Cowboy Up: Three Denver Desk Jockeys Go Cowboy

Willie and Waylon were right: A lot of us dream of growing up to be cowboys (or cowgirls)—even if just for a day. Here, three tales of Denver desk jockeys who did just that.

cows-and-cowboys

“Easy to feel brave right up to the minute you’re staring down a few dozen tons of bovine flesh,” a fellow rider says, and no one laughs. Photo by Paul Miller

If cowboys are your weakness—if the idea of getting dusty and sweaty while trying to corral a herd of stubborn cows butters your biscuit—then pull up a hay bale and have a seat. Because the three Western adventures we’re about to tell you about (a single-day alpine cattle drive, a fly-fishing wilderness experience at The Broadmoor and a stay at a family-focused mountain ranch where the wranglers teach lassoing and tomahawk throwing) were so much dang fun, they’d make Little Joe and Hoss jealous. Saddle up—we’re moving out.


Herd Mentality

Hard work. Long stretches of silence. A few choice bruises. How I survived my first Colorado cattle drive at Kremmling’s Rusty Spurr Ranch.

by Andrew Weaver

tip-your-guides

Photo by Paul Miller

WE DON’T RENT PIGS! the sign says, and I’m thinking: Good. This must be it.

It’s 6:30 in the morning out here in the northwestern quadrant of Colorado, the sun just coming up, and I’m standing at the end of a four-mile stretch of dirt road off State Highway 9, at the base of a ridge husky with pine and aspen growth. Before me, my destination: the wooden shelter, barn and corral that together make up the Rusty Spurr Ranch, established in 2001—purveyor of beef cattle, facilitator of tourist trail rides and other equine activities, withholder of pigs.

I’ve been sent out here, this summer morning, to ride along on a cattle drive and record a few greenhorn impressions about the business of cowboying on a working ranch. My guide for the day’s exploits: one Han Smith, part-owner of the Rusty Spurr, a blue-eyed and lean fellow with a tawny handlebar mustache who falls somewhere in the Gene Autry camp of cowboy stereotypes, all courtesy and principle, and who is, at present, loping through the dust toward me, grinning widely.

“I hope you’ll pardon me,” he says, without any introduction at all. He grabs my hand and pumps it. “Welcome. Lots to do this morning. Please, make yourself at home.”

There are nine of us scheduled for the drive today, which means nine horses, plus one for Smith and one for his assistant wrangler, to brush and feed and tack before everyone pulls in. Smith’s wife and business partner, Connie, an equally blue-eyed and cheerful character, is also poking around the ranch this morning, and to pass the time (I’ve arrived, I come to realize, far too early), I chat with her in the shade, trying to get a read on whom I’ll be saddling up with today. “Interesting and unpredictable,” she says. “Sometimes it’s a bunch of straight-lacers who don’t say much. Sometimes—well, you never know.”

Soon, of course, we do know. The group trickles in and assembles. In addition to myself, it looks as though our ranks will include a silent and rather dour girlfriend/ boyfriend unit; an older couple with obvious horse experience; an astrophysical engineer with obviously no horse experience; and a pair of tall German tourists, Johann and Joseph, easily the merriest members of the troop, who have traveled all the way from Deutschland for an authentic romp in the American West.

“Like I say,” Connie winks at me, “you never know.”

At 9 a.m., Smith is ready to saddle up and head out. Maggie, the wrangler accompanying us on the drive, helps us onto our horses (I get a sorrel named Butch Cassidy, who, Maggie warns, “likes to get out front”), while Smith doles out some hasty pointers on rein-gripping and posture— the only training we’re to receive.

“Mostly,” he says, “you’ll figure it out as you go. Anything you can’t, holler for Maggie or me. We’ll get you straightened out.” At which point he swings his horse around and whistles for his herd dogs Roxy and Zoe, his “1099 employees” as he calls them, indispensable to the operation. With that and nothing more, we head out.

The territory surrounding the Rusty Spurr, girdling it for miles on all sides, is deceptively uneven, hummocky with frequent little knolls that prevent a person from keeping his eye for any profitable length of time on the direction he’s going— or where he came from. The moment we crest the first hill and descend into the shallow lowland on the other side, we lose sight of our cars, the corral, the wranglers’ cabins. There’s no trail to follow—or rather, there is an almost endless number of trails to follow, weaving between the sagebrush— and so we fan out naturally. A few of the horses, aroused by all the space, break from their high-stepping walks into trots or canters, until Maggie calls to us to rein them in and keep things slow. I maneuver Butch Cassidy up to the front of the team to exchange a few words with Smith before the action starts.

The big question for me today is how a person gets into a business like this in the first place. “A cowboy doesn’t seem like something you just wake up one day and become,” I say. “I assume you must be born to it. You grew up in Colorado?”

Smith looks off mistily into the distance, grinning. “Not at all, actually,” he says. “My father was a pilot for Eastern. Mom was a flight attendant. I grew up in New Hampshire.”

“You’re kidding. You weren’t born out here?”

“Don’t go spreading it around.”

In pieces, I pull his story together. Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in pre-veterinary studies at the University of New Hampshire many years ago, fully intending to spend the rest of his life doctoring animals. After graduating, he came close to applying to master’s programs, but one of his professors encouraged him to spend a summer working outdoors in Colorado to make absolutely sure more book learning was what he truly wanted. He was hired on at the Rusty Spurr in 2001, stayed three seasons, and wound up buying the business in 2003. “The price was almost exactly what I would’ve paid going back to school,” Smith says. “I just didn’t want to be 75 years old and going, what if I would’ve taken a shot at that?”

