Trade a suit for spurs and join a cattle drive to deliver the herd on time.
By Amy Arden
A Montana cowboy named E.C. “Teddy Blue” Abbott published a memoir almost a century ago and relates this anecdote:
“I heard a story once about a school teacher who asked one of these old Texas cow dogs to tell her all about how he punched cows on the trail. She said: ‘Oh Mister So-and-So, didn’t the boys used to have a lot of fun riding their ponies?’
He said: ‘Madam, there wasn’t any boys or ponies. They was all horses and men.’”
This story rings in my ears as I stand in a parking lot outside the rodeo grounds in Reno, Nev. It’s a bright June morning, and I’m one of dozens of weekend warriors here to partake in the Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive. Part historical re-enactment, part cowboy camp, this annual five-day event will have us horseback and driving 300 head through nearly 100 miles of Nevada wilderness. We’ll rise at dawn, ride through rattlesnake- and jackrabbit-infested desert, and sleep under the stars. And hopefully, we’ll come away knowing a thing or two about what it takes to be cowboys and cowgirls.
The Reno Rodeo Association founded the Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive in 1991, when participants would bring their own horses and bathe from a bucket at night. Today, the event has swelled to accommodate 65 paying guests, who are provided horses to ride and trailers for showering. Participants range in age from teenagers to retirees and are drawn by escapism, adventure, or just a simple love of horses. But the end goal remains the same. People crave a journey that approximates the epic cattle drives of the Old West. We all want to claim a piece of those legendary times and bring the herd into town.
A middle-aged woman remarks that, “Adventures are what keep me going,” as we stand in line waiting to board the buses that will take us to our first camp.
Females were practically unheard of on trail drives in Teddy Blue’s day, but on this trip women are fully prepared for the physically and mentally demanding journey and outnumber men nearly two to one. There’s Sena Schmidt, a blonde twenty-something matchmaker from Los Angeles; Carolyn Beaston-Gaughn, who spent days driving here from her home in Illinois, is outfitted in a matching leather vest and chinks and wears sterling silver rings that flash on her fingers; Michelle Nichols of Reno has had the cattle drive on her wish list for years. “I put it on the calendar every December,” she says. “And this year I finally decided to suck it up and do it.”
After introductions to the cattle-drive staff and a last swig of coffee, we raise a hurrah to the bright blue sky and board the buses. We stop at a general store for supplies on the way to tiny Doyle, Calif., and witness a mock gunfight. And although it’s not even noon yet, our entourage descends on the town’s small saloon. Some aspects of cowboy trail life will never change.
During our first evening in camp, the staff arranges a “Cowboy Olympics.” We break into teams and perform chores like saddling, roping, nailing, and milking, as well as a few goofier tasks like tossing dried cow pies. When my turn comes, I grab a hammer and drive nails as fast as I can to fasten a horseshoe onto a two-by-four. It may not be shoeing a horse, exactly, or fixing a broken wagon wheel, but the friendly competition gets everyone chatting and breaks the ice. The winning team is awarded silver fasteners for their bandannas.
I’m wearing the full Western ensemble, of course (jeans, long-sleeved shirt, boots, cowboy hat, wild rag, etc.). The first time I catch sight of my shadow on the ground, I feel spooked. That black outline of a rider with the trademark cowboy silhouette is my doppelganger, my alternate self. It takes me a moment to recognize her, but I like what I see.
After we pack up our tents and bedrolls the next morning, we’re divided into teams of 8–10 people and assigned a position around the herd. Teams take up the right and left wings up front; right and left swing and flank on each side; and the drag position in the rear. (Positions rotate throughout the course of the drive.) Trail boss Brad Sidener, 50, explains that drag acts as the gas to move the cows along, the wings act as the brakes, and that all of us are responsible for making sure that there are no gaps through which cows can escape. After a few days on the trail, participants who didn’t know wing from drag are riding confidently, alert for the cows’ next moves.
Roadside shoot-outs can be staged, but there’s no way to simulate herding cattle without doing it. Russ Abbott, 58, who traveled from Chicago with his daughter Paige, 18, says that: “You get to get in there and mingle with the cattle and give them a little push. It’s real fun. A real Western cattle drive—not the pretend stuff.”
Paige chimes in that she likes cows: “And I like the herding, especially when they get loose and it goes crazy, and you get to catch a cow.” The herd is energetic and eager to bolt, and we learn through trial and error (mostly error) how to arrange ourselves into a moving fence to keep the animals contained.
We cover nearly 12 miles on our first day and ride through a wide valley blanketed with green-gray sagebrush, yellow mule’s ear flowers, and spiky blue lupine blossoms. Heavy spring rains have made the terrain gloriously verdant, and frisky jackrabbits leap through the underbrush. To the west, the snow-capped Sierra Nevada Mountains puncture the sky.
Each evening, when we gather in the mess tent, cattle boss Randy Bell, 55, and trail boss Brad Sidener review the day’s drive and dispense advice. They note what went well and what could have been done better. Bell makes diagrams and drawings on a whiteboard, and I find myself thinking about locker-room strategy sessions and reviewing game tape. In fact, Sidener’s day job is as a physical therapist in Reno. He first came out on the drive 18 years ago as a wrangler, assisting guests and caring for the horses.
