When my mom first told me she wanted to go "somewhere exotic" to celebrate her birthday, my mind immediately went to exotic-to-me places on the other side of the world—Morocco, Istanbul, Japan... That is, until she announced the thing she'd really like to do: A cattle drive, or more specifically, corral cows 50 miles across the desert from California to Nevada for the Reno Rodeo.
This isn't quite as random as it sounds—my mom grew up riding horses, even occasionally competing in barrel racing—and my family, who moved to Reno, Nevada fifteen years ago, has never missed opening night at the "wildest, richest, rodeo in the West." But the closest I've ever come to participating in the rodeo is drinking Coors Light in the stands, a safe distance from cowboys on bucking broncos. As for my own horseback riding experience? Ponies at the petting zoo, twenty years ago.
Still, at 6 a.m. last Monday, I found myself in a saddle, trotting towards my assigned position for corralling cattle as the head wrangler shouted, "Just remember! These cows have been trained to run as fast as they can as soon as a gate opens." And then he opened the gate. The first thing I saw was the cloud of dust, followed by 300 head of cattle. My horse, who evidently had more corralling experience than I did, took off, keeping in step with the closest cow's left shoulder, guiding the herd up a hill of sage brush—jumping over a few bushes in the process. Guests and cowboys scattered chasing cows that had split from the herd, until a wrangler finally shouted "Rodeer!" (a cowboy variation on the Spanish word "rodear," or "to encircle") and we turned into the herd, creating a fence of horses around them and allowing a few stragglers to rejoin. We continued, for 18 more miles, before reaching that evening's camp.
For five days, I lived in an alternate universe—waking up at 4:30 a.m. by the sound of a cowbell and wranglers shouting, "Daylight's a' burning!", pulling on mud-packed Wranglers and boots in a freezing tent, learning to embrace dirt, and counting shooting stars by the dozens. I loved every second of it. Similar to international trips I've taken, it was an entirely immersive experience that gave me a new respect for another culture, in this case: cowboys.
The day before leaving for my trip, Jonah asked me what I was most nervous about, and my immediate reaction surprisingly wasn't getting bucked or trampled, but getting along with the cowboys and wranglers. I was worried that the disconnect—between lifestyles, interests, and political beliefs—would be too wide for us to bond at a meaningful level for an entire week. I never expected that by the end of the trip, I'd feel such a deep appreciation and respect for cowboys, not to mention gain lifelong friends and unforgettable experiences. I was also reminded how easy it is to make assumptions about any culture you know almost nothing about firsthand. The trip challenged my own assumptions that cowboys or rodeos can be cruel to animals, or that someone who's never left their home state is closed-minded (I found the opposite to be true, in both cases). Even though I was a 30-minute drive from the house I grew up in, I felt as inspired as I have from trips a 15-hour flight away.
As much as I love to travel to faraway places, it isn't always possible, due to time or financial restrictions. And often, especially with the influence of social media, travel can turn into a race to collect as many countries as possible, instead of doing what it's supposed to do: broaden your horizons and inspire your own life. As soon as I returned to Los Angeles on Sunday night, I began researching local stables and found one to intern at a few weekends a month, to learn more about what goes into taking care of a horse. Within a week, I'd gone from city slicker to cinching my own saddle, which just goes to show: You don't always have to fly around the world to have a life-altering experience.
I'd love to hear: Have you ever been on an unforgettable vacation close to home? Share in the comments below!
P.S., I'd recommend the Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive to anyone. If you're interested, you can find more information here (or comment and ask questions below).