Salt of the Earth
What do you get when you take a city girl on the area’s oldest and longest trail ride? A rip snortin’ good time ? plus a whole lotta hay
by Jessica Rossman
“Someone’s horse is ringing!”
Granted, it’s not exactly straight out of the Wild West, but it is something commonly and appropriately overheard along the Salt Grass Trail. The Salt Grass Trail Ride, Texas’ oldest and longest trail ride covering nearly 100 miles on horseback over eight days, makes a few concessions to modern times but preserves and playfully celebrates Texas’ history of cowboys and horses, cowboy hats and stampede strings, and wagons and campfires.
This avowed city girl, contentedly addicted to sushi, day spas and happy hours, swapped her heels for cowboy boots and took on the Salt Grass Trail Ride for the first time last February. I became one of the newest members of The Desperados, one of the Salt Grass Trail Ride’s most fun and famous wagons of the approximately 30 wagons that journey the venerable trail. And after eight consecutive days and nearly 100 miles on a horse, I had to re-write a familiar saying: “You can take the city girl outta the city” and she’ll absolutely love it!
The Salt Grass Trail Ride was conceived in 1952 as Brenham Mayor Reese Lockett, Houston Post editor Arthur Laro, KPRC-TV President Jack Harris, Charlie Giezendanner and Clark Nelson joked over cocktails about how Mayor Lockett, after being “weathered in” on a trip to the Orange Bowl, had vowed never to travel anywhere again where he could not get back home on horseback. In turn, to get to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo that year, Mayor Lockett insisted he would ride from Brenham to Houston on his horse. In this cocktail-inspired, half-serious pledge, the group recognized a brilliant idea that would simultaneously generate publicity for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and celebrate Texas’ colorful history.
On Jan. 30, 1952, 17 riders trotted out of Brenham towards Houston, following many of the trails ridden by Texas cattlemen decades before. The following year, 80 riders made the ride; in 1954, 800; in 1956, the ride’s fourth year, more than 1,400 riders hit the trail for Houston. In short, the 1952 ride that sprang from the lunchtime banter at the long-since closed Cork Club evolved into the largest organized horseback movement to take place in modern times.
Today, the Salt Grass Trail Ride boasts more than 1,400 riders organized into approximately 30 wagons, which function as separate yet intermingling groups. The Trail Ride originates in Wittenburg’s Pasture in Cat Spring near Bellville and winds through southeast Texas towards Houston, finally arriving at Memorial Park and then, in the grand finale, right through the middle of downtown Houston as part of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Parade. Each wagon, consisting of between 50 and 75 riders each, rides and camps together during the ride. And the term “wagon” is not used here metaphorically – there really are 30 horse-drawn covered wagons, each with its own wagon boss, a muleskinner (cowboy-speak for guy who drives the wagon) and colorful name, such as Lazy 8, Chappell Hill Cowpokes and R U Lazy 2. Each wagon also boasts its own distinct personality and claim to fame, such as the Desperados – female wagon boss, Beverly Wilson Smith, the first female wagon boss in the history of the Salt Grass Trail Ride, or the Rocking 21 Trail Riders? mind-blowingly potent yet undeniably irresistible mystery cocktail, “Scud.” (And for evidence of how compelling Scud is on Trail Ride, try dropping a jug of it in the middle of the road. The speed with which a dozen trail riders leapt from their horses to the rescue would have been truly touching if I had dropped, say, a helpless baby rather than a jug of mystery hooch.)
So what does one actually do on Trail Ride? Well, you ride – on a horse – for miles – everyday – for eight consecutive days. In fact, the typical day begins in a half-sleep, awaiting the faintly eerie cattle call that lures everyone into consciousness early every morning. After pulling on jeans and throwing on your cowboy hat (you will notice the word “shower” did not appear anywhere here), you saddle your horse, hop on and wait for your wagon to pull out into its place in the long line of riders, perhaps nibbling on a piece of spicy beef jerky if you are lucky enough to find one in your saddle bag. And then you ride along for up to eight hours, depending on how many miles the ride covers that day, stopping for lunch and perhaps a roadside snooze along the way.
