Why a cattle drive at a California dude ranch may be the ideal vacation to escape the pandemic
I was the kid who never got the pony I wanted for Christmas. And I was the kid who always dreamed of joining the rodeo and the barrel racers, their sequined costumes sparkling in the spotlights.
I put away those childhood dreams until last year, when I booked trips to the V6 Ranch for two horse-related vacations. The 20,000-acre cattle ranch, outside tiny Parkfield about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, represents California as it once was with vast grasslands, majestic oaks and rolling hills as far as I could see.
Parkfield’s 18 residents belong to the Varian family, led by Jack and Zera “Zee” Varian, who bought the ranch in 1961. They named it the V6 in recognition of the six Varians at the time — Jack, Zee and their four children.
As the children became adults with their own families to support, the Varians expanded the cattle ranch to include paying guests. They had continued it year-round until the COVID-19 pandemic, when they took a brief break from hosting guests to determine how to operate their tourism business safely.
They resumed their horse-related adventures in June, with some modifications, and are following all Monterey County COVID-19 protocols for their type of operation, Jack Varian said. They have increased sanitation procedures, and there are days and sometimes weeks between groups of guests.
Barbara Varian, who books the trips, said social distancing is easy at the V6 Ranch, with more than 20,000 acres to explore. All activities are outdoors, and being on horseback requires physical distancing. Groups are kept small, and guests often stay in their own tents or RVs.
Inspired by ‘City Slickers’
The family launched its horse-related tourism business with a roundup, an idea inspired by “City Slickers,” a movie about a group of citified buddies on a cattle drive. My horse-loving friend Fiona and I started with the V6 cattle roundup as well.
We joined 16 other riders in May 2019 to gather and herd several hundred cattle from the valley floor to higher elevations.
We had signed up too late for the more comfortable accommodations in the bunkhouse or the three glamping tents, so we pitched our shelter amid the trees at the ranch’s Blue Oak Camp. That night, we enjoyed the first of several sumptuous, cowboy-style meals prepared by members of the Varian family.
The roundup represented a passing of the baton: It was the first led by five of Jack and Zee Varian’s nine grandchildren — all young adults who proved up to the task with a little help from three of their parents, John, Lillian and Greg Varian.
John Varian assigned mounts on Friday morning based on ability, with riders ranging from beginner to experienced. My mount, a sure-footed chestnut quarter horse named Miz Pep, had so much energy that Greg asked me to join him on a long trek to hustle up a small herd of cattle barely visible in the distance.
Following his lead, I rode up and down steep hillsides and across a small creek in pursuit of about a dozen cattle that had burrowed into the heavy brush. Branches grabbed at our sleeves and pants as we circled around trees and plowed through the thick undergrowth.
I had only a dozen riding lessons under my belt, so I was amazed that I didn’t fall off Miz Pep as she nearly slid down the hills on her hindquarters. Staying in the saddle gave me the confidence I needed for the rest of the weekend.
We worked with the other riders to gather small groups of cattle spread across the hillsides and valleys, bringing them into one herd of several hundred that lumbered along as we rode behind, whooping and hollering to keep them moving.
Despite nearly eight hours of work, Miz Pep still had the energy to lope into Mustang Camp, where we would spend the night. We pitched our tent among the trees and fell asleep to the sounds of cattle in a nearby pen.
The next day, we herded the cattle to their new pasture, a task of about four hours. On our final day, the grandchildren brought some cattle into a fenced-in ring where they deftly demonstrated how to use a horse to separate a cow from the herd and drive it into a chute leading to another pen. They made it look easy. It was not.
Fiona and I had so much fun competing against the other riders in maneuvering our horses to move a designated cow that we decided to return in October for the Cowboy Academy, where we would learn the ropes of working cattle.
Most of the 30 riders at the Cowboy Academy were repeat visitors, so it felt a bit like a summer camp reunion but with horses, better food and alcoholic beverages around the campfire.
We had reserved early enough to snare one of the nine rooms at the Parkfield Lodge, two miles from Horse Camp where all the activities took place. We stayed in an old water tower converted into a two-story room that had air conditioning, two beds, a front porch and an upstairs deck.
This time my mount was Bella, a small chestnut mare with a white blaze that was determined to go her own way.
Bella and I fought over who was in charge on the first two days of trail rides. Then John Varian advised me to “go get her head right,” which meant getting her away from the other horses and taking her through circles, figure eights and different gaits. She finally decided to listen to me, at least most of the time. I felt much more confident about my own horse-wrangling skills — until competition day.
We had spent much of our time with wranglers preparing to test our cowboy and cowgirl skills. Teams were assigned and points scored for roping, sorting and obstacle course competitions. My team’s first round of sorting was great, until we lost all our points because a cow I herded out of the pen turned back at the last minute.
Another round of sorting on another team went well until the wrong cow slipped past me, disqualifying the entire sorting exercise. Finally, we hit the obstacle course, which required us to herd cattle and lead our horses through a small maze and around a barrel, just like the rodeo women I admired in childhood.
After many challenges, Bella and I herded the cattle, rounded the barrel with much bravado and loped to the finish line. I thrust my fist in the air as I pretended to be a winner while others cheered and laughed.
No sparkly costume and only one barrel to round, but it provided an exciting finish to two adventures that let this city slicker experience the cowgirl side of California.
IF YOU GO
The best way from Los Angeles
Take Interstate 5 north to California 46 west of Lost Hills. Where the road merges with California 41, slow down and turn right onto Cholame Valley Road. The bumpy road takes you to the Parkfield turnoff, where you turn right and travel about two more miles to Blue Oak Camp.
V6 Ranch, Parkfield Cafe and Lodge, 70410 Parkfield Coalinga Road, Parkfield, Calif.; (805) 463-2421. The cattle roundup costs $950 and includes a horse and all meals, from Thursday night to Sunday morning. The Cowboy Academy costs $1,025 ($775 if using your own horse) and includes a horse and all meals, from Wednesday night to Sunday morning.
WHERE TO STAY
Parkfield Lodge, 70410 Parkfield Coalinga Road, Parkfield, Calif.; (805) 463-2421, v6ranch.com/lodge. Nine rooms from $139 to $199 per person per night, not including tax, for participants in the Cowboy Academy.
WHERE TO EAT
There’s just one restaurant in town, Parkfield Cafe, and it’s good. Dining is outdoors on the restaurant grounds. Buffets have been eliminated to reduce the chance of infection from shared utensils. Food is delivered in takeout containers.
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