But this story isn’t about my journalism days or the disasters I covered. It’s a true wild west story of adventure and cowboys and it’s about my moniker – Calamity Jane – a nickname I still haven’t managed to shake off, despite not having worked in the Daily News newsroom for more than twenty years .
For those who don’t know, Calamity Jane was a gun-slinging, fearless horse-riding American frontier heroine and professional scout best known for her love of Wild Bill Hickock and for fighting Indians. She roamed the plains of Wyoming and Montana and was skilled at both horse riding and gun shooting. She was wild, romantic and free … a true feminist, adventurer and a woman who had the respect of the other cowboys.
Like Calamity Jane I had always yearned for adventure. I wanted to roam the world, to discover new horizons and challenge myself. Which is why I decided to ride horses in America – Calamity Jane style – and truly live up to my nickname.
This was Dryhead Ranch – one of the most remotest places in Montana, big sky country, 4000 m above sea level, 35 miles on the Montana/Wyoming border and three hours from the nearest airport at Billings.
Myself and nine other guests which included ranch owners from Brazil and Upstate New York, a French airline manager based in Dubai, a 72-year-old attorney from California, a Dutch man and his 12-year-old daughter who rode better than all of us, an HR specialist from Holland and a Spanish yachtswoman, had all flown to mid-west America to become cowboys and girls for a week – City Slickers style.
Before we arrived, we were given a long list of items we’d need – cowboy hats and stampede strings, spurs, saddle bags, chaps, chinks, checked shirts, riding boots, thermal underwear, bandanas, sunscreen and riding gloves.
As we were going to be staying on an Indian Reservation, we couldn’t take any alcohol or bare our skin due to Federal Law, which was fine by me as I had absolutely no plans to drink and ride, or travel Lady Godiva style.
In fact it was so cold that I basically wore every piece of clothing I could find in my suitcase – six layers and a borrowed oversize rain slick – so that I looked like a cross between the Michelin Man and the Man From Snowy River.
Today, four generations live and work the Dryhead Ranch including Iris, her daughter Jennifer and her son Tyler and son-in-law Jake who are the real-life cowboys. They are all expert riders, have incredible knowledge about cows, horses, ranch life and Montana and live an enviable and amazing lifestyle that has almost mostly disappeared in the Mid-west of America.
Our first day’s drive started near a bentonite mine in Lovell, Wyoming where, we were told, bentonite is taken out of the Bighorn Mountains and made into a number of bizarre absorbent things such as kitty litter tray liners and baby’s diapers.
We drove the cattle for 50 miles past bentonite trucks, under huge power lines that stretched as far as California, across red and grey dusty plains, through a rocky canyon, over cricks, up steep paved or dirt roads, underneath jagged cliffs, past huge patches of white snow and onto the pastures of Dryhead.
The landscape was both intoxicating and intimidating. The harsh, dry dusty plains with very little vegetation, seemed to go on forever and we were constantly aware of the Bighorn and Pryor mountains looming over us and the mind-blowing canyon – sheer cliffs towering 1000 feet above a ribbon of green/blue water – which cut a swath through the earth.
Jennifer followed behind in the pickup truck with our picnic lunch while one of the cowboys drove a cattle truck to pick up the stragglers and any horses (or riders) that got tired.
Despite the fact we City Slickers must have asked the same questions that every other guest has asked over the years, the family never appeared frustrated or sick of saying the same thing. They made us feel as though you were part of the family, helped us saddle our horses every morning and treated us as though we were the first guests they’d ever had.
On this particular drive, we were also accompanied by a very mysterious cowboy – think Clint Eastwood meets the Marlboro man. He was very good-looking, an incredible horse rider, his three cattle dogs obeyed his every command and we would stare slack-jawed in silence as he cantered by and lassooed a calf effortlessly.
Even his young sons, both wearing the full cowboy gear, proved to be amazing riders even though their saddles were munchkin size.
Real cowboys are a dying breed in America so it was amazing to witness them in action and see how much they really love and value the animals and their way of life.
