Real Colorado cattle drive
August 11, 2016
As the landscape changed, so did my state of mind. Driving north on U.S. Hwy 9 out of Silverthorne, the jagged mountains dropped away, and spacious ranch land replaced clustered neighborhoods.
Then that changed too, into rolling sagebrush, and my thoughts turned away from mountain bikes and stand-up paddleboards, flattening out a little, like the landscape, becoming more rolling, rugged. Western.
Nervousness and excitement stirred in my chest, but I kept the wheel steady, turning down the dirt road that leads to the Rusty Spurr Ranch.
Just south of Kremmling, at the base of the Williams Fork Mountain Range, the Rusty Spurr sits on 10,000 acres and offers visitors a glimpse into range cowboy life via a unique experience — the opportunity to actively participate in a short range cattle drive.
As a kid, this kind of thing was my dream. Horse crazy and bitten by the bug of the nostalgic west, I imagined myself aboard my trusty pinto mustang, hauling across the sagebrush-riddled plain, expertly tossing my lasso at any cow or creature that dared catch my eye.
That inner part of me awoke when I parked in front of the Rusty Spurr "cow camp" building, my eyes lighting on the horses held in the nearby corral.
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If I had the mindset for the part, owners Connie and Han Smith definitely had the look of the part, with wide-brimmed hats and boots. Han is the quintessential cowboy, as though he just stepped out of a Frederic Remington painting, with spurs, Levi jeans and leather chaps. When he mounts his buckskin horse Hooligan, he just looks like he belongs on the range, an essential piece of the landscape.
Both Han and Connie guide horseback rides and cattle drives, along with several employees and a few faithful dogs.
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Our group was small — me and my faithful riding companion and photographer Heather Jarvis, a married couple and a mother with her two daughters who were celebrating high school graduation. All of them came from out-of-state.
Nose-to-tail riding isn't an option at the Rusty Spurr. The horses know they have a job to do, and aren't interested in following in their fellows' shadows. We took off through a break between two hills, listening to Han answer questions while insects hummed in the sagebrush-scented air. At one point, a hawk circled above us, giving a screeching cry that would make any Hollywood western sound effects master proud.
It was around this time that I realized we wouldn't just be riding a flat plain like I'd pictured in my mind, but in fact all over the nearby terrain, including over rises and hills and through stands of aspen. Luckily, my horse — a tall sorrel gelding named Scooter — was much more sure-footed than I would have been.
The first cow we saw started out of a stand of brush. Zoe the dog got it going down the hill toward the rest of the herd, which we approached. Their black hides shone in the sun, and at the sight of us, they offered up some deep-throated moos.
We paused at the back of them, and Han urged us to go forward.
"Like, straight ahead?" I asked. "Into the cows?"
Yes, he encouraged all of us. I was a little uncertain, but kicked my horse, once again trusting he would know what to do, and amazingly, the seemingly solid wall of cattle moved as we neared, flowing out and away, toward the open range.
Though hesitant at first, it didn't take long before all of us were whooping and hollering at the cows, heading off attempted breakaways and stragglers, and riding our horses right up on their heels.
"Get, cows! Yaaa!" I shouted, to my 10-year-old heart's content.
Dust rose from the cattle hooves and hung in the sky, which remained deep blue and sun-filled throughout our ride. I could almost hear the old cowboy songs my grandmother used to sing to me, echoing in the sounds of creaking leather, hoof beats and cattle lowing.
Get along little dogies, get along…
Our skill improved steadily as we drove the herd, turned it and broke off to bring more cattle in. We weren't just aimlessly moving the herd around the range, either. We brought them to a large pond, which they gratefully poured into, wading up to their shoulders, soaking relief from the incessant sun and drinking deeply. After everyone had had a dip and a drink, we drove them into a nearby pasture to dry out and graze some new acres.
The ride back went quickly, and felt a bit strange without a herd of cattle spread out before us. We'd covered nearly 10 miles, overall. Slightly sore bowlegged-ness was quickly forgotten as Connie greeted us with a welcome-home present — hamburgers for lunch.
While we dust-covered, experience-tried cowpokes tucked in to the meal, we discussed every aspect of our ride, from the smart and responsive horses to the sneaky cows foiled and incredible stretching landscape.
Even as the sagebrush faded into the rearview mirror, and the mountains of Summit County reared upon the horizon, the smells and sights and sounds hung like a cloud around us. There's a piece of the Old West alive at the Rusty Spurr Ranch, and if you are so inclined, you can ride right into it .
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