It was a chilly weekend in February and the days of summer were long gone. Even I found myself stuck in a bona fide adventure rut. It felt like I’d bombed down all the ski runs, charged through knee-deep powder on unbelievable snowshoe treks, and maybe even gotten a little too overly ambitious on non-stop indoor, eating-related activities. [If you know Nevada like I do, that Basque food getsya in trouble during the ‘cozy’ months.] Winter had been good to me in Nevada, but now that some of the snowpack had started to fade, it was safe again for me to rip around on the back roads. I craved some tasty, off-grid bliss I had been denied of the past few months.
It wasn’t just the surrounding landscape that had gone into hibernation, so had my nose. I couldn’t smell a damn thing and craved a weekend full of sensory overload of sorts. First thing that comes to mind? RODEO. That sweet, sweet scent of freshly cut hay, overturned soil, leather goods, genuine people, action packed arenas, and maybe even a little bit of Coors Original is what this girl lusted over. That, and some time spent on some dirt roads in solitude? Aces. Winnemucca’s Ranch Hand Rodeo was where I was going to get exactly what I wanted.
So, early on Saturday morning I loaded down the Suby and didn’t bat an eye at the short, two-hour drive to Nevada’s Cowboy Country. First thing in order? Breakfast. At none other than the legendary Griddle. No DOI. The waitress threw out some irresistibly charming, girl-next-door vibes as I basked in biscuit and gravy heaven and fresh-squeezed orange juice delight in my throwback, avocado-hued booth. A rib-sticking breakfast was a good way to start the day in a city I love.
The Winnemucca Events Center and the delightful enterprises inside were practically delivered to us on a silver platter as a sharp-dressed buckaroo held the door open for the parade-esque crowd of people filing in. Instantly, the intoxicating western aroma hit me. Tally number two was officially on the board for weekend relaxation mode. The whole thing had been planned so casually, so I was pumped when serendipity struck and the National Anthem began to play with one foot in the door, practically on cue. I was right on time and didn’t even plan it.
As she belted out the most patriotic “Braaaaaaaavvvveeee” ever crooned, all the flag-adorned horses took off like a shot in the night and ripped around the arena, whipping up a frenzy of excitement. The entire stadium erupted with unwavering enthusiasm…all of it was infectious. It’s true, rodeo is the sport of America and I was head-over-heels for it here, especially in the thick of winter.
So what’s the deal with this particular rodeo… the Ranch Hand Rodeo? Well, about six seconds into the first event and it became real clear. Sure I’d been to about a billion rodeos, where a guy rolls out of his trailer wardrobed with all the bells and whistles…brand new chaps with a matching vest, custom fit cap and never-before worn gleaming belt buckles. Yes, they are certainly qualified and the real deal, but are there for basically one thing: as an entertainer. These guys before me in Winnemucca? They were true working ranch hands, the muscle and brains behind the successful farming affairs in Nevada and surrounding areas. Here, we wouldn’t be seeing any frivolous acts, though they would be just as much of a crowd pleaser. We were just a few seconds into trailer loading and already, this was the savory dose of authenticity and excitement my life had been void of.
Holy guacamole, guys. That’s exactly what it was too, more than 30 teams comprised of the best examples of buckaroos I could think of, running cattle into a trailer while up against the clock. Ranch Hand Rodeo teams had names like the J Diamond, N Quarter Circle had guys with buckaroos called Rolly, Quirt and Davy. In other words: brazenly real…it’s no wonder entire genres of film, literature and art was inspired by the very thing in front of me. They were happiest and who they really are in the saddle, that much was clear.
Next up was steer stopping, which was exactly what it sounded like. My jaw about hit the floor when the only competitors before me were WOMEN. I wouldn’t even begin to know how to rope, train a horse to function at that capacity, have control over it to the nth degree and then the bravery to actually stop a steer. I was completely dumbstruck by the whole thing, utterly impressed to say the very least. These ladies barely showed any emotion [it was all just another day in the life,] and before I could absorb what was going down, we were on to the next: team roping.
Again, this wasn’t much of your typical rodeo event…this was functional performance, if you will. In teams of four, straight-faced cowboys lined up at one end of the arena on horseback, standing off with a herd of calves at the opposite end. Each calf was tagged with a number, and as soon as the rodeo announcer spouted off which one the team was assigned, they went to work, isolating that calf from the herd to rope it. There wasn’t a master plan at the beginning, but slowly, some worked to corral the calf, while the other riders whirled a giant lasso overhead aiming for the head, front or back feet to successfully rope the creature. Watching it start to end was mesmerizing. It was truly poetic, like watching an artist at work…it was though they were rehearsing an instrument to make a melody take shape, or swirling a paintbrush on a canvas to eventually make a portrait come to life. Again—who has two thumbs and was dazzled by the Ranch Hand Rodeo. This girl.
