Riders Up!

Nine urban cowgirls earn their spurs and live a dream on a Montana cattle drive

By Donna J. Wade

cattledr.jpg (5348 bytes)Like plenty of other baby boomers, I grew up on a steady diet of TV cowboys: Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, the Cartwrights, the Barkleys, as well as every other cowpoke who thundered across the screen at the Saturday afternoon matinee double feature.

From the day I was tall enough to even think about it, I'd climb astride the sturdy railing of my grandma's front porch, and, with awning cords gripped securely in one hand for reins, I became Marshal Matt Dillon galloping across the prairie in pursuit of varmints in black hats.

After college, when I became a police officer in our small Georgia town, mama told me she wasn't terribly surprised, because I'd been chasing outlaws since I was tall enough to saddle a banister.

All I know is that my love of horses grew to be as much a part of me as my intellect or sense of humor, and it has only intensified as I've entered middle age.

cowgrls.jpg (41802 bytes)Unfortunately in this modern age, scrambling to meet the basic necessities of life sometimes leads our lives in directions away from the things we most enjoy. My career path led me away from the country into the urban sprawl, where the only way I even got near a horse was renting a stable nag in the suburbs. Then I got a phone call that shattered my comfortable, citified rut and rekindled the desire that would eventually lead me out of the metropolitan madness.

Apparently, the movie City Slickers began a barrage of calls to travel agents seeking similar "Old West" experiences. I have friends who own Skylink Travel, a travel agency specializing in customized excursions for executive women and their companions. While my friends are very experienced tour leaders, spending a week on horseback and bunking outdoors exceeded their comfort level, being more accustomed to five-star hotels in exotic European locations than roughing it in the chilly open spaces of Montana. So, knowing I was a cowgirl-wanna-be, they selected me to go as their representative.

For me, it was a dream come true. After 30-odd years of fantasizing about it, I got to be a real cowgirl, if only for a week.

A group of nine women flew into Billings, Montana on a sunny Sunday in late June. We were met by our hosts and outfitters, then trucked an hour or so away to the town of Absarokee (pronounced Ab-zor-kee). The majority of the women were from California, and from diverse backgrounds: a nurse, a psychotherapist, a few former law enforcement officers-turned-law-students, a municipal landscaper, two hairdressers, and myself, a former cop who now owns a small commercial printing company. Our only non-Californian was a Washington, D.C. air traffic controller. Disparate though our lives may have been, we were linked by the common fantasy of riding the range like the cowboys of old. Most of us had ridden at least trail horses over the years, but none were used to hours in the saddle, much less days.

Growing up, I'd often visited the farms of relatives, but the closest I'd been to a cow in recent memory was a McDonald's quarter-pounder, and I soon discovered that it was the same for the others, at least those who weren’t vegetarians. I knew from the outset, it would be a very interesting week.

After setting up camp the first day, we were first taught how to saddle our horses, after which we enjoyed a leisurely 4-hour ride (on level ground) to get accustomed to our mounts. Next we had a roping lesson from an affable former champion rodeo roper named Lee. This only served to fuel voracious appetites, and the huge steak and potatoes dinner from the chuckwagon really hit the spot. Even those who didn’t usually eat red meat couldn’t resist the delicious aroma wafting from the grill. We rounded out the first day with cowboy songs and getting-acquainted conversation around the campfire. This was really the only time we discussed our "real" lives. We knew that, come morning, we'd all just be cowgirls for the rest of the journey.

I think we surprised the wranglers the second day, because most of us were up before daybreak to help water and saddle our horses. For Tom, Jed, Wanda and the other wranglers, this was a first, since most "guests" loafed around the campfire after breakfast, enjoying a last cup of coffee, waiting for the wranglers to bring them their mounts.

After a hearty ranch breakfast, very uncustomary to women used to "California Lite" cuisine, we spent several hours rounding up cattle from various pastures on the 7,000 acre spread. We rode through some of the most gorgeous scenery any of us had ever seen before returning to camp for more good grub and campfire comraderie.

The following dawn broke with an ominously dark and cloudy sky, but it didn't dampen our spirits. Sore muscles aside (and we all had them), we were cowgirls, so we were ready for anything. Quick learners all, we had our mounts saddled and ready even before the chuckwagon bell called us to breakfast. We only had a week to be cowgirls, so we wanted to make the most of every second of the experience.

