Grand Junction, Colo.
It was the spring of 1984 and I was single and looking for an “Old West” adventure. A cowboy at heart, I jumped at the chance to participate in a weeklong cattle drive on Stroh Ranch – 44,000 acres in southern Colorado that was home to some 3,000 head of Longhorn cattle. The outfitter who put it all together made sure our cowboy experience would be as authentic as possible – we ate from a chuckwagon, slept on the ground, and bathed in the river. Extra care was taken so that no motorized vehicles appeared to spoil the illusion. We were stepping back in time and living the life of a cowboy in the 1880s.
Our group of twenty “city slickers” quickly fell into the daily routine. We were jolted awake each morning at five a.m. by the clanging of the cook’s iron triangle. A hearty breakfast of bacon and eggs and pancakes or biscuits, washed down with strong cowboy coffee, was served at six and we were saddled and out on the range by seven looking for wily Longhorns. And I do mean wily! It was like trying to round up a herd of deer! Rarely having seen a human, they were cagey and fleet of foot and could climb a canyon wall that appeared to be a vertical ascent, so different from the docile Black Angus I had worked previously. The terrain was rugged and the days long and grueling, with most seeing 25 miles in the saddle.
We not only rounded up the cattle and drove them to the home ranch, we helped brand, ear tag and castrate the calf crop (while their anxious mothers bawled in a deafening cacophony of concern), then drove them back to their respective pastures in the rolling grasslands and deep sandstone canyons of the ranch. At one time we found ourselves driving the reluctant cows into the teeth of a raging spring blizzard, when all they wanted to do was stop and turn tail. Our horses thought that would be a good idea as well, so we had to keep urging our mounts on.
At night, tired to the bone, we threw our bedrolls down amidst the cholla and prickly pear cactus and crawled in, praying the warmth we generated within would not appeal to some rattlesnake seeking a warm place to curl up for the night. We saw several of the creatures during the week, even killed and ate one, but, fortunately, none tried to share our beds.
During that week, we covered a lot of ground, ate lots of dust, and drank water from our canteens, which was, in the words of one wannabe cowboy, “like drinking a warm enema.” We carried pliers to pull the cactus thorns from our horses’ legs and treated our own blisters from wearing too-new boots and jeans. Believe me, there was plenty of blood, sweat and tears to go around. But we were tough. We persevered. After all, we were cowboys, if not when we started the week, then at least by the end of it.
One of our group, a store owner from Pennsylvania, personified the transformation that took place in the various individuals from all walks of life who had shared this once-in-a-lifetime experience. As we sat around our last campfire, he related how he had not felt comfortable with wearing his cowboy hat on the plane trip out to Colorado and therefore didn’t do so. “But, by God, he said, ” I’m gonna wear it goin’ home!” He felt he had earned the title of “cowboy,” and indeed we all had.