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Roundup!

A city slicker saddles up for an authentic longhorn cattle drive at Big Bend Ranch State Park.

By Dale Weisman

"You know what I think? Out there are all the answers."
"No Ed, out there... are cows - and plenty of them."

- City Slickers

Maybe as a child, or even during a second childhood, you fantasized about being a cowboy or cowgirl and riding horses all day. I’ve had that ride-’em-cowboy fantasy a time or two, so when the opportunity arose to join a longhorn cattle drive at Big Bend Ranch State Park last April, I jumped at the chance.

Unlike other roundups, where professional wranglers manage the herd for tag-along dudes, a Big Bend Ranch State Park cattle drive puts you to hard work. You ride cross-country for hours at a stretch across a spectacularly rugged desert-mountain landscape, scouring thousands of acres in search of elusive longhorns. Then you drive the unruly herd over miles of rough terrain, and, at the corral, brand dozens of bawling calves.

Linda Walker, a rough-and-tumble horsewoman who has outfitted the Big Bend Ranch State Park longhorn cattle drives for the past decade, declares: “This cattle drive is in a class by itself. When you come out here, you get to be a cowboy or cowgirl. You don’t just ride a horse. You get to be this mythical person with the real thing — longhorns with speckled hides, big horns and bony butts — on a landscape that looks the way it was 130 years ago. Having a chance to live a piece of Texas history — that’s what this cattle drive is all about. And it’s magical seeing people embrace that dream.”

The morning after a serene, eight-hour drive from Austin to the Trans-Pecos, I rendezvoused with several fellow drovers at Fort Leaton State Historic Site. This imposing, 19th-century adobe compound a few miles east of Presidio serves as a living-history museum and gateway to the interior of Big Bend Ranch State Park.

At Fort Leaton, I met Rod Huffaker and his wife Annette, both train dispatchers from the Fort Worth area. I saw by Rod’s outfit — a black Western shirt, white bandana, white cowboy hat and heavy leather chaps — that he took cowboying seriously. This would be his fifth Big Bend Ranch cattle drive.

“I always wanted to be a cowboy,” said Rod. “I did my first longhorn cattle drive here in October 2001, and fell in love with this. It’s just the mystique — you get to taste it, feel it, smell it. It’s a small example of what cowboys went through. You can let your imagination run away and pretend it’s 1881.”

Indeed, the Big Bend Ranch setting has changed little since 1881. Encompassing nearly 300,000 acres of lofty, rolling tableland, the park is deeply incised by canyons and arroyos and capped by mile-high volcanic peaks and mesas. Even though the landscape appears harsh and arid, the park harbors 116 known springs and the state’s second- and third-highest waterfalls.

Milton Faver, a colorful, aristocratic cattleman, brought ranching to this corner of the Big Bend in the 1850s. In 1908, Big Bend Ranch was called Sauceda Ranch (sauceda means “willow” in Spanish). Then came the Fowkles Brothers, who owned the spread from the early 1930s to the mid-50s, calling it Big Bend Ranch.

Robert O. Anderson, the ranch’s last private owner, began stocking the land with registered longhorn cattle in the early 1960s. When the state of Texas acquired Big Bend Ranch from Anderson in 1988, some 200 head of longhorns came with the deal. Decades of geographic isolation and careful breeding preserved the cattle’s bloodline, resulting in one of the nation’s most genetically pure herds of longhorns. The Big Bend Ranch State Park’s cattle are leaner and wilder than most other longhorns. They’re direct descendants of the animals that evolved from centuries-old Spanish cattle and flourished in South Texas before the Civil War.

“Texas was built on the back of a longhorn,” says Linda Walker. “It was longhorn cattle flowing out of here that got the Texas economy going again after the Civil War. Much of our Texas heritage is based on that brief period of cowboys and cattle drives. It only lasted about 17 years, right after the war, until the 1880s. But for something that occurred over such a short period, it remains an enormously important part of how Texans view themselves.”

Not everyone has shared this romantic view of longhorns grazing on public lands. In the early 1990s, several environmental groups tried to force the removal of Big Bend Ranch’s longhorns, claiming the cattle would despoil springs and grasslands. However, the Big Bend Ranch State Park superintendent Luis Armendariz and many friends of the park believed the tiny herd embodied Texas’ ranching heritage. They contended that with fewer than 200 head grazing on about one-tenth of the park’s acreage, the environmental impact would be miniscule. The longhorns were allowed to stay.