We pushed the 200 or so head of cattle through an eight-hour downpour up to the snow line. Although I’d run through a "pretend" version of the drive in my mind easily a hundred times, I was not prepared for how much noise a bellowing herd of cows can make. (On subsequent trips, I actually brought earplugs). After dropping off the herd in the designated pasture, we slowed our pace to explore tipi rings Wanda pointed out as we rode. She is half Crow Indian, and did a good job of explaining their customs and practices.

Tipi rings were circles of stones that the Crow and other tribes placed around the base of their tipis, and they are one of the few remaining indications of tribal life in the area outside the confines of the reservation. The Crow customarily located their villages at the higher elevations, or vista points, so that approaching enemies could be seen from any direction. During our exploration of the sites, we managed to collect a few arrowhead chips as keepsakes, but there was an abundance of aluminum markers left behind by archaeologists who'd excavated the sites long before our arrival. Still, it was thrilling to know that I was treading the same ground as our Indian ancestors, and I got a comforting sense that their spirits still protect their homeland and descendants.

Atop those mountains, filling your gaze with mile after mile of open, breathtaking beauty provides a spiritual renewal unparalleled by anything I’ve ever found in a church, temple, or other house of worship.

To give us a feel for the real trail experience, base camp changed every night or two, so our next challenge was locating it in a monsoon. The outfitters packed our gear on wagons and moved to the new location while we pushed cattle. The idea was that when we arrived at camp after the day’s ride, our tents would be pitched and gear placed inside. That was the idea, anyway, but not quite the reality.

Our guides were instructed that our new base camp would be in one of two places, depending on the amount of rain we received that day. If flooding were a possibility, base camp would be further up the mountain.

Although thrilled by a herd of elk who crossed our path enroute to camp, and delighted by finding discarded antlers on the range for souvenirs, after ten hours in the saddle, we were all ready to make camp, wranglers included. But it was not to be. Our hearts sank as we realized our outfitters were nowhere to be found when we reached the designated site, necessitating a further, more rigorous ride on switchbacks up the mountain.

I would never admit to being scared on that portion of the ride, but I will say it gave me pause to know that I was at least partially responsible for the safety of these women riding in a blinding rain up the side of an 8,000 foot mountain.

Singing our favorite country songs as we rode helped to soothe our nerves for a while, but after twelve hours in the saddle, tempers were growing short, so we all became eerily quiet.

Each of us learned how truly solitary a life on the range could be that day. A person could be dumbstruck by the silent, ageless beauty or numbed by the tedium, but either way, it was definitely an individual experience, because it was your blistered butt in that saddle. With no choice but to continue, you could embrace it as an experience of a lifetime, be scared out of your wits and pray for a quick and safe end to your misery, or simply get lost in the quiet of your own mind to get you through. Most of us developed a tremendous respect and appreciation for the hardships our ancestors faced in building homesteads and raising families in the often hostile wilderness. It was as though time stood still, and if you closed your eyes, you could almost hear the sounds of the wagon trains of old bringing settlers to a new life filled with promise and opportunity.

Chilled to the bone and drenched beyond waterlogged, we arrived in base camp after fifteen hours in the saddle. The only tent standing was the cook tent, so we gathered around the wood stove in that tent while the outfitters managed to set up our non-rain-proofed tents. The downpour prevented us from firing up the huge chuckwagon grill, but it didn't matter to us that dinner was boiled hot dogs with beans...at least it was hot. For dessert we all passed around a bottle of whiskey, but most of us were too exhausted for any more socializing than a brief sing-a-long and a cowboy poem or two before seeking the solace of our bedrolls.

The following day presented more of the same: a generally playful day of teasing banter and leisurely riding. We joked about which calf we'd take home with us if we could (our "Norman", like in the movie), and quizzed the wranglers about their ancestors. This was our fourth day in the saddle, so most of us were over our saddle sores, which was a blessing, since we’d gone through almost our entire supply of moleskin (wonderful stuff to prevent chafing), and we couldn’t just dash down to the corner drug store for more. We sat around the campfire until the wee hours of the morning, counting shooting stars and basking in the quiet sounds and solitude of our natural surroundings.

Day broke with more cloudbursts, and I started to feel badly for these women who'd paid well over $1000 per person for this "vacation". I was having a blast, but then I was staff, not a paying client. I figured that for people paying that much money, the novelty was probably wearing off.

