How Ted Turner Helped Me Fall in Love With Nature
By Judith Fein, photos by Paul Ross

A certified city slicker ventures into the American West and discovers a whole other world, one to be admired instead of feared.

New Mexico travel

The match of a ranch and me was not made in heaven. I hail from New York City, and I shared with Woody Allen a conviction that nature is…things eating other things. Nature means things that crawl and creep, prowl, growl and sting, leap on your unsuspecting body, determined to rip out your throat. If you're lucky, your gullet is gouged before your organs are mauled and then devoured.

The transformation happened in the northern part of New Mexico, near the Colorado border, on the grounds of media mogul Ted Turner's Vermejo Park Ranch. Ted doesn't do anything small, and his ranch is no exception. It covers 593,000 acres of mountains and plains, lakes and streams. It encompasses five different ecosystems and probably has the most abundant wildlife in the lower 48 states of the USA. Ted's also an arch conservationist, so Vermejo Park Ranch is all about nature.

Ted Turner ranch ovens

So what was I doing on Ted's turf? Until recently, the ranch was frequented by wealthy hunters and fishermen who could pursue their prey in a highly exclusive and pristine environment. But then the climate began to change, and the folks who run the ranch noticed that the rivers were beginning to dry up, the animals were impacted, and who could predict whether the happy hunting grounds would be the same as they were in the past? They decided to offer nature tours, which would include a private car and guide to take guests to ancient pit houses and tipi rings; 25-foot-high, beehive-shaped brick ovens used to make charcoal; relics of coal mining. The tours would involve cowboy camps, walks in the mountains, picnics by the lake, gourmet dining, wildlife viewing, and a world of peace, peace, peace.

Culture, calm, history, and food called to me, and so I went. I arrived late afternoon, walked around a bit, then dined on sliders made from bison, elk, bratwurst, bison and black beans. I sat on the porch outside the restaurant, watching the star-studded sky for a few minutes before retiring to my TV-free room where I fidgeted with my iPhone before crashing.


Watching Over a Damselfly

The next morning my nature tour began with private guides James and Nicole. We walked to the pit houses, a cowboy camp, the brick ovens, and then we stopped at a lake with a solitary fishing boat. All the while my mind traveled to work, things I needed to do at home, the fact that I forgot to buy more dental floss.

James reached into the water and pulled out a slimy little larva. To my surprise, James placed the larva on his shirt, right above the breast pocket.

"If I put the nymph here, in an hour or two it will morph into a blue-winged damselfly like the one right above your head," he said.

His words, the dainty damselfly and the little nymph absolutely stopped me and my darting monkey mind in our tracks. The idea that one could actually watch metamorphoses taking place was so novel, so miraculous, that I literally couldn't walk.

"James, can you put it on my shirt?"

He could and he did. And I couldn't take my eyes off the little fella. I thought about nothing else. When I slid into the back seat of the car to drive up into the mountains, I couldn't see the forest for the nymph. And as I watched and protected the insect, I could hear the sound of Velcro ripping as my heart opened to nature. It was so intimate and personal. I was falling in love.


At one point, Nicole and James stopped near a beaver dam. Ordinarily, I would look for a moment, mumble something like "nice," and move on. But this time I stood still for a long time, gazing in awe at the architectural and engineering feat accomplished by the beaver, who gnawed, cut, designed, schlepped, and constructed a multi-tiered habitat that included a home and a storage area.

It was less than an hour later that we spotted a black bear, with golden fur, about ten feet from our vehicle. He was lifting a rock, looking underneath for ants and insects, which he licked to accumulate calories for his long winter hibernation. Then he placed the rock back on the ground, walked, picked up another rock, and licked some more. After the third rock, the bear turned in our direction. He clearly saw us, but he didn't run away or exhibit any fear. He allowed us to watch him, as he continued his feeding on the underbelly of rocks. By this time I was so deeply in love that I spoke to the bear in my mind, thanking him, blessing him, telling him I would always, always remember him.

From that moment on, I was in nature, with nature, connected to nature. There was nothing else in my mind. Nicole stopped the car when she spotted a herd of cow elk (there are 8,000 elk on the ranch), and I bonded emotionally with the grazing ladies. She stopped again near a group of pronghorn and wild turkey. I smiled as I recalled that Benjamin Franklin wanted the latter to be the national bird. Then James beckoned me to observe the winged ones that won the coveted title. Through James's scope, I watched babies in a bald eagle nest, with the papa perched nearby.


At night, I chose from a menu that included pan seared bison tenderloin served with lump crab meat and butter poached lobster; steel head trout picatta; and five peppercorn seared elk rib eye adorned with a red currant and madeira glace. As a fowl aficionado, I thought the grilled Cornish rock hen with celery root and parmesan puree were culinary bliss. And then I wondered if perhaps I should become a vegetarian so that the animals could continue to live outside of me, rather than inside of me.

I envy the next visitors, who, perhaps, will fall in love with nature for the first time as I did, when they open their hearts to damselfly nymphs and golden-hued black bears. I am already eyeing my calendar to see when I can go back again, as I miss the elk and pronghorn, the skies and the streams that are now so much a part of me.

Vermejo Park Ranch

If you go:

Accommodations are comfortable, rustic ranch style. The price of $375 per person per day includes all meals, accommodations, private guide with vehicle, and customized tours. Half-price for children aged 13-17, and children under 13 are free. Special themed events and packages available throughout the year. (575) 445-3097.

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel journalist who has contributed to more than 100 publications and is the author of the book LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Her website is

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