I’ve been to a few cattle drives over the years, and they’re always fun to watch and photograph. Grizzled old cowboys donned in chaps, shirts, and weather-beaten Stetson hats usher cattle up the main street of a town toward a corral. They call out soothingly to the cows. “On, Bess.” “Turn around, lady.” On an intelligent level, I know that it’s done for the tourists. It’s a thrill. It speaks of a time when man grappled with nature, struggling to tame it. Of a time when the Wild West was truly wild. A time when traveling from town to town took weeks, rather than minutes. When people had to rely on their skills and wits to survive alone.
Every time I attend a cattle drive, it coincides with a major town event like a rodeo, a holiday, or a town festival. Cattle drives nowadays don’t serve a real purpose. Or so I thought.
Way back in the heyday, cowboys and hands moved cattle from town to town for various purposes. Sometimes it was to sell cattle stock. Other times, it was to change their feeding grounds. Cattle are destructive grazers, and it’s necessary to move them from pasture to pasture to allow the land time to recover. In those days, the cattle drives were fraught with dangers. Angry Native Americans. Hungry predators. Bad water. Bad weather. Injuries. Cattle thieves, too.
Nowadays, most ranches corral their cattle into trailers for transport. Easy.
A Colorado Cattle Drive
On the way back to Denver, I passed through an agriculture region. Dozens of farms and ranches lined the valleys in between towering mountains. In autumn, the wild grasses and wheat had dried to a shimmering pale gold. Distant herds of black cows grazed on the rolling hills.
Eventually, I passed through a narrow valley. On one side of the road, a small creek snaked through a narrow, long parcel of grazing land. On the other, a high hill rose. As I went around a blind curve in the road, I slammed on the brakes. A long line of cars snaked out of sight.
“Accident?” I wondered at first. I sniffed at the air. “Shit.” Distinctive smears of brown coated the road. But with the hill bordering the road, it could’ve easily been mud from a recent snowfall.
A few minutes later as the traffic jam slowly progressed around the bend in the road enough to reveal a herd of cows trotting alongside the road. Unfortunately, shooting from the car proved to be problematic, and I didn’t get all of the photos I would’ve liked.
The lead cowboy, in particular. His life was etched in his face. Deep grooves spoke of long days worrying over his wards. His eyes squinted shut in spite of being shaded by his Stetson hat. Years of working outdoor in the bright Colorado sun will do that. Liver spots peppered his skin. A massive, grayed handlebar mustache would’ve impressed Tom Selleck and Sam Elliot.
I slowed the car and peeked out the window with the camera. He glared at me with a subtle shake of his head. I took that to mean: Don’t take a picture.
I respected it. Still. I would’ve loved to get his picture.
The Photographs of the Cattle Drive
A small team of cowboys astride light-footed horses guided the cows along the road. I didn’t manage to count all of the cows, but there were at least 60. All were black. A handful had small patches of white.
It was interesting to watch these cows’ behavior. One lagged behind to nibble on the dry grass, and she seemed to panic. Bellowing all the way, she ran to catch up to her mates. Did you know cows can run?
I shit you not. Full-on lumbering gallop.
Some cows seemed very put out. I wondered at the possible reasons. Were they upset at being forced to change locations? Or were they hungry? Or were they just feeling chatty?
For most part, all of the cows seemed to know where they were going. They trotted or walked along the road. Every now and then, one would stop and balk at moving any farther. A cowboy would come along and have words with her. Not once did they use a whip or lasso to move the cows. One horse used his shoulder to nudge a cow away from a car, but that was about it, as far as physical force went.
Good wrangling skills.
This was the first time I’d ever seen a real cattle drive. On a certain level, it was anti-climatic. All the cowboys were doing was moving the herd from one field to another. Just shuffling them around. It’s a regular, familiar task. To them, it’s no different doing laundry or washing dishes.
But! These were real working cowboys. Not two-bit horseback riders hired on for entertainment. They were doing an old-fashioned job that has been largely rendered obsolete by technology.
That’s pretty damn cool.
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