A 'City Slickers'-style Western vacation--for real


LEWISTOWN, Mont. -- When computer programmer William White saw "City Slickers," the Billy Crystal movie about stressed-out city types taking a cowboy vacation, he decided to trade his hard drive for a cattle drive.

"I saw the movie on Sunday," says Mr. White, 38, of Orchard Park, N.Y. "By Wednesday, I had my tickets. I wanted to be the first on my block."

By Day 5 of our Montana cattle drive, Mr. White has a start on a gray beard as wiry as sagebrush. His boots are splotched with mud and cow dung. Grimy blue jeans cling to legs that White worries have started to bow from the hours he's spent riding J.C., his saddle horse.

But Mr. White smiles a smile as wide as the Western sky.

"This was great," he says. "Glad I did it."

He is among 30 happy campers who are trailing cattle with Montana Cattle Drives Inc. We've come from several states, helped by resident Montanans riding along on horseback or in covered wagons.

It doesn't matter that the sun scorches our brows, that we eat a lot of trail dust or that winds slap at us and rattle our tents at night. All that matters is that 60 of rancher Art Nelson's heifers need to be moved 30 miles, from their winter range through the Snowy Mountains and over Half Moon Pass to summer pasturelands.

It's just like the movie. Except that no wranglers have died on our trip. Nobody's had to deliver a calf. And in a week of riding, the closest we'll come to a raging river is stepping through a few mud puddles.

Bob Sivertsen, president of Montana Cattle Drives, says there's been a surge of interest in cowboy vacations, helped along by several recent Westerns: "City Slickers," "Dances with Wolves" and TV's "Lonesome Dove."

"People have become enamored with it -- cowboys and the West and Indians and everything they stood for. People are looking to get away from the pressures of life. On a cattle drive, you're right out here with Mother Nature.

"Disney World and cruises are still a hectic pace, people trying to impress people. Out here, we don't try to impress nobody."

Got that right, pardner.

We campers get gamy, even with the luxuries of portable toilets and a shower truck where we can hose off the trail dust. Horses don't seem to mind our scent, though, partly because we are in country so wide open and remote that even Domino's Pizza couldn't find us.

We yell "Hyaaaa!" a lot, and "C'mon, girls" at the black yearlings as we push them across prairies and coulees, over ridges and across meadows flecked with wildflowers. When a heifer strays, we giddyap our horses and shoo her back to the pack. Even when the heifers scatter into the brush down a steep embankment of Red Hill, we flush 'em out.

OK. Someone else flushes 'em out, and we watch.

We eat chuck wagon meals and sing campfire songs. We sleep in tents through cold Montana nights and step (carefully) through cow fields.

A couple of times, we catch the buzz of rattlesnakes in the brush (Mr. Sivertsen killed 'em with rocks). We see deer and antelope and a coyote (or was that a fox?) scurrying through pale grasslands.

Mostly, we ride horses.

And ride and ride.

"Ain't nobody I know'd ever died of a sore butt," says rancher Otto Jensen when anyone complains.

If you want to, you can split wood for the campfire, learn ropin' or saddlin'. Non-riders or the saddle-sore can hop onto a covered wagon for the rickety ride.

It's a real-life "City Slickers," with its own cast of characters:

Grizzly (wrangler Jim Sutton) is a strapping, chaps-wrapped cowboy of few words, like Jack Palance in the movie.

Montanan Eldon Snyder's mule-drawn covered wagon is part of the wagon train that follows us. An endearing old coot, he drinks whiskey, regales us around the campfire with cowboy poems, drinks whiskey, has a rambling wee-hours conversation with mules Pike and Mink and drinks whiskey.

Julia Jackson, a seventysomething cowgirl from Lewistown, outrides most of us and has a wit that's as sharp as a barbed-wire fence.

Delaware lawyer Bill Prickett, 64, skips the shower truck for a cooling plunge into the horse trough. Campers erupt in laughter.

"The movie ['City Slickers'] was less than what this is," he says. "It's a lot of one-liners, and the [movie] ranch hands were sleazeballs. This gives a real sense of what the Old West was like. It's one thing to see it from an interstate and another from the back of a horse."

"It takes you back," says camper Judy Reifsnyder of Wilmington, Del. "And the scenery . . . absolutely gorgeous."

At night, we really do circle the wagons. "Just like being a family -- that's what we want," Mr. Sivertsen says. "If you got a good story around the campfire, you tell it."

In the morning, when cook Steve Gebhardt yells "Eat!" at the top of his lungs and bangs on a saucepan, the snoring throttles down, tents stir to life and out come we greenhorns.

(Whatever happened to "Come and get it," anyway?)

Full of hot cakes and sausage and hot coffee, we saddle our horses, zip shut our sleeping bags and break camp.

We log six to 16 miles a day on horseback, pushing the cattle along, riding trails after the cattle are moved, stopping at midday for lunch in the grasslands under the great blue dome of Montana sky.

No Rocky Mountain oysters (steer testicles) turn up on the dinner menu. Cowboys chow down on steaks and ribs and chicken and salads.

One morning, our wake-up call is unforgettable: the bugling of a ram elk echoing around a valley lush with quaking aspen and ponderosa pine. One night, the northern lights streak up the Montana skies as we stand around the campfire in awe.

At drive's end, Lewistown (pop. 7,000) is ready for us with a dance under the stars and an honored place in its Fourth of July parade.

"Congratulations on a successful cattle drive," someone announces from the flatbed truck that serves as the bandstand.

As smoke from our campfire curls into the night sky, those are great words to hear.

This isn't the movie. It's better.

Good times. New friends.

Happy trails.

If you go---

Cattle-drive vacations are rugged vacations. You try looking at the rear ends of cows all day.

At great risk of being laughed out of camp, I wore pantyhose on one five-hour ride. A friend told me to. Said it helps stop your legs from chafing. "Ever hear of it?" I asked Grizzly, the laconic, tough-guy wrangler on our trip.

"Heard of it," Grizzly said. "I wouldn't."

My first and last pair. They run, they're hot . . . and real cowboys wouldn't be caught dead in 'em.

This is important for people who might be thinking about taking a "City Slickers"-type vacation. Other tips:

*Booking the trip: Your brain can turn to a Western omelet jussorting through the operators of cattle drive and wagon train tours. Best sources are friends, relatives, co-workers who've actually tried trailing cattle on vacation. Montana Cattle Drives, mentioned in the story, may be reached at (800) 535-3802.

*Packing: "What you need for this you can throw in a duffel bag," says Bob Sivertsen of Montana Cattle Drives. Bring rain gear, boots, sunscreen, jeans, your best cowboy hat, medications, insect repellent, soap, flashlight (for tiptoeing past cow pies at night). Dress in layers. Cool nights and warm days prevail on the range.

*What to ask: Get complete information on what is and isn't included. Campers on Montana Cattle Drives tours, for instance, are issued new sleeping bags, which they can keep. But in some packages you may pay extra for use of a horse.

*What it will cost: Prices vary. Montana Cattle Drives packages range from a per-day rate of $249 per person to $1,329 for a deal that includes hotel lodging on arrival and departure nights.

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