By the time the sable palm trees poked through the early fog, the whistles and cracking whips of the circling riders had shaped the wide-eyed cows into a herd. When the trail boss said 'Go!' the gate was flung open. What lay ahead was history.
This week, several hundred people on horseback and in mule-drawn wagons are making a rugged, 65-mile pilgrimage into the past--re-creating a trail drive of the type once commonplace in Florida a couple hundred years before anyone even thought of linking the words "wild" and "west." In celebration of the state's sesquicentennial, cow hunters--as cowboys were called here--are driving more than 900 head of cracker-type cattle from a ranch just west of here to fairgrounds in Kissimmee, Fla.
The event is rich in trail dust and symbolism. The cattle, loaned by ranchers around the state, are descendants of the small, hardy breed introduced to Florida by Spanish explorers in the 16th century. The drive crosses miles of open range in the south-central section of the state, still thick with prickly palmetto bush, moss-draped live oaks and marshy lowlands.
Most of the Great Florida Cattle Drive '95 runs over private land, including hunting preserves where wild boar, deer and alligators thrive. But on Saturday morning, at trail's end, the cattle will be herded across busy U.S. 192, a main road into a better-known symbol of Florida: Walt Disney World. "We're going right through suburbia," says Kelley Thomason of the Kissimmee-St. Cloud Visitors and Convention Bureau, one of the event's sponsors.
The cow hunters driving the cattle are expert riders nominated by the cattlemen's associations in each of Florida's 67 counties. The journey averages 10 miles a day, and at night the cows are penned in prearranged locations, where the cow hunters set up camp.
Trailing the herd is a mile-long retinue of more than 30 wagons and about 400 horseback riders, ranging from rodeo-seasoned 10-year-olds like Justin Sayoc to self-described "city slickers" like Michael Rudd, 35, a Miami attorney who says he had spent a total of five hours on a horse, lifetime. He got more than that on his first day in the saddle Monday.
Last year, Rudd said, he and his law partner went to Pamplona, Spain, for the running of the bulls and, while searching for the next thrill, heard about the cattle drive. "We thought it would be a hell of an adventure, a once-in-a-lifetime thing," he said. "And we know we're going to pay for this physically."
Many of the participants are dressed in authentic period costume; there are long dresses and lots of leather. And no blatantly modern touches are permitted--no Yankees ball caps or Calvin Klein T-shirts, for example.
But there are signs of the times, including two-way radios for the trail bosses, and more than a few riders who have cinched their cellular phones to their saddle.
All those who paid up to $250 for the privilege of days in the saddle, nights around the campfire and chuck wagon stew for dinner are people who love horses, history and the idea of an experience not likely to be offered again. "I know this 73-year-old butt of mine is going to feel it, but this just sounded like something I had to do," said Dick Ward, a retired grocer from Springfield, Ky., perched high on a borrowed mare.
Indeed, the first day, covering 14 miles, was a long one. After eight hours in the saddle, even those who make their living on horseback were in search of liniment and sympathy as the wagons were circled in a shady state park in Osceola County.
"I ride every day, but nothing like this," said cow hunter Kim Conaway, a rancher who lives near Daytona Beach in Volusia County. "This is a unique experience, which is why I and a lot of the boys are doing it. This is the way it used to be."
Until 1959, in fact, much of Florida was open range. And despite the state's modern image as a vacationland and retirement haven, beef production remains a major industry. Cecil A. Tucker II, 64, a retired farm supply merchant and history buff making the ride with his wife, Mart, said Florida's Spanish governors established a network of cattle-raising ranchos in the early 1600s.
By the 19th century, large cattle drives were routine in Florida.
In the 1930s, Tucker said, his father and his wife's father rode this range as tick eradication inspectors, "so this cattle drive gives us a glimpse of what it was like for them."
Along with marking the 150th anniversary of Florida's statehood, the drive was also designed to be educational. Each night historical pageants are played out around the campfire, and of course those along for the ride learn from experience. Erin Owings, 10, said her parents excused her from school in Ocala "because they figured I'd learn more here than in class. I've already learned that when you're sleeping outside, it's important not to roll off your air mattress. The ground is cold and hard."
Times researcher Anna M. Virtue in Miami contributed to this story.