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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

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Fruit, horses and teepees in Yakima Valley

Tags: Travel
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Riding horses through Cherry Wood, where a sign jokingly says “horses prohibited.” [Lauren Kramer photo]

To truly appreciate the Yakima Valley in eastern Washington state, you have to drive with your nose in the wind. The valley’s rich, fertile land bears acre upon acre of fruit and vegetables, and their aroma is a meal in itself. Apple trees give way to tomato plants, peppers dart into view, hops climb 20-foot twine and fruit trees stand in perfectly symmetrical lines. 

With my nose as far out the window as possible, I was searching for the scent of mint at sunset. White Swan was my destination, a quick detour before I was headed to Zillah to spend the night in a teepee at Cherry Wood Bed, Breakfast & Barn.

I smelled the mint fields before I saw them: wafts of fresh, crisp mint that felt like a breath of chewing gum in the breeze. Then the fields were before me – acres of ankle-high greens that provide most of America’s peppermint and spearmint oils. Once the mint plants are harvested and distilled, a single pound of their oil can flavour 12,500 sticks of chewing gum, 1,000 tubes of toothpaste and 50,000 candies.

I’d flown in to Yakima Airport earlier that day, marvelling from the sky at the massive spread of farmland. The city of Yakima, a dusty town with a downtown core that is gradually recovering from the economic recession, is home to the valley’s only synagogue, Temple Shalom.

“There’ve been Jews in the valley at least since the 1940s,” says Paula Glazer Vornbrock, a 33-year resident who came to Yakima from Michigan. The 45 families who maintain membership purchased a home for the synagogue on Browne Street 25 years ago. A student rabbi flies in from Los Angeles once a month to lead services and teach Hebrew school. “We’ve watched the community develop over the years,” Vornbrock reflects, “but in terms of cohesiveness, well, there’s room for improvement there.”

It was dusk as I approached Cherry Wood, where a sign at the gate quips “horses prohibited.” You’d have to know Pepper Fewel, the owner of this bed, breakfast and barn, to know it was a joke, though, for horses are her passion and the backbone of her Triple T Ranch in Zillah. 

Pepper opened her B&B a decade ago, but quickly found demand outpacing her space. With a 78-acre ranch stretching before her, she bought a series of teepees, outfitting them with comfortable beds and linens, lights, air conditioners and refrigerators. A few feet from the teepee door flap there are clean porta-potties, open-air showers and roofless bathtubs that offer starlit bathing after dark.

Guests loved the novelty of sleeping in a teepee, but they wanted to experience a chunk of ranch life, too. That’s when Pepper began offering orchard rides on her 28 horses. The five-hour excursions take riders through valley farmland with stops at a few wineries and lunch along the way. On a hot day in August, I accompanied her daughter, Tiffany, on horseback, moving gently through neighbouring vineyards and orchards. It was peach season and the air was heavy with the scent of magnificent, ripening peaches. Tree boughs were heavy with the rosy-hued fruit, and my horse, Pistol, needed extra persuasion to keep walking instead of stopping for a snack.

We stopped at Cultura Winery, where Pepper’s son, Tad, and his wife have spent the past three years cultivating red wine. Their rich, dry wines speak of desert fruit, warm sun and fertile earth, capturing in a single glass the wealth that surrounds them in the valley.

Back at the ranch, Pepper spends her days working with and riding the horses she loves. At least 14 of them she rescued from the feedlot, their final stop before they were to meet the butcher’s knife. “We take the discarded horses of the world and we polish them,” she says, gazing at her horses fondly. “Unfortunately, not all of them are fit to be Cherry Wood horses, but for those that do make the cut, it’s like they won the horse lottery.”

Pepper puts her horses through a series of tests to ensure they won’t be spooked by flapping plastic bags and tarps, the sound of plastic water bottles or ringing cellphones, all noises they will encounter as they carry guests on the orchard tours. Those that react well and are suited to working on the ranch get to stay. “All they ask for is respect,” she says. “And here, they get it.”

That night I marvelled at the warm glow of light inside the teepee, its graceful arc into the sky and the feeling of protection within its canvas circumference. The silence was complete until the guttural whinny of a nearby horse startled me awake, reminding me exactly where I was: on a ranch surrounded by miles of fruit trees, ensconced in a teepee with nothing but a tie-down on its entrance to prevent the desert wind from exposing my little sanctuary inside.

Morning would bring more desert sunshine, a breakfast of fruit compote and perhaps another horseback amble through the orchards. Pepper stroked her horses lovingly, speaking softly to them. From the twinkle in her eyes, it’s easy to tell she’s a woman deeply in love. “It sounds corny,” she told me, “but I’m living my dream.”

If You Go:

Rates at Cherry Wood Bed, Breakfast & Barn are $185 per night, double occupancy, breakfast included, and adults only. Horseback Orchard rides are available at $175 per person, lunch included. Info: www.cherrywoodbbandb.com or call 509-829-3500.

Yakima is a seven-hour drive from Vancouver or a quick flight from Vancouver via Seattle on Alaska Airlines. For information on the Yakima Valley, contact the www.visityakima.com or call 800-221-0751.

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