“I literally had to try out,” he says, laughing, about applying for the job. Now, in his fifth and final year as trail boss, Sidener coordinates everything for the drive, from the livestock and camp amenities to the necessary permits and insurance.
The route, which varies slightly from year to year, traverses a mix of public and private lands and requires cooperation from state and federal agencies as well as individual owners. This year’s route began in the Red Rock Valley and traveled north along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, passing through several smaller ranges before our final camp in the Hungry Valley. The drive ended with a southward push around Sun Valley and into the city of Reno itself to the Reno Rodeo Arena. Generally remote, the trail did occasionally pass a house or ranch in the distance.
Navigating the mix of terrain, however, is easier than balancing the services required for an experience that costs $1,600. Guests bring their own tents and sleeping bags but are provided portable showers, medical staff, and hearty, catered meals. A crew of 35 volunteers, plus wranglers, assists with transportation, horses, and logistics. Most of the participants’ baggage travels in mule-drawn wagons, but several large trucks are required for moving the camp’s mess tent and catering facilities.
Nonetheless, the experience is transformative. Animals and wilderness will do that. “There’s something that happens to people out here, some kind of magic,” says Sidener. “I joke about it, but here we’re living the dream. Everybody wants to be a cowboy.”
Bill Crossland, 65, operates one of several mule-drawn covered wagons that haul baggage for participants and volunteers. A single team of mules can pull a wagon weighing 2,500 pounds over roadless terrain for hours at a time.
“I love Americana kind of stuff,” says Crossland, an attorney by trade in Fresno, Calif. “I got a mule, then a pair of mules, then I got into this wagon thing.” Crossland has been transporting baggage on the Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive for eight years. When I asked him what he gets from being on the cattle drive that he doesn’t get from his day job, his answer is simple: “Sanity.”
It takes only seconds for an orderly herd to transform into a chaos of stampeding steers, and although participants are encouraged to be proactive and “work the cows,” a string of professional cowboys patrols the far perimeter and lends backup assistance as needed. The guests tend to allow the wings and drag to spread too far apart, and the cows make a habit of bolting through. But after numerous breakouts, we learn that the cows are usually just as eager to bolt back into the herd after they’ve had a fleeting experience of running free—and being hassled by a gang of cowboys. My best moments are when I’m chasing cows alone, galloping my horse alongside a steer’s shoulder and turning it back into the herd. I yell as the wind whips in my face, and I feel positively alive.
“It’s work, but I don’t mind that,” says first-timer Debbie Bardon, 63, a professional researcher from California. “I feel like we’re learning, and it gives you such an appreciation for cowboys and the work that they do.”
Her husband, Dan, 64 and retired, says: “They used to drive cattle into the High Sierras in the summer. My dad went on one of those trips. I was too young to go, so I envied him that.”
The drive even inspires participants to cross oceans to attend. Robyn Blackall, 53, and Kim McConville, 49, flew from Australia. McConville’s grandfather worked on ranches in the United States in the early 1900s and developed an interest in rodeo. When he returned to Australia, he brought the fledgling sport with him and put on traveling bucking-horse shows.
“The drive is much bigger than we expected,” says McConville. “The staff does an amazing job.”
On the next-to-last night of the drive, it feels like I’ve time-traveled back to the glory days of the Old West. Couples two-step around the campfire ringed by the white canvas of the covered wagons. Everything seems to glow in the twilight. The crackling flames, the brilliant orange and pink of the sunset, and the deepening dusk on the hills create an otherworldly sense of serenity.
On the last day, we get up before dawn as usual, and the full moon shines bright enough to cast shadows. The landscape dawns less scenic as civilization encroaches. Shotgun shells, broken bottles, and trash remind us that we’re leaving the tranquility of the wilderness and returning to the busyness of modern life. We drive the herd for several hours, and the day gets hotter and the riders and cattle more restless. We stop to water the cattle before finally trading earth for asphalt and entering the city limits. Crowds line the sidewalks to watch, and the cheers and friendly faces buoy our sense of accomplishment. We got the herd into town. We’ve done our job!
We deliver the cattle to the Reno Rodeo grounds, where they will be used in stock events and other rodeos. It’s a bittersweet moment, when we are free of our duties and re-enter reality. It feels like stepping out of a myth. I’m tired, filthy, and sunburned. But I can say this much: Now there’s a cowboy in my family.
Plan It: Cattle drives
These organized drives welcome guest drovers.
1. BITTERROOT RANCH
Multiday trips into the mountains to take the cattle into summer grazing in July or round them up in September.
2. BUCKING S RANCH
Day or overnight rides with cattle plus opportunities to try other ranch work and outdoor activities. 307-325-6280, buckingsranch.com
3. FOCUS RANCH
A working ranch founded in 1896 offering horsemanship and cattle clinics as well as workshops on birding, fly fishing, and hiking. 970-583-2410, focusranch.com
4. MONTANA HIGH COUNTRY CATTLE DRIVE
Three drives per year give guests multiple opportunities to move cattle, as well as to acquire skills like roping and learn about Montana history.
5. RENO RODEO CATTLE DRIVE
Five-day trip on horseback driving cattle 100 miles through the Nevada wilderness and downtown Reno. The next drive is scheduled for June 14 ~ 23, 2012. 775-329-3877, renorodeo.com
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