We had been in the saddle for about an hour when we got our first glimpse of the object of our search.
There, on the horizon, near Bill Moore Lake with its reflective view of puffy white clouds and blue sky, was a herd of about 165 cows, including some of the more ornery bulls seen on the professional rodeo circuit.
We gave our horses free reins and with a kick of our heels and a shout of "Yeehaw!" we began our morning's work.
This was a cattle drive.
Our job was to move a herd of longhorns, Corrientes and Brahmas -- all bred for their bucking abilities -- from their current spot to another grazing area on the 10,000-acre ranch where the grass was greener.
It was like turning back the pages of history to an era when buffalo roamed the prairie, outlaws packed six-shooters on their hips and people traveled by stagecoach. It was also an adventure that we will remember for a lifetime.
In the real world, we are Harford County residents who became wranglers-for-a-day while vacationing last fall in Colorado.
Our party included my friend, Dean Petty, and his wife, Shana; my wife, Cathy Beers (whom we call Butchie), and myself.
We ranged in age from our early 40s to 65 and our experiences with horses and riding was as wide as our age gap.
You can't call Dean, Shana and Butchie city slickers. They were all raised around horses. Each had their own horse at one point, but none had ridden much in recent years.
Butchie and I were last on horseback in the summer of 2005, when we rode Doc and Midnight up to our backyard wedding ceremony.
I was the old man in the group. I grew up watching the Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy on a black-and-white TV with rabbit ears.
My only previous experience with horses, before the wedding, dated to the late 1960s. That's when I rode with the Clatterbuck gang (Bill and Ron), a pair of schoolteachers who were taking cowboy wannabes out on weeklong trail rides in the hills near Berkeley Springs, W.Va.
The one thing our vacationing group had in common: We had never driven cattle before.
The adventure begins
Our adventure began on a chilly, late September morning. We turned off Blue River Parkway, just south of Kremmling, at the gate to the Rusty Spurr Ranch. A wooden sign along the dirt lane advised us that we were still 4.6 miles from our destination.
The winding lane, which ran through undeveloped, sagebrush-covered plains and past hills decorated with bright yellow aspen and green pines, offered panoramic views of the foothills of the Rockies.
For as far as we could see, there was nothing but open range.
"This is like the old West," said Dean when he got his first look at the cow camp / office where we were to check in. The building featured a pine log facade and was adorned with the skull of a longhorn.
We were a few minutes early, but we didn't have to wait long before we got to meet our trail boss, 30-year-old Han Smith.
Smith is a real cowboy. It showed. He came galloping in on the back of a white stallion pushing a herd of 12 quarter horses.
He was decked out in full Western attire, including a 10-gallon hat, well-worn leather chaps and spurs. A lasso hung from his saddle.
His grand entrance set the tone for what was to come.
After matching each of us with the appropriate horse, Smith herded us into a small group and went over the fundamentals of riding. We were joined by two other women, both in their 40s, who lived in Denver.
Smith told us how to make our horses move; how to make them stop, turn left or right and back up.
His primary safety rule: "You never get off your horse. That's when accidents occur," he said.
"Most of our guest don't wear cowboy boots," he continued. "When getting down from a horse, your foot could get stuck in the stirrup and there's the potential of falling back and the horse taking off. You don't want to get dragged through 20 acres of sagebrush by your horse."
"OK, let's move out," Smith barked. "Let's find those cows."
We rode up steep hills where we had to lean forward in the saddle, and down into valleys where we leaned back and pushed our feet forward in the stirrups to keep our balance.
For about an hour we enjoyed the scenery. It is not uncommon to see an assortment of wildlife on the trail, including coyotes, antelope, mule deer and elk.
"On occasion, a bear or two will pop out," Smith said. "We have quite a few bears on the ranch. But they are not confrontational and pretty eager to keep their distance. So it is always a unique experience when our riders get to see one."
Our rears were already beginning to get a little sore and all we had seen were a few snowshoe hares, no cows.