Compared to European cattle, longhorns are almost feral, with grazing habits akin to those of bison and deer. Rather than forage in fragile riparian areas, they subsist on open-range vegetation — native grasses, thorny brush, cholla cactus, yucca, sotol and lechuguilla. As protective as they are resourceful, longhorn cows fiercely defend their young calves from predators.

“They’re ideal for this type of environment,” Armendariz told me. “They’re true Spanish longhorns. They’re survivors. People ask, what do they eat here? ‘Rocks,’ I tell ’em.”

Rocks indeed.

Leaving Fort Leaton, I drove along some 30 miles of unpaved park road that snaked past bizarrely eroded hoodoos, cave-pocked rimrock and volcanic dikes. My destination was Sauceda, the park’s century-old ranching headquarters — a compound of livestock pens and a red-metal-roofed, white-walled ranch building shaded by cottonwoods and willows.

At the corral, wranglers were sorting tack and saddling horses. Several of my cattle-drive comrades were checking in at the nearby bunkhouse. The 25 participants were an even mix of men and women from across Texas and out of state. Most were experienced riders. I felt like a greenhorn when we gathered for an orientation on horse behavior, cattle driving techniques and trail etiquette.

Allaying my concerns, Linda Walker told the group, “There’s a place in this cattle drive for every single person, even if you’re a beginner or haven’t done a lot of riding.”

After lunch, the wranglers matched riders with horses. I was paired with a state park steed named “Tomate,” a big red mare the color of two-alarm chili. By early afternoon, we were all mounted and moseying up the park road away from Sauceda. Walker split the riders into several groups, and I fell in with her crew.

“What we’re going to do is gather the longhorns,” she shouted over the wind. “The pasture we’ll be gathering is one of the ranch’s smaller ones — about 9,000 acres. But we’ve had a lot of rain — there’s lots of grass, which means the cattle are scattered from hell to breakfast.”

Veering off the ranch road, we headed down a single-track trail into the park’s tallest mountain range, the Bofecillos Highlands, a treacherous landscape of sharp volcanic scree, thorny brush and towering ocotillo branches that slapped at hapless riders. Leading us off-trail, Linda told us to fan out in search of longhorns and then meet up at a distant water tank. Riding alone and cross-country, I soon lost sight of my compadres. Onward I rode, anxiously scanning the hills and arroyos for signs of cattle. Feeling disoriented, I ascended a trail that led to a water tank perched atop a pyramidal hill. At the summit, I dismounted and scanned the horizon for signs of the other riders.

The clatter of horseshoes on rock broke my reverie, and up rode Walker.

“You’re at the wrong water tank,” she said.

“How’d you find me?” I asked.

“I tracked you,” she said. “I went cutting for sign and knew your general direction. I really hoped you’d turn up at this water tank instead of riding to Mexico.”

Linda explained where to find the other riders, along with a passel of cows and calves she had gathered. Tired and saddle sore, we had to drive our longhorns over rough terrain in failing light to Agua Adentro, a cluster of corrals about 6 miles east of Sauceda. We rode on adrenalin, whooping and hollering at the cattle, chasing after strays, nudging tiny calves along. By dusk we reached Agua Adentro and secured our longhorns in the pens.

After a dinner of grilled T-bone steaks, baked potatoes and Dutch-oven peach cobbler, we piled into vans and headed back to the Sauceda bunkhouse, where a musician from Fort Davis serenaded us with traditional cowboy songs. Exhausted from riding, I fell into a slumber that no amount of bunkhouse snoring could disturb.

Dawn came too early. At 6:30 a.m. park vans shuttled us back out to Agua Adentro where we drank cowboy coffee and wolfed down a scrambled-eggs-and-bacon breakfast.

While Walker’s wranglers prepared the horses for a full day of riding, I talked with Tony Gallego, Big Bend Ranch State Park’s soft-spoken site manager, about the cattle drive program.

“Linda is absolutely a big part of the success of this program,” said Tony. “She’s a modern-day Calamity Jane. She has charisma and gumption.”

