The running of the cows | NevadaAppeal.com

The running of the cows

PETER THOMPSON

Brad Horn/Nevada Appeal Emma Smith, 4, from left, Lane Smith, 8, and their mother Rene Smith lead Black Angus cattle south during a cattle drive on Old Route 395 in Washoe Valley on Sunday in Carson City. The Smith's are leading the cattle to their uncle Julian Smith's Washoe Valley ranch.

Without warning, the gates burst open and a black storm rushes out. In full commotion, they pour into the street, their nostrils steaming in the frozen air. Unhappy bleating issues from the pack in loud bursts; labored explosions of complaint that linger on and on and stain the moment. Countless hooves thump in the high yellow grass and splash in the muddy water holes.

They fall in and begin to move.

Immediately a leader emerges at the front of the herd – it’s a mean-looking, black-eyed linebacker of an animal. Others take the flanks. As they close in, they get bigger and bigger, blacker and blacker, until they become a huge mass of darkened unrest.

Adrenaline suggests a quick escape, but it’s too late … it’s like wondering what the color of thunder is while being struck by lightning.

The mind wanders as the sea of black closes in and overtakes it. The animals rumble forward. There is no escape. The menacing, black-eyed herd stretches the width of the road. There is a smell – a wild presence. It stinks. They move in on all sides.

One of them heads straight for me. It stops suddenly, looks around with typical bovine duress, lowers its head and then rather politely suggests, “Moo?”

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Slobber drips from both sides of its mouth.

A five-year-old cowgirl rides up. “Get along,” she says, scolding the animal. “Yip! Yip!”

Admittedly, it’s not quite the running of the bulls in Pamplona-It’s Julian Smith and his family driving their cattle from the summer grazing fields along Old Route 395 up to a pasture by the house, where they’ll be able to stay warmer and feed on hay for the winter.

And the cows aren’t exactly speeding down the highway, either. After a little stampede at the beginning of the round-up, they seem a little tired and out of breath. In fact, they’re laboring. But it is dicey-there are dangers here. Most of them are steaming-fresh and laying on the ground.

Smith puts the number of Black Angus they’ve got pastured at about 22 cows, one bull and 19 calves. Once a year, the family-run operation drives the animals from the field down the road about three or four miles to the house, much to the amusement of passing motorists and the occasional weekend bicyclist, pedaling nimbly through the herd.

A car comes and the cows are moved to the side of the road.

The pace is slow and easy.

“I think we’ve got nearly as many horses as we do cattle today,” says Smith.

In fact, the whole family is here helping, thirteen on horseback, including his four grandchildren.

One of them, four-year-old Emma Smith is riding a horse named “Annie.” She forgets exactly how long she’s been riding horses, but this is her second cattle drive. Her legs barely straddle the animal, but she commands the horse effortlessly. She’s a natural.

The cows walk under the overpass of the 395 freeway. They’re almost home and they seem to know it.

Juan, the ranch-hand, opens the gate and lets the cows lumber in. It is a perfectly pastoral scene from the Nevada of the Old West: The big wintry sky above, the dark black cows moving into the yellow field below. Somewhere, a creek crawls over the rocks. It’s that moment when a noise is the only thing that let’s you know that it’s quiet.

Inside the house, Julian Smith and his crew will enjoy a hot lunch and the warmth of a close family.

The phrase “until the cows come home” has been put away for the season.

Contact reporter Peter Thompson at pthompson@nevadaappeal. com or 881-1215.