Around the same time, he met Connie. “Similar story in the sense that she was also a little bit lost,” he recalls. “Back then, she told all her friends she just wanted to meet a cowboy who liked to snowboard and who had a college degree and a passport. Lucky for me, she didn’t specify height or hair. She’s been a huge supporter since day one.” For a cowboy, Smith isn’t shy about discussing love. When we pit-stop along the trail for water, he spots one of the women in our company leaning forward and rubbing her horse’s neck, whispering in its ear. “Hey!” he says. “You woman-breaking my horse?” Then he chuckles, tips his hat back. “Ah, well. That’s OK. I’m woman-broke, too.”

single-cow

Photo by Paul Miller

It’s at least 45 minutes before we come to any action at all, before we see even a single cow. Finally, at the top of a rise overlooking a stretch of long valley and a far-off lake, Smith stops us. “There’s our first group,” he says, pointing to a cluster of dark dots a few hundred yards off. “We’re going to get to the right side of them and push them through that gate toward the water.”

There is a stir, a swell of excitement. Roxy and Zoe perk up. We’ve come, at last, to the task, and from the looks of it a few members of the team are having at least passing second thoughts. “Easy to feel brave right up to the minute you’re staring down a few dozen tons of bovine flesh,” someone says, and no one laughs. In reality, of course, there’s almost zero danger—actual, honest-to-goodness cattle driving is a sluggish and strategic endeavor—but if you’ve never been in that position before, sitting on a horse facing down a herd of anything, you tend to fall back on your nearest experiential proxy: dramatizations of the job as depicted in movies and on TV—charging beasts, rearing horses, at least the possibility of a goring or a trampling.

“No need to be timid,” Smith assures us, and leads the way.

As we get closer to the cows, some of the apprehension burns off. These are not creatures to fear, we realize. “Heifers,” Smith says. “Young females, never given birth. They’ll listen to you. They’ll go any way you push them. Watch.” He steps his horse toward the herd—one footfall—and creates a sizable ripple. “They’re sensitive creatures,” he says. “They’ll respond to any type of movement.”

Case in point: the dogs, who start racing around the herd, squeezing it into a tight cluster. Smith lets them work for a minute, then whistles them away so we greenhorns can give it a try. Almost at once, a pitiful and comical struggle commences. We push too hard or too little, we split the herd, we isolate one cow, get her back, and then isolate another. Smith releases Roxy and Zoe again, and they bound around gleefully, correcting our mistakes and evening things out. Eventually, with their help, we start to get the hang of it. We lead the cows across the plain to the lake Smith has pointed out. They wade in and drag their snouts through the water while we sit back and feel something of the vigor, the lustiness that addicts people to this kind of work.

we-rent-sign

Photo by Paul Miller

For the next four hours, it’s more of the same, hunting down fragments of the herd and nudging them onto different tracts of land to prevent the overgrazing of any particular part of the ranch. “I like the challenge of herding heifers,” Smith says, after we ferret out some stragglers hiding down in a ravine. “They’re excitable. They like to break off into lots of small groups. It’s like trying to herd a couple hundred 12-year-old girls through the mall. Not easy.”

When the work is done, we make our way homeward, where Connie is grilling up burgers. “Lunch,” Smith says. “Or, depending on how sore you are, maybe you’d rather think of it as payback.”

With our feet up, we eat together and luxuriate in the feeling—deeply, animally satisfying—of having labored hard and gotten filthy doing it. None of us talks much. “So that’s it,” Smith tells us finally. “That’s real cowboying. Now you know.”

Real cowboying. I look around and marvel at the plainness, the unsexy authenticity of the Rusty Spurr; and at the unlikeliness of Smith himself—a boy from New Hampshire, the son of an airline pilot, a college graduate with veterinary aspirations who ventured west one summer on a whim and transformed himself into a cowpuncher.

“It’s a good life,” Smith says. “That’s what I want to communicate to people. Come out here, give it a try. I think you’ll find everything you need.”

Unless your needs happen to include pig rentals, this author couldn’t agree more.

RUSTY SPURR RANCH
LOCATION: Kremmling (about 130 miles west of Denver)
ACCOMMODATIONS: None
SUMMER ACTIVITIES: Cattle drives, horseback riding, rafting, trail rides, private rides
RATES, JUNE 1 TO SEPTEMBER 30: Cattle drives: $155 per person, ages 12 and up, including lunch; Saddle and Paddle: $134.78 per child ages 7 to 12; $172.06 per adult 13 and up; includes morning 2-hour trail ride, lunch and afternoon raft rip on the Upper Colorado River
INFO: rustyspurr.com; 970.724.1123

MOO-VIE TIME
6 movies about cattle drives to add to your film stable

1. “Red River” (1948): John Wayne and Montgomery Clift duke it out on a contentious cattle drive from Texas to Kansas.
2. “The Cowboys” (1972): John Wayne must teach a group of boys to do the job of men.
3. “The Culpepper Cattle Co.” (1972): A greenhorn teen joins a violent ride in the Old West.
4. “Lonesome Dove” (1989): Yes, technically it’s a TV mini-series, but with a cast that includes Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones and Danny Glover, this epic about a cattle drive from Texas to Montana is a Western classic.
5. “City Slickers” (1991): Three friends face their mid-life crises with a cattle drive from New Mexico to Colorado and get schooled by Jack Palance along the way.
6. “Open Range” (2003): Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall face a showdown after rounding up their wandering herd. Annette Bening adds to the drama.

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