I was right. After taking a poll of our participants, pushing cows another long day through a torrential downpour just didn't seem like fun anymore. We hadn't had a hot shower in days, and most of our tents had flooded overnight, making everything in our gear bags a soaked, muddy mess. The women told me that if they'd hired on to do the work, that would be one thing, but this was supposed to be a vacation.

A brief chat with Wanda Clark, our head wrangler, gave us the perfect solution. Trucks transported us and our soggy gear to the ski resort town of Red Lodge, where we checked into a hotel with a large laundromat, and, better still, jacuzzi bathtubs in every room.

Personally, I was happier that there was a doctor in town than I was over the bathtubs, because one of the women had taken a tumble after her horse spooked when the wind blew the hat off another rider (stampede strings are wonderful things only if you use them). The former Oklahoma police officer swore she was fine, but I wanted an x-ray to confirm her self-diagnosis. Sure enough, it turned out she had a hairline fracture of her left arm.

We all found it interesting that the town had a population of only around 700, but supported 16 taverns. We figured that business must really be good during ski season. One of our group informed us that that day happened to be her 30th birthday, and she intended to have an adult beverage in every single one of the town’s watering holes.

After taking a few hours to do laundry, we hit the town like sailors on long-anticipated shore leave, spending hours souvenir shopping in a multitude of local shops. Then, with Wanda as guide, we embarked on the birthday girl's celebratory excursion into the saloons.

The following morning graced us with a gloriously colorful sunrise and the first day with no hint of rain, although those who’d participated in the birthday debauchery were less than appreciative of the bright, sparklingly clear morning.

We met up with the wranglers and our mounts at the outskirts of town and took a spectacular day ride toward Hells Run Plateau near Glacier Lake. The ride up the mountain was void of the customary chatter and singing. We were too preoccupied by the thunder of the mountain waterfalls, the adrenaline jolt of unexpected bear cub encounters, the splendor of our surroundings, and, for some of the group, the residual effects of a 30th birthday bash.

Everyone took pictures, but we all agreed that photos could never capture the indescribable beauty of the Beartooth mountains and their wildlife.

We stopped to picnic beside a small, crystal-clear lake, called "Lost Lake" by the locals because it isn’t indicated on any map, and can only be reached by hiking or on horseback. There we napped in the warm sun or were entertained by mountain goats and long-horned sheep engaged in dominance games on the sheer mountain cliffs. Those of us who are avid anglers marveled at the size of the trout, who, like stealth bombers locking onto a target, nabbed bread crumbs we tossed on the surface of the shimmering water.

We reached the bottom of the mountain around sundown, and after a wagon ride through town, we trucked back to base camp for another sumptuous steak dinner. In celebration of us "earning our spurs", the wranglers treated us to an evening out on the town, and drove us to a local tavern, The Beartooth Inn. The Beartooth’s the happening place to be on Friday and Saturday nights because they have pig races, of all things.

Some forms of gambling and parimutuel betting are legal in Montana (video poker machines were my nemesis), and the pig races are run like horse races, only the track is considerably shorter (but then, so are the contestants' legs). Watching those little oinkers race was a real hoot, and even the animal rights proponents among us had a good time once they realized that the animals were not being harmed in any way, but were merely having a footrace to the feed trough. In case you’re wondering, they don’t starve the pigs or deprive them in any way to make them run faster, according to the proprietors. They don't have to. Pigs love to eat.

Our hosts returned us to Billings on Saturday afternoon, after a half-day ride on the ranch. The wranglers told us we were the best group of city slickers they'd had on a cattle drive, noting our respect for the land, (we left it cleaner than we found it), and remarking that we made their jobs easier, because we were so willing to share camp chores. Apparently, others who’d booked cattle drives in the past expected to be waited on, making the wranglers saddle and deliver their mounts to them, and they couldn't be bothered by picking up after themselves and keeping the campsites clean. For some reason, none of us could lounge around and watch other people work, when, with a little help, we could all take it easy and enjoy each other's company.

Since our airline departure wasn't until Sunday afternoon, we had a chance to play at some of the small casinos in the area and attend the rodeo, which was conveniently being held on the lot adjacent to the Billings Ramada where we were spending our last night in Montana. We were all especially delighted when the incredulous rodeo announcer congratulated the participants of the women's cattle drive on the successful completion of our adventure, as though it were an amazing feat.

We held women’s cattle drives three subsequent years, hosted by the Stoney Lonesome Ranch, a 5,000 acre spread adjoining the Custer National Forest, owned by Corky and Clarice Hedrick of JR Outfitters. Corky’s been riding since he was old enough to sit a cutting horse, and was, by all reports, quite the bronc rider in his youth. We had more creature comforts on those drives (actual porta-potties, solar showers, and, best of all, tents that didn't leak), and we operated from a stationary base camp. The Hedricks and their clan are a warm and welcoming bunch, and many of the women have returned to the Stoney Lonesome just to visit and help out on the ranch.

In those subsequent adventures, we had equally diverse groups of women: law enforcement officers, a chiropractor (a godsend), a high school principal, and regional managers of national corporations. By the end of the first drive at the Stoney Lonesome, all the women referred to Clarice as "Mom". We took strength from stories of her resilience in the face of family tragedies, and were impressed by her tenacity in keeping her family together in the face of the dire circumstances that often present themselves to ranchers. I also believe she was alternately tickled and impressed by the women who had thrown caution to the wind and come to join her world, if only for a week.

Just a word about the food: My friends just knew I would come back a vegetarian, thinking I would bond with a calf and, from then on, be able to turn up my nose at even the freshest Whopper with cheese. They were wrong. As a confirmed carnivore, I ate better than I've ever eaten in my life. Those cattlefolk served the freshest, most tender cuts of beef I've ever had the pleasure to taste.

I’m not exactly adventurous when it comes to trying new foods, but Clarice had a few surprises for me, like the casserole she served that looked to contain ground beef, only it didn't taste quite right to me. Then she revealed her casserole had been made with elk meat.

I grew up in the South, so things like possum, squirrel, and rabbit on a menu are no real surprise to me, although I’ve never sampled them. Eating elk casserole was a bit unsettling, I must admit, because for some reason it brought the image of Bullwinkle to mind (I know he was a moose, but you get my meaning).

A wrangler killed a large, angry rattlesnake, and one of our group, who fancies herself a wilderness woman, skinned it and cooked it for us all to sample. While it took more than a little arm-twisting, I did try a small bite. Contrary to what I'd been assured, it didn’t taste like any chicken I ever ate.

Of all the cattle drives, the first was the best (in my mind anyway, although I never told this to participants of subsequent trips). The covered wagons moving from site to site, lessons from former rodeo champions, and even doing our work through a deluge, I got a better feel for the cowboy ways on that trip than any other, not to mention a new respect for their efforts.

More than anything else, that cattle drive spurred me to get my act together and get out of the city. You see, I finally realized that I’d lived at Venice Beach for 15 years, in the same little cottage, with the same neighbors, in the same routine that I wasn’t particularly fond of, and the only person who could change it was me.

In that time span, I’d watched our neighborhood evolve from an artistic, bohemian mecca into a place where residents found themselves face down in the dirt of their front yards as carloads of gang-bangers raced down the street blanketing the area with Uzi rounds.

So, last year at Thanksgiving, we moved to Lake Gregory in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California. We left a population of around 11 million (in the LA metropolitan area), moving to a town with a population of around 11,000, and without a single traffic light. It was the smartest move we could have made. I believe it saved my sanity.

My partner and I had entertained the idea of relocating to Montana, but I had to be realistic. I knew I wouldn't last long against the possibility of six-month winters, with temperatures so cold that, according to Wanda, they froze the ears off the barn cat.

Here in our little mountain village we get enough cold and snow to make it feel like winter. We look forward to being able to watch the seasons change, a simple pleasure you forget about when you live near the beach and all you see are palm trees and sunshine.

I figure that it doesn’t matter whether you’re in the mountains of Montana or the ones in Southern California. It’s all God’s country, after all. And it surely beats living in the human zoos that many urban areas have become.

I suppose the novelty of spending a week on a working cattle ranch is wearing off, because we’ve had precious few requests for another cattle drive. But, if you think you’d enjoy such a vacation, feel free to contact me and I’ll hook you up with Wanda at Paintbrush Adventures. Fun for the entire family, it’s an experience you’ll never forget. I know I never will.


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Donna J. Wade
Freelance Commercial Writer
Graphic Designer / Print Media Consultant

Phone: (909) 338-9778
Email: donnajwade@gmail.com

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