A Gunnison cowgirl recalls an annual tradition

By Tami Blair

GUNNISON–The River Ride is one of my most treasured memories. It was a cattle drive that happened every year dur- ing the third week in June. I can’t really tell you how it got its name, but I think it was probably because we ended up at Tay- lor River. The day started at 2 a.m. That’s right, I did say a.m.

A photo from the River Ride, a treasured memory from the author’s childhood days. Courtesy photo Tami Blair.

The trip always began with a drive to where our horses were. I remember one time when we drove though Gunnison, my dad didn’t think any police would be around that time of the morning. Who in their right mind gets up that time of day? So he drove right through a red light. However, there was a policeman this par- ticular morning. After he stopped my dad, he saw all of us “cowboys”, and he knew we weren’t out to cause any trouble, so he let us go with a warning. After that, my dad drove the back streets through town.

That was just the start of the day. We drove for about another 30 minutes to the corral where we were to saddle the horses. With the headlights shining so we could see our horses we saddled up on and hoped we were seeing well enough to hook everything up correctly and tight enough. By the way, the horses were not very happy to be bothered at 3 a.m. and occasionally there was a horse or two that decided to rebel, and buck and try to throw their rider off before we even started. Usu- ally the riders won after a struggle.

Having to dress in a number of layers of clothes because of the bitter cold, I strug- gled to pull myself up on my horse. Yes, it is still very cold the third week of June in the mountains of Gunnison. The horses always felt very frisky and snorted at the fresh smells of deer, bear, coyotes, and other wildlife. Because of the cool weather and since I was sleepy, I had to hold on tight to my cold, hard saddle in case my horse spooked. There is no such thing as padding in the saddle when it’s that cold. Once everyone was mounted, we headed down the road. I tried to stay on the road because it was easy for your horse to trip if you rode in the sagebrush that came up to their stomach. With the rhythmic sound of the horse’s hooves on the road, and the still of the darkness, I would find myself fighting to stay awake. My horse would snort or perk his ears with the sounds of a distant coyote calling to his pack, and that was usually enough to keep me awake for a little longer.

Don’t miss the rest of the River Ride story…in the next issue of the Montrose Mirror! Courtesy photo Tami Blair.

Then, the sky started showing signs that the sun would soon make its good graces known and the air suddenly got even cold- er. By this time, my toes were usually numb from wearing cowboy boots with no insulation in them. With the sky lighten- ing, I always knew that it meant it would soon be warming up. Sometimes, the fog set in and the sight was mystical. It looked like God was beginning to lift the blanket off of the sagebrush and trees, and telling them it was time to wake up.

Finally, the sun slowly peeked over the tops of the trees and cast a golden glow over the mountains, making me look at them as if they were saying, “Look at us, aren’t we beautiful?” I had to say the sight was truly beautiful. Just as I was enjoying the sights and smells of the freshly brushed sagebrush and trees, the cows announced themselves with their calling card and I am suddenly pulled out of my daydream.

As I shook my head back to reality, I knew we had come to the cows we were to move the next 15 miles. At this point, we split up to gather the cows and head them down the road. Shortly after beginning our journey with the cows, we came to “the hill”. Oh, that dreaded hill that was steep and had thick dark timber. For some rea- son the cows decided since it was down hill, it meant to run. In turn, we had to pick up speed also. I held on as my horse and I went rushing through the trees to catch the cows. My horse gave no consideration of me on top of him and took me through trees that only he could fit through and by low branches that slapped me in the face. I sure could have foregone the experience altogether and been snug in your bed ra- ther than in a granite-hard saddle with my face whipped by unkind tree branches. At that same time, I heard a calf calling back up the hill, and had to do the same thing all over again.

Suddenly I visualized a cattle drive I saw on TV where the cowboys are moseying along in an open meadow, singing a song and acting like they don’t have a care in the world. So where are the open mead- ows? I sure wish this cattle drive was like the one on TV.

Now we were not even halfway to our destination. What can happen next? There were always cattle that didn’t like each other so we tried to keep them separated, but every now and then they decided it was time to prove who was boss. That’s when I stepped back out of the way and let the dogs take charge.

Cattle drives were miserable if you didn’t have a good cow dog. The ornery old cows didn’t hesitate to take on a horse, but for some reason a dog that was 1/20th their size was intimidating to them. When a cow started to turn on us we grabbed our twigs and started shaking our can of rocks fever- ishly until the dogs got over to help us. When my mother went on this ride she had a horse that bit the little calves on the back if they didn’t move. She never meant to hurt the little babies, but she sure made them move.

Those of us not fortunate enough to have a dog or biting horse resorted to many oth- er means to help the cattle continue on their way. I never started out with a whip because I knew I would loose it in the tim- ber as I was going breakfast speed. Instead I grabbed a twig off a tree and used it until it broke or got knocked out of my hand and grabbed another one. One could al- ways find a soda or beer can along the way so we picked it up and filled it with rocks and shook it at the cows or some of us yelled at the cows. We used all of these methods and any other ones we could think when we came to a place that we knew the cows would try to turn back on us.

By this time, I was ready to shed at least one layer of clothing. It’s a good thing saddles have long strings to hold the layers of clothes I would shed through the morn- ing. We continued on down the road and come to an open area where some of us stayed with the cows we currently had, while the others spread out and go through the trees to find the ones trying to hide. It also gave the ones we had been pushing time to rest and pair up.

When they were all gathered up the hill we went and on down the road. Soon, we came to a spot with a lot of willows. It was time to let someone take some of the hors- es while others of us got off and along with the dogs we wandered through the willows finding the calves that decided it was time to rest in the cool soft grass or the cow hiding because she had a sore foot and didn’t want to go any further. We had other ideas, and soon the dogs barked and the cow or calf called and the willows be- gan to crack and sway as the animal came running out.

When we came around the corner, I knew we were close to Beaver Creek. That meant we got to stop and have something to drink and/or eat. Well, at least what was left in our saddle bags. By the time we got through all of the trees, with the horses trying to rub us off the entire way, some- times we lost food out of our saddlebags or the food got smashed. It still tasted good smashed or not. We always froze our soft drinks so it would be cold by the time we got to drink it, but if it was an extra cool morning the pop wouldn’t thaw out, and I had to go without until the end.

It was almost a race between the women to see who got to the old outhouse first. I normally don’t get excited about outhous- es, but when you’re with a bunch of men there’s not much chance of slipping away. I hate to admit it, but my hard saddle still felt better than the cold wooden seat with a million splinters that was in the outhouse.

Then I enjoyed sitting and listening to the cows call to their young and softly talking to them as the young got a quick drink from their mothers. It was also time to take off another layer of clothing and I laid back on them on the ground and listened to the conversations around me and all of the sounds of nature. Right before I dozed off, my dad came over and said it was time to mount up again. Ugh!

To be continued…