Roaming with Buffalo in a 2017 Audi A4 Allroad
Avoiding paved roads at New Mexico's sprawling Ladder Ranch
Steve Dobrott's voice is calm and comforting as it crackles over the radio. "It's a good day to get lost out here," he says. During his 24 years as the manager of New Mexico's Ladder Ranch, he's explored every inch of this 156,000-plus acre property. As he guides us to one of his favorite spots at the ranch's north end, his white Chevrolet Silverado bounces over rocks that we edge around in our Gotland Green 2017 Audi A4 Allroad. The wagon's ground clearance is good, but it's no truck. Gray rain clouds hang low, and thick fog obscures the rutted two-track, so we take it slow as we scan the horizon for bison.
"Do you hear the music playing?" Dobrott jokes as we climb up and over a ridge and see some 200 bison huddled together, their damp, dark-brown fur matted and dripping. Dobrott comes to a stop but waves us on, telling us we can drive into the heart of the herd if we go slowly and keep quiet. The Allroad's 252-horsepower, turbocharged inline-four faintly hums as the stout Michelin Defender LTX light-truck tires we strapped on for this trip delicately crush bushes and brush. When grunting bison fill each of the Allroad's windows and mirrors, we turn off the engine, get out of the Audi, and lean against the driver's door, listening to the deep, powerful breaths of the broadchested bovines.
Media mogul Ted Turner had the right idea buying this property in the early '90s, wanting somewhere to kick back, hunt quail, and concentrate on his ongoing conservation efforts. Ladder Ranch sits just outside the small town of Truth or Consequences, which changed its name from Hot Springs in 1950 when the NBC Radio quiz show "Truth or Consequences" offered an annual party to any town that renamed itself after the program. The ranch rests in the foothills of the mountainous Black Range, with elevation spanning from 4,500 to 10,000 feet, and it shelters four tributaries of the Rio Grande river — the Animas, Seco, Palomas, and Cuchillo — which help support breathtaking biodiversity.
The Allroad feels surefooted on this red gravel trail. Its body stays composed as its suspension soaks up the washboard earth.
Turner's then-wife Jane Fonda decorated the property's adorable, two-story ranch house (Turner still visits often, and the house can be rented as part of a Ted Turner Expeditions experience), while he focused on creating a privately owned preservation for New Mexico's flora and fauna. Throughout Ladder Ranch's 245 square miles, you can see elk, deer, antelope, mountain lions, bears, buffalo, turkeys, and wolves wandering through cottonwoods and pines and across desert grasslands. There are even petroglyphs carved into rocks by ancient indigenous peoples. The rich habitat around Ladder Ranch allows at-risk species, such as leopard frogs and cutthroat trout, to survive and also helps healthy species thrive.
Turner brought in Dobrott — a respected biologist researching quail — from the outset to build up the property's quail population as well as nurture habitats for other sensitive species. Dobrott started by removing 250 miles of perimeter fence so Turner could bring buffalo onto the property. Now, a quarter century later, Dobrott oversees a team of employees and a herd of more than 1,000 bison. "I never had any experience with bison when I came here," he says. "Twenty-four years of handling buffalo has taught me a lot about that species. It's been an all-around education to the facets of ranching and managing wildlife on the property."
Through the bison's measured inhalations, we hear one sharp, snappy snort and turn to see a giant female with her tail pointed straight up. Dobrott says she probably thinks the Audi is a "critter" because of its peering, eye-like LED headlights and tells us to move slowly as we get back into the Allroad. We shift the wagon's seven-speed automatic transmission into drive and begin to herd the bison, but it's not long before they buck and run toward the hills where we can't follow.
Ladder Ranch is lovely but also daunting, with the majority of its rugged terrain pretty much inaccessible to anything without hooves or paws. "There are about 500 miles of 'road' on the ranch," Dobrott says. "We try to get out and clean them once a year if we can. Some of the roads, we don't, and they're not very passable." It's a 20-mile straight shot to Turner's ranch house where we're shacking up, but we'll need most of the day to get there, winding our way up and down tight mountain passes, tiptoeing through deep creeks, and doing our best not to beach the Audi on a boulder. The Allroad's plastic-covered belly can handle scratches from small stones and tall grass, but it's best to avoid the big stuff.
The rain slows to a stop, and we set off south with Dobrott leading the way. The car's adaptive dampers are set in off-road mode, and the Allroad feels surefooted on this red gravel trail. Its body stays composed as its suspension soaks up the washboard earth, and its rear end breaks loose and slides as we power out of slippery corners. Dobrott heads up a particularly steep stretch of road, and after the crest his taillights disappear in the fog. We charge after him but stomp on the brakes near the top, stopping to turn on hill-descent control, which holds the Allroad at a set speed. The ABS gnaws at the brake rotors as the car saunters down the slope at a steady 6 mph. We land in a stark, narrow offshoot of Cuchillo Creek, where the dried-up bed is a craggy mess of sharp stones and bulging landmasses laced in loose gravel. Worse yet, heavy mist has once again settled on top of us, so visibility is nil. We switch on the Allroad's front and rear fog lights before crawling forward, getting out every few hundred feet to lift and heave particularly gnarly stones; the heated steering wheel, part of the $500 cold-weather package, is now much appreciated.
