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Head ’Em Up, Move ’Em Out


Posted on February 23, 2016

The Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive is a gritty and rewarding blast into the past.

Photography by Janet Fullwood

Randy Bell, head wrangler, looks out from beneath the brim of his cowboy hat, gives his handlebar mustache a tweak, and proceeds to instruct an audience of city slickers, colorfully attired in fresh-off-the-rack Western garb, on the rudiments of moving a herd of cattle by horseback. 

“Stay one behind the other so you’re virtually a walking fence,” he says. “When you hit the gas pedal, they hit the gas pedal. Put your head in a swivel. What happens when a cow squirts out? Go get it in! If it goes into a gully, do you think it’s going to stay there the rest of its life? They’re herd animals—don’t panic. They’ll want to come back.”

And with that we mount up, the corral gates swing open, 300 Corriente roping steers pour out and the adventure begins. 

Staged each June since 1990 by the Reno Rodeo Association to benefit local charities, the five-day Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive offers a rare opportunity to sample a disappearing lifestyle and get a gritty taste of the West that was. It’s an adventure vacation for all and a bucket-list trip for many of the 50 to 60 novice cowpokes who sign up each year to help move the herd from a remote ranch north of Reno to the Reno-Sparks Livestock Events Center, where their arrival, to the cheers of spectators lining downtown streets, kicks off the “Wildest, Richest Rodeo in the West.”

The experience tests the mettle of many. “It is definitely not a sissy venture,” says Mark Rosenthal, a retired real estate developer and novice horseback rider from Tampa, Fla., who so immersed himself in the spirit of the game that he was named “top hand” on last year’s drive. “There are challenges every day, whether it’s stiff knees or a sore butt or just plain anxiety posed by riding a horse in mountainous terrain. Everyone has to ‘cowboy up.’”

But not on the first day, which is a get-acquainted outing that takes us by bus from Reno’s posh Peppermill resort to the funky town of Doyle, just over the California line, where we’re released for lunch, a mock gunfight in the park and a couple hours of honky tonkin’ at the appropriately divey Buck Inn. From there it’s on to the ranch, where a corral teeming with bawling steers and another holding about 100 horses await, along with the crew of working cowboys, wranglers, drovers and teamsters who will join us on the ride. A staff of 35 cheerful volunteers will handle the complicated logistics involved in setting up camp, feeding, watering and otherwise caring for livestock and people in a different location each night. Riders bring their own camping gear, some opting for tents and some for cots or bedrolls set out under the open sky.

“We get all kinds of people, from all kinds of places,” says Bell of the guests who pay $2,000 each for the privilege of eating dust and sleeping under the stars. 

The 2015 cowpokes-for-a-week hail from 11 states, plus Canada and Mexico, range in age from early 20s to mid-70s and represent a wide range of vocations. Ann Welch of Alamo, in the East Bay, is here for her 10th year with friend Rhonda Boersma of Danville, along with repeat rider Scott Thompson, a Reno veterinarian who will be elected “trail boss for a day” later in the drive. Horse-lover Lorrie Brown of Newcastle comes alone at the behest of her husband, who treated her to the adventure as a Christmas present, while Oscar Vela, a just-married Houston physician, is back for the sixth year—without his bride, but with her blessings. If there is one character straight out of the movie “City Slickers,” it’s Mark Elkins of New York City, a retired university professor, back for his sixth year, who in his spare time serves as a mounted volunteer in Central Park, riding Clydesdales and schmoozing with tourists. (“I must be in 10,000 photo albums,” he says.)

The group includes mothers and daughters, fathers and sons, grandparents and grandchildren, groups of friends and many who had come solo, sure of finding camaraderie among kindred spirits. If there’s a common denominator, it’s a love of the outdoors, a yen for adventure and soft spots for horses, Western history and tradition.