By now, I was starting to catch on to something. As I watched these buckaroos “perform” their everyday tasks in front of a live audience, it didn’t just come down to securing bragging rights that they were the best ranch hands in the West. Don’t get me wrong, that was a nice feather in the buckaroo flat hat, but it became crystal clear that they wanted to make certain that rodeo western heritage continues. That they can pass on the craftsmanship and legitimate artistry behind what many would shrug off as daily duties. It was here that they could not only show their pride for what they do, but they used the Ranch Hand Rodeo as a platform for teaching the importance of the western heritage for generations to come. The revelation was an awakening one, that much I know.
So, right in stride with that profoundly important heritage was one crucial [yet wince-inducing] element of ranch life: doctoring. Let me digress—navigating the program was like trying to solve a flipping Rubik’s cube…truly another language. So when I envisioned ‘Doctoring’ I thought hmmm, what happens? A cute little ranch vet rolls into the area with his black doctor bag to check the vitals of the animals under a timer?? HA! No. Ohhh no, sorely mistaken on that one Martinez. It was similar to the team roping schtik [with four riders and one calf.] In real life, they rope a cow to examine the hoofs, inject antibiotics, and mark the cow so they know they’ve been taken care of. At the Ranch Hand Rodeo, they basically simulate the entire thing…and even had a [fictional] branding competition. If this was a glimpse of what goes down out there nine-to-five, I fall to your feet, cowboys of America. Yow.
There was quite a stir about the next event: THE HORSE SALE. I didn’t get what all the hullabaloo was about until the announcer made it unmistakably obvious. They brought in the big guns for this one, with world champion auctioneer Rick Machado. [fangirl gasp!!] Here, ranches from all over the West would buy and sell horses trained like you wouldn’t believe. And get this: they prove it in front of a live audience to boot. It was like being in the front row of a Barrett-Jackson auction, except with a little more grit and a lot more rowdiness. With names like King Smoking Gun and Cow Boss, the flavor was ripe…I was all over it.
One by one, dozens of registered Quarter Horses and Paints lined up to show what they had in front of a crowd of eager-to-bid ranchers, showing their adequacy in opening gates, athleticism, riding in a variety of landscapes and scenarios and of course, being trustworthy [my favorite, because that’s a quality the ranchers are not afraid to admitting caring about.]
Horses were selling for thousands of dollars here, and thousands of dollars there. I couldn’t decide what was better, and still cant….the horse confirming its clout or the buzz amongst the bidders. I did, however, pay particular attention to one transaction that has continued to stir up all the right emotions to this day. After the bidding closed on one horse, I watched as they brought the winner his contract for a signature. Right after penning his John Hancock, a little boy ran over and gave what I assume to be his dad a great big hug with a toothy, ear-to-ear grin. That man had just bought his son his first horse, and again, the ranching heritage continued on right in front of me.
To cap off one heckuva Saturday, the last event on the docket blindsided me…but in the best conceivable way. Horses that had never been trained one iota, not to mention ever ridden, were about to be wrangled and saddled for our viewing delight. I’m talking straight off the Nevada range, and into the Winnemucca Events Center for Wild Horse Racing. The crowd wasn’t exactly tame to begin with, but I watched as the whole place morphed into nothing shy of a gladiator tournament…onlookers stomping their feet on the stadium benches, hollering, basically anything that could make noise did. Again, teams of four competed, but this time it was simultaneously as four wild broncs were turned loose in the arena. The objective? Two guys had to try to tame it enough for a third guy to throw the saddle on, while the fourth guy jumped on and RODE IT. Yeah, I’m still asking myself WTF. Talk about a caliber of fearlessness and prowess I’ve yet to see matched.
My adrenaline was soaring, so I hit The Martin for a few picons before turning in for the night at one of my most favorite Nevada hotels. If the impeccable vintage vibe won’t hum you to sleep, the buzz of the legendary neon outside will. Scott Shady Court is the bomb and needs to be on every Nevada traveler’s to-do.
The next morning I woke up, with one thing, and one thing only on my mind. I wanted more. The arena stuff undoubtedly had an in-your-face appeal, but the beauty of a place like Nevada is that it doesn’t take too much effort to find the genuine thing…in the wild, so to speak. A real ‘Don’t Fence Me In’ sort of mentality with the type of swag to back it up. A place about an hour north of Winnemucca called Paradise Valley had caught my attention a few times throughout the years, but the place had reignited my interest because I noticed that a few of the teams at the Ranch Hand Rodeo were from there. Story has it that the place is so beautiful that early settlers deemed it such a sincere paradise, that they didn’t need to search any further to satisfy their American Dream. Good enough for them? Good enough for me.
Winnemucca has a pace that I could get used to, but something about being alone with Nevada has an infectious quality that you crave…maybe even depend on. I can’t describe it in its fullest capacity, but if you too have been out there alone, I trust that you get it. The town’s less than 10k population makes it what most would consider to be a small town, but peeling away from it on US 95N felt good. As neighborhoods and gas stations became distant in my rearview mirror, I passed the dunes and dropped into a sea of sagebrush and velvety Nevada mountainscapes. I was free.
