I awake to one of life’s greatest delights: the smell of bacon sizzling in the kitchen. Outside the window of the old ranch house, birds cheerfully chirp as the sky is turning pink with the dawn.
It’s several hours before I usually wake up, but today I don’t mind.
Today I am joining a group of real, authentic ranchers for a real, authentic cattle drive.
Spring arrived late in Wyoming this year, as late-season snows battered the mountains and plains through the very end of May. Now that it’s (finally) beginning to warm, leaves are bursting on the trees and the prairie grass is stretching towards the sky. Only a touch of snow remains atop the mountains between Shoshoni and Thermopolis — the mountains I’ll soon be riding towards with 10 cowboys and 200 head of cattle.
As beautiful as the landscape is, it’s really the smell of bacon that pulls me out of bed. The floors of the 120-year-old farmhouse creak beneath my feet as I follow the smell to the breakfast table.
I’ve been here twice before, back in 2014 and 2016. My friend Kyla married into an amazing family of ranchers that owns and maintains thousands of acres of property in eastern and central Wyoming. At their homestead of 74 Ranch in Torrington, the family breeds Quarter horses, Black Angus cattle, Mini Aussies, and even exotic Ragdoll cats.
Today, though, we’re at their satellite property in the tiny town of Shoshoni, smack dab in the center of Wyoming. Our goal over the next 3 days is to drive their cows and calves about 20 miles from the homestead up to the summer pastures at the top of the mountain.
Fortunately, we don’t have to ride all day on empty stomachs. We’re lucky enough to have a valued friend and professional caterer, Michelle, along to fill our bellies with delicious home-cooked meals.
Fueled up on coffee, eggs, and mounds of bacon, it’s time to saddle our horses and get mooooooo-ving!
Wyoming Cattle Drive: Day 1
My mount for the weekend is a beautiful bay Quarter horse mare, Dot, bred and trained right here on the ranch.
Along with the ranch owners, Tom and Garrett, two families from the Fort Collins area have traveled here to help make the drive a success. I soon find myself surrounded by 9 capable and experienced cowboys and cowgirls — and thank goodness!
I’m definitely a confident rider, but on a scale of 1-10, my cow sense (at this point) is about a -3.
Because of all the recent rain and snow, we’re expecting plenty of mud and standing water along the way. Before rounding up the entire herd, we decide to push a small group of cattle towards the creek and evaluate conditions from there.
My bovine education begins with watching the experienced ranchers sort out “pairs” of cows and calves. The goal is to keep mothers and babies together as much as possible to avoid the panic and chaos of separated pairs.
With my non-existent cow sense, I simply sit back and watch the process. There’s only so much these cowboys can explain in words — much of working with cattle is learned through observation and repetition.
With the herd sorted and paired, we set off north towards the mountains and our first water crossing at Badwater Creek.
The dry sagebrush and hard-packed earth give way to belly-deep mud as we approach the creek. The cattle struggle through the mud — Garrett even has to hop off his horse at one point to help a calf — but soon all creatures are safely through the muck.
Thanks to all the rain and snowmelt, what’s normally a dry wash (or slight trickle) is now a raging river. Fortunately, the old bridge above Badwater Creek remains intact, allowing us to safely make it across.
Now that we knew we could safely cross the creek, it was time to return to the ranch and round up the rest of the herd. The afternoon was essentially a repeat of the morning, with the addition of a scenic detour around a desert butte.
After a second creek crossing with the rest of the herd, Day 1 of the cattle drive was officially complete. With the sun sinking low in the sky, we loaded up our horses and returned to the ranch for a well-earned meal and a good nights’ sleep.
Although still a rookie, I felt one step closer to joining the ranks of “cowgirl.” I would have a chance to prove it on Day 2, when my new skills were REALLY put to the test!
Wyoming Cattle Drive: Day 2
Day 2 of our cattle drive began at the ungodly hour of 4 am. Another delicious breakfast and gallons of coffee (thanks Michelle!) greeted us as we stumbled into the kitchen and prepared for the longest and hardest day of the drive.
Today’s trek would involve:
- Rounding up the herd from where we’d left them the previous night
- Crossing beneath the highway through a flooded culvert
- Riding 10+ miles across the plains into the foothills
- My first (and hopefully last) experience with a “run back” — but more on that later!
By sunup, we’d trailered the horses back to where we left the herd, saddled up, and set out. As the herd had spread out around the hills and reservoir overnight, our first step was finding all the little groups and rounding them up.
To keep ourselves motivated (and awake), Garrett and I decided to add a little country music soundtrack to our morning ride.
And then something unexpected happened.
We’d rounded up a group of about 30 strays and were moving them back towards the highway, where we’d eventually join up with the rest of the herd. Garrett announces he’s going to check behind a butte for any stragglers and tells me to stay with the cows and keep them moving.
Before I can object, he’s galloping off into the sunrise, leaving me and Dot alone — with the cows.
How did I manage? Once I got over my nerves and embraced the idea of shouting at cattle, surprisingly well!
Eventually Garrett returns and we meet up with the rest of the gang, reuniting the 200 or so cattle into a single herd. Our next step was to get them under the highway via a culvert that’s normally bone dry.
But this year — you guessed it — everything was flooded. Did that slow us down?
Not even a bit.
At some point during all of this, I feel a major shift in my brain. Instead of being hyper-focused on the beauty of the area and being back in the saddle, I start to gain a real appreciation for how hard these ranchers work.
