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Vacations with Cowboys & Indians : Montana : A catered cattle drive through southeastern ranching country turns city slickers into wranglers.

July 19, 1992|ALMITRA VON WILLCOX | Von Willcox is a San Diego-based free - lance writer.

BROADUS, Mont. — Once familiar with my horse, I settled into his rhythmic sway along the trail. Swept up by the grandeur of Montana's big sky, my petty aggravations were left in the dust. Or was it ghosts from the past that cast a spell on me? I imagined Indians on the ridge, watching our slow progress, as they might have done when the first cowboys drove their cattle through this territory a century ago.

Surrounded by a herd of 100 cattle, 10 wranglers and five covered wagons, a group of almost 50 novice cowboys like myself were on a cattle drive in the foothills of prime ranching country in southeast Montana. We had signed up with an outfit called Montana Cattle Drives, which charges city slickers about $1,200 for a chance to spend a summer week in the saddle eating dust, sleeping under the stars, taking in the spectacular scenery, chowing down on western grub and weathering sudden storms. It's a taste of the now all-but-gone Great American Cattle Drive . . . with Porta Potties provided.

Usually these cattle drives, led by seasoned local ranchers and cowboys, take up to 200 head to summer grazing pastures. In this case, our horseshoe-shaped path took 100 beef-on-the-hoof in a circle from the small town of Broadus and back again, mostly for the benefit of the paying "guests." But that didn't make the Old West experience seem any less real. Even with catered meals, showers and tents, by the time we had toughed out six days on the trail, we all felt like real cowboys.

I started my adventure one night last August in Billings, Mont., where I enjoyed the last clean sheets and hot shower I would see in a week at the Ramada Inn. The next morning, I joined the other cattle-drive participants in the hotel lobby. They were a mixed group--old and young, families and couples--from 15 states and three foreign countries.

Many were here to escape the bustle of city life. Five guests from Switzerland were taking a peek into U.S. history. Two couples from New York's Staten Island were looking apprehensive. And Blaine and Mary Nichols were newlyweds from Canada. "My wife and I met on horseback, and I thought it would be fun to go on a cattle drive for our honeymoon," said Blaine.

We were greeted by Bob Sivertsen, a Montana cattleman who started up Montana Cattle Drives two years ago after he noticed a growing number of urbanites were having cowboy fantasies. Sivertsen, who has a cheery smile and a prankster's twinkle in his eyes, personally supervises all his cattle drives.

The group was bused from Billings to the town of Broadus, about four hours southeast, to meet our horses and wranglers. Along the way we stopped on the Crow Indian Reservation at Custer Battlefield National Monument, which memorializes one of the last armed efforts of the northern Plains Indians to preserve their ancestral way of life. A ranger led us on a tour of the battlefield grave sites, explaining the events leading up to Custer's Last Stand in 1876. I was unprepared for the strong emotional impact of the site; our 60-minute stop was not long enough.

We arrived in Broadus in time for lunch and an opportunity to do some last-minute shopping for any cowboy duds we might want, even saddle bags or lariats. Broadus (pronounced BRAH-dus) has a population of only 600 but it is the heart of cattle ranching country.

Montana was built by men who drove large herds of cattle from Texas and other states over a century ago, and it still retains a frontier-town aroma of freshly baked pies and old leather saddles.

Some people in the area have the hobby of refurbishing old covered wagons, and five of them would carry those participants who wanted to experience a cattle drive without the saddle sores.

Our first night was spent on the Smith Ranch, about six miles outside town. Montana Cattle Drives contracts with local ranchers, whose spreads are typically 15,000-20,000 acres, to provide campsites for the cattle drives. At camp, each rider was assigned to a wrangler, each a working cowboy who would take care of all our needs, from pitching tents to saddling horses.

My horse turned out to be a beauty, a tall, pure-black fellow named Black Bart, but I wondered how I was going to control this huge beast. One of the wagon masters took six of us up the gentle sloping hills behind the campsite for what was our first riding lesson. From the ridge, we could see the camp laid out below us: tents and wagons scattered willy-nilly over several acres, several corrals and a large activities tent in the center.

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