I’m a cowgirl. Okay, not really—I live in New York and about the only cows I see on a regular basis are those smiling out at me from cheese, milk and ads on TV telling me about life in California. But every so often, I get out the check shirt, pull up my jeans, slap on my Stetson and yank up my boots to go off out west for a combination of road and ranch.
More than any other country, America lends itself to the road trip. Great expanses of open road, highways stretching for miles through a changing terrain of prairie, mountains, and lakes gliding into desert, buttes and salt flats before coming to meet the ocean. Who can resist such a changing panorama? Scenic is the word here for the highways; this is definitely not the New York State Thruway or the New Jersey Turnpike. In May or early June, there is still little traffic, crowds at the national parks are few and the weather makes good attempts at being pretty perfect.
But America is also special in one other aspect. Yes, there are a few estancias and fincas to be found in our Latin neighbors, and perhaps there might be a few ranches to our Canadian north. However, it’s the United States which offers a wide variety of guest ranches for folks like me to sample a little of what it’s like to be on a real working cattle ranch—in other words, I can get to be a cowgirl for a few days. And this summer I did just that. I forswore the luxuries and amenities of a ranch resort or dude ranch, happily waved goodbye to trail rides, and drove off with my daughter 40 miles down a gravel road, 72 miles from the nearest town, and headed to the Cottonwood Ranch in Wells, Nevada. Oh, and that’s Ne-va-da pronounced like the a in cat, not ah like star. Be careful about that!
I have to admit, we weren’t exactly roughing it. The lodge at Cottonwood provides highly comfortable rooms. Splendid meals are enjoyed with all the hands at a beautiful table in the dining room there. I wasn’t put to work mending tack, fixing fences or currying horses. But we did join the cowpunchers on their rounds to check the cattle and we were there for round-up and branding.
Round-up and branding play a part in my book, Loveland, so I was obviously thrilled to be seeing it happen first hand. Admittedly, I didn’t get up at 5 a.m. to help bring the cattle in to the branding area but we did ride out in time to see the irons being heated and the roping and branding begin. For anyone unfamiliar with this process, let me explain. Calves stay by their mothers, like any baby, so the ranch knows to whom each calf belongs from the markings on the mother. The calf is cut out from the herd for branding and then one cowboy/girl ropes the front legs while another ropes the back. One or more men rush in and tail down the calf—this baby can weigh right around 200 lbs.—as the ropers’ horses move to gently stretch out the animal. Another cowpuncher comes in with the branding iron and applies it in a couple of places, ears are clipped according to the brand, an anti-biotic injection is given to guard against infection and, finally, a little quick knife work is done to make future bulls into steers.
And what happens to that by-product of reducing the bulls of tomorrow into the meat of today? Why, they become Rocky Mt. oysters and are served up at supper. Breaded, fried and served with a little hot sauce, they pop into your mouth and put hair on your chest. Well, metaphorically speaking. And that’s something we don’t eat in New York!
About the Author:
Andrea Downing has spent most of her life in the UK where she developed a penchant for tea-drinking, a tolerance for rainy days, and a deep knowledge of the London Underground system . In 2008 she returned to live in the city of her birth, NYC, but frequently exchanges the canyons of city streets for the wide open spaces of the West. Her love of horses, ranches, rodeo and just about anything else western is reflected in her writing. Loveland, a western historical romance published by The Wild Rose Press, is her first book. She is a member of Romance Writers of America and Women Writing the West.