Call Me Buzzard Bait
Hold on to your horn, as our man in the saddle attempts Canada's longest cattle drive armed only with borrowed boots, a brand-new outback hat and zero experience behind the reins
Westworld magazine, summer 2003 (unedited version)
I am a cowboy. This surprises anyone who has known me for any length of time. This surprises, most of all, myself. You see, prior to my visit to the Kamloops Cattle Drive, I had never been on a horse. A real horse, that is. Now I have 90 kilometres of mountainous trails under my belt. I have ridden up to seven hours in a day. I have penned real live cattle. In fact, I am a champion (or sorts). I have listened (against my will) to country and western music 24/7. I have paraded through the streets of downtown Kamloops on my trusty steed. As I said, I am a cowboy.
How did this happen? I have never been what you would call at one with nature. Nature, I've always said, is nice to look at from the safety of your apartment window or a moving vehicle. I am a man who had previously slept in a tent once in his life but never set one up. And let's just say I don't even like using public washrooms, forget about port-o-potties. So what, you may ask, possessed me to borrow cowboy boots, purchase an Australian outback hat and saddle up for a week in the wilderness? I was asking myself this very question for my first couple of nights on the week-long drive, cowering alone in my nylon retreat frantically squishing insects who dared invade my personal space. The impetus was from an editor who either really liked me or, it occurred to me on day two, really hated me.
So I set off on my real-life western adventure unsure of what I am getting into. My only experience with horses so far involve 50-cent mechanical pony rides in the mall. And despite what you may believe, no amount of merry-go-rounds can prepare you for such an experience.
All I know of cattle drives is what I learned watching ‘City Slickers’. But I am a true city slicker; not some Hollywood version of one. I am not travelling with my own personal stuntman. And rather than a handful of riders, like in the 1991 film, B.C.’s annual Kamloops Cattle Drive has 190 participants. With wranglers, medics and vets, that's about a 300-horse convoy we're talking about, any of which could wig out at any given moment.
My goal is a simple one: To stay on.
After the first day, a sweltering 30 degrees, I’m not so sure even this is attainable. At a lull in our slate of "Pioneers Recognition" events, a time to meet our horses and attend information sessions, young Mandy from Seattle takes her new horse for a test walk. Said would-be stallion has other ideas: he takes off at full gallop, tossing Mandy to the dirt and breaking her ankle. Thanks for coming out. Later in the day, two burly young men are bucked from their steeds before even getting off the picket line.
I am neither burly nor young, and I begin to worry about the waiver I sign upon arriving at the Crater Valley Ranch in Westwold, a small cowboy community fed mostly by agriculture and forestry that’s our drive's starting point. I am assured they’ve lost nary a soul in ten years of moving some 100 head of cattle every summer. Rather than providing relief, I am convinced they are now due.
After signing away my life, I get the rundown on the night's events.
"There's a live band tonight," I am told, "and they play country music. I guess if you're here you like country music."
Oh, God, I hadn't even thought of that.
Still, along with the remainder of the ride's 10-to-82-year-old greenhorn cowpokes and seasoned veterans, I dutifully drag my one week’s supplies to the camping area in search of a suitable spot for my mauve (not pink) tent. I feel like I’ve been conscripted.
What a suitable area is I'm not exactly sure. But I find a spot, dump my equipment on the ground and start to set up my sleeping quarters. Only I have no idea what I'm doing. I figure if I 'Jerry Lewis' it enough, someone will come by and give me a hand. But we are all strangers today. I finally petition the woman next door, who comes over and assists (read: does it for me while I stand there watching). Once inside, I am dismayed to learn that tent walls aren't soundproof and I'm hearing 'Blue Mesa' for the first of about 15 times that week.
I arise early the following morning to a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call over the P.A. system, the smell of bacon and eggs wafting over from the mobile canteen — a much more pleasant aroma than I get the rest of the day out on the trail, with 300 riders on horseback. And the horses don’t smell so sweet, either.
Those of us who arrived sans steed are given one. Mine is a beautiful bay. The crusty wranglers who assign me this horse don't know her name, though. I was looking forward to going through the desert on this horse with no name for the kitsch value alone, but it is not to be. I call her '108', the number on her harness thingy (I'm not a good listener). But I don't call her that for long. Old 108 senses my greenness and decides to have some fun with me. On our short introductory walk, she won't do anything I want. This may have something to do with the fact I don't know what it is I want and wouldn't know how to get it if I did.
"I'm outta here," I say, and hop off about sixty feet from where we started.
Spooked from my one try, and the image of Mandy and the burly dudes being thrown from their horses, I am convinced I'll be riding the wagons all week, which is an option on the drive. I don't need to experience riding in order to write about it. I covered the NBA for six years without ever once checking into the game. But head wrangler, Brian Chase, will have none of that. He leads me to Gumby, a huge black animal with a slightly swayed back, an enormous gut and a giant ass -- not to be confused with the genuine giant ass, Emma, also in attendance (Emma may technically be a mule, but for the purposes of this joke, she's a giant ass). My spidey senses immediately tell me this horse is not for me when I see her jump up and boot the horse behind her. Then I'm told she's in heat. So adios, Gumby.
