacks, all daily and evening activities (riding, fishing with guides, kids’ programs, cultural tours, dancing, campfire with s’mores, cowboy singers and poets, evening sports, archery, trap shooting and all gratuities). However, since a lot of people make reservations years ahead and the summers fill up fast with only 256 guests per summer session, you have time to plan and save. A lot of guests we met are on our trip were on five-year cycles.
And quite frankly, a four-day blowout trip to Disney, to ride cars that carry you around a defined course that ends where it started, costs close to the same as seven nights in paradise for a family of four.
I went to the 7D when I was fifteen with a large contingent of family. I didn’t appreciate it because fifteen-year-olds don’t appreciate much anyway. Going back thirty years later was amazing because I could perceive, understand and appreciate the importance of a place like the 7D Ranch. That 478 acres my grandparents bought sixty-eight years ago is now reduced to seventy-eight. The pond is no more, the woods I used to shoot in, in any direction I chose, are housing developments now. I used to lay in bed at night, before we had air conditioning, and listen to the train whistle in the distance. Now, I go outside and I can hear the loading dock from the Wal-Mart SuperCenter. That sound carries because the forests between them and us have been cut down.
At the 7D, the forests still stand, full of game, the rivers burst with trout and staff and visitors alike still find weapons dropped by the Nez Perce and the Cavalry, hot in pursuit on their trail.
The Dominicks are keeping their heritage alive and in so doing, they’re keeping something alive for all of us. Die Living.