Veering right at the fork, taking 290N to Paradise Valley, my quest for authenticity proved to be a choice well made when I was greeted by the welcome wagon…
Welcome to Paradise, indeed. Apparently, the area had around 100 people in its heyday, and throughout the past 150ish years, about that many hardy residents have remained. A living ghost town, as some people call it. Three picturesque churches dotted the main drag, along with some really amazing old ruins that made me feel like I just stepped onto an old west movie set. And of course, it wouldn’t be a small town without a bar, would it?
BUT, this ain’t just any bar, it’s the Paradise Valley Saloon & Bar G. Like many of its neighboring structures, this too had been around for over 100 years, and little slivers of evidence revealed itself here and there confirmed just that. I’m no introvert, but I must admit that it can be a little intimidating barging into such a small community’s main hangout. I had been snapping some amazing photo ops outside, milling it over while assuming locals inside were sizing me up. But, before I could really get into over-analyzing it, a woman came out of the front of the Saloon and said, “Well hey! Aren’t you going to come inside?? Come have a drink!” Never, EVER in my Nevada travels has this happened. I was delighted and ponied right up to the bar next to a crew of all locals.
It was mid-afternoon by that point and was around quittin’ time for the ranchers inside. The woman, Nita, offered me the frosty libation I was after and introduced me to her business partner and husband, Dennis. Over the next few hours, I shot the breeze with Nita, Dennis and a few locals, recounting the stellar time I had at the rodeo the day before. Naturally, they all knew the locals who had participated—talk about an experience really coming full circle! It almost felt like the day before, I had seen Nevada celebrities of sorts up on stage—seemingly untouchable. Now, they were not only right in front of me, I too was immersed in it.
Best yet, Dennis basically gave me his life story, which was impressive beyond belief. A native of Paradise Valley, Dennis grew up as a ranch hand himself, wrangling cattle, riding broncs and even competing. He even learned to tool leather like the legends at Capriola’s, and dabbled in that business for a time. Being from the area, he knew the original bar owner, helped make some much-needed structural improvements and was eventually presented with the opportunity to take over the Paradise Valley Saloon & Bar G. So he did. And the cherry on top? He is 100% Basque. Talk about a true Nevada original.
With that on the brain, it didn’t take longer than two seconds to deep six one of their homemade chorizo sandwiches that had been boldfaced staring me down on the menu. [I would show you a picture of it, but it wasn’t in front of me long enough to snap one.] As I noshed my way through one of the best lunches in rural Nevada, he asked me what I like to do in my spare time. Well, this….is what I wanted to say, but nervously blurted out, “HOT SPRINGING.” He retorted with, “Well surely you’ve been to the one just up the road, right?” I just about choked on the remnants of my chorizo, stunned I hadn’t yet uncovered this steamy oasis.
I was pushing daylight so just as quickly as he gave me directions, I took heed of his suggestion, warmly thanked them, and jumped in the Suby for a sunset dip. HOW COULD THIS DAY GET ANY BETTER?!?!? I had hit a complete Nevada jackpot and none of it was planned…I was stunned. I was there in no time, but met my match with some deeply rutted, extremely muddy roads. Dennis had said the turnoff to the actual spring was a short walk if I got into trouble, but I was officially out of cell range and didn’t even want to risk it. I parked at the turnoff and assessed. This is what I was facing…
No prob. I jumped into my suit and hoofed the rest of the way in, feeling pretty good about my shoe choice for the day. I was thanking my Nevada stars because it was so chilly outside…contrary to other Nevada hot spring sources, I couldn’t see any water, just the steam from afar.
A three-minute walk later, I found myself looking into a mini canyon of hot spring heaven. Unless you had some expert-level Dennis directions, this place was pretty much undetected from the road, on private property. [Word to the wise: use your head if you check this literal slice of paradise out. A much-anticipated soak is easily sullied with garbage and broken glass—treat the place as your own.] I had achieved the off-grid euphoria I craved.
I dropped in the source pipe adjusting the temperature to my liking, popped some beverages and slinked into what I kid you not, is one of the top three springs in the state. I say this with great emphasis because Nevada has the most host springs out of any other state in America and I happily spend most of my spare time to scavenging for them. This one is legit. The perfect capper for quite the unpredictable weekend of Nevada-ing.
Sitting in that cattle trough watching the sun drop behind the spectacular Santa Rosa range made me realize how lucky I am to get to have the freedom of exploring places like this in such a great state. In Nevada, expect the unexpected. Despite the fact that I started as a complete newbie onlooker at a gritty, action packed event, it grabbed a hold of me and made me want to be apart of that lifestyle…even just for a second. And in Nevada, you can see it, and then you can go do it. I realized that the Winnemucca Ranch Hand Rodeo made me want to be awake in my experiences, and because I was so ready to embrace what was coming, it led me to some unbelievably beautiful landscapes, one heckuva meal, dear friends [who I am still proud to say I stay in touch with] and one of the best hot springs in Nevada. That weekend in Winnemucca not only made me feel connected with the land, but it matched me up with some great people and experiences. In the days since I cant help but think, boy, right now, I’d rather be in Winnemucca.
TAKE ME THERE
Winnemucca's Ranch Hand Rodeo
Scott Shady Court
Winnemucca Sand Dunes
Paradise Valley Saloon & Bar G
Paradise Valley Hot Springs