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The horseback cattle drive is hard, dirty work, with riders hollering at mooing cows through a thick cloud of dust as they push them from one place to another. But “The Green River Drift” has changed from the way it looked 125 years ago, when these Wyoming ranchers’ families began it. There are no more chuck wagons