Earlier this year Doug Wheeler, 76, broke his ankle while water skiing. During his seven-week convalescence, his wife, Pat, chauffeured him on his daily rounds.
One of Doug’s regular weekday stops is the Farmstead Restaurant in east Columbus where he lunches with a group of men who have made ribbing each other an art form.
“Boy, I bet she’s going to want a really big diamond after this,” one of the boys razzed Doug.
Not even close.
Pat Wheeler wanted to go on a cattle drive. Out West. Like in the cowboy movies. “I wanted to do something special,” she said.
Pat has a friend in Birmingham, Becky Gamble, a horsewoman, who had similar yearnings. Becky is 65; Pat is 71. Pat left the planning up to Becky and in late September the two were on a plane en route to the Double Rafter Cattle Drive just north of Sheridan, Wyoming.
On Monday morning, a ranch-hand picked up the two women at their hotel. Their circumstances, at least for the week ahead, were about to change in ways they could not have imagined. The cowboy drove them an hour to a mountain camp, altitude 9,000 feet. It was their first day on the job, and it was snowing.
Ten people, Wheeler the oldest of them, had signed on for what would be the last drive of the season. They, along with the owner and his son, their wives and two hands, would spend the next six days herding 269 head of cattle and calves down the mountain to a valley where they would overwinter. They all would sleep in tents the five nights the drive lasted.
“That first night I thought we were going to freeze,” Wheeler said. The following nights she had on more clothes when she wiggled into her sleeping bag at the end of a weary day on the trail.
“You didn’t worry about your make-up, fresh clothes or your hair,” Wheeler said. “I learned you can wear the same clothes for two to three days; it makes no difference.”
Each day, the cowboys would be up at first light; breakfast was at 7 and they would be on the trail soon after.
Mud, rocks, rushing water and negotiating steep hills on horseback were all on the daily menu. Most days they spent four to five hours in the saddle yelling, whooping and pushing cattle through glorious mountain scenery. One day they rode seven hours.
Early on, Wheeler, who has navigated the Grand Canyon and the Tetons on horseback, had a comforting realization about Desert, the work quarter horse she was paired with for the week.
“I thought, ‘Lord, this horse knows what to do.'”
At the end of the day, each rider was responsible for removing the saddle and brushing their horse.
“It was more than I thought it would be,” Wheeler said about the experience.
Wheeler, who plays tennis regularly and is an avid gardener, said she realized her goal: to make it home with no broken bones. Though she did get kicked by a horse.
Despite the hardship, there was one privation almost impossible to bear.
“There was no cell service. That was what was awful,” she said. “You could only use your phone to take pictures.”
On a cool sunny day last week Pat Wheeler sat in a weathered chair in the rose garden of her own creation — one that Doug kept watered during the cattle drive. The two have been married 53 years. They have three grown sons, all of whom are in the roofing business like their father.
Pat Wheeler radiates health; she is curious; she exudes a quiet energy.
“I want to do more things before the time comes when I can’t physically do like this,” she said. “Life is too short to sit and home and dream. Sometimes you have to act on it.”
I asked about the guys in Doug’s lunch group, what they said when she told them she was going on a cattle drive.
“They just looked at me,” she said.
Birney Imes is the publisher of The Dispatch. Email him at email@example.com.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.