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.

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