It was an evening of cowboy poetry, music and reminiscing as members of this year’s Wagon Train gathered at High Hill Ranch in Camino on Friday evening.
After settling the horses for the evening and chowing down a big steak dinner, everyone relaxed as the Stardust Cowboys played songs like “Beaver Moon” interspersed with poems written or read by different cowboys and cowgirls.
One of the favorites was Liz Miller from Placerville who read some of her own poetry including one called “An American Cowboy.” Initially reluctant to read her own work, she credits poet Jim King with encouraging her to do so.
In a tribute to her work, both Tracie Bettencourt and Sonny Wells followed by reading some of Miller’s poems. Bettencourt read one called “The Storm.” She said she picked it because on Monday the Wagon Train ran into a storm. “It was one of the coldest nights of my life.”
In between, poet Jim King read his own poems and quoted from memory those of others. One of the most touching was his reading the lyrics from the song “Ragged Old Flag” by Johnny Cash while Liz Miller stood nearby holding a worn American flag.
A self-described cattleman from Chico, King said his interest in poetry goes back to 1986 when he was given a book of poems that date back to the 1920s. He now performs poetry at all kinds of events and even has a CD entitled “Cattle Trails.”
As the evening wore on, the conversation turned to this year’s trip and what the Wagon Train means to people.
Red Baron, who lives in Rio Linda, said he has been riding the Wagon Train for 34 years. Wearing a hat made from a bobcat, he is the assistant wagon master and says he has been in that role on and off over the entire 34-year period.
“This trip we had the weather. Ran into snow on the way up,” he said. “But it’s not the worst we’ve ever seen. We’ve come through ice storms. This was bad but not the worst. We went through a full-blown blizzard one year.
“But after that bad weather on Monday, things went well. The horses and riders have done well. I think we have 12 or 13 wagons this time. But 15 wagons is about all we can handle. People are building and it’s getting harder to find places to stop along the way and liability is an issue. People still support it but if we keep losing stops, this wagon train will be history.
“Every year something different happens. But there is a nucleus of people who ride consistently. There are wagon trains where we broke down every few miles. But we have a good lead hitch this year.”
Pointing to the teamster who had his leg broken on Monday when his horse kicked him, he said the medics had to cut his pants off to treat him. “So everyone signed his pants and gave them to him at Fresh Pond,” he said laughing.
Dave Preszler was another one who was enjoying being on the Wagon Train, in his case, for the fourth time. “There are three generations represented on this year’s Wagon Train,” he said. “Me, my son David and my grandson Dalton. “There’s a lot of second generation people here, but not third. We’re the Dalton gang.”
Jeff Shinn, of Shinn Ranch Percherons, was proud to be the lead hitch this year for the second time. “I’ve always wanted to be the lead hitch,” he said. A lifelong resident of Placerville, he only recently moved to Oroville. “I’ve been on the wagon train since I was 7 years old and drove a team of mules when I was 12,” he said.
By profession a heavy equipment operator, he said he participates in the Wagon Train “for my kids. Between me and my girlfriend, we have six of them.”
The team of Percherons that Shinn was driving were striking in their beauty and size. A breed of draft horses that were originally bred as war horses, Shinn said the horses and tackle weighed 15,200 pounds and each horse was worth between $5,000 and $10,000.
“The weather and climb on Monday were bad,” he said. “I had to walk the horses until 2 a.m. in the morning to try and cool them down. Finally I took the whole hitch down to the fairgrounds in Placerville. They were there for two days. One horse is still sick with colic.
“The horses come first, no matter what,” he said.
“I do the ride mainly to keep the old west alive,” he added. “That’s what it was like in the old days. The joy of being in control of eight horses and knowing you love them and they love you.”
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo.