Five-Day Cowboy

by Jennifer Tardy

I was only halfway through my first morning ride at the dude ranch, and I knew that any romantic thoughts I had about the Old West had already bit the dust. Romances didn't have grit getting under collars and into noses and between teeth. I wasn't even sure that a soak in a bathtub would remove all the grime from my body. Romances didn't have ripe smells of fresh dry air scented with pungent new hay, nor the musky scent of scattered horse and mule droppings in the corral. In the city, I only had to worry if owners curbed their dogs. Romances didn't have muscles begging for mercy. Every single muscle attached to my joints and spine reminded me that it was questionable that I was a cowboy. All that remained to be seen was how long it would take me to turn philosophical about my time on a dude ranch.

No one in their right mind would mistake me for a cowboy. I'm short, overweight, and definitely middle-aged. Certainly no one at the school I taught at would think I was the cowboy type. I was in the teachers' lounge one day in late April when someone asked me how I was going to spend my month-long vacation in May.

I started to laugh. No one was going to believe what I really was going to do, but I gave it a try anyway. "I'm going to Arizona for part of the time."

I could see some of my fellow teachers look at each other and wonder, "What's so funny about that?" So I leaned forward, looked left and right, then whispered, "I'm going to spend the first week at a dude vranch near Wickenburg."

Jill nearly choked on her laughter before she finally said, "Shore, dudette, I can already see them spurs on your heels and see you roundin' up those little dogies."

"So that's how she's been getting those kids off the playground when recess is over. I've always wondered how she did that so well." Carol smiled at me.

May came and I left in my trusty old Mustang and headed southeast into the dawn. Somehow that seemed less romantic than heading into the sunset. As I got closer to Wickenburg, I found a country western station. The radio was crammed with them, so it wasn't particularly hard to find one. Turned out that the music and my blue jeans were the only things ready for the rigors of five days on a dude ranch.

The next day I went out on my first ride. I wore my own jeans and plaid shirt. The rest of my outfit was a sorry bunch of ill-fitting, borrowed gear, including a cowboy hat and boots. I was told, "Sneakers just won't do when you've got your feet in the stirrups." Who was I to say no to boots in the stirrups? Hadn't I watched all the "Bonanza" episodes when I was a kid? The hat was another matter. The smallest hat they had was still a bit large, so I ended up tying a scarf over it and under my chin. I had a distinct feeling that this wasn't chic a la cowboy. I looked more like Ma Kettle than Annie Oakley.

During the first half hour of riding, my "guaranteed to be gentle" mare and I tried to determine who had control of the reins. I found myself firmly believing that Greyhound had the right idea. If only I could've left the driving to them. I knew what the problem was; my knees and hands were not coordinating with each other. My knees were telling the horse to stop, and my hands on the reins were telling the mare to turn around and head back to the ranch. The mare responded by looking over her shoulder at me and tugging at the reins. Occasionally, she'd stop to nibble on the grass. Why was solving the problem so much harder than knowing what the problem was? I really was glad that Hank, our wrangler guide, was the stoic type. Someone needed to be. I knew I wasn't; my impatience was getting the best of me.

At the beginning of the ride I rode behind Hank, who would periodically turn around and give me riding hints and reminders. At home, I depended on Eloise's Helpful Household Hints; on the range, I was learning to use Hank's Handy Horse and Tack Know-How to ease my frustration. About halfway out on the trail, I was riding herd at the end of the line. Somehow the wrangler survived the two-hour ride. I didn't. My mare and I were not on speaking terms. However, my back, elbows, wrists, knees, and spine were on speaking terms with me, and they were complaining loudly about their aches and pains. I looked forward to the swimming pool and a drink later that day.

All I could do now was shake my head and remember that I had wanted something different than my usual vacation from teaching. Despite my lack of experience with horses, I thought a dude ranch would be just the thing to get me out of my rut and rattle up some new excitement. I just hadn't realized what direction the excitement would take me.

It was the afternoon's ride that finally determined my cowboy status. Ringo led the group out on the trail. He actually had a red neck. I never saw him smile, and he kept a particularly tight face when he told jokes and tall tales. I decided he was just too tanned to smile. On the way back to the ranch house, we lined up to hear our last instructions before going down and asparagus-thin trail. I soon found out why Ringo called it Rocky Road. It was dry, dusty, and dangerous. The left side was straight uphill; the right side, well, let's just say I wasn't ready to twist around and bend my head to see where the bottom view ended. My fear of heights had returned in full force; I knew when to cling tight. A quarter of a mile down the path there was slight gap in the trail, no more than a foot across and a foot deep. It looked like it was caused by some run-off from a rain storm. All I could concentrate on was that gap. The more I looked at it, the wider it grew. All of a sudden, my horse slipped. I could've sworn she tripped on her own feet. Loose rocks scattered. My heart almost pounded right through my chest. Then the mare's feet found the bottom of the gap, and I lurched forward. It felt as if I was bungee jumping with my horse, and I was sure my death grip on the saddle horn wasn't tight enough. The contents of my stomach burned my throat. My quick-witted horse half-stepped it across the gap and regained her footing on the other side. My own wits had already scattered down the side of the hill, along with the loose rock. About thirty minutes later we were back at the ranch. It was a relief to find out that I could still stand on my own two feet after dismounting the intrepid mare. My wits had finally returned.

I decided right then and thre I was not cut out to be an all-day cowboy. I knew my body could only take so much adventure in one day. So I immediately limited my rides to only the mornings. I spent the afternoons walking around the ranch, watching clouds and deciding what animals they looked like, admiring a hand-sized turtle, and studying ants working in the shade of a lone tree. I also went to town to visit art galleries. I saw paintings of Southwestern landscapes, Native Americans, and Zane Gray cowboys. By Saturday, it had sunk in how much I needed both adventure and reflection.

When my week at the dude ranch was over, I packed my Ford Mustang and headed west. The sunset was still a few hours away. Seventy miles north of Wickenburg, I turned off KWCW, a country western station, and played a Nat King Cole tape. He was singing "Route 66." I laughed at the phrase about getting some kicks on Route 66. Well, I had gotten my kicks, all right. It just hadn't happened the way it did in the song.

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