Download audio (MP3)
Honoring an Old Tradition
Laura Deck spends a week on a rural California cattle drive that's been an annual tradition for more than a century.
By Laura Deck
I am all for progress, but that doesn't mean we have to discard all old traditions. One throwback that still has its place is the western cattle drive. Long before semis loaded with livestock barreled down superhighways, moving cattle to winter pastures happened the old fashioned way: on horseback.
For one week in November, I was a drover on the 104th Annual Hunewill Ranch cattle drive. Three generations of Hunewills have kept western heritage alive on their ranch in Bridgeport, California since 1861. I was part of a motley crew of real and wannabe cowboys who drove 519 "dogies" 60 miles to their winter pasture in Smith Valley, Nevada.
Most of the red angus cows were pregnant, so our pace was a leisurely stroll through sage-covered canyons and high desert rather than a Bonanza-style stampede. It was refreshing to slow the spigot of life to a trickle and focus on only a few tasks instead of my usual suburban juggling act.
Each morning before sunrise we donned our chinks, wild rags and boots, saddled up, and pushed the herd through pinon-covered canyons to the next destination. Astride my dun mare, I watched as jack rabbits scampered into the sagebrush and clouds gathered over the Eastern Sierras. We kept an eye on the cows in case a renegade group broke away or got lost in the willows. During long hours in the saddle I talked to my fellow drovers: a sugar beet rancher from Salinas; a retired justice from Scotland; a restaurateur from Chicago, and a scientist at Google. Many of the drovers feel the pull of the Old West and return to the cattle drive every year.
At dinner the final evening in the warm glow of the dining hall, a woman from Wales captured the essence of the week when she said she experienced "eiliadau tragwyddol," which means, in Welsh, eternal moments of utter peace that she will treasure forever. I couldn't have said it better myself - in any language.
Here's hoping this cherished western tradition outlasts us all.
With a Perspective, I'm Laura Deck.
Laura Deck is an independent program manager and freelance writer living in San Carlos.