Paying guests from various parts of the world join volunteer drovers to trail 300 head of Corriente rodeo steers from Doyle, California, to the Reno Livestock Event Center, where the rodeo's held downtown. The horseback drive takes five days and covers about a hundred miles. Along the way, seven 1800s-style horse- or mule-drawn wagons carry bedrolls and cowboy tepees for everyone. Riders put in some long hours in the saddle as they move the herd and handle whatever rigors the trail offers. But no one goes hungry, with plenty of delicious Dutch-oven cooking in camp, and sleep comes easy for those who unroll their beds among the High Desert sagebrush each night.
"We try to make this event a real cattle drive," said Ira Gostin, who serves as media boss for the Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive. "There may be significant hardships involved along the way. The weather can be hot or cold; it may rain or snow. All of this is possible in northern Nevada any time of the year.
"During the drive," he continued, "we try to teach the guests buckaroo etiquette and tradition - a lifestyle that is in danger of disappearing. We also offer some history of cattle ranching and cattle-handling skills in the High Desert. Our crew is completely volunteer, and our sole purpose in this is to provide our guests with an authentic, safe and very western buckaroo experience."
Last year's trail drive included 45 paid guests and 35 volunteers. The guests were all provided with rental horses (no privately-owned horses are allowed) courtesy of Dave Dohnel, the drive's jigger boss from Frontier Outfitters, Bishop, California. We broke camp early each morning and made camp at night in places that had corrals and water for the horses and cattle.
Picking the right horse for the right guest, whom you've never seen before, is an art form, and Dave proved to be a master. There was a shake-down ride the first day, just to make certain everyone got along with his or her horse. And in case any guest had a question about horsemanship, they could turn to none other than Bobby Ingersoll, who'd joined the ride to answer such questions and help with the cattle, too. Bobby, of course, has won most everything there is to win in performance horse shows around the country since 1971.
Danny "Pockets" Iudicella served as chuck-wagon boss. His shopping list for the drive included more than 600 pounds of meat, 40-dozen eggs and enough Starbucks coffee to make 50 gallons. This might've been the only cattle drive ever to serve its crew Starbucks coffee. There was another special amenity, too, not found on a typical buckaroo wagon - a portable, open bar in the evening.
The meals were a far cry from 1800s cattle drives you read about, where a lot of "sow belly" and beans were served. Breakfast on this drive offered eggs, hash browns, a variety of meats, biscuits and gravy, muffins, French toast, hotcakes and fruit. Lunch on the trail consisted of cold-cut sandwiches, fruit and veggies. For dinner, the menu featured such items as prime rib, chicken, Dutch-oven potatoes and rolls, stew, peach cobbler, fruit, salad and bread.
Quite a Crew
Right away, we noticed the entire organization seemed to run with military efficiency and effectiveness. That might have something to do with the fact Howard Weiss, the trail boss, is a graduate of the United States Naval Academy and heads up a large California corporation that specializes in electronics technology. Howard is also a past president of the American Quarter Horse Association and is a Reno Rodeo Association director.
"My first involvement with the Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive was 15 years ago," Howard said. "Steve Millstein and Alan Capurro started it to help promote the Reno Rodeo and have some fun. I went along as a paying guest."
Although the guest participation fee (an all-inclusive $1,600 per person) helps off-set expenses, the cattle drive also has relied on a major sponsor to make ends meet. "I loved this drive so much, I decided to be the major sponsor," Howard continued. "My company became the sponsor and remained so until last year, when Signature Landscapes took over - and we sure do thank them for their support."
Howard rode his own horse on the drive, a nice gray gelding named Pepper, who years ago starred as a mare named The Hell Bitch, ridden by actor Tommy Lee Jones in the Lonesome Dove television movie. With careful camera angles, Pepper assumed the part of the mare.
