I was going through some morning emails when my boss approached my desk.
“What do you know about the Saragosa Vacation Ranch?” He asked.
“Never heard of it. Is it connected with the Saragosa tourist town I did the story on awhile back?”
“Exactly right,” he replied as he handed me a new assignment sheet. “Enjoy yourself...and bring me back a damn good story,” he commented as he walked back to his office.
I took a look at the sheet. I had been assigned to go over the mountain, south of the central Oregon town of Bend to a place called the Saragosa Vacation Ranch. My boss had booked me for a two day stay. Looked like I was going on a cattle drive. My contact would be a man named Darryl and I was to meet up with him tomorrow afternoon.
I wasn't sure if I was going to like this assignment. Past research had taught me a little about cattle drives. It means I might be sleeping out under the stars for a night and I might even have to ride a horse. I'm a city boy and neither one of those things are my idea of fun. I had to work at convincing myself it would be a two day adventure and something I could talk about around the water cooler.
I was up early the following morning packing what I thought I might need. It was less than a three hour drive, so I was in no hurry.
As always, it was a pleasant drive across the mountain. The highway follows the beautiful McKenzie river through tall fir trees. They slowly give way to ponderosa pines as the elevation goes up. Once over the pass the landscape changes more abruptly. An ancient lave flow covers the area for miles. It eventually gives way to a more desert like setting with juniper and sage dominating the landscape for as far as the eye can see.
The air is fresh and I'm enjoying the drive. I usually come this way during the winter ski season. It's June now and the snow is all but gone.
My phones map program leads me right to the gate of the Saragosa Vacation Ranch. My preliminary research tells me this is a Dude Ranch. I'm the Dude and I'm sure there will be others.
I follow a long driveway to the main lodge. It's a huge and very fancy log cabin style building. Can't be more than a couple years old. There's also a big barn and a couple of out buildings close by.
I can see horses in a nearby corral and several people milling around. I'm greeted by an older man who has Cowboy written all over himself. His sweat stained hat and worn boots match his weather beaten and sun darkened complexion. He steps up as I step out of the car.
“Howdy, My name is Larry, What can I do for you?” He asks as he reaches for my hand. He clenches it like a vice as he gives it a hearty shake.
I introduce myself and state my reason for being there. I let him know I'm looking for Darryl.
Larry informs me that Darryl will be back shortly. “Grab your gear and I'll show you to your bunk. You'll get a good dinner and a good night's sleep. We'll start out at first light. As soon as Darryl gets back I'll let him know you're here.”
Larry led me to my room and showed me my bed. “This one's yours for the night. Tomorrow we sleep under the stars. We'll get you and the others lined up with a horse in the morning. You can ride, can't you?”
“Not really,” I sheepishly replied.
“No? Well, we'll figure something out,” he replied as he walked out the door.
I unpacked the few things I had with me including a like new cowboy hat I had purchased for the Saragosa stage ride story I had done earlier.
I shared the room with one other person.. His name was Vance. A city kid in his late twenties looking for a change of pace from his yearly tropical vacations.
I myself would jump at a tropical vacation. Oh well, to each his own.
After I unpacked, I took the time to stroll the grounds. It was a nice place. Clean and well kept. Darryl caught up with me and introduced himself. He could have been Larry's twin. Turns out they are brothers with Darrel being the older.
His first question was expected. “So, I hear from Larry that you don't ride?”
I was hesitant to reply. “I suppose I can get on a horse if I have to...unless there's an alternative.”
I'm sure Darryl sensed the desperation in my voice. “Well, we have a chuck wagon going with us. I suppose you can ride along with the cook. We have plenty of riders for the amount of cows were moving.”
I was relieved to hear it.
As promised, the dinner was good. The talk centered around the drive. We would be moving one hundred head from the ranch pasture to another pasture twenty miles away. The Saragosa Ranch was several thousand acres and we wouldn't be leaving the property. We would be re-enacting a real cattle drive as much as possible. Sleeping under the stars and eating food cooked on an open fire by a cook following along in a real chuck wagon.
Bright and early the next morning we were rousted from our beds. A hearty breakfast was waiting for us in the dining hall. After breakfast we were taken to our horses. Larry, Darrel, Vance and another “dude” named Jerry mounted up. I climbed onto the chuck wagon with the cook who introduced himself as Cookie.
