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The Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive is everything you’d expect—and some things you might not.
Photo: Kevin Bell (all)
We have done pretty well to keep the herd tight most of the day, but all that changes over the last rise. With camp in sight and a steep hill to descend, the cows suddenly break into a trot, then a run, and the wings lose control.
My team is on right wing.
We have to get in front of the herd.
I ease on the reins, and with a powerful burst, my horse takes off. With both wings—12 people in all—riding hard, we shout, kick, and fight our way to the front. We stop the cows below a shallow gully, giving the flanks and drag time to catch up and close the gaps around the herd. I take off my hat and wipe the sweat and dust from my brow. Turning back to the hill, I watch the melee of cows, dust, and riders spilling down the pass. Three days ago, many of us had barely ridden a horse. Three minutes ago, we quelled a stampede.
For five days, June 14-18, I was given the chance to ditch my nine-to-five job, commute, and deadlines to help push almost 300 head of cattle across the Nevada desert during the Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive. The annual event, which kicks off a week of rodeo competition in the Biggest Little City, takes upwards of 50 city slickers like me and turns them into cowboys and cowgirls. It’s a vacation in the truest sense of the concept—an escape from our personal prisons of work and modern conveniences—a simpler, more real life.
That does not, however, mean it’s easy. From torrential rain to searing heat and choking dust, the drive is as Wild West as it gets. Days are spent on horseback, nights under the stars on a bedroll or in a tent.
I’ve never seen as many brand new Wranglers, boots, and Stetsons as when I arrive at the Livestock Events Center rodeo grounds in Reno Sunday morning. The knowledge that I’m not the only city slicker with cowboy aspirations puts me at ease as introductions are made and the trail boss, Brad Sidener, briefs us on the days to come. From the rodeo grounds, guests are bussed to Doyle, California to officially start the adventure. En route we are regaled with a gunfight reenactment and treated to refreshments by the drive’s sponsor, David Semas.
Once we reach our first camp and the herd, it’s time to get down to business. The guests are divided into groups of six, which, under the guidance of our assigned drovers, will rotate positions around the herd in the coming days. A leisurely “shake down” ride helps everyone get accustomed to their horses and teammates. The horses, provided by Dave Dohnel of Frontier Pack Train, are accustomed to long miles with many different riders from their normal duty of packing tourists through the Sierra Nevada near Bishop, California. A couple of them display some early disagreements with their riders, but for the most part, these are very responsive, well-mannered animals. Sarge, my equine companion for the drive, is by far the biggest. Despite his intimidating size—I’m 6-foot-3 and still have trouble mounting him—he turns out to be a gentle giant, and endlessly patient and cooperative whenever I stop to snap a photo.
Cowboy games, such as roping, a gourmet meal worthy of any five-star resort, and live campfire entertainment, round out the evening. The food, provided by Reno-based catering company, Men Wielding Fire, was a highlight of the trip.
I find myself awake before sunrise Monday after a night of dreams consumed by excitement for the next four days with the herd. After a hardy breakfast, we mount up, iron out some first day jitters, and start to our next camp. I’m pleased to learn that I’m not the only one intimidated by Sarge’s bulk. The cattle took him—and by default, me—very seriously. We push the herd through brush, up hills, and down ravines under the watchful supervision of the expert drovers. This is a short day dedicated to learning—by the end of the trip, we are expected to be driving the herd under our own scrutiny, with the drovers only intervening when absolutely necessary.
After lunch on the trail we reach camp around 4 p.m. Already set up by the tireless and dedicated support crew, camp features a huge mess-tent for meals, a kitchen, portable bathrooms and showers, and a bar—that’s right, a bar, courtesy of Buffalo Creek Ranch, stocked with ice-cold beer, whiskey, tequila, and other remedies for long, sore days on horseback.
After dinner we are again treated to cowboy poetry and country western songs around the campfire well into the evening. Beyond the flickering flames of the fire, the only light comes from the overhead tapestry of impossibly bright stars. Before I fall asleep I reluctantly turn my cell phone on to check for messages—I am, after all, supposed to be working—but there’s no signal. I turn it off, breathe a deep sigh of contentment, and fall asleep within minutes.
