By Nathan Kirkham
My bleary eyes gazed through a plate-glass mirage as the runway of Las Vegas’s airport drew a literal line in the sand. Sometimes the line between life-changing dreams and nightmares runs thin as the queen of hearts.
I pushed all my cow chips to the middle of the table. In poker parlance, I’m all in.
I’m 31, but this trip began when I counted birthday candles on one hand, a boy without cable television riding high with the Westerns on rainy Sunday afternoons.
From my layover in Las Vegas, my plane whisked me across the Pacific to the Big Island of Hawaii. The ranch country of Waimea shatters all preconceptions about the Aloha State as cowboys ride horses through the McDonald’s drive-through. There were cowboys here 40 years before the icons entered the American consciousness.
Dahana Ranch graces the green foothills of Mauna Kea, the tallest volcano on the island chain. Harry Nakoa, the Hawaiian Horse Whisperer, owns the beef and cattle ranch. I mainly worked ranch-hand jobs—feeding, shoveling manure, catching horses, grooming, saddling, and unsaddling—during a 3-month winter contract, though I did get to add bovine undertaker to my resume.
I took out a few rides as tourists came from the beach resorts to ride our fine quarter horses. I led my second ride ever for Japanese honeymooners who had never ridden horses and spoke no English. I had visions of a Japanese obituary, but all turned out fine.
We moved cattle on horseback, still superior to any other method of moving beef (except by fork). The branding we held at Dahana seared my memory as the most adrenaline-soaked activity of my life. In only my second week, my task was to pin down the calves while they received ear tags and were branded. Those calves were plenty stronger than I and didn’t much enjoy the process. I slept well that night.
During the 2007 May-through-September guest season, I wrangled for Cherokee Park Ranch in Livermore, Colorado. Owners Dickey and Christine Prince, formerly of Knoxville, run an amazing outfit, and I will be surprised if a day passes as long as I live that I don’t miss it. Laughter, Chris LeDoux, and the thunderous thud of hooves provided my summer symphony.
In a daily sunrise stampede, we ran our 125 horses through the ranch to the corral as the guests stood outside their cabins, the sheer spectacle shaking the sleep from their eyes.
Early in the season, the wranglers rode behind the herd on top of Goat Mountain and pushed the horses down the perilous descent, across the Cache la Poudre River and into the corral for breakfast. Atheists were an endangered species on Goat Mountain.
Words prove inadequate to describe the feeling of riding a fast horse through a meadow with the Rocky Mountains on both sides, always one bad step away from death but never so alive. A delightful 82-year-old woman with a natural list to the left, an issue when traversing the Rockies, likely took the last ride of her life with me. Bringing her safely home brought me pure satisfaction.
I never had to ration satisfaction at Cherokee Park. On our off day, the wranglers decided to ride together one last time as the season waned. We knew we would never have a chance to ride together again. As we ran through two late-summer hailstorms, the icy pellets lodged in Cocoa’s black mane even though we took shelter under a ponderosa pine. We ate soggy sandwiches for lunch and headed home laughing, smiling, and soaked, singing “Don’t Fence Me In.”
Amen and happy trails.
Nathan Kirkham (Knoxville ’99, ’05) worked 12 years in the UT men’s sports information office, serving three NCAA championship squads—football 1998, outdoor track and field 2001, and indoor track and field 2002.