“So, you don't ride?” Questioned the cook. It was the first thing out of his mouth once we got underway. I had a feeling this was going to haunt me for the next two days.
“What on earth brings you to Saragosa if you don't ride? Most people who come out here are cowboy wanna-be's. All hat and no saddle as the saying goes. They all think they can ride. Just because they got on a pony at the county fair once don't make it so. At least you admit it.”
I made it clear that I wasn't a cowboy wanna-be. “I work for a paper called the Daily News and I'm on assignment. I'm here for a story,” I replied.
“Well, what do you want to know,” replied Cookie. “I've been doing this for three years now. I can tell you a thing or two.”
We slowly bumped along for several hours. I scribbled notes as Cookie filled me in on some of the “finer” details of the Saragosa Ranch and those who worked for it.
Lunch gave us about an hour to stretch our legs. According to Darryl we had been making good time. I could tell that Vance and Jerry weren't accustom to riding for such a long distance. They both looked a little uneasy as they climbed back into their saddles for the last few hours of the drive. Jerry spent most of it standing in his stirrups. My best guess is that he has a case of hemorrhoids that were giving him some grief. I only hoped his legs didn't give out on him. He still had a long ride home. By late afternoon we had reached our destination. This was the first patch of green I'd seen all day. But there was still plenty of sagebrush to be found. The cattle were turned loose and Cookie began to set up camp while Darryl and Larry tended to the horses.
Vance, Jerry and I did all we could to help. I gathered up what wood I could find for the fire. It was mostly old sagebrush. Cookie had a stash of what he called “chips” stashed in a tarp that hung under the wagon.
Cookie was fast at putting together a good meal. In no time at all we were eating baked beans, cornbread and some kind of deep fried meatballs. As we ate, he kept the fire going with the chips he had brought.
“What are those things you keep throwing on the fire, Cookie?” asked Jerry.
“They're called chips,” Cookie replied as he tossed one to Jerry.
He looked it over and broke it apart. “Doesn't seem like much. Has a funny smell to it. Kinda reminds me of grass more than wood.”
“That's right,” remarked Cookie. “Back in the 1800's when cowboys drove thousands of head for hundreds of miles, the chuck wagon always went ahead of the herd. The idea was to have camp set up when the men arrived. Wood was in short supply so whenever the driver laid eyes on a dry buffalo chip he'd stop and pick it up. Throw it on the tarp under the wagon. There aren't any buffalo around here so I use cow chips.”
“I still don't get it. What are chips?” Asked Jerry.
“You're a little slow there, Jerry,” replied Larry. “Cow chips is dried cow shit.” He chuckled as Jerry dropped the chip and wiped his hands off on his pants. “Your dinner was cooked on cow shit. Kinda gives your grits a whole new flavor now, don't it.”
Jerry didn't seem as amused as Larry, but he took it all in good humor.
Larry wasn't done with his good-natured humor. “How do you like them meat balls Cookie fixed up for you boys?"
“Not bad,” commented Vance. “Tastes like fried bologna.”
“Kinda reminds me of chicken nuggets,” I replied.
I noticed Darrel and Cookie sat back quiet like and chuckled as Larry went on. I knew something was up.
Larry continued. “They're called Calf Fries. Some call em Rocky Mountain oysters.”
“What are they made out of?” Asked Jerry as he took another bite.
Larry sat patiently and waited until we all had a mouthful of “Fries”.
“We don't make em. We collect em,” he replied with a grin. When we brand our cattle, we also take a big pair of nippers and cut the balls right off the calf.”
Everyone stopped chewing. The look of surprise on our faces must have been a 'Kodak Moment' for the three Saragosa men as they watched the Dudes squirm at the thought.
“That's right boys, You're eating cow testicles... It's a delicacy,” he added with a grin as big as Texas.
Jerry started to gag and I spit mine back onto my plate. Vance was unaffected and continued to eat his like it was nothing. Seems like he didn't mind eating the balls of a cow.
I handed my plate to Vance and wondered off to get a drink of water.
“Hey, come back,” hollered Cookie. “I made coffee. It's Cowboy coffee. You'll like it.”
“I'll pass, I've had it before,” I replied as I waved it off. I was recalling the story I had done on Cowboy Coffee a while back.
