By Mark Strickland, National Alumni Board
It is the early 1960s. A greenhorn nine-year-old boards a train in California and rides off to camp on the Santa Fe midnight flyer. No sleep, lots of card games and the next day a Greyhound from Denver to the A/U Ranches for a six-week tour of duty. Cool upper bunk, fun new friends from weird places like Levittown, Tallahassee and Murfreesboro, and a slightly demeaning nom de jour for the youngest cabin: We are the Buckaroos!
Every camper is hitched to a horse for the entire six-week summer, whether you want one or not. After the first week, the Old Prospector picks a horse for me: Popcorn. Popcorn is not my first choice. Who got Redbird? Now that’s a horse, even a city dude can see that; shiny chocolate-red-brown, tall, statuesque and fast. “Fastest horse in the valley” is the campfire scuttlebutt.
Popcorn does not particularly like me. I can tell from his daily “bite my butt” ritual and his occasional bucking in an attempt to remove me from the saddle. That never happens, though, because if you “get throwed” by a horse, you join some infamous club that no self-respecting horseman wants on his resume. I hold tight to the saddle horn with all my self-respect at stake during these bucking sessions.
The 1960s is an unsophisticated time and the government has yet to impose rules and regulations. Sky Valley cowpokes don’t wear helmets; we wear cowboy hats! We are wranglers. We are cool! We are also green and slightly stupid. Like the time we were in the middle of a four-day backpacking trip and a number of horses were not ground-tied properly and they went home to Sky Valley on their own without their cowboys. It was a long hike. But we fared better than some, as Tex, our real cowboy head wrangler, decided that the last three miles to the corral the ponies should trot. After that, some of the boys couldn’t sit down for a week.
At the end of camp we put on our traditional rodeo, held at the big-time Collegiate Peaks rodeo grounds in Buena Vista. One of the events is a half-mile race around the perimeter track, divided into four separate furlongs as a relay event. Cap Andrews decides I am going to race in the last leg aboard Tonka. Tonka? What about Popcorn? He whispers in my ear, “Too slow.” OK, I’m ridin’ Tonka. My first look at this sleek filly tells me this is a whole new shootin’ match. Does Tonka know I am nine years old? She looks like a revved-up Corvette compared with Popcorn’s Rambler outlines. My parents are in the stands and I began to picture myself coolly crouched with a steady head up by Tonka’s neck, speeding by the grandstands.
The gun goes off and the relay race is on as we watch horse heads bobbing around the first rail. I sit nervously atop Tonka at the last corner turn waiting for the baton. The four horses in our group, including Redbird, are jittery and in constant motion. They know what’s afoot, and we have no clue. As my team jockey arrives in a flash of dust and thunder, I turn to reach for the baton and the millisecond it hits my open hand, this rocket ship Tonka is off like a she-bullet. I barely keep from somersaulting off her rear end. As my cowboy hat disappears in the turbulence, somehow I grasp the saddle horn in what must be a full Superman seat grab maneuver as this high-powered pony rips by the screaming stands and across the finish line. Wow! What just happened? That was awesome! Can we do it again?
I miss a summer, but return to camp the following year and am hoping Tonka and I might be reunited after our thrilling exhibition at the rodeo, but the Old Prospector decides the perfect horse for me is… Popcorn. What? Hey, I’ve been on Tonka and you’re giving me Popcorn? I’m an experienced jockey, a veteran rodeo man. It’s going to be a long summer.
Jump ahead about 35 years and I am at Family Camp with my crew and we decide to go riding in the afternoon. Down at the Sky Valley tack room, Linda, the trail boss, is matching guests to mounts. I request that she give me a “real horse” this time, as I was not excited about a pony that did not particularly want to canter upon demand. I think Linda must have winked at Lach, the head wrangler, and said, “OK Mark, you can ride Big Dan!” (I don’t recall the horse’s real name, but in my memory, he’s Big Dan.) I’m thinking, “Wonderful, a horse with perhaps a little spunk.” But Linda warns that we are going to walk slow and steady, first up to the Hub and then down to the corral before any galloping takes place.
As we begin our plod to the corral via the Hub, Big Dan decides riding trail is not befitting of his superior breeding and he immediately moves to the front of the pack as lead horse daddy. Linda is not surprised at this move and decides it’s OK if Dan and I lead, just keep it slow and steady. “Alright, we get to lead, now we’re talking.” Dan and I are bonding.
After leaving the Hub and meandering past Chuckwagon, we soon arrive at this tiny little creek. Big Dan stalls a bit, so I give him a reassuring “chick chick,” letting him know proceeding over the creek is a fine idea. Welp, that little assurance is all Dan needs. He leaps the creek and is immediately in a guns-a-blazing full Little Big Horn charge down the road, with four other horses and their wide-eyed riders in hot pursuit. So much for slow and steady. There is no part of “whoa horsey” or pulling back on reins or applying brakes that could stop a runaway freight train like Big Dan and his posse. We did not slow down until we hit the “Welcome Home” sign at the front of camp. It was then I began to suspect Linda had given me a horse far above my pay grade. But after her half-hearted admonishment, much fun was had by Dan and me cantering in the corral, while many of my fellow cowpokes were barely getting their mounts to trot. It was a good day.
All in all, I have had a varied cowboy career over the years and I get the occasional question, “Do you ride?” I always answer quite honestly: “Oh yeah, I’m a regular horse monkey.”