The herd mentality

The cow's eye glazed over as it dropped its head and came straight at me. Standing on that trail decked out in my bright helmet and gaudy cycling clothes, I felt like a doomed rodeo clown. Several Hollywood-style "Yaahhs" did nothing to redirect that ton of USDA prime or the 20 other bovines behind it. Instead, I was on the verge of becoming Durango's "Hereford squashes editor near Hermosa Creek See page 8." At the last minute, I dug deep and found some matador hiding in my back pocket.

Lifting my bike onto its back wheel and letting off an earsplitting "Yaaahh," the crashing wave of hair, hooves and heavy breathing broke around me. As the small herd passed on its way to summer pasture, the picture became clear. There behind them, a local rancher rode up the Dutch Creek Trail on a different breed of steed, and he was driving the herd home at high speed. Rather than tossing a casual nod of the hat my way, he offered only an icy stare.

For weeks, a group of us had been planning that loop of Jones Creek, Pinkerton and Dutch Creek. Rewarding us with buff trails, fields of lupine in full bloom and 360 degree views of the San Juans, it had more than met expectations. But ending the ride with that glare and a spin through hoof-prints and debris broke the charm. To make matters worse, my front tire managed to throw a nice-sized, cow patty goatee onto my chin. (Over the next two days, I heard about other cow patty beards on similar rides. I'd been lucky as it turns out. Two friends had also taken their face shots home and been rewarded with fresh cases of giardia. Ah, the perils of bicycling in Colorado.)

As I washed off my chin, the great ride drifted further away, and I started feeling soured physically and emotionally. I was sure that driving his herd through a pack of ungrateful gearheads soured that cattleman as well. In fact, I was the guy on that horse once upon a time. My stint as a hand on a working cattle ranch predated widespread mountain biking. But I remember the chaos that hunters stirred up when they came onto "our" national forest leases. It was a tale of open gates and downed fences. One year, the worst case hit when someone thought it would be amusing to put a bullet into a piece of our livelihood.

Consequently, I'd thy for nearly everyone in the business of agriculture, in the front of my mind. Over the years, I always staunchly defended cows up Hermosa Creek, cows on the Dry Fork, cows up Jones Creek and cows on Missionary Ridge.

After nearly tasting cows on Dutch Creek, I started to rethink my position. I was beginning to think that multiple use can actually be a real pain for everyone involved. Who really benefits from all this

sharing of the land, I asked myself.

But in true American fashion, I buried the dilemma down deep, carried it into a week of work and eventually back out to Dutch Creek for another ride.

Dusk was falling as I left the Hermosa Creek trailhead for a relatively quick out-and-back, and things immediately shaped up nicely. The lupine were still in bloom and there wasn't a slick of fresh manure for miles. As the sun continued to drop, I spun out to the Dutch Creek junction, climbed the trail up to the creek, spun around and made for home. Back on Hermosa Creek, and a few miles from coming full circle, déjà vu hit three ranchers on horseback ambled slowly down the trail in single-file. I slowed my rig to a crawl and got their attention only after I accidentally spooked one of the horses.

"Grandpa, there's a biker behind us," the surprised rider called out to the lead horse.

The lead rancher turned over his right shoulder, pointed to the steep incline and narrow trail and said, "We've got a bit of a predicament here. We'll let you by as soon as the trail gets wider."

The trail didn't widen for at least another mile. And to keep the horses calm and satisfy some curiosity, that lead rider struck up a conversation. We started with all the standards, asking where each other lived and discussing the weather and the lack of moisture.

Then we moved on into uncharted territory. Struck by the notion that I'd ridden my bike out to Dutch Creek, he asked if I rode every day. He wanted to know how much the machine cost and if it broke down that often. I wanted to know which stretches of fence they had just mended and how many head they turned out in the drainage each summer. I was also curious how long their family had explored these valleys.

When we eventually came to that wide section on the trail, they pulled their horses to the side, and I slowly pedaled past. Then in a split-second, we solved the riddle of multiple use and put an end to that dilemma once and for all. Ranchers representing three generations of a local family nodded their heads, tipped their hats and thanked me for my patience. I put my hand to my garish helmet, nodded and thanked them for the conversation and for letting me pass. And with the sun almost down, all four of us pointed our steeds toward home.

-Will Sands




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