Monday, March 06, 2006
Burnin' Daylight (Part One)
As 40 sleepy dudes awoke each morning, they were reminded that the cow boss is god, and cattle come first.
Dawn on the playa of ancient Lake Lahontan looks much as it did before men crossed cattle over its flat white seabed, before men dreamed of routes to silver and gold, before men. But last May a different breed of drover came to the Black Rock Desert.
Forty riders from places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Satellite Beach, Florida paid $1,000 each to follow 650 cattle over a dusty trail from Soldier Meadows, 55 miles north of Gerlach, to Ravensdale, 20 miles west of Susanville, California. For nine days they rode eight to 13 hours a day in the heat and wind, swallowing dust and complaints about sore muscles, searching for a West beyond John Wayne movies.
Spanish Springs Ranch owner R.C. Roberts advertises this spring drive, which moves beef cattle from winter to summer grazing, not only as an "adventure vacation," but also as an authentic slice of history.
The men and women who gathered at the Wheeler Ranch trail head were as mixed a cow crew as any assembled on the old frontier. They were ready for a new kind of vacation.
When she arrived, Carolyn Makin's cowboy hat was in a Mervyn's bag. Makin teaches kindergarten in San Jose, California. She said friends warned her against working cows.
"Fill your canteen with whiskey, Carolyn. You'll need it," one told her.
But eight days later the teacher became a lesson herself when she rode straight up a nearly vertical hillside after a squalling calf.
"That female's makin' you guys look bad," said cowboy Pete Faxon, shaking his head.
"I did sort of like that," Makin said of the compliment.
Harold Johns, a cop from suburban Chicago, came armed with his own saddle and batwing chaps he'd stitched by hand. Johns fell into trail work as if born into it and became the cowboys choice for backup.
Kelley Harrison, a social worker from Florida; Tim Bates, a former football player from Gainesville, Georgia; plumbing contractor Charlie Bennett, surgical assistant Lynn Backlund, and graphic designer Larry Zempel of Los Angeles had far different occupations in the real world, but they and a number of others settled into cow and camp routines so thoroughly that Sacramento television crew members, helicoptered in to film vacationing urban professionals, spent much of their time whispering "Is he real? Is she?"
Paying guests took San Franciscan Jayne Franklin for a genuine cowgirl, but the drive was only her second. Her first, last year, almost convinced her to chuck her city career for cowboying. Level-headedness prevailed over longing. But barely.
"The first drive was a total fantasy," said Franklin fingering the fringe on her chinks, the short chaps worn by working riders. "I loved the physical work and the cows. I went back to the city and got so excited talking about cows-- they just crack me up-- that friends thought I was crazy."
"Some people just don't understand the need to push to your limit, to be in a position where you're a little uncomfortable and a little scared."
Franklin was wearing the chinks because experience taught her she'd need them. Most of the paying riders only grudgingly packed cowboy clothes along with cameras and toilet paper. Tjeu tjpigjt tje Western hats, bandannas, and chaps were "cowboy chic" and recommended by Spanish Springs to dress up the drive for vacation snapshots.
Twenty-four hours on the trail proved them wrong. For the novice cattle driver, appropriate gear was vital. Although buckaroos on the drive wore hats with shorter, flatter brims, guests found that even the widest brims couldn't shade city eyes. Although buckaroos kept their neckerchiefs neatly tied, guests learned that bandannas worn rustler-style, pulled up to cover their nose and mouth, were their only defense against the dust that was raised byt housands of hooves. Chaps, short or long, might be tricky to buckle in 4 a.m. darkness, but they served as amor against high chapparal. And chaps helped keep pants clean.
"There's dust and dirt all over everything," said Harrison, who braided her long hair to slip under her hat. "Our jeans could just hold up the tent. They wouldn't have to stake it."
*** "Burnin' Daylight" first appeared in the March/April 1991 issue of Nevada Magazine. More to come!!! ***
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Terri Farley @ 7:50 PM