Several times Smith pulled up his mount, took out a pair of binoculars and scanned the horizon.
We rode on.
Then as we reached the top of a hill looking down on the lake, there were the cows.
We moved in slow and easy. You don't want to spook the herd. You don't want to cause a stampede.
This is where my lack of cowboy experience showed.
"You go galloping up to a herd of cows yelling 'yeehaw,'" Smith said, "and they're going to take off running and they might be in Montana before we get control of them again."
Fortunately, this herd was accustomed to dealing with cowboy wannabes such as myself. They kept their cool and went along with the game.
One surprise was that many of the cows immediately began bawling. "They do this when there is a perceived threat," Smith said.
"Sometimes people think this is a way of alerting the herd," he said. "But it's each cow trying to gather up her calf. A lot of times cows will leave several calves with one mother as they go off to graze. If they think something is wrong they will start bawling to bring the calves in close so they can protect them."
We had already been briefed on how to move the animals.
"It's a pressure game," Smith told us. "When you want the cows to move in a certain direction, you put a little pressure on the opposite side."
Pressure means bringing your horse in close to the herd.
"It's like a water balloon," Smith said. "Whenever you squeeze that balloon, it is going to bulge out on the opposite side. It's the same way with a herd of cattle."
We followed his directions and it was surprisingly easy.
Dean moved to the right flank to keep the herd from veering off in the wrong direction. Smith took the opposite side. Shana, Butchie, the two other women and I got behind the cows and started them moving.
We were pretty much on our own. When a cow would stray, it was up to one of us to ride off and bring it back into the herd.
We had been pushing the animals for about a half-hour when someone noticed a group of about 30 more cows camped out in a shady valley about an acre or two away.
Butchie and Shana broke away from the rest of the herd and darted off in pursuit.
They looked like pros as they galloped into the valley and positioned their mounts to steer the strays in the direction of rest of the cows.
There was a young buckskin-colored calf among the strays. It stayed close to its mother. "It kinda looked like Norman, in the City Slickers movie. The calf that Billy Crystal brought home," Shana said. "It was a cutie."
We agreed, but there was no way it was going to ride back to Baltimore in the rear seat of our Dodge van.
The trail mix
Cattle drives are different than trail rides.
"Most of the rides available to the general public are variations of the nose-to-tail trail ride," Smith said. "Maybe you stay out overnight, but it is essentially the same. Riders are not really satisfied because they don't feel like they had any kind of involvement in the ride.
"They feel like they sat on the back of a horse and the horse did everything. They might as well have been in a car or on a train."
But with the cattle drive, we were more involved in the action. We had a lot of say in what was going on. We did whatever needed to be done to move the cows and we did it on our own.
On a typical trail ride, about 75 percent of the riders are women, Smith said. "It is more split down the middle with cattle drives.
"A lot of guys grew up watching John Wayne movies," he said. "This fills their childhood fantasies, their dreams."
Smith continued: "I hear it over and over. The guy says, 'Hey, my wife wanted to go out on a horse,' and this is something I can enjoy, too. It's something we can do together."
Smith was right about the fantasy thing.
Several times I caught myself singing softly those words from the theme song of the old TV show Rawhide.
"Rollin', rollin', rollin',
Though the streams are swollen,
Keep those dogies rollin',
...Don't try to understand 'em,
Just rope, throw and brand 'em...."
This is how Clint Eastwood got his start, I remember saying to myself.
If Dean and I had any resemblance to Rowdy Yates, Eastwood's character in the Western series, much of the credit goes to our mounts.
Our horses -- Sarge, Trooper, Sweetpea and Badger -- made us look like real wranglers.
They readily responded to our every command.
"Our horses are trained to work and to carry riders," Smith said. "The horses are used to ranch work. They have worked cows all their lives. They kinda know their jobs. They are pretty comfortable with having riders of various abilities on their back."
