BOSTON AND SCOTTSDALE, ARIZ. — Standing in front of the mirror in my apartment I realize something is wrong: My chaps are on backward. If ever there was a less likely candidate for cowboy- in-training, I'm looking at her. I have never seen a John Wayne western, and I tend to call all animals - including those that moo - "sweetie."
Fortunately, Lloyd Bridwell knows exactly what to do with people like me.
Mr. Bridwell has been running the Arizona Cowboy College for a decade,teaching vacationers and potential wranglers from around the world that it takes more than a hat and a swagger to work cattle.
"We're going to turn you into real working ranch cowboys," he tells a dozen of us -three women and nine men -on our first day of class in Scottsdale. Some people come here to see if they have what it takes to work on the range, but many more, like those in our group, come for the experience.
Think of it as a week-long "extreme" dude ranch, minus the dudes. You sleep in open-air bunks (and later in just the open air), you saddle your own horse and get your hands dirty learning how to shoe it, you help brand and castrate cattle.
Men's eyes light up when they hear about this adventure (some classes are all male), but women make up about 20 to 30 percent of those who attend. The other two in our group were a sturdy horsewoman from Virginia named Kathy Tatalovich and Charlotte Marchese, a Southern belle transplanted to Boston who liked the college so much the first time she attended that she brought her husband, Joe, when she returned.
"I think this trip would be tough for women because it's tough for guys," he said when it was all over.
College is in session March through November at Bridwell's spread, the Lorill Equestrian Center, and at ranches around Arizona.
For the first two days, Bridwell, a fourth-generation cowboy, provides a crash course in everything from how to rope a moving cow to the best way to get off a horse. He also offers tips on staying comfortable in the saddle. (Cowboys wear pantyhose - who knew?)
Being able to ride is not a requirement (some in our group never had), but it helps if you know which end gets the bit. I had some riding experience so Bridwell gave me his favorite horse. I thanked him by accidentally backing it into a truck (good thing he has a saguaro-sized sense of humor -and horses with tough behinds).
Shoeing was the most physically demanding task we learned those first few days. Imagine pounding sharp nails into a hoof perched between your thighs, and you've got the picture.
Roping was the most fun. Bridwell and his cowboys can teach anyone to do it -even lefties who swear up and down that they can't use their right hand (but all do in the end). In a few hours I went from "roping like a girl," as I was good-naturedly teased, to catching the horns and then the hind legs of a metal "cow" on the run during team roping.
Thanks to unseasonal October heat, we also spent a good deal of time -almost too much -indoors the first two days. We listened to lectures on cow breeds (there's even one just for sport) and the beef industry. (Arizona bumper-sticker wisdom: "Beef: It's what you want.")
Finally the time came to put our skills to the test in a round-up at the Circle Bar Ranch near Scottsdale. We were fortunate; ranch work varies from season to season and sometimes can focus more on mending fences than rounding-up cattle.
At the ranch, our group developed a camaraderie that vacations rarely offer, perhaps because you need all the support you can get when faced with riding down hills that make "The Man From Snowy River" look like a trail ride.
We ate together, snored together, and adapted to living without tents among the coyotes and the dust. As one student put it, "If you don't like roughing it, you won't have fun."
Bridwell - born with reins in his hands -or one of his equally experienced cohorts was always around keeping an eye on us. But it didn't always help. As it says on the Web site
(www.cowboycollege.com), this is not a hazard-free activity.
"You have to be aware coming in that it's dangerous," says Charlie Soto, an executive from Cary, N.C., who was injured when he tumbled off his horse during one of our vertical descents.
Despite the dangers, this is an exhilarating experience. Nothing beats moving a herd along in the late afternoon sun. Or taking in the expansive Arizona scenery while searching for stray cattle. Or talking with American and Mexican cowboys (vaqueros) about the simple but demanding life they lead.
"It's real hard work - everyday, all day," says "Dogie" Whitney, the teenage son of ranch owner John Whitney. "I love it. This is how I was raised. I plan on doing it all my life."
Along the way we also observed cowboy culture -how they tell stories (often and off-color), what they wear (Wrangler jeans), and how they choose to cool off in the heat of the day (drinking in the shade).
I found out the hard way that the first ones to bed get jokes played on them -and that no matter how late you're up singing around the campfire you have to be dressed before dawn.
"Come on pilgrims, we're burning daylight," Bridwell would holler before breakfast with a hint of that ever-present grin in his voice.
He's had all kinds of people show up on his doorstep - from those who think they are coming to a dude ranch to those who are outfitted by dudes. (One pair of women arrived in leather from head to toe, having been assured that this was appropriate gear.)
As far as attire goes, a cowboy hat is most important in this hyper-sunny climate. Long sleeves and jeans are also a must - primarily to protect from the prickly flora. Bridwell quips that the only things that grow in Arizona have thorns. He warned us about a nasty light-green cactus called cholla, which we found out will make a horse buck faster than you can say "city slicker."
At the Circle Bar, the vaqueros kept our attention with their masterful roping, but when the knives and hot brands came out, we often looked the other way. At some ranches, students are more involved in the gruesome work of castrating, dehorning, and branding. Many of us didn't mind being left out.
"I think everyone should see this," says Lothar Schreiber, a military retiree from Germany. "It's a reality I never thought about."
It was a good reminder that the college lives up to its promise of training you in all aspects of cowboy life. That also included being flexible, and sometimes just hanging out when the weather or other circumstances meant a change in schedule.
I managed to graduate(and have a good time doing it) despite the incident with the truck. Bridwell gives everyone a diploma -often hard-earned.
"I can't believe I paid good money to be deprived of sleep, fall off a horse, [and be] kicked, cut, and scared out of my wits nine times out of 10," jokes Danny Soto at our farewell party.
"I'm sore," he adds. But echoing the feelings of the group he says, "I'll definitely be back."
*For more information, call (480) 767-7640 or write Arizona Cowboy College, 30208 N. 152nd Street, Scottsdale, AZ. 85262.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society