A couple of hours went by and the sun had set. Cookie motioned me over to the wagon out of sight of the rest of the group. I walked over to see what he wanted.
“Ain't suppose to have this out here, but I do it anyhow.” He pulled a bottle from a box under the seat. “This here is whiskey. The good stuff,” he added with emphasis. “Take a swig. I get it special made from the bartender who works at the Saragosa Tourist Town. It's in your neck of the woods. Ever been there?”
Good Lord, I thought. Not that swill. Not wanting to hurt his feelings I told him I didn't drink. It was just then that Vance came around the wagon.
“Figured something was up here. Whatcha got there?” He questioned.
Seeing how he was caught red-handed, Cookie filled Vance in on the details and offered him a swig.
I kept my mouth shut figuring he was an adult and could make up his own mind.
“Hell ya, I'll give it a try,” Vance replied.
Vance was something. He loved the cow balls. I figured maybe he'd like the home brew as well.
He grabbed up the bottle and took a huge swallow. At first I thought he was going to be just fine. Then his eyes started to bulge. He tried to talk but it only came out as a whisper.
“Dear God in Heaven, My throat is on fire. What the hell is in that? It tastes like shoe polish...only worse.”
I knew it had made it past his throat and into his stomach when I heard it make a loud rumbling sound. Vance started to turn pale. He quickly turned toward the desert sage and began to puke.
Cookie and I remarked in unison. “Don't worry, you'll be alright in the morning.”
Vance wondered off. We figured he was down for the night. Cookie took a long pull, slapped the cork back in and put the bottle away. “Our little secret,” he cautioned as we both went back to the fire.
After a spell, Darryl suggested we hit the hay. “Grab your bedroll and the rope from your saddle. It'll be chilly tonight so if you would rather have a sleeping bag, we have those too.”
I opted for a sleeping bag.
“I suppose you're all wondering why you need a rope. Well, it's like this. Out here in the desert there are rattlesnakes. If you don't want to wake up with one in your bed, you lay this rope around your sleeping area and a snake won't crawl over it. They'll just pass you by.”
We all agreed it was a good idea so we laid out our ropes and went to sleep. The moon was just a sliver and the stars were bright. I laid there for several hours thinking every little sound I heard was a snake, a wolf or a bear. Sleep finally overcame me.
The following morning as I lay in my bag I had the strangest feeling that I was being watched. I opened my eyes to see Darryl, Larry, Cookie, Vance and Jerry all staring down at me from a distance.
“Don't move a muscle,” whispered Darryl. “There's a snake laying right alongside your sleeping bag.”
“You've got to be sh..”
Darryl caught me in mid sentence. “SSSHH, don't even talk. Larry, find me a forked stick.”
I laid still for what seemed like an hour, but it was probably more like five minutes. Larry finally showed up with a stick and handed it to Darryl. Vance and Jerry pulled out their cell phones and started filming. “This is going on YouTube,” commented Jerry.
“Don't know how it got over your rope, but here's what we're going to do.” continued Darryl. “I'm going to ever so slowly pin down the snake with this stick. When I say roll, you roll out of the way and Cookie here will take the rock he has and smash it down on its head. Ready, here we go.”
Darryl took the stick and slowly worked it over the snake then quickly jammed it down just behind the snakes head. “ROLL,” he shouted.
I wasted little time getting out of the way. Unfortunately, the stick had caught the edge of the sleeping bag and when I rolled it lifted it high enough for the snake to get loose.
It immediately struck at Darryl catching the toe of his boot. Darryl jumped back shaking his leg and flinging the snake all about, but it held on tight. Everyone scrambled. As soon as Cookie got the chance, he threw the rock down on the snake smashing its head. Cookie reached down and grabbed it. He held it up high in triumph. It was about three feet long and fat. Cookie smiled and called out, “BREAKFAST”.
Breakfast was to be bacon and eggs, beans and hotcakes. Now there was the added 'bonus' of rattlesnake meat. We all tried a piece of the snake. Vance thought it tasted like chicken. I've yet to decide.
We all had a good laugh over the video Jerry had taken. The ride back gave us time to enjoy the scenery. I had been on a cattle drive, Slept under the stars, eaten cow balls and rattlesnake meat.
I had my story. The boss would be pleased