For decades Jerry and Nancy Doebele would spend a summer evening or two at the Flying W Ranch. They drove across the cattle guard at 31st Street, through a pasture and past some cows to listen to the county western music they enjoy.
"When you hear the music beneath the sky, it's just neat," Jerry Doebele said Friday night, as once again he and Nancy made their summer trip to the ranch. Or rather, what remained of the ranch - once a preserved corner of the old west, last summer's Waldo Canyon fire reduced the ranch to a dirt plot and hillsides of charred trees.
Friday night was the summer's first and only night of live music at the Flying W Ranch, when the iron gate at the start of Chuckwagon Road was opened to the public for the first time since the devastating June 2012 fire. The 600 tickets to the one-night show were quickly sold out, said Scotty Vaughn, the pastor of the Church on the Ranch.
It was just like old times - sort of - with a chuckwagon dinner, and live music from the Flying W Wranglers as the sun set behind a hill bristling with dead trees.
David Bradley, one of four current Flying W Wranglers, has been riding his ATV through those dead trees, he said on Friday.
"It's just as ugly and as burned and black as ever," he said desparingly. Bradley and the other Wranglers have spent the past 14 months as itinerant singers after they lost their home. Along with the Wolfe family ranch buildings, Bradley's home burned to the ground in the fire that destroyed 347 homes and killed two people in Mountain Shadows.
Regardless of the trees and the bare lot, it felt good to be back on Friday night, Bradley said.
"But it's way different," he added.
Flying W had changed a lot over the decades. On June 8, 2012, the last time the Doebeles were there, it was way different from how it was when Nancy Doebele first went there in the 1950s. For years, the Doebeles followed a dirt road - and looked for that cattle guard - to get to the ranch.
Today, Jerry does a double-take, as the way to the ranch winds through suburbia and the Mountain Shadows neighborhood. The food was served on tin plates - "They would tell you to grab lemonade instead of coffee because the tin got too hot," Nancy said - and the picnic tables were notoriously unbalanced.
On Friday night, people brought their own chairs and parked them in front of a flatbed truck that served as a stage. They waited in a long, snaking line for their chuckwagon dinner, served on paper plates and catered by the AspenPointe cafe. As they waited, the Doebeles swapped tales of the old days with Mark Fisher, who said he first came to the ranch as a kid in 1964.
"Of course in the old days, they had five or six serving lines," Fisher said.
They talked about the days when the Wolfe family owned all the land "from here to the freeway," Fisher said, until "they sold it off little by little." Even after nearly 50 years of concerts at the old ranch, Fisher was seeing things he never had before.
"It's amazing how much more you can see without all the leaves on the trees," he said, and pointed to a bluff in the distance. "I never knew that rock was there."
While the ranch has a rich past, its future remains uncertain. Leigh Anne Wolfe, the daughter of owner Russ Wolfe, tearfully reminded her Friday night auidence that "we are still a disaster zone."
The family has not committed to rebuilding the ranch. "They have been real quiet about it," Bradley said of the family's plans for the future.
Whatever the family, or someone else, decides to do with the property, it will never be the same, Jerry Doebele said.
"It's nice to be back, but kind of sad," because the old ranch is gone forever, he said. "It's a realization that you can't deny anymore."
Contact Ryan Maye Handy: 636-0261