With her youngest child nearly grown and her divorce final, Rhodes decided it was OK to think about her own interests. Next to her family, however, she wasn't quite sure what those interests might be. For decades she had put herself at the bottom of the to-do list.
Then she remembered the horses.
Growing up in Seattle where her physician-philanthropist father Buster Alvord taught neuropathology at the University of Washington, Rhodes was in her early teens when she traveled with friends to their horse ranch near Port Townsend. There they rode bareback in the summer-warmed, shallow waters of Admiralty Inlet.
"I'm the world's biggest chicken, but I remembered loving those horses and horseback riding," she said.
That love of riding led her a dozen years ago to establish the Rhodes River Ranch in the Oso area east of Arlington. To build her 150-acre-plus horse ranch, Rhodes, now 64, bought several old dairy farms on the south side of the Stillaguamish River. She pieced it together and surrounded it all with a white fence.
And almost incidentally, Rhodes created what has become a neighborhood draw and a regional attraction.
To supplement her employees' wages, Rhodes decided to feed a hearty lunch to her ranch hands. She also fed her clients and the construction guys who built the ranch's 120-foot-by-200-foot indoor equestrian arena.
There was no place to eat in Oso, unless somebody wanted a corndog and a pop at the corner store, she said.
So Rhodes hired Bonnie Rose of Arlington to cook the noon buffet. It wasn't long before people up and down Highway 530 heard about Rose's gourmet ranch food.
"So we opened the Restaurant at Rhodes River Ranch on Fridays for lunch and it went from there," Rhodes said. "We're open to the public each day now."
The focus of the world-class ranch is boarding, breeding, rearing, training and sales of western equestrian performance horses. More than 80 horses live at the ranch, and people come from around the region to take riding lessons.
The Rhodes name has garnered a national reputation for good animals. Rhodes also has earned a name as a good neighbor.
"Jean is so generous," Rose said. "She employs local people and throws a big Christmas party for all the neighborhood kids."
Rose continues to serve the buffet to the ranch crew and clients, and now there's a menu from which to choose as well.
For Rose, the noon buffet gives the ranch a family feel and helps foster loyalty among the crew.
"It's a chance for us all to sit down together and get on the same page," Rose said. "We're often joined by local loggers, road construction crews, seniors trying to watch their money and people headed to their cabins on Lake Cavanaugh or around the Mountain Loop."
Former Darrington Mayor Joyce Jones calls the restaurant one of her favorites. It's turned into a destination for good reason, Jones said.
The restaurant buys seasonal, local food and regional beer and wine, Rose said. And the decor of the restaurant has local elements as well, some of the wood having been milled right in Oso.
The restaurant stretches the entire length of the south side of the horse arena and, like the Hit-It-Here Cafe at Safeco Field, has a great view of the action below.
Near the front door of the restaurant, one often can find Rhodes holding court, with her dogs Diesel and Arizona asleep at her feet.
A Bluetooth cellphone headset in her ear and silver whistle around her neck, Rhodes enjoys talking with the restaurant customers. Later, she heads to the barns to visit with her beloved horses.
She looks down through the restaurant windows to the red-trimmed arena and horse stalls. Ranch manager Sean McBurney drives a tractor that rakes the arena floor and gets it ready for an afternoon of training.
"I am so pleased that it's so gorgeous," Rhodes said.
Patti Skipton, the coach of the Warm Beach Vaulters, agrees.
The vaulters are a few dozen kids who combine dance and gymnastics performed on the back of a moving horse.
"The kids love practicing and performing at Rhodes River Ranch. Our home arena is covered, but it's still outdoors," Skipton said before a recent noon meeting with Rhodes. "It's nice here and warm, and we feel very welcome."
Ranching is hard, Rhodes said, and this will be another year that her businesses don't make a profit, she said. Still, it's another year to learn more about the language of horses and to watch people and animals work together.
"I will never be a horse whisperer, but I know horses feel everything and yet are amazingly tolerant," Rhodes said. "I don't enjoy dealing with all the details of the ranch, but I love it when I see the horses in training or when people come into the building for the first time and say, 'Wow!' That makes it all worth it."
Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Restaurant at Rhodes River Ranch, 22016 Entsminger Road, is open weekdays for lunch, Friday and Saturday evenings for supper, and weekends for brunch. More info: 360-474-8313; www.rhodesriverranch.com.
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