The midday sun hangs high in a cloud-flecked sky, dust whirling around in its brilliant light. Just as we’ve crested a grassy hilltop and cut the engine of our open-air ATV, the subject of our search fills the frame where the windshield ought to be.
A shaggy beast stands motionless, save for the slow, rhythmic stamping of a spindly front leg into the auburn dirt. Whether the gesture is in welcome or warning isn’t yet clear, but with unyielding eye contact and staccato snorts, he makes it known that we’re intruding on his turf—his and all the other members of his herd that are scattered around.
Apparently deciding we pose no threat, the ungulate turns his attention back to the grass. I slide my iPhone out of my pocket and start snapping pictures. “We need one of them to go stand on top of that ridge,” says guide and driver Ken Stinnett. He issues a breathy, baritone “Uuuuurt” in the animals’ direction—a peace offering of sorts—then resumes his own picture-taking through a telephoto lens.
The moment could not be more magical.
For anyone who’s been on an African safari, this experience might sound familiar. But it’s not a Cape buffalo or a rhino we’re watching, and I haven’t crossed an ocean—or the equator—to get here. It’s a herd of American bison that holds our attention captive on a warm, sunny September afternoon in the vast expanse of Ted Turner’s Ladder Ranch in Caballo, New Mexico.
Unlike Africa’s game reserves, which see tens of thousands of safari goers each year, Ladder Ranch is relatively uncharted territory for tourists. In fact, at the time of my visit, it has been just days since media mogul and conservationist Ted Turner officially opened his private ranch for eco-tours through his new travel company, Ted Turner Expeditions. I am among the first travelers to gain access to the staggering 156,000-acre property and sleep, eat, and relax in the cozy ranch house on-site.
With just five bedrooms and not a check-in desk or valet stand in sight, I have the place to myself—the spacious living room with a giant stone fireplace and gleaming wood floors; the wide front porch with white wooden rocking chairs and majestic mountain views; the retro-style kitchen with twin fridges and eat-in nook; and the comfortable sleeping quarters, including Turner’s own sun-drenched master suite, Ted’s Room.
Included in the nightly rate—$6,000 for as many as four guests—is a handful of private staff (including a personal chef) who retreat to the bunkhouse next door when daily duties are done. Each morning, I wake to find the dining room’s hulking wood table set with fresh fruit and all manner of mains, from veggie omelets to French toast to blue-corn pancakes. The kitchen is stocked with soft drinks, snacks, and other provisions I have requested. And my house manager ensures that I never leave feeling uneasy about how suitable my shoes are for whatever adventure lies ahead.
A daily routine develops: As I finish my morning coffee, my private guide arrives and offers a brief on our next adventure on one of Turner’s properties in the area—walking through Ladder Ranch’s shallow streams, lush riparian forests, and desert grasslands; hiking to dizzying heights at the otherworldly 350,000-acre Armendaris Ranch; and soaking in natural hot springs at Sierre Grande Lodge & Spa. At the onset of each new adventure, I’m skeptical it can’t possibly top the first afternoon’s bison encounter—and each evening, I return to my temporary home on Ladder Ranch in disbelief over what I’ve seen.
On the final morning of my visit, I squeeze in one last outing before heading to the airport: a walk through Ladder Ranch’s soaring slot canyons, where ancient petroglyphs and other precious artifacts are still on full display. Feeling absolutely miniature in my environment, I turn my face skyward and start snapping pictures of the rock cliffs. I want to capture that perfect moment to remind myself how special and spectacular the experience on Ladder Ranch has been. This, I’m sure, is it.