The week of Dec. 4-10, 2022, I lived in a land where the days brought open skies, vast prairies dotted with hammocks of live oaks draped with Spanish moss and tall pine forests carpeted with thick palmettos.
It was a land of cattle and horses, and people who love cattle and horses ... and history.
For one magical week, I lived in a world where the nights brought fellowship over good meals, followed by songs and stories and Seminole native dancing around the campfire.
Late at night, awakened by the howling of a coyote, I marveled at the shapes of horses in the fog under the full moon.
The nights were so quiet I could hear the horses grazing. The sky was bright with stars.
When I first told people I planned to participate in the week long Great Florida Cattle Drive, many were surprised I was going alone. I wouldn’t be alone, I explained. My faithful mount, Callie, was going with me. And about 400 other people would be there.
Since the cattle drive was a celebration of Florida history, we were asked to dress in attire appropriate for the 1890s, or in traditional western clothing. We were stepping back in time to learn about Florida history by living it.
People came from all over the United States, as well as some from Brazil. While some folks were in the cattle or horse business, others were teachers, retired military, medical professionals, journalists, ministers and more, including airline pilot and the owner of a Japanese steak house.
Families with young children were on the drive. The oldest person on the trail was 91 years old.
Meeting new people on the cattle drive was as simple as extending your hand and telling them your name. Conversation was easy. We talked about our horses. We talked about Florida history. We talked about our favorite cowboy movies. We shared stories, jokes and songs. The more experienced riders shared tips on everything on how to keep the girth from pinching my horse to how to keep my toes from going numb after hours in stirrups. (Disclosure: My right little toe was still numb two days after the drive ended.)
The first cattle to arrive in North America landed in Florida in 1521. The cattle drive celebrated the 500th anniversary of cattle in Florida. (Actually the 501st anniversary since the event was delayed one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic). In Florida, men who worked the cattle were not called cowboys. If they owned the cattle, they were referred to as cowmen. If they were hired hands who worked the cattle, they were called cow hunters. In the brush of Florida, cow hunters use dogs and whips to herd the cattle. The whips don’t touch the cattle – the sound of the whip cracking does the job. On occasion, a whip might be used to kill a snake.
The Great Florida Cattle Drive started on Sunday, Dec. 4 with check-in at the Kenneth Kirchman Foundation property in St. Cloud. The riders were divided into color-coded circles (green, light blue, dark blue, brown and tan, aka buckskin).
After check-in, the horse trailers were relocated to the Silver Spurs Practice Arena in Kenansville, where the drive would end. Drive organizers had arranged for security to watch the trucks and trailers for the week of the cattle drive.
We were each given a colored bandanna to wear at all times. Some folks used them as hat bands or attached to a belt, but most wore them in the traditional cowboy manner around the neck so the fabric could be pulled up to cover the nose and mouth if the trail got dusty (or they had the sudden urge to rob a train).
The cow hunters group -- including a group of boys from Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranch -- wore purple bandannas. Members of the media wore white. A group of veterans participating under the Outdoor Freedom Program
wore gold. Circle leaders wore red. Volunteers helping with the drive wore light green.
I was in the dark blue group, with circle boss Joyce Chartier. There were 63 riders in the dark blue group and about 350 riders total on the trail. In addition were those traveling in horse and mule drawn wagons as well as support staff. (I had the option to ride as media, but chose to be part of the dark blue circle.)
That afternoon, I joined Joyce and a group of "blue man group" riders for an orientation ride. Joyce briefed us on things we needed to know before we hit the trail, like how to recognize a flag pond (which could be as dangerous as quicksand for a horse), what to do if a horse gets loose (shut the gate if we’re in camp), how to watch your horse’s ears to judge their mood, and what to do if a horse pulling a wagon bolts and is headed your way (hide behind a tree). She explained a red ribbon on a horse’s tail means it kicks, so give the back end some space. A red ribbon in a horse’s mane means it bites, so give the front end some space. On the trail, the rule was stay with your circle and stay behind your circle boss. And if you have to stop (to pick up something you dropped, adjust a saddle or answer the call of nature), keep someone with you. If you leave the trail, take two riders with you so if you get into trouble, one can stay with you while the other rides for help.
Later that afternoon, Judge Nelson Bailey
told us about Florida’s cattle history and Iris Wall
, 93, told us what it means to be a Florida Cracker. A Cracker often doesn’t have much, she explained. They learn to make the most of what they have or do without.
At dinner, Doyle Conner Jr., chairman of the Florida Cow Culture Preservation Committee, reminded us of the motto of the Great Florida Cattle Drive: “It ain’t for sissies!”
