Planning a five-day event for 135 people is challenge enough. But what happens when those people are accompanied by 300 head of cattle and 100 horses, and the all-outdoors event moves from site to site over the course of four nights and more than 50 miles?
Think a prep list that includes 35 tons of hay; 7,200 gallons of water per day for the animals and 600 gallons for the human participants; a dozen 300-gallon water troughs that have to be moved to three locations daily; a 30-by-45-foot tent that has to be erected at four campsites, struck and moved each morning along with 25 tables and 100 chairs; 16 vehicles to haul gear including portable toilets, showers, corral panels, generators and tons of ice; a mobile catering operation (Brothers Barbecue of Reno supplied the 2015 drive)—and let’s not forget the Sierra Dorado “mobile saloon,” a vehicle akin to a food truck that opens up to provide welcome relief to the saddle sore at the end of each day’s trail. Whew!
And that’s just the beginning of the list for John Harp, camp boss for the Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive, an event staged each June since 1990 by the Reno Rodeo Association to benefit local charities.
For the 50 to 60 city slickers who pay $2,000 each to sleep under the stars, the drive offers a rare opportunity to get a gritty taste of the West that was. It’s a bucket-list trip for many of the novice cowpokes who help move the leased herd of 300 roping steers from a remote ranch north of Reno to the Reno Livestock Events Center, where their arrival, to the cheers of spectators, kicks off the “Wildest, Richest Rodeo in the West.”
For the largely volunteer crew, putting on the event is akin to staging a military operation. Harp, a retired law-enforcement officer and rancher from Reno, is in charge of the 35-person camp crew that handles logistics and labor for moving, feeding and watering people and livestock. (There’s also a trail boss, a drover boss, a cowboy boss, a head teamster, a horseback-riding doctor and others on the association’s Cattle Drive Committee who head their own teams and perform separate tasks, almost all on a volunteer basis). Over the course of 10 years, Harp has the operation down to more or less of a science, although weather can always wreak havoc (last year, for example, a wind storm ripped 30 snaps off the dining tent, which had to be repaired by a hot-air balloon specialist).
“Most of our volunteers take vacation time to do this,” Harp says, noting that some have been on the job 15 or 20 years. The crew includes veterans like Lisa Stewart, who along with family members provides lunch, water and other Igloo-container beverages at a remote spot on the trail each day. There’s also a force of about 10 young adults “who don’t mind working like crazy” on labor-intensive tasks like corral building, tent set-up, garbage hauling and the like, Harp says.
Sponsors like Granite Construction, which provides water for the livestock; and Coors, which provides beer for the humans, step in on many levels. The payoff: substantial funds raised for scholarships and other good causes—and, among those who pay to ride, a 60-percent return rate that helps keep the drive and its beneficiaries alive.