ANTIMONY, Utah • Dinner wasn't for another hour, so when I arrived at the Rockin' R Ranch, the cowboy-hatted, stubble-chinned guy behind the front desk asked what I wanted to do.
"Take a horse out in the arena?" he said. "Quick trail ride? Go relax? It's up to you."
The Rockin' R — a real, breathing, working cattle ranch in the low, green hills of central Utah — is like that: whatever you want. Horseback ride? Archery? Brand a calf? Castrate it? It's up to you. Just don't ask for a massage. It ain't that kind of place.
I hadn't been on horseback in a while, so I thought it might be smart to try restoring my riding chops in the arena. In honeyed afternoon light, I climbed atop Mouse, a white 7-year-old mare. Beside me was Anndi Snyder, a fresh-faced 19-year-old from nearby Beaver who was working her fourth summer at the ranch.
Anndi led me into a trot, then the nice, smooth run known in Western riding as a lope. Dirt kicked up behind Mouse and me; Anndi was encouraging. I asked if she got riders with less experience.
"The other day we had this little girl who had never even seen a horse," she said. "It took us 10 minutes to get her on. I thought she'd hyperventilate. Since then she's been on two rides a day."
Burns Black bought the Rockin' R in 1970. It was just a cattle ranch then. Three years later, when disease killed a third of his herd, he saw an opportunity to chase a long-harbored dream, opening a working cattle ranch where non-cowboys could learn the ranching life. It was a perfect location: Utah's fabled red rocks were less than an hour south and the soaring snow-capped mountains a few hours north.
While the Rockin' R has built back up to 500 head, most of its business today is showing visitors what it means to have 500 head. Many ranches claim to offer an authentic cowboy experience, but Black's is one of the few I could find that are the real deal. It attracts Europeans well-versed in the John Wayne catalog and Americans looking to roll up their sleeves.
"We want the ordinary, average guy to bring his family here and have a good time," said Brandon Hanks, 33, who manages the ranch with wife Brandi. "We don't cater to the …"
"Yuppies," Brandi said. "Well, I don't want to say that because we want the yuppies too," Brandon said. "But yeah."
So instead of a hot-stone treatment, the next morning I went with Anndi and wrangler Jim DeJohn to do ranch work. Real ranch work. A cattle drive. Our job was to move about 100 head from a vast, green field to a dusty pen a quarter-mile away.
We trotted away from the stable, across a field and through icy water rising almost to our animals' bellies. .
"This is the most authentic thing I've ever done on horseback," I told Anndi. "I've only ever done trail rides and arenas."
"Well you're about to get the real deal," she said.
When we reached the cattle, Jim took the left, Anndi the center and me the right. Our power was quickly evident. The way a car responds to a turned wheel, the cows reacted as we moved our horses, which is why the cardinal rule of marching them dutifully forward was to stay behind our targets.
Jim and Anndi didn't need me, of course. They're wranglers whose tight jeans and wide hats are more practicality than fashion. But when one calf peeled off just before the pen, I kicked up my horse, gained enough speed to get behind the offender and funneled it back into line.
Anndi, dealing with her own rogue calf, saw me.
"Nice!" she called out. "Calves are the hardest!"
In two days at the Rockin' R, horseback came to be second nature. I went on a couple of trail rides with Jim — one to the rocky cliffs high above the ranch — and jogged my horse a bit. Unlike Jim, I couldn't keep from bouncing in the saddle at higher speeds, which, yes, stings in the regions you would expect. I also did something I not only had never tried but never even considered trying: barrel racing. Better still, it was barrel racing with a group of kids from the nearby Navajo reservation who had spent months raising money to visit the ranch for their eighth-grade trip.
In the arena, three barrels were arranged in a triangle. The goal was to make a half-turn around each before racing — or in my case, plodding quickly — back to the start. Mouse obviously had been through the routine with befuddled visitors, turning dutifully and instinctively, it seemed, before I put an ounce of pressure on her reins. As I galloped back to the beginning, the kids cheered. I had circled the barrels in 35 seconds — slower than some of the eighth-graders.
A cattle drive? Barrel racing? It seemed my ranch experience could be no more authentic. But the Rockin' R gladly pulls back the curtain on its cattle operation, and for a few weeks every year, that includes branding and castrating calves. I happened to be there at the right time.
The process went like this: One by one, about 30 calves were prodded into a narrow chute by electric shock. At the end of the chute was "the squeeze" — the final chute where the walls snapped tightly on the calf's body but left room for its head to dangle out the front.
Each calf was flipped onto its side and the men went to work: castrating with a 3-inch pocketknife, slicing into both ears to mark it as Rockin' R property, giving three shots (two antibiotics and a steroid) and then branding — a searing, smoking, yelp-inducing burn that also identified it as Rockin' R property. It was bloody, noisy and jarring, and the thick, white smoke off the branding iron camped in my nostrils for a good while.
But tourists seem to love it.
"A lot of people like to castrate just to try it," said Creston Black, 48, who heads the ranch's cattle operation. Blood had dried on his jeans from ear slicing. "But branding is the main thing. Want to try it?"
It was about then I realized that these were the calves I had helped round up that morning.
"Uh, no," I said. "Thanks."
Sometimes real ranch life can be a bit too real. Though it didn't keep me from eating a thick Rockin' R steak the next night.