Breakfast was at 7 a.m. each day, with dinner at 7 p.m. They gave us sandwiches and chips to take with us on the trail for lunch. Breakfast always included fresh hot biscuits. (I am still impressed they could make enough biscuits for 400 people and keep them hot.) Along with biscuits, they served grits and either an egg casserole or scrambled eggs. Some days we had sausage or bacon, other days, sausage gravy to put on the biscuits.
One word about the dinners on the trail preparted by Mitchell Catering LLC: Delicious. They got better every night. Part of that was because we were hungry, but the menus included chili, beef stew, smoked pork, macaroni and cheese, chicken and rice, pasta with meat sauce, chicken Alfredo, barbecued chicken and ribs and (on the last night) prime rib. The portions were generous and those who wanted more were welcome to get back in line for seconds. They even served dessert: Peach cobbler, brownies, cookies, chocolate cake and bread pudding. We acknowledge this was not historically accurate. The cow hunters of the late 1890s could only dream of the kind of food we had on the trail.
Monday was the first day of the drive, and I thought I was doing well. I saddled up Callie and put the hobbles on her (fastening her front legs together with leather strips), as there was no where nearby to tie her. I hauled my gear down to the support trailer which would take it to the next camp. I had barely turned my back when I heard the cries of “loose horse!” A mule-drawn wagon had passed nearby and Callie not only spooked, she figured out how to gallop in hobbles. She bunny hopped at top speed into the woods with some experienced riders hot on her trail. By the time I caught up with them, they had stopped the horse and retrieved most of my belongings that she had shed along the way. My canteen strap was severed on one side. My horn bag was gone and there was no time to look for it. The straps that held my saddle bags to the saddle were torn off. Fortunately, my Leatherman tool was still in the saddle bag along with some extra leather straps and I made some quick repairs. I mentally reviewed what was lost: My sunglasses, a small digital camera, a notebook, a pen, a digital recorder, sunscreen, Chapstick, some treats for Callie ... and my lunch.
Inspired by Iris Wall’s story of the Crackers, I decided to be thankful for what I had. Most importantly, I was thankful my horse was not injured. I could take photos with my phone. I had already applied sunscreen and had more in my gear bag. My wide brimmed hat would shade my eyes. I had more notebooks and pens in my bag. My new friends offered to share food on the trail.
It ain’t for sissies.
Advance information for the cattle drive explained we would drive 1,000 cattle. But those plans were made before Florida was hit by Hurricane Ian in September and then Hurricane Nicole in November. Areas on the route originally planned were now impassable. So Doyle explained instead of 1,000 cattle we would be driving 1,500 cattle -- just not all at one time. We drove three different herds of 500 cattle each, working each herd for two days.
The first group of cattle we drove belonged to the Desert Ranch, where the drive began. The Desert Ranch, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, covers 300,000 acres, with 100,000 acres of pastures for cattle. Ranch officials did not want any outside cattle on their property so we moved some of their cattle from one place on the ranch to another.
The weather was wonderful with highs in the 80s and lows in the 60s. We managed to avoid the rain, although as it happens in Florida, we could sometimes see rain in the distance or smell it in the air. Still, the nights brought heavy fog which soaked all available surfaces, leaving the outside of the tents wet. The best we could do was try to shake them out and pack them wet, which meant they were still wet when we set them up again.
Anyone who dared complain about the wet fog or the heat of the day was quickly silenced by veterans of the 2016 cattle drive. In 2016, it turned cold and rained for three days. And yet, many of those who completed the drive came back to do it again in 2022. Being a veteran of the 2016 drive was a badge of honor.
The first day’s ride was a long one – 18.4 miles according to those tracking it with GPS on their phones. It was not my circle’s turn to help push the herd. We followed along behind, which gave us plenty of time to get to know some of our circle mates. It was a pleasant – if long – trail ride. Someone started a running joke that anytime anyone asked how much farther we had to go that day the answer was always “about three more miles.” No matter where we were, it was always “about three more miles” to camp. (I later learned other circles were making the same joke. It likely started on a previous cattle drive.)
Since the cattle drive was a celebration of history, after dinner each evening we heard from re-enactors for different time periods. On Monday evening, we were invited to visit the camp of early native Americans who lived in Florida before the white men and Seminoles arrived.
In addition to the Deseret Ranch, over the course of the drive we would ride on the Kempfer Ranch, Deseret Scape Ranch, and Diego Medina's Ranch.
Tuesday was dark blue circle’s turn to herd the cattle. (Two circles got to work with the cattle and cow hunters at a time.) The cow hunters explained what to do. We rode alongside the cattle, making sure they all stayed together. When we came to a gate, some riders would go ahead of the herd to “make a wall” or “make an arc” with horses on the other side, so the when the cattle came through the gate they would be forced to go in the desired direction.
Working alongside the cow hunters on the drive, it was fascinating to watch them at work. Even more amazing were the dogs who seemed to understand exactly what they needed to do to keep the herd together and moving. As we moved across the prairie, the brush was often almost as high as the cattle and the movement of the animals through the brush caused a cloud of golden seeds to fill the air. As the sunlight reflected off the airborne plant matter, we seemed to be moving through a golden haze. And this was a good time to use the bandannas.
The Great Florida Cattle Drive had an advantage over historic drives. On a normal drive, they didn’t have more than 100 extra horses and riders along to ride alongside the cattle and run ahead to make walls and arcs to keep the cattle on track.
Working the cattle made the Tuesday's 14.7 miles (according to GPS) go quickly.
The trail was not without hazards. On Tuesday, a rearing horse struck a rider on the back of her head, sending her to the emergency room for a CT scan. Her young daughter opted to stay on the trail, and was quickly adopted by other riders who cared for her as their own. As the mother's home was just an hour's drive away, after being checked out of the hosptial, she went home to rest for one day, and then returned to the cattle drive. She later explained she had a mild concussion, but when she asked the doctors if she could ride, she was told that decision was up to her. So back she came to finish the cattle drive.
It ain’t for sissies.
Wednesday dark blue circle was not with the cows, but were following along behind. After lunch, from a distance we could see the cow hunters keeping the cattle in a group preparing to start moving again. Suddenly the cattle were all running in the wrong direction, with the cow hunters and dogs racing to cut them off.
“OK, who brought the electric coffee grinder?” joked a member of my group (referencing the stampede scene in the movie, “City Slickers.”)
We found some shade at the tree line while the cow hunters gathered the herd. We had rushed through lunch break only to wait nearly two hours on horseback to start moving again. “We could have taken a nap after lunch,” one buckaroo muttered.
The day’s 14.8 miles (per GPS) took longer than expected. Back at camp, we rushed the get the horses settled and tents up before the sun set.
After dinner, we learned about Florida’s Cow Calvary. During the “War of Northern Aggression,” the re-enactors explained, Florida ranchers provided the Army of the Confederacy with beef. To prevent the enemy from raiding the herds, soldiers with ranching experience were assigned to the Cow Calvary. The re-enactors displayed a replica of the flag of the Florida Cow Calvary.
The motto on the flag states: "THE RIGHTS OF THE SOUTH AT ALL HAZARDS."
Thursday was our turn to herd cattle again. These were the cattle from Wednesday’s stampede so we were wary. But they must have worn themselves out running around the day before as they didn’t give us any trouble. We completed the day’s 14.1 miles with plenty of daylight left to set up camp. Some riders even took their horses swimming in a pond near the campground. A few backed out when they spotted an alligator.
Suddenly all eyes were on the sky as a rocket launched from Cape Canaveral, reminding us just how close we were to the modern world and the heavily populated coastline.
Thursday after dinner, cowboy poet Doyle Rigdon shared poems and stories. One poem was about Beezer Bennett
who worked for Lykes Brothers. Another was about working cattle
in Florida. He also recited a poem about a man from New York City
who wanted to be a Florida cow hunter. (Click on the links to hear the poems.)
Friday we changed herds again, this time the cows had horns. These cows are different, the cow hunters warned us. With big plans for the Friday night celebration, the day’s trail was only 6.3 miles, and again we made it to camp with plenty of time to set up the tents in daylight and try to dry things out a bit. Along the way a couple of young cowboys tried to rope an alligator. It’s just as well they missed, but I wondered what they would have done with it had they caught it.
Friday was Seminole Night on the drive. There were demonstrations of Seminole crafts and a Seminole singer. And after dinner, they taught us two native dances -- the Lightning Bug Dance and the Long Dance. They taught us the responses to the chants and instructed us to just copy what they did as they stomped and jumped to the beat. The goal is to make a lot of noise, we were told, in order to get the attention of the Creator and ask for blessings.
For the Long Dance, we joined hands and circled the fire, then the leader broke off and led us into the darkness, winding this way and that through the trees and then back to the campfire. After several such journeys, he guided the dancers into a spiral winding tighter and tighter so we crowded in close together as we continued the chants and stomps. When we could get no closer together, we ended the dance with hoots and cheers echoing into the night.
Saturday we packed up camp for the last time, looking forward to trail’s end. The morning air was cool and the trail led through some pine woods. We passed an old cabin, and wondered who might have once lived there. The trail led us back to civilization as we passed under the interstate on our way to the Silver Spurs Practice Arena where friends and family were waiting to cheer us and welcome us home. GPS indicated 7 miles for that ride.
So ended the Great Florida Cattle Drive of 2022. Will there be another one? The original organizers, who planned the cattle drives of 1995, 2006, 2016 and 2022 have decided to step down. The future of the Great Florida Cattle Drive depends on the next generation.
One thing's for sure: It's not for sissies.