I rode Sarge and carried a camera with a telephoto lens in one hand for the entire four hours, during which we covered about eight miles.
Even with this handicap, Sarge would turn when I wanted to turn, stop on command, and go into a gallop whenever I pushed a boot into his side.
My mount and I functioned well as a team. It was as if Sarge would see a cow needing to be steered back into the herd at the same time that I would and he was eager to do his job.
The well-trained horses also made our job more fun.
'A great escape'
Six months after the cattle drive, Butchie, Dean, Shana and myself got together to reminisce about our vacation.
"Out on the range, you left the world behind," Butchie said. "It was a great escape from our jobs and the things we do everyday."
"Fantasizing was much of the fun," Dean said. "You've got your cowboy hat on, your boots and your vest. ... You wonder what it was really like back in the days when cowboys would spend weeks on the trail driving cows to market in Dodge City."
Shana laughed and confessed: "We were getting a little sore. At one point, Butchie and I looked at our watches and said, 'What time is it?' Oh God, we still have an hour to go."
Would we do it again? There was total agreement on this point.
You bet. We would jump at the opportunity faster than "Wild Bill" Hickok could draw a gun from his holster and fire off a round or two.
It is something you want to share with your friends, the rest of the family.
"You don't remember your legs and butt getting sore," Butchie said. "You remember the fun."
IF YOU GO
Several carriers offer flights to Denver from BWI Marshall Airport. Nonstop round-trip airfares start at about $507, while connecting flights start at about $194, including taxes. To get to the Rusty Spurr Ranch from Denver: Take Interstate 70 west. After passing through the Eisenhower Tunnel, take the Silverthorne exit 205. This is the first exit after the tunnel at the bottom of the mountain. Stay right on the ramp and get on Route 9 (Blue River Parkway). Follow Route 9 north 33 miles. Look for the entrance to the ranch on the right about a half-mile north of mile marker 134. The entrance is a gravel road that meanders for 4 1/2 miles to the camp office.
The season starts May 15. Cattle drive reservations are required, especially in the busy months of July and August. The drive takes place rain or shine and is usually limited to 10 riders. The minimum age is 10. Riders leave at 9 a.m. and return between 12:30 p.m. and 1 p.m. Closed Mondays. Cost is $135 per person, including lunch. Suggested dress includes long pants and jackets, along with sneakers or cowboy boots. A cowboy hat, vest and jeans add to the fun.
Beaver Run Resort & Conference Center
-- 620 Village Road, P.O. Box 2115, Breckenridge; 970-453-6000. A 500-room ski resort at the base of Peak Nine mountain, featuring heated indoor and outdoor pool, recreation room, two restaurants and free shuttle service to town. Summer rates for rooms, apartments, suites and condos are $159-$505.
Brown Palace Hotel and Spa
-- 321 17th St., Denver; 303-297-3111. A 230-room hotel centrally located in the downtown district. Rates start at $279.
Capitol Hill Mansion Bed and Breakfast Inn
-- 1207 Pennsylvania Ave., Denver; 303-839-5221. A national historically registered mansion in the Capitol Hill historic neighborhood on the edge of downtown. Eight rooms with private baths, fireplaces and full breakfasts. Rates are $104-$184.
-- 1000 Osage St., Denver; 303-534-9505. One of Denver's oldest restaurants serves up some of the same dishes enjoyed by the early pioneers -- buffalo, elk and quail. Rattlesnake is an appetizer. There are a variety of other dishes, including steaks and seafood served in an Old West setting. Prices: $18 and up.
The Steak & Rib
-- 208 N. Main St., P.O. Box 503, Breckenridge; 970-453-0063. A favorite dining spot for residents and visitors. It is known for its steaks but offers a variety of other dishes, including chicken, duck and seafood. Prices: $16-$30.
Rusty Spurr Ranch
-- P.O. Box 1537, Kremmling 80459; 866-724-9715, 970-724-1123 or rustyspurr.com.