The Allroad shimmies as the tires claw at the glassy, muddy route, which thankfully turns to gravel when we eventually reach the top.
Slivers of sunlight leak through the overcast sky as we slowly make progress. We're happy to have satellite radio playing through the wagon's Bang & Olufsen audio system, the music helping to keep the mood light as we navigate the ranch's remote and wild terrain. As the creek jogs left, the bed turns to soft, smooth sand that the Allroad plows across. "That should be the worst of it," an apologetic Dobrott says. We begin to climb again, and as we snake up narrow passes, horses and stallions start to appear in the mist, steam shooting from their splayed nostrils. The clouds clear, and we see snowcapped mountains jutting up from the skyline, and in the foreground a huge herd of giant elk prances up the face of a verdant slope.
We stop on the spine of a tall hill, pull up Google Maps on the Allroad's navigation system and confirm what we already know: We're in the middle of nowhere. We stare out across the boundless landscape, appreciating the opposing color palette that seems like it shouldn't blend together as well as it does. As we walk, we scoop up black, pearly white, and pink dirt sandwiched together like Neapolitan ice cream — an amazing soil variety the likes of which we've never seen before. We get back in and press on, but it's not long before we stop again near the edge of Animas Creek, where Dobrott points toward a humongous tree with a thick trunk. "I like that tree," he says looking up at its lanky branches, spinning and twisting out in every direction like long, white ribbons. "It's mystical. It's a mystery how these trees got here. It's the only canyon in this drainage that has these Arizona sycamores. They're more common west of Continental Divide, but for some reason we have them here. And they're ancient trees."
Back in the Audi we cross the first of about two dozen creeks that grow wider and deeper as we get closer to the ranch house. We enter each creek slowly, making sure the Audi won't bottom out, then go flat out toward the far bank. The rushing water overwhelms the Allroad's flared wheel wells, flies up, and lands on the windshield, causing the rain-sensing wipers to turn on. Fortunately the wagon has no issues fording the little rivers. "I know you've heard me say it before, but that should be the worst of it," Dobrott says just as we come to an appropriately named pass called Greasy Hill. Not a minute after Dobrott jinxed us, we hit a slick patch of road that sends the Allroad into a four-wheel slide, and the passenger-side tires land in a deep rut on the edge of the trail. The wagon is fine, but we have to back down the hill to level ground and take another shot at the ascent. The Allroad shimmies as the tires claw at the glassy, muddy route, which thankfully turns to gravel when we eventually reach the top. Just below us is the white ranch house.
"I was concerned that we were going to tear up the car or get stuck where we'd blow a tire or bust something, but as it turns out, it performed just fine, especially in the rocks and mud," Dobrott says as we drink coffee next to a hissing fireplace. "It just doesn't have enough clearance." Maybe not to make it across Ladder Ranch completely unscathed, sure, but the Allroad has plenty of clearance and absolutely enough talent to be considered a light off-road vehicle. Ladder Ranch turned out to be more treacherous than originally expected, but the Allroad handled it just fine, and its underbody has a few scars to prove it. The ranch's chef, Tatsu Miyazaki, cooks us an unexpectedly luxurious meal that starts with salad and soup made from locally sourced, seasonable vegetables, moves to a perfectly cooked, prime cut of bison that comes from the same place that processes Turner's herd, and ends with a delicious mousse sitting atop a frothing mixture of water and dry ice.
When we ask Dobrott what he's going to do now after such a long tenure at Ladder Ranch, he says, "I'll stay connected to this ranch as long as Ted wants me. I think it's an example to others how a ranch can be managed, balancing commerce and conservation." (As it happens, Dobrott retired at the end of 2016; though he remains involved with Ted Turner Expeditions, ranch management duties have been handed over to John Hurd, formerly the manager of the Turner-owned Bluestem Ranch in Oklahoma). After a handshake, he tips his cowboy hat as a goodbye. We can barely keep our eyes open as we slink back toward the fire and collapse onto one of the house's bison-fur rugs, rubbing our bare feet along the soft center. We smile as we drift to sleep, recalling the hauntingly beautiful sound of 200 bison taking deep, heavy breaths.
About Ladder Ranch
Ladder Ranch is part of the larger Ted Turner Expeditions luxury travel experiences, featuring eco-conscious adventures individually tailored to guests interested in anything from mountain biking to bison photography to simply exploring the ranch's 156,000 acres of unspoiled wilderness. A three-night expedition for two people with accommodations at Ted's house starts at $9,000. Visit theladderranch.com.
2017 Audi A4 Allroad Specifications
|PRICE||$44,950/$52,625 (base/as tested)|
|ENGINE||2.0L turbo DOHC 16-valve I-4/252 hp @ 5,000-6,000 rpm, 273 lb-ft @1,600-4,500 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, AWD wagon|
|EPA MILEAGE||23/28 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||187.0 x 72.5 x 58.8 in|
|0-60 MPH||5.9 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||130 mph|