I'm finally introduced to Spike, part Appaloosa, part turtle. Spike is, without a doubt, the slowest horse in captivity. When I 'tsk tsk' or kick his hard belly, he speeds up for exactly the duration of the 'tsk' or the kick. I love this horse! I am set. Spike and I will be a team for the first leg, a 16-kilometre journey from Westwold to... er, 16 kilometres outside of Westwold.
But good-natured Spike is a love-struck little goof. He will not let anyone between him and his pal, Salty. There's a walking-only policy on the drive. This is a good policy. I endorse this policy. Unfortunately, Salty is ridden by John, a nine-year veteran of the drive. And after nine years, he wants to branch out. So John goes off the beaten path and explores while the rest of the posse trods on, per the rules and regulations. But not Spike. No, my enraptured, co-dependent horse follows Salty everywhere while I, the helpless bysitter, hold onto the saddle horn for dear life, identifying me as a tenderfoot to all who pass by. And they all pass by. Forget what Robert Redford says, whispering doesn't help any.
Along the way, I get a heapin' helpin' of advice. For example, I learn that when a horse is relieving itself you should sit forward in the saddle in order to keep the pressure off its kidneys. Which didn't exactly jibe with the next bit of advice: To get your horse moving, kick it hard in the stomach.
Day two turns out to be a resounding success because I am able to separate Spike from Salty by grabbing a tight hold of the reign and showing him who’s boss. Poor dumb Spike is crying out for his beloved, but eventually gets over it. It’s called tough love. I feel masterful and ready to take on another day. That is, until I get back to my tent and find I can't sit down. Tenderfoot? Tender tush, more like it. The human rump has more muscles in it than you might think. I head over to the medic tent to get some ice for my "knee", but I think they see through that.
At each campground, the cattle drive crew arrives early and sets up the beer tents, picket lines and port-o-potties. Once our own tents are assembled for the evening, we can rest (my specialty), socialize, booze it up, or attend demonstrations on two-step dancing or horse-training, to name but two. If a live band isn’t playing or a cowboy poet reciting his odes to the range, a sound system is playing music for our dancing and listening “pleasure.” I notice the deejay putting up a banner that reads: “We play the music *you* want to hear.” I ask him if it’s true. “Yep,” he drawls. So I request some jazz.
“I really shouldn’t put up that sign,” he sighs.
The days become a blur of jostling horses on narrow trails, stressed-out newbies, and saddle sores, but the scenery makes it all worthwhile: sagebrush hills, flatlands, babbling brooks. The clippety-clop is hypnotic as we take in black-billed magpies (I’m guessing), rabbits and more horse “exhaust” than is appreciated. Thankfully, the only cougars we encounter are riding horseback with us. As for the cattle, they've usually got two hours on us, having moved out enmasse at 5 a.m. each morning with the keeners. I've always felt more comfortable in the majority. Back in the big city, I'm a bit of a night owl. Although I find it's not that difficult to arise at 5 a.m. providing you hit the hay immediately after lunch.
On the fourth day, high above a breath-taking river valley, there's a cattle-penning competition. Although it’s a very welcome day-off from riding. I am encouraged to enter. It's a lot of fun, I'm told. I'm not so sure. I’m not confident enough yet for the added stress of having freakin’ cows running around my horse's feet, but being the sport I am, I enter. Three-member teams ride into a large pen filled with numbered cattle. The announcer reads out a number, and the team sets out to get the corresponding bovines into a smaller pen within 90 seconds. And these crafty critters will do anything to stick with the pack.
Looks like I’ll have to carry my squad. Just my luck, I’ve been teamed up with two women. But hold on there one gol-darn second, pardner. These aren’t just any womenfolk: one’s a champion cattle penner, and the other pens once a week — for fun, yet. After the first six teams fail to pen a single cow, team number seven corrals one in 28 seconds. Not to be out-done, the ladies and I corner one in in 27 seconds. Record time! This game is easy! Round two takes us 56 seconds. Not to blow my own horn or anything, but I had very little to do with either capture. We finish fourth out of 39 teams, earning me the respect and admiration of my newfound peers. Success is a huge boost to my manhood, giving me the will to carry on. I might even learn to ride with my hand off the horn.
With another day of hands-on experience, and a change of mount (a competitive sort determined to beat all comers to the finish line), it all comes together. By the last day, our four-hour descent into Kamloops, I am ready to confidently strut my stuff. I even begin to admire the spectacular scenery, although I learn a very valuable lesson: As soon as you take the opportunity to soak in the breathtaking view, your horse will routinely walk you straight into a branch. But what I saw was striking: grasslands, rocky slopes, forested mountains, and no sign of civilization anywhere for as far as the eye could see. I truly felt like I was home on the range.
My new horse and I make it to town without incident. I proudly ride through the streets, nodding my head to the adoring masses the way a cowboy nods. After all, I'm one of them. From novice to horseman to cattle penning champ (kind of) in one week. I can live with that. There’ll be no need to get back on that horse and repeat my triumphs. I'll go out exactly the way I wanted to – on top.