By Irene Middleman Thomas
“I am definitely NOT the murderer,” I cried out to the group assembled in the dining room of the ranch. “I’ve never hurt anybody in my life! Maybe I DO have voices in my head that tell me what to do, but so what?” I looked down at my instruction sheet and followed the next item, which directed me to do my best dance moves. I did so, to everyone’s laughter.
That is what the Murder Mystery Weekends at Sundance Trail Ranch near Red Feather Lakes are all about—fun, escape and stepping out of your box.
The 140-acre Sundance is one of many guest ranches in Colorado, but with its own unique appeal. Sundance Trail maintains 22 miles of trail between its land and the Roosevelt National Forest. The ranch sits at an elevation of 8,000 feet, and its horseback rides offer views of the Snowy Range, Mummy Range and Rawah Wilderness. The ranch is located about 37 miles northwest of Fort Collins.
Open year round, with the owners living on-site, it is small and cozy. The ranch accommodates just 24 people, with seven suites of rooms, varying in size from one to three bedrooms. Some suites are in the main lodge, while others are in nearby cabins. The ranch is flexible about catering to special diets, special needs and special requests.
As one of the few ranches in the nation that permits weekend, and even one-night stays in off-season months (late September through mid-May), the ranch also started creative marketing efforts to bring folks in during those periods. Hence, the Murder Mystery Weekends, offered at no extra charge. The first was held in 1999 on New Year’s Eve. We partook in the 20th such holiday event with six others this past New Year’s Eve.
Mystery Weekends can be one-nighters or a full weekend. Arrival time for us was on the day of the event, at 2 p.m., followed by free time to snowshoe, hike, pet horses, relax and read, enjoy the hot tub, sleep, whatever you desire. Appetizers and dinner began at 6 p.m., and the program began shortly thereafter. The multi-day mysteries can be two or three days, interrupted by horseback riding and socializing. All meals are included (in the one-night stay, guests have dinner, breakfast and a morning ride, then depart.)
Dan Morin, who owns the ranch with his wife, Ellen, sent us our “roles” ahead of time. He limits the mystery events to no more than 12 people, having learned that larger groups don’t tend to work out as well. He advised us in advance of any costumes and/or supplies we should bring for our character’s role. In our case, we were each told to bring an “ugly holiday sweater,” and for me, a notepad as I was to be an investigative journalist (casting coincidence?) who was starting to suffer from dementia.
The mystery scripts, of which the ranch owns seven, are divided into several main rounds of party play. Each participant receives a sheet with the clues necessary for his/her character for the round. Morin instructed us to ask the indicated questions listed on our sheets and to pay close attention to everyone’s clues.
“You can hide the truth but do not fabricate clues. This could alter the mystery for the other guests. However, pay attention to character traits—there may be compulsive liars among you!” Indeed, Morin jokingly referred to our group as “quite sociopathic.” Rumors of “blackmail, greed and revenge” are swirling, he warned.
As the game progresses, participants have quite a bit of information to filter through to figure out the motive and whodunit. At the end of Round 2, we would be asked to submit our guess of which character was the culprit.
The most intriguing factor was that any one of us could be the murderer and would not know it until the end of the game along with everybody else. “Therefore, if you feel you are the guilty party by the end of Round Two, by all means, accuse yourself,” says Morin.
In each mystery, it is best to let loose and enjoy your role. Some characters are designed to be played in a more subtle way than other characters. Some of us chose to embellish our character’s personality, while others were more reserved.
In the end, the most reserved member of the group was the murderer, much to his and all but one person’s surprise. Our “victim” was not such a surprise, as all of our characters despised her. As she emerged dead from the murder scene, paper bag covering her head, no tears were shed.
Sundance Ranch runs five to six mystery events annually and has a waiting list for individuals and smaller groups hoping to match up with others. Some groups have returned two or three times for new mysteries. “Who would like this?” one participant was asked. “Who wouldn’t?” she replied.
To find out more, visit SundanceTrail.com.
Irene Middleman Thomas, a Loveland-based writer, has been to some 20 Western guest ranches but this was her first Mystery Night at one. Find her at www.irenethomas.com. To comment on this article, email firstname.lastname@example.org.