In between the southern stretch of the Great Plains and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains lies Vermejo Park Ranch—558,000 acres of wilderness now owned and cared for by 82-year-old media mogul Ted Turner, the third biggest private landowner in the US (John Malone, another media businessman takes first place; the Emerson family, heirs to a lumber empire, takes second).
Living in Chicago’s Loop it’s hard to find an easy walk where six feet of space between other people is a sure thing, meaning I had been living behind a mask for most of the year when I made this trip. Visiting a place so expansive and secluded, with so much space and copious isolation, struck me as the ultimate pandemic luxury. So my partner Laura and I decided to visit, which also gave me a chance to log 2,500 miles behind the wheel of the 2021 Volvo V90 Cross Country.
The Volvo, finished in Thunder Grey Metallic, was dropped off in front of my house, the keys tossed to me from a masked delivery driver. The Swedes make a great wagon, a format most Americans have pretty universally decided is not for them, preferring to gulp down minivans disguised as SUVs instead.
The 2021 Volvo V90 Cross Country is a stylish descendant of the iconic Volvo 940, a boxy tank of a car I still associate with the jerks from high school who tended to play lacrosse and vacation on Martha’s Vineyard. Traumatic high school associations aside, the V90 has carved out an interesting new persona in the limited wagon market. Contemporary Swedish sophistication makes it stand apart from, say, a more suburban-feeling Subaru Outback. It’s more comparable to something sleek like a Mercedes-Benz E-class wagon.
But hands down the most surprising features I fell in love with on this ride were the adaptive and semi-autonomous driving mode, two things I never knew I needed until I used them. In fact, I assumed I’d never even turn them on. I like the feel of driving after all and have been reliably underwhelmed with the tech on new cars.
Unlike when I’m riding new motorcycles, I try to never read the manual of cars. New cars are computers on wheels; if they’ve been designed well I’ll figure it out, right? I took the same approach with the 2021 Volvo v90 Cross Country. Despite a few quirks it’s infotainment and drive system work really well. The adaptive cruise control, which slows down when traffic demands it (or speeds up when possible or when you place your signal on to pass) was an absolute joy to use on the ride out to Vermejo Park Ranch. It’s easy to use and simple to adjust—you can set the computer to stay closer to the car in front of you in city driving, or you can space it out for the freeway. It’s intuitive. You’ll figure it out.
I had to learn to trust the semiautonomous driving, but after two minutes of panicking it became second nature. I used it for most of my trip. With a click of a button the car drives itself. Combined with adaptive cruise control all you need to do is keep a hand on the wheel, but otherwise the car does all the work.
I was surprised at how reliably it performed in rain and congested city traffic. In less demanding situations—say the 100-mile long, perfectly straight, not a car in site stretches of western Kansas—it was massively relaxing. That extra set of “eyes” on the road is like a deep breath of fresh air. It’s not life-changing, but it makes things easier. The fancy tech combined with the well-designed interior makes touring exceptionally comfortable. If you do long road trips you should try it.
The entrance to Vermejo Park Ranch is about 40 minutes west of the nearest small town, Raton, New Mexico, with a beautiful (paved) winding road into the park.
Once you enter the park the roads turn to dirt and the elevations climb to nearly 13,000 feet near the highest range, Big Costilla Peak. The majority of the grounds, including the ranch, lay in Raton Basin at a manageable 6,500 feet. It’s beautiful.
Vermejo Park Ranch has a history fitting of the American Wild West, complete with ghost towns and mining camp remnants. The ranch dates back to its first owner William Bartlett, a Chicagoan, who purchased it in 1902. Bartlett came from a long line of wealthy Americans, dating all the way back to Josiah Bartlett who signed the Declaration of Independence. He spared no expense building the ranch of his dreams.
Bartlett enlisted architect Joseph Silsbee, a mentor to Frank Lloyd Wright, to design opulent homes on the land. Bartlett’s home would be the largest—a 25,000-square-foot, seven-bedroom home in the California Mission style he called Casa Grande. But first, a smaller home, Casa Minor, was built from sandstone and Ponderosa Pine and finished with red tile and four stone chimneys. The residence was designed with a covered side walkway for an entrance to provide easy access to the forthcoming central lodge.
The homes were built and immaculately cared for during Bartlett’s time, hosting guests from across the country, including celebrities and presidents. Black and white photos of finely dressed hunting parties from the era are framed throughout the property.
When the Great Depression hit, Casa Minor and Casa Grande were boarded up and largely abandoned. Time eventually delivered new owners with a new vision for the ranch. In the 1950s the buildings suffered through a tacky renovation, and design highlights like Casa Grande’s handcrafted mosaic floors were doused in green plush carpet, the walls whitewashed.
That’s how the homes sat until, in 1996, Ted Turner and then wife Jane Fonda purchased Vermejo. With a vision of capturing the ranch’s early 20th century charm while creating an important American conservation site they began a painstaking renovation process. Casa Grande was tastefully restored. When I walked through the doors I felt transported back to Bartlett’s time—his original books still sit on the ornate shelves, his Steinway piano tuned and ready to be played.
Once Casa Grande was refinished the Turners began work on Casa Minor, and last year the completely renovated building was reintroduced as Turner House—a 10-bedroom retreat that captures the charm of the original buildings but with modern conversions like natural gas fireplaces and a spa. It’s also where I called home during my stay.
The renovation is part of a larger plan to transition Vermejo Park Ranch from a more traditional dude ranch, a place for hunters and fishers, to a luxury resort where travelers can experience nature without killing and eating it. As the kids say, “I’m here for that.”
Vermejo Park Ranch offers fantastic hiking, horseback riding, and fly-fishing, but my favorite activity by far was exploring the pristine land and wildlife in privacy while roaming around dirt roads in the 2021 Volvo v90 Cross Country.
Most of the roads are well maintained, but with 590,000 acres to explore it wasn’t uncommon to come across fallen trees, unmarked roads, steep elevations, snowy corners, or sudden herds of wildlife. It was a blast. And the Volvo handled obstacles with ease. I never doubted its capability to get me back home.
Returning to the ranch at night we would begin to plot the next day’s activities over a fireside dinner. The food at Vermejo is absolutely fantastic—house-made pastas and ice cream were a highlight—the service well considered and friendly without fussy formality, and importantly, the lodge has a full bar.
Anyone interested in wildlife and the outdoors will find lots of ways to spend their time at Vermejo Park Ranch. There are stunning mountain views to be found, horses to be ridden, herds of Castle Rock bison to track, lakes and streams to explore. Or, as happened with me on my last night, you can just have a seat, sip a drink at the massive fireplace in front of Turner House, and watch as hundreds of roaming elk saunter by.
Vermejo has an impressive conservation and sustainability mission, with LEED-certified buildings, solar power, a policy of no single-use plastic, and a “save everything” motto. They’ve successfully reintroduced the Rio Grande cutthroat trout and are making efforts to help save the black-footed ferret, Bolson tortoise, Mexican gray wolf, and Chiricahua leopard frog. Their guides are friendly and knowledgeable, and if you want to chew their ears off about what kind of rock you’re standing on or what the deal is with elk antlers, they’re happy to do so.
Road trips are my favorite way to travel. Something restorative happens when you set off with a destination but no strict path or itinerary. Maybe it ties into our ancestral desire to wander, or maybe going fast on a nice set of wheels is just plain fun. Either way, the 2021 Volvo v90 Cross Country is a versatile road-tripping rig and a great car to explore the nature, the dirt roads, mountain views, animals, and long forgotten contraptions from the American Wild West.
Photos by Chris Force for Sixtysix