Two events in the early 1990s inspired the Big Bend Ranch State Park staff to consider a public cattle drive: the popularity of the movie, “City Slickers,” and the success of a longhorn cattle drive staged by Cibolo Creek Ranch, the historic resort north of Presidio.

“Several park employees had the same idea,” said Gallego. Why don’t we have a similar cattle drive program and charge people to come out and help us? So the idea evolved into a program, and over the last few years, it has grown very popular.”

By mid-morning, we were ready to ride. Again I traveled with Walker’s group. Soon we left the beaten path and reached the brink of a broad canyon. One by one, we descended through dense brush, cactus and loose rock. Then for the next hour, we rode down the canyon along a narrow trail. As we drew near the ranch road, we spotted a lone longhorn in the brush. Several of the riders tried to drive it to the road, but the steer evaded us like a deer.

Instead of returning to Agua Adentro without longhorns, Linda spurred us on to check out one more secluded pasture, where we found seven cows and three calves. We pushed them along a lovely backcountry trail that led to the pens at Agua Adentro. By early afternoon, the last of the trail drivers straggled in with more longhorns. All told, we gathered more than 80 cattle.

After a lunch of beef fajitas, we rested up for the cattle drive back to Sauceda. By late afternoon, menacing thunderheads reared up around us as we mounted our horses and prepared for the 6-mile cattle drive from Agua Adentro to the corrals at Sauceda.

When I saw the river of longhorns surging toward me, I wanted to shout “Yee-haw,” just like in the movies. Thunder rumbled and lightning flashed from an ominous wall of cloud to the north. Dark, wind-swept curtains of rain chased after us as we drove the herd along the park road.

The last few miles I let loose and rode with abandon, charging through brush to chase down errant cattle, scrambling up steep arroyo banks, riding point on the herd. When the first splats of rain hit, I let Tomate break into a gallop the last stretch back to Sauceda. The rain stopped as I arrived at the pens, and a faint rainbow arched in the distance.

That evening, I chatted with Linda Walker some more. She hails from a Colorado ranching family with roots in the Big Bend region that go back nearly a century. She owns Lajitas Stables, as well as riding operations in Fort Davis and Taos, N.M., and has outfitted Big Bend Ranch’s cattle drives for 10 years.

“I get a lot of satisfaction out of facilitating a dream,” she says. “It’s a powerful high. On most other cattle drives, there’s a professional crew and you just ride along. Here, we try to get you to do it. It’s really the client that makes this trip. Everybody here will accomplish something. Tomorrow morning, we’ll watch people do things they never thought they’d do.”

Linda was right.

The next morning, the park cowboys separated the calves from the herd — a bellowing, mooing maelstrom of speckled hides and sharp horns. With the calves singled out, Linda explained how we were going to tag, inoculate and brand them. We all tried at least one task, from holding down bawling calves to applying the searing brand.

Each calf received the ranch’s historic Y-cross brand, which first appeared in the Big Bend region in the 1930s. As yearlings, these registered longhorn calves will bring between $350 and $500 each, with the proceeds funding state park programs. Most buyers purchase the longhorns for their history and bloodline, not their meat.

After a couple of hours of hard, dusty and smelly work, we succeeded in handling and branding 34 calves — fewer than most years, but a good morning’s work.

After trying her hand at branding, Elaina Griffiths, an avid rider and IBM engineer from Austin, admitted: “I thought I’d never brand an animal, but I did it. It looks cruel and smells awful. But when you think about what happens to cattle over their life spans, it prevents a life of horror. I decided it was an OK thing to do.”

My one regret is that I didn’t stay for the final Sunday afternoon ride — pushing the longhorns back out to pasture. Two weeks later, I got in touch with one of the more gung-ho riders, Ellen Reid Smith, the owner of an Austin-based Internet marketing consultancy. She confided, “One powerful feeling I took away was that I finally feel Texan. I’m a fourth-generation Texan, but riding in the bootsteps of my ancestors really gave me a feeling of what it means to be a Texan. I was moved by the whole experience. I thought, ‘This is what ranchers feel: a love of the land, their cattle and their horses.’ ”

I knew what she meant. We understood what “riding for the same brand” meant: A feeling of cowboy camaraderie shared by 25 riders driving those longhorns, come hell or high water.

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