This is my third time on the drive, so I have a pretty good idea what to expect from multiple days on horseback in the wide-open, sagebrush steppe environment just “over the hill” from Lake Tahoe. The first-time buckaroos can hardly imagine. 

Some things, of course, are a given. You know when you sign up that it will be hot, sweaty and dusty, that your boots will pinch, your butt will ache, your clothes will stink and you’ll have some really bad hair days. It’s the unexpected that makes a cattle drive such a colorful, out-of-time adventure. 

Who would guess, for example, that the pungent aroma of sagebrush would overpower the smell of the herd, or that 300 head of cattle could move along so quietly? Their 1,200 hooves pattering over desert sand sound for all the world like a rain shower. 

And the thrills: Not until you’re swallowed by the high desert for hours on end, with nary a sign of civilization in sight, can you know the sheer joy of riding free, far from the clutches of cell phones and work. The landscape looms large and the cloudless sky larger, reducing the dusty assemblage of man and beast to microscopic proportions. Add a train of nine covered wagons to the slowly moving panorama, and it looks and feels like you’ve ridden into a Hollywood Western. 

The first day’s ride is the toughest. Cattle, horses and riders are all fresh and a bit wild-eyed, and the rugged terrain demands traveling up and down ravines and along narrow hillside trails while dodging gnarly stands of greasewood that rise shoulder-high to a horse. Riders are divided into teams, each with a highly experienced leader from the rodeo and ranching worlds, and take turns rotating positions—swing, flank, drag—around the herd. We learn to string out the cattle where terrain permits and to bunch them up on the shouted command to “rodeer!”— a corruption of the Spanish “rodear,” meaning to encircle. And we yell shamelessly—“Git up! Move it!”—at the cloven-hoofed beasts with the crescent horns that bob up and down in a purply-green sea of sagebrush. We’re here to play cowpoke—and poke we will, whether the bedazed bovines need so dern much pokin’ or not. 

Team leaders like Kat Grashuis, a well-known figure in the cutting-horse world, and Regina Bush, a “longtime cowgirl” who just turned 80 and still has the radiance of a beauty queen, take obvious pleasure in providing riding tips and sharing a slice of a vanishing lifestyle with their guests. So do the covered-wagon crews who invite saddle-sore riders aboard for relief and talk horses, harnesses and history back in camp.

Mounts for the dudes, provided by Dave Dohnel’s Frontier Pack Train, an outfitter in the Eastern Sierra, are as surefooted and uflappable as they come, but a couple of riders nevertheless pop off the first day, only to get back on again, suffering little more than bruised egos. A physician, Dr. James Rappaport, orthopedic surgeon from Reno, is riding along just in case, leading a pack horse loaded with medical supplies. 

“Safety is the No. 1 concern on the drive,” says Dohnel. “You have to have a wide variety of horses. Some people have never ridden before, so you have to give them one that’s done it 1,000 times.”

Len Semas, who runs the “mobile saloon” in camp and whose brother, Dave Semas, is the principal sponsor of the drive, has participated in the event every year since 1995 and observed the transformation that takes place as city slickers go from apprehensive to confident. “It’s a bell-shaped curve on the riders,” he says. “Probably 10 to 20 percent are never-ever to poor riders, 60 percent are decent, 10 percent are expert. Surprisingly, there are some total novices who do really well.

“The constant is the people,” he goes on. “It’s the camaraderie of strangers coming together.”

One thing that’s changed over the years, Semas says, is the ratio of men to women on the drive. “In the early years, the participants were 80 percent men, 20 percent women. Now it’s the reverse. I’m not sure why that is, but I think that girls and horses go together and it follows into adulthood. And there’s a certain magic to the cowboy way of life. The romance of it appeals to women.

“There’s a fashion element to it, too,” he adds with a grin. “You get to show off things you don’t wear every day.”

One who’s wardrobe-proud is Carolyn Beaston-Gaughan, a corrections officer from Marengo, Ill., here for the ninth year. She emerges every morning from her tent in full makeup, a crisp Western shirt and color-coordinated chinks, the type of short, fringed chaps traditionally worn by buckaroos of Northern California and Nevada. 

“A cattle drive was at the top of my bucket list when I became an empty nester,” says the accidental cowgirl who discovered the Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive by Googling “cattle drive vacations.” Furthermore, she says, “I love the West, the history of cowboys, the horses, the whole thing—it’s a thrill and a good adventure.”

Each day of the drive takes us through a passing panorama of places with names rooted in another time: Hungry Valley, Lemmon Valley, Palomino Valley, Moon Rocks, Milk Ranch, Marshall Flats. The herd trickles like a river through achingly scenic landscapes framed by the Sierra crest, a zigzag line in a bluebird sky. Cattle bawl, leather creaks, dust flies, neckerchiefs (“wild rags” in cowboy parlance) cover faces shaded by broad-brimmed cowboy hats. On the next-to-last day, the air is filled with flitting insects—a hatch of cicadas—whose white-noise buzz acts as a sedative on man and beast. Slowly, riders master tasks and teamwork.

Five to eight hours a day in the saddle at altitudes above 4,000 feet, and with afternoon temperatures topping 90 degrees, take all of us out of our comfort zones. But if the cattle drive were all about roughing it, it’s doubtful the event would fill up as it does, with a waiting list each year. 

Real cowboys never had it so good. At the end of each day’s trail, creature comforts await in the form of a shady dining tent, tubs of iced-down drinks, portable showers and hearty dinners and breakfast turned out by a catering crew from Reno. Supplementing the menu are Dutch oven-baked breads and desserts prepared by Terry Bell, aka “the Dutch Diva,” whose sourdough starter has been in her family for 140 years, and who rises at 3:30 a.m. to make cowboy coffee in big enamel pots suspended over a bed of coals.

Up by 6 a.m., riders are packed up and mounted by 8 each morning. The drive passes over a complicated patchwork of private and public lands, stopping at lunchtime for food and water (the livestock alone consume 7,200 gallons—two truckfuls—of water a day) and at night on a ranch where cattle can be penned, horses corralled or picketed and trucks hauling portable toilets and campers’ gear can get in. By the time riders limp into camp, the dining tent is set up and Semas is mixing margaritas. Soon, showers are taken and conversation is flowing as freely as the sage-scented breeze. We gather around a campfire under a purpling sky for an hour of cowboy music and poetry performed by professional entertainers. Then camaraderie and guitars give way to stars, and stars to the snores of exhausted riders.

The last day of the drive is difficult and climactic. After several hours of pushing the herd across rugged terrain, horses and cattle crest a hill. There, laid out in the valley below, glittering like Oz and appearing just as alien after five days in open country, lies the city of Reno. Now comes the most dicey part of the venture, the part where teamwork is critical. If horses or cattle spook, catastrophe could ensue. We line our horses up nose to tail on either side of the stream of bovines strung out for several blocks along city streets. Two perfectly coiffed beauty queens—Miss Reno Rodeo and Miss Rodeo Nevada—have joined our dusty brigade, along with the wagon train, a contingent of 19th-century cavalry re-enactors and other units making up the parade. We wave and smile as television crews and spectators point cameras and smart phones in our direction. 

Coming into the arena for the grand finale, we hand off our horses, peel off our chaps and regroup for a farewell luncheon. Seasoned now, tired, saddle sore, whiskery, and stinky but proud, we switch our focus to the hot showers and clean clothes awaiting back at the Peppermill. It’s not until the last hugs and handshakes are distributed that the extraordinary nature of what we have done hits home. 

The Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive is held each June and usually sells out. Cost for the 2016 event, June 12–16, is $2,000 per person and includes horses, meals, open bar, entertainment, ground transportation and expert leadership. Western attire is required, and travel and hotel expenses cost extra. renorodeo.com/events; renorodeocattledrive@gmail.com

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