After all, in a few days, I’ll be returning to my “normal” life and day job. But these hardy men and women live here and work with these animals, day in and day out, every single day. I have a whole new respect and appreciation for ranchers, rodeo riders, and everyone else who choose this lifestyle over a cushy office job.
You’ve got to admit, though — they get an incredible office view!
We had intermittent sunshine as we moved the herd across the plains. Watching the landscape change between sunshine and cloud cover was absolutely spectacular.
It was also impressive to see the herd line up and trail one another for miles and miles!
Eventually we reach the dirt road that leads up into the mountains and our final destination. Tighter space means you have to be even more aware of each animal, as this is where they can easily dart away into the trees and brush.
We’re about 6 hours into our day at this point, and everything seems to be going well. The herd is moving along nicely, the clouds have drifted away, and a yummy lunch is awaiting us further up the mountain.
And then…it happens.
Calves Gone Wild: The Run Back
On a long cattle drive with this many animals and riders, it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong. Unfortunately, it happened on my watch.
In my brief bovine education, one thing that was stressed to me was STAYING BEHIND THE LAST COW. What happens in a long journey like this is many “orphan” calves end up straggling at the back of the herd and getting separated from their mothers. Rather than racing ahead to find them, the calf will instinctively return to the last place it remembers being with its mother — on a cattle drive, that could be MILES back.
If a calf panics and shakes loose from the herd, it can and will run for miles, sometimes all the way back to the ranch. I felt this was a slight exaggeration when I heard the stories.
As it turns out, it’s absolutely true.
How do I know? Because it happened to me.
This is a tale of me, a calf, and a poor judgment call. Granted, no one had actually told me what to do if this “run back” incident occurred.
So when I found myself alone at the back of the herd in a narrow canyon (everyone else had darted off to round up strays), I had no idea what to do when one little calf decided to cut and run.
As the calf did a 180 and bolted headlong down the road, I went with my instincts. I spun Dot on her haunches, dug in my heels, and shot off after it. Dot did what Quarter horses are bred to do — cover very short distances in a very short amount of time.
And as we’re flying all-out down this road, eventually catching up with the calf, realization dawns on me.
I have no rope. I have no lasso.
And even if I did, I wouldn’t know how to use them.
Realizing my blunder, I have no choice but to pull up, let the calf go, and call for help. It arrives in the form of Dan, one of the ranchers from Fort Collins. I breathe a sigh of relief, figuring he’ll be able to catch the calf in no time.
Did it work out that way? Not exactly.
The next HOUR disappears in a blur of hauling butt several MILES back down the road, chasing and chasing our little escape artist. In this time, the calf manages to clear a cattle guard, leaping over it like he was Pegasus, and scramble up an impossibly steep hillside.
At this point, Dan and I (and our exhausted horses) have no choice but to admit defeat. Thus begins the hour-long walk of shame back up the mountain — empty-handed — to tell Tom and Garrett what happened.
I’m really, REALLY dreading this moment. After all, it’s not like someone’s hat blew off and got away. This is a living creature we’re talking about. And not just that, but it’s their livelihood. And the last thing I want is for them to think I’m not taking it seriously.
As it turns out, the guys are incredibly nice about it. It happens sometimes, they say, and then go on to explain that the mother will usually go back for its baby and keep looking until they’re reunited.
So that’s what I’m telling myself happened. I’m imagining a midnight reunion between mother and baby and them rejoining the herd by sunup. There’s no way of knowing for sure, of course — but let’s hope it had a happy ending.
As for me? After that fiasco, you’d better believe I was keeping a MUCH closer eye on the back of the herd!
Wyoming Cattle Drive: Day 3
After my blunder on Day 2, you can imagine my surprise when the boys tell me to saddle up after breakfast.
We’d gotten the herd about 90% of the way up the mountain the day before. But as it turned out, the families from Fort Collins had to return in the morning, leaving only me, Tom, and Garrett to complete the drive.
Viewing it as my chance to redeem myself, I dragged my weary body (we’re talking 20+ hours in the saddle in 2 days) out to the corral to get my horse.
We trailer our horses up the mountain to where we’d left the herd the night before. And when we realize how much they’ve scattered overnight — over steep hillsides and into narrow valleys — I’m suddenly VERY glad the guys brought me along.
With no more experienced cowboys and cowgirls to fall back on, this is it. The real deal. Can I do it — or will my inexperience show again?
As it turns out, my chance for redemption came. Over the course of the morning, we successfully navigated the rough terrain, through juniper forests and rocky slopes, searching out every last cow and calf. On many occasions, the boys would push a dozen or so cattle in my direction, leaving me — on my own — to get them back on the road.
I’m proud to say I didn’t lose a single one this time. I even received the ultimate cowgirl compliment — an invitation from the guys to return and help again next year.
And the views? They were pretty sweet too.
At last, 3 days and more than 20 miles later, we push the last of the herd through the final gate. They’ll spend the summer up here, grazing in these lush and beautiful pastures.
And then — finally — I’m able to sit back in the saddle and reflect for a moment.
This was not a vacation. This was not a trail ride. It’s one of the toughest experiences — physically and mentally — of my entire life.
But would I take up Tom and Garrett on their offer for me to join them on their cattle drive again next year?
In a heartbeat.
Photography note: Most of the images and videos in this post are my own. However, the really spectacular ones (like the image above) are courtesy of my friend and amazing Wyoming wildlife photographer, Kyla.
Check out her site, Rawhide Photography, for more images of the “real” west.