The Gannon family invites your family to visit them at Rough Cut, a western town in the middle of the Smoky Mountains in Eastern Tennessee.

"Come on, Lightning, let's go! That's a good boy!"

It was the voice of my 11-year-old grandson, Evan, emanating from far up the trail that meandered through the deep woods surrounding the French Broad Outpost Ranch.

I was waiting, camera at the ready, for the trail riders to come into range. When at last they came into view, my daughter, Mandy, explained why the peaceful forest was more noisy than usual. "Evan never shut up the entire trip," she said. "I think we're going to have to give Lightning ear plugs before the next trail ride."

The talkative one and poor Lightning were second in the line of horses and riders. Evan couldn't wait to describe, in great detail, the thrills of the trail ride. "Lightning is the best horse. He does everything I tell him and he doesn't go too fast," he said, his excitement overflowing.

Evan, Mandy, my 15-year-old grandson, Michael, and I arrived at the dude ranch on Sunday afternoon. The ranch was located deep in the Great Smoky Mountains, and we were to stay for four days. The TV-watching, cell phone-texting, iPod-listening boys wanted no part of a dude ranch when we first told them we were going. We told them how much fun we were going to have, but our enthusiasm for the trip fell on deaf ears.

When we checked in at Rough Cut, the lodge, the boys' eyes were as big as saucers. The buildings looked as though they were cut out of the woods just a few days before, the fields were full of grazing horses, and the road to our cabin was bumpy with rocks and sinkholes. The cabin itself was beautiful. It was constructed of more rough boards, but it was air conditioned and very comfortable. There were quilts on the beds and rocking chairs on the porch. By the door hung a white towel plainly marked "boot towel."

We were told supper (never "dinner") would be served at 6 p.m. and we were expected to be on time. The dining room was spacious with long tables and chairs and the meal was served family-style. We had meatloaf, mashed potatoes, green beans, salad and ice cream pie for dessert. When we finished eating, all the staff assembled at the front of the room and Shawn Gannon, an owner and the "go-to" guy introduced the staff to us and then asked each of the families to introduce themselves. One family had 10 members, from grandparents to young children. They had decided a while back they would come to the ranch every year and were enjoying their third trip here. Other families were second-year visitors. We were the only first-timers. Everyone was friendly and we felt welcome. Shawn explained some of the rules, such as "horses always have the right-of-way."

After supper, we were trekked off to sit on some logs surrounding a round pen. Shawn stood in the middle and a beautiful horse called Echo literally ran circles around him as he instructed us in the fine art of horseback riding. When he motioned to her, Echo stopped immediately and he demonstrated how to make the horse know who's boss. He explained that each of us was to have our own horse. We would ride and take care of our horses for the duration of our time.

Evan was, by now, all excited about having his own horse, but Michael was still skeptical. Each guest was interviewed to find out how much he or she knew about horses and how much each had actually ridden, in order to be matched with the proper horse.

After breakfast the next morning, Mandy was assigned a somewhat lively horse, but Evan and Michael were given beginner horses. The closest the boys had ever been to a real horse was at the fair where they rode ponies walking in a circle under a tent.

As each went to the pasture to fetch his horse, neither boy showed the slightest sign of fear. The phrase "like a duck to water" comes to mind. Evan loved Lightning and explained to me that in Lightning's younger days, the beautiful Arabian was spirited, and that a mark on one of his legs looked like a lightning strike. We lined up the horses at the hitching post and were given instructions on how to place a saddle on its back. No problem!

After a get-acquainted walk around the corral, they had trail rides, cattle moving and penning, tubing on the beautiful river, games and crafts, and the granddaddy of all crafts: finger painting on a horse. We had wonderful meals, some outside and some in the dining room. I've never seen so many people have so much fun. Both the boys want to go back next year.

It's interesting that everyone we told about our impending trip had the same reaction: "I've always wanted to do that. Tell us all about it when you get back." It's evident we chose the right dude ranch. It's the only ranch in the south that adheres strictly to a western theme. My city-fied grandchildren had to have cowboy hats after the first day and Michael took over my cowboy boots.

All I can say is it was the best vacation for families I've seen in two years of travel writing. I highly recommend it.

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