“It took two generations to make the cowboy and it will take many more to lose him,” wrote the famous American West Artist and Writer, Will James (1892 – 1942).
We rose every morning at 5.30am and, like a breakfast fashion parade, checked each other’s outfits out; who had the shiniest spurs, the biggest Stetson, the most colourful cowboy boots.
It was all I could do to stop myself from whistling the Wild West theme as we clinked in our spurs to the cookhouse for a meal of the most delicious French Toast, Pancakes, Waffles, Eggs, bacon and hash browns I have ever tasted.
They have three types of Cattle Drives at Dryhead – the Spring drives from Wyoming to Montana, the Fall Drives from Montana back to Wyoming as it’s too cold to leave the cows at Dryhead over winter, and the Horse Drives which are apparently a lot faster – horses are known to cover ground in half the time of cows. In fact, from what I saw, the cows seemed to spend most of the time walking back through the herd and bellowing for their calves.
At the end of nearly every day’s drive, we had to sit patiently with the herd while the cows mothered with their calves otherwise they would run off at the first sight of grass, eat their full and then suddenly remember their babies. Cows really are that stupid. They’d then try to run back to the last place they saw them – which in our case was about 8 hours back to Wyoming – or they’d lose their calf somewhere in the vast plains never to be seen again. So we had to wait until they’d all found each other and the mooing had stopped.
During the drive, I noticed lots of mother cows with short-term amnesia in the front of the herd while their poor calves staggered along at the back.
The din of mooing did nearly drive me insane on our first day; give me London traffic any day. AT times, the herd was so noisy it sounded like 250 Wookies (think Chewbacca from Star Wars) and motorcross bikes all growling and revving at once.
We stayed at Dryhead ranch each night – mostly because it was too cold to camp out and a warm bath and a soft bed in the bunkhouse or cabins were a huge welcome after a freezing day in the saddle. We’d corral the horses and cattle, drive back to the ranch and then start the next day from where we’d left them.
We totally lived the authentic cowboy lifestyle – pitching hay to the horses in the paddocks, trying to lasso the steel practice cowhead in the yard, telling stories around the camp fire and most nights after a fantastic meal by the resident cook, Donna, watching back to back episodes of Comanche Moon or Lonesome Dove before bed.
I even found myself saying ‘howdy’ to everyone. All the guests bonded over a shared passion for horses, adventure and the fact we all had aching muscle
One evening I stumbled back to my cabin through a mild snowstorm to find about ten yearlings all sheltering under my porch with their bums facing outwards like they were in the middle of a pow wow. I had to fight my way through them to reach the steps to my cabin and eventually drifted off to the sounds of small horses snorting, farting, squealing and occasionally kicking the wooden porch in the blackness outside.
My cabin was basic but warm and clean with a private bathroom, bath, double bed and cowboy paraphernalia everywhere from lassoos, old cowboy boots and spurs hanging on the walls to cow and horse skeleton heads on the ground outside. The cosy bunkhouse, with shared bathroom, slept about 8 people and was heated by a central woodfire stove.
Although I had to drive Patches into the herd a couple of times to get him to slow down, Tyler assured me that I would love this sweet horse by the end of the day and indeed I did; so much that I was trying to figure out how I could sneak him back to the UK.
By the end of the five days we were galloping, turning sharp corners and rounding up cattle like pros …. well, at least we thought we were.
Driving the cattle into Dryhead Ranch on the final day was one of the most exhilarating moments of my life, even when Patches decided to race into the creek for a drink along with the entire herd of cattle. Our last day we took the herd on to one of the top pastures above the ranch and spent the afternoon meandering over the property looking at fences and checking out the herd of mares.
And then all of a sudden it was time to go back to the bright city lights of London. The adventure was over.
A week at Dryhead is not cheap at around $1700 US dollars but worth every penny. Flights from London to Billings via Minneapolis are around 800 US dollars. We also stayed in the Best Western Hotel in Billings for £75 per person a night.
Thank you to the amazing photographer, Cassie, for some of the images above. An abridged version of this story was published in the March issue of Your Horse
(c) Jane Wynyard 2013