But something fascinating (other than eating beef jerky at 8 in the morning) happens to you as you ride along. You talk. But it is not the kind of talking that we are all used to every day of our busy lives. It is not talk about the office or errands or what you are running late for. It is leisurely conversation among people in absolutely no hurry to get anywhere at the moment and who may never have otherwise met, much less spent a pretty intimate week with one another, in their usual routines. It also is conversation among people without their usual trappings or status symbols – no business suits, no titles, no children, no cars. The result is that you actually get to know the people you are riding with in a way you probably do not know the colleague you have worked with for years. As Desperados’ wagon boss Wilson Smith explains, on Trail Ride you “eat, sleep, work, ride, are grouchy, are sometimes cold and miserable or hot and tired, all with the same people – and it is wonderful.” In other words, people bond. And this is the best part of the trail ride because this is the part that does not go away after the horses go back to the stable and you return to civilization. In fact, I was warned of the post-Trail Ride blues syndrome, where, upon returning to civilization, you find yourself missing being on Trail Ride. I got it and got it bad. I missed sleeping by the campfire and being awakened by cattle call. I missed beef jerky. I missed my new friends. I even missed my horse. As Wilson Smith would say, I had a bad case of the “overs.”
The other thing you do on Trail Ride is to have a whole lot of fun. When 50 people gather to take eight days out of their lives to ride on a horse the distance that would have taken an hour by car simply for the fun of it, clearly a blast is unavoidable.
And the Desperados have this part down pat. In addition to being one of the Salt Grass Trail Ride’s most famous wagons – having been awarded Best Wagon Group in the downtown parade by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo Committee and Best Wagon Group in the Salt Grass Trail Ride by the Salt Grass Trail Association for many years – the Desperados, simply put, have a good time together. The Desperados consist of fun-loving folks from all walks of life – brokers and business people, attorneys and architects, husbands and wives, high-techs and not-coms, a former Houston police chief and even a few real cowboys. There is a chemistry among this combination of people that has worked for years and years. Some of The Desperado’s founders, including the families of Welcome Wilson and Gary and Beverly Smith, have ridden the historic trail for more than 25 years. It is no wonder they are so good at it.
The Desperados are not the only trail riders who have gotten good at having fun on Trail Ride; they share the trail with other experts, such as the Magnificent 7 and the Rounders.
The Magnificent 7 was founded 17 years ago by Constable Bill Bailey and Steve Watson, who also serves as wagon boss. Riding on wagon eight one year, Watson and Bailey noticed that the wagon in front of them was wagon six, not seven. As it turned out, the Trail Ride lacked a wagon seven for some reason, so Watson and Bailey, both vice presidents of the Livestock Show, launched wagon seven with five other vice presidents of the Livestock Show. Today, the Magnificent 7 boasts more than 150 members, some of who read like a Texas who?s who list. The Magnificent 7 riders have included Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, former Secretary of State John Sharp and Houston’s own Dr. Red Duke. Magnificent 7 also has captured its share of awards, such as Best Wagon Group 2001 in the downtown rodeo parade, locking the Magnificent 7 and the Desperados into a long-standing, good-natured rivalry, with both wagons typically vying for the same distinctions. Watson enjoys the competition, claiming it makes each wagon work a little harder to outdo the other. And the rivalry is not a subtle one. Watson happily offers to compare honors in a pretty straightforward way: “Let?s stack ’em up!” No matter which stack of awards is higher, it is clear that the “Mag 7” and the Desperados have had a lot of fun getting good at Trail Ride.
And then there is Wagon 21, the Rounders, the unofficial social coordinators of Trail Ride. Founded in 1972 and named, speculates wagon boss Ronnie Havemann, for being “kinda rowdy,” the Rounders host some of the few functions on Trail Ride where all riders from all wagons are invited, with food, drink and lots of live music. The Rounders’ hospitality comes naturally to the group because, as Havemann says, “You could sorta say we are party animals.” Party animals with horses and big hearts – the Rounders – interest and commitment to their community is not limited to their fellow riders on Trail Ride. Certain holidays find many of the Rounders sponsoring horse rides for the kids from the Lighthouse for the Blind.
So I admit it, the Trail Ride rocked this city girl?s world. I knew something very strange was happening to me, for example, when, one evening after one of assistant wagon boss and Desperados? chef Joe Bennett’s exquisite meals and a cocktail or two, I felt the inexplicable urge to go visit my horse. And even more strangely, I actually did. Another meaningful moment occurred when, upon discovering mud on my jeans, it was gently pointed out to me that “That’s not mud, sweetheart.” And I did not even mind. And finally, upon returning to civilization, I had to resist the impulse to tell complete strangers that I had slept outside on the ground next to a campfire – by choice.
If you have the opportunity to join the Salt Grass Trail Ride, do it. Basically, if I can do it, anybody can. But be prepared for a new addiction with only one cure – riding the Salt Grass Trail Ride again. As a good Desperado would say, “Hip, Hip, Hooray!”