For the 2006 ride, scheduled for June 11-15, Howard has handed off trail boss duties to Marie Gaspari-Crawford, whose family ran cattle in what now is Spanish Springs, north of Sparks, Nevada. Her uncles taught her the old vaquero ways of handling horses, and she's married to Cody Crawford, who's also involved in the cattle drive as cowboss. They live on the Rafter 66 Ranch in Palomino Valley, north of Reno. Marie is in charge of the guest drovers, the jigger boss, camp crew and administrative duties.
Cody grew up on a California ranch where his father was the manager. He learned the buckaroo ways with horses and cattle, and had a lot of riding jobs from Texas through Montana. He runs the Rafter 66, and on the drive he oversees the drovers, the cattle feeding operations and the chuck wagon.
Buck Fenlason volunteers as camp boss, which means he moves and sets up the camp and chuck wagon each day. Wagon masters for last year's drive were sisters Julie Jepson and Janet Moore, identical twins who enjoyed dressing alike in their period costumes. These sisters grew up on their family's ranch in southern Wyoming, and they oversaw the operation of the 1800s-style "bed wagons." The two have been on the drive for the past eight years with their children and wagons.
There were also several real working buckaroos to help the guests with their cattle work, horses and various related games held in the evenings. Dummy roping practice was held each night, and there were interesting and educational displays on reading brands, horse shoeing and buckaroo gear.
As the drive got underway initially, the buckaroos positioned guests on each side of the herd in the swing positions and at the back, riding drag. The cattle were fresh, but handled quite well, and the miles slipped by. On the last two days of the drive, the buckaroos held back and let the guests take full responsibility for the drive. They did great!
A woman from Chicago, Kim Mandekich, who hadn't been horseback for 20 years prior to this cattle drive, was named honorary trail boss by vote of the other guests. "Imagine what this does for my ego," she said. "I deal with computers and people, not cows and horses." For future vacations, she said, "It'll be hard to top this cattle drive experience."
Other guests seemed equally enthusiastic. Nathan and Angela Cole from Danube, Minnesota, were on their honeymoon. "We had a choice of the Bahamas or the cattle drive, and we chose the cattle drive," Angela said afterwards. "I'm a horseperson, my husband isn't, but we both had a wonderful time."
We arrived in Lemmon Valley for our last night's camp, moving up in elevation from the sagebrush to a juniper-covered hillside. The wind came up as a storm moved in, the temperature dropped, and by morning the cattle were restless. We moved the herd after breakfast, and this last day of the drive took us to the Reno Livestock Event Center for the rodeo.
Wayne Lund, Reno Rodeo president for 2005, had arrived in camp with his horse to assist in getting the cattle through the streets of Reno. "This well could be the toughest part of the drive when the cattle leave the open country and start down the paved streets," our cowboss advised. "Stepping on a manhole cover is enough to spook the cattle or your horse."
Despite obstacles such as manhole covers, cars, road construction, spectators lining the streets taking pictures, and a few rattlesnakes along the way, this drive, like the 14 before, ended up where it was headed. It had come a hundred miles from the Sand Corrals on the California state line to downtown Reno. Next up: The Wildest, Richest Rodeo in the West.
The Reno Rodeo
This year's rodeo - the 86th - will also mark the 20th anniversary of the Reno Rodeo Foundation, which is committed to enhancing lives of northern Nevada families by donations to children with extraordinary needs, building community partnerships and providing scholarships to the University of Nevada, Reno. Funding for these projects comes from contributions from the annual all-volunteer Reno Rodeo, Reno Rodeo Invitational team-roping events, and various other related fund-raising efforts. It is also estimated that the economic impact on the Reno/Sparks community during rodeo week is more than $33 million.
Jerry David, 2006 Reno Rodeo president, notes that this year's rodeo, which runs June 16-24, will be PRCA Hall of Fame rodeo announcer Bob Tallman's 30th year announcing the event. Stock contractor Cotton Rosser of the Flying U Rodeo Company, has been involved in the Reno Rodeo for more than 50 years, both as a contestant and a stock contractor.
For more information on the Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive and the Reno Rodeo, phone 775-329-3877; for tickets phone 800-225-2277; or visit the website at www.renorodeo.com.