Tuesday morning is clear and cold, and I shiver as I pull my Wranglers and boots on with numb fingers. The kitchen crew is already hard at work preparing breakfast, evidenced by the columns of steam rising from the kitchen area. Despite some late celebrating, the camp is starting to rouse in anticipation of the day to come. We have more ground to cover than yesterday, and everyone is eager to apply the droving lessons learned on the previous day.
My group starts the day at left wing, tasked with keeping the front left side of the herd intact and following the point leader. After a brief stretch of dirt road, we move the herd into a broad valley and fall into a steady, controlled pace. Brilliant blue skies and calm cattle define the morning.
Re-energized by our midday break, the herd has a noticeable vigor after lunch. There are more strays breaking free, and all the cows seem restless. As we crest over the final hill en route to camp, the cattle know they are close to water troughs and hay and break down the hill. Though caught off guard, we move quickly and work together to re-establish control in a hail of shouts and dust. We ride into camp sitting a little higher in our saddles, proud of our improving skills. Two days as drovers, and we just managed to quell a stampede.
Wednesday morning the whole camp is up and moving before the sun rises. This is our longest day, with about 25 miles to cover. The first few miles of the route follow a rural road with moderately light traffic. The herd reacts well to the few cars we encounter, while the cars’ passengers stare in wonder, taking photos of the sea of cattle and cowboys engulfing their vehicles. The drovers have reminded us several times over the last few days that it is important to stay alert on the pavement to avoid injury to the cattle, horses, and ourselves, and everyone is on high alert to keep the herd calm and moving steadily.
The first three days of the drive are blessed with seasonably cool temperatures and occasional rain showers. By lunch on the fourth day, the sun and late-spring heat remind everyone that we’re in a desert in June. Worn out by the long miles and unrelenting heat, the herd is slow and lethargic for the second half of the day. With riders, horses, and cows running on empty, it’s safe to say that everyone is as relieved as I am to see the telltale white top of the mess-tent on the horizon.
The last night on the drive is a mix of excitement to bring the herd into Reno and sorrow that our adventure is nearing the end. Celebrations start early and end late, and Men Wielding Fire surpass the high bar they’ve already set for themselves and delight our taste buds with the best meal of the drive, complete with seared ahi tuna.
Thursday is a short, but challenging ride. After leaving the desert we enter suburban north Reno and have to navigate down city streets. It would be impossible to accomplish this without the help of the Reno Police Department, which stops and diverts traffic along our route. To keep riders and onlookers safe, the real drovers and cowboys step in during this stressful section to ensure the herd stays in line and moves slowly.
As we move the cows through the city, past crowds of onlookers, and to the rodeo grounds, I’m shocked at the realization that we’ve only been away from the city for five days. I look around at my fellow riders, a group that less than a week ago looked pale, awkward, and uncomfortable in new Wranglers and pristine shirts. They’re now tanned, coated in dust, and smelling faintly of cattle. Sure, we’ll all return to our regular lives, commutes, and deadlines within a couple of days, our week as cowboys and cowgirls fading into memory—but the city slickers from that first day are gone, lost forever somewhere between the saddles, stirrups, and seared ahi.
The 2010 Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive hits the trail June 13-17. The cost is $1,600 per participant and includes horses, meals, and ground transportation. A 50-percent deposit is due with application, the remainder due by March 15. Participants are responsible for their own transportation to and from Reno, and the rodeo grounds, and are asked to dress in Western attire throughout the drive. The Reno Rodeo takes place June 17-26.
TALK LIKE A COWBOY, PARDNER
Bedroll – A roll of bedding used by cowboys.
City Slicker – Tongue-in-cheek term for city dweller.
Drover – Somebody whose job it is to move herds of animals (cattle) to new pastures and market.
Herd – A large number of domestic animals, especially cattle, kept together.
Herd Positions – A cattle herd is moved and controlled by drovers in seven points around it.
Drag – pushes the herd from the rear.
Left and Right Flanks – Keep the herd intact and retrieve strays that split from the herd.
Left and Right Swings – Same as Flanks.
Left and Right Wings – Keep the herd following the Point Leader and control it’s speed by constricting or opening the front.
Point Leader – Leads the herd.
Shake Down Ride – A casual ride to get riders and horses accustomed to each other.
Stirrup – A flat-bottomed ring hanging on each side of a saddle to provide support for a rider’s foot.