We met at The Ranch
True love at the El Rancho? It happens ... a lot

We met at The Ranch

Durango's El Rancho Tavern hopping on a typical night, where it can draw anyone from bikers to college kids to yocals./ Courtesy Photo

Missy Votel - 02/22/2024

Maybe it’s the Wild West anything-goes vibe. Or the pleather seats and medieval-looking light fixtures casting their tawdry glow. Or the cheap tequila shots and PBR, loud music or patrons packed in like sweaty, shall we say morally relaxed sardines on a Saturday night.

Whatever the draw, there’s no denying that when inhibitions – like beer funds – run low, the El Rancho Tavern is the place to go.

But aside from random hook-ups or impromptu make-out seshes in the front fishbowl window, some relationships that are kindled under the glow of the neon Ranch sign actually last longer than the ice cubes in your well drink.

In fact, there are some folks, whether jostling for a beer at the bar or scamming for a clandestine New Year’s Eve kiss (pre-pandemic, of course), who have found true love between those brick walls. Which, thankfully, can’t talk. (Yes, we know this story is a week late for Valentine’s Day. But, like finding true love, stalking folks for a good story takes time.)

To be sure, we are not talking one-night stands here. We are talking happily ever after, till death – or some other unfortunate circumstance – do us part.

And while pick-up lines, mating rituals and wooing strategies vary, there is one common theme: “I went to the Ranch to get a drink,” Lori Walsh, who met her husband, Jake, at The Ranch in 2003, said. Freshly graduated from CU and new to town, Walsh went to The Ranch with a guy friend. Did we mention she was sporting a striped tube top and bleach blonde hair?

“I was really shaping up for a win for the night,” Lori recalled.

Jake and Lori Walsh

Spying a cute guy at the bar talking to another girl, Lori made her not-so-subtle move.

“I was basically trying to get a drink,” a daunting task that anyone who has attended The Ranch on a Saturday night can sympathize with. “I pushed my way through, between them.”

Suffice to say, the stranger with the goatee (Jake) had no choice but to notice. He said hello, and from there, The Ranch cast its romantic spell.

“We ended up having lots of drinks,” Lori said.

Needless to say, memories got foggy and perhaps a bit steamy, but let’s just say things ended up at a doublewide near Elmore’s, where Lori was living at the time.

The next morning, the two bonded over hockey, a sport they both played, and proceeded “to have the same conversations we had had the night before,” Lori recalled. Unfortunately, this was the era before cell phones, when interested parties had to scrawl phone numbers, with a thing called a pen or pencil, on matchbooks or cocktail napkins. (Perish the thought, Gen Z!) Numbers were lost, irretrievable messages were left on random answering machines and weeks went by with no further love connection. Then a happenstance run-in, which involved Lori, an engineer, working outside and Jake stopping his truck in the middle of traffic, brought the two back together.

“He yelled, ‘I found your number, I want to take you out,’” Lori said.

And the rest is El Rancho history.  “We dated for seven years, got married, had our daughter Maddie and have been together for 20 years,” Lori said.

We’re not sure what The Ranch/hockey connection is – maybe it has to do with that classic Eau de Ranch, which is not unlike that of a hockey locker room – but Chelsea Reinsch, a hockey goalie, met future husband, Tim, also a hockey player, at The Ranch.

It was New Year’s Eve 2010, and Chelsea, 21 at the time, went with friend Shelley Mauch. A bartender of Gazpacho, Mauch introduced Chelsea to one of her regular bar customers, Tim.

“After introducing us, Shelley looked at us both and said, ‘Oh my god, you two are like cartoon characters,’” Chelsea recalled. “I looked at Tim and said, ‘Might as well call me wifey.’”

Then, on that note, Chelsea went to dance, and Tim fortunately did not run for the door. Seeing as how it was New Year’s Eve, and both Shelley and Chelsea were single with no love interests, they made a pact: they would kiss each other at midnight. But when the clock struck 12, Shelley found a better option, abandoning her friend on the dance floor. That’s when Chelsea took matters into her own, uh, lips.

“I went and found Tim and said, ‘Hey, it’s New Year’s Eve. Wanna make out?’ And that was that,” Chelsea said. “Shockingly, we did not go home together, which is normal for an El Rancho evening.”

Despite not knowing each other’s names, the two found each other again, even having their first official date at The Ranch. “We had to revisit the place of kindling,” Chelsea said.

Three weeks later, they officially became BF/GF – at a hockey tournament, of course – got married in 2016 and had twins Gunnar and Sadie in 2018.

“Shelley really orchestrated the whole thing,” Chelsea said, “If she wouldn’t have ditched me for that guy, I never would’ve gone and made out with Tim.” →

Lexi Ashton also had some help in meeting her partner, Carrie Philips, at The Ranch in 2022, when they were both in their early 20s.

Lexi’s brother, who went to Fort Lewis College, urged her to move to Durango in 2021. New to town, he took her on her requisite first trip to The Ranch in order to meet people.

“He was quite the party guy,” Lexi said. “He convinced me to go to The Ranch. He was definitely my wingman.”

Meanwhile, Carrie had just left a costume party on the grid and thought, “Why not go to The Ranch to spice up the night?” 

Fortunately, it was a shipwreck theme party, so, as Carrie puts it, it was not an “extreme costume.” At least not by Durango standards.

But it was enough to catch Lexi’s eye.

“She had sparkles on her face, and there was a fun-ness coming from Carrie’s group,” Lexi recalled.

Fortunately, the two had an icebreaker that was unavailable to their land-line predecessors. “Carrie approached first and asked, ‘Are you Lexi from Tinder?’” Lexi said. The two had previously matched on the dating app but never met. 

“It was smooth but not too smooth of a line,” Carrie recalled.

However, it took some coaxing from Lexi’s brother to get his sister, an admitted introvert, to follow up. “He talked me up and brought drinks for me to take over to Carrie,” she said.

The two proceeded to dance the rest of the night, bonding over their dogs, which is a close second to hockey in suitability in a mate.

When the night ended, the two parted ways, and that’s when fate really played its hand. Carrie got home to discover the after-party that Lexi was headed to was directly next door. Throwing caution to the wind, Carrie texted, and Lexi came over. “It was meant to be,” said Carrie. When it came time to go, Lexi’s brother, who had driven her to the party, very intentionally sped away, leaving her there. “We spent the night together, and every night since,” said Carrie.

The two have since moved to Seattle, where Carrie is pursuing a music career and Lexi is going to grad school to be a PA, but The Ranch is forever in their hearts. “Our Wi-Fi network is named ‘@ El Rancho.’ That’s how we keep it alive,” said Carrie. She added that they are entertaining the idea of getting tattoos of the trademark El Rancho sign, perhaps a story for another day.

They feel especially lucky to have met in a typical bar setting, which tends to be  dominated by the dude-picks-up-chick model. “We find it quite ironic that we found queer love there,” said Carrie. 

El Rancho co-owner Chris Lile, who bought the bar in 1999 with brother, Chip, said he has heard many stories over the years of couples meeting at The Ranch. In fact, he met his former partner, Christine, there in 2002. However, he quickly noted it had nothing to do with alcohol. In fact, the two met during daylight hours, when Christine was a working as a representative for the food service company Shamrock. Eventually, Chris asked for her number, they started dating and had two kids together, now ages 16 and 17. Although they are no longer together, Chris said it was nevertheless the start of something beautiful.

“She is a wonderful woman … and we have two beautiful kids together,” he said.  

When asked about the allure of The Ranch – either by day or night – he waxed poetically about the 115-year-old downtown landmark, where questionable decisions, pheromones and beer flow like, well, beer.

“The El Rancho is one place where you can come and be yourself and get away from being an adult,” Chris said. “A lot of times, I see people who hooked up here the night before having breakfast here the next day,” he said. Couples have had wedding receptions there, and some couples who met at The Ranch now have kids who are hanging out here.

“We see all walks of life in here,” Chris said. “You never know what you’ll find.”  ?

We met at The Ranch

Left: Chelsea Reinsch and her now-husband, Tim, on their wedding day. Right: Lexi and Carrie after fate and a night at The Ranch brought them together./Courtesy photos