Wild Cow Catchers
Gathering feral cows in the rugged Arizona countryside is dangerous and demanding work. But it’s how two brothers make their living and follow in their father’s footsteps.
Story and photography by Ross Hecox
Travis Ericsson’s eyes bug out when he sees about 20 black cows trotting down a ridgeline in the distance. He quickly slides out of his saddle, turns to us and whispers as loud as he dares, “Down! Get down!”
We all dismount and begin frantically tightening our cinches and cramming our hats down to our ears. After hours of searching for wild cows in the mountainous desert north of Phoenix, studying tracks and cow patties, and moving at the pace of a sleepy old cowboy tune, the tempo quickly accelerates into a loud, heart-jarring, heavy-metal anthem.
The cows spot us and begin hustling downhill to the north and around the backside of a tall peak. Wheeler, Travis’ brother, swings into his saddle and spurs his horse downhill and to the north. A deep-cut creek prevents a direct path to the cows, so Wheeler takes a parallel route, intending to literally head them off at the pass.
Travis’ mind is racing. He yells at Wheeler. He waves his arms at Ryan Else and Kyle Romo, positioned miles away to the south and presently unaware of the situation. Pacing and strategizing while chewing his finger, he takes a mere 10 seconds before hopping on his gray mare and storming in the direction of Wheeler and his barking dogs.
“Come on! Let’s go! Let’s go!” he screams. Mike Kevil and I grip our cameras, find our right stirrups and follow the crazed man downhill as he zig-zags his mare down the steep grade like a snow skier in a slalom race. Cinderella keeps her hocks on the hillside, bouncing and lunging left and right while sending rocks tumbling over the prickly pear and catclaw below.
Travis and Wheeler have been chasing cows since they were boys, helping their father, Dave Ericsson, do the same job. When they began riding, he required that they learn the skill bareback, even when riding through the steep and rocky country where they were raised. Once they advanced to stirrups, they put their saddle horns to good use.
Travis doesn’t recall a time when he didn’t rope. As a 5-year-old, he spent a winter in California heeling wild bulls for his dad. With the senior Ericsson’s guidance, Travis and Wheeler became experts at catching wild cows at a young age. Throwing an accurate loop is only one of the many essential skills for a job that involves tracking, using dogs, handling and/or wrestling cows, shoeing horses and tolerating long, hot days in the saddle.
Travis admits that he wasn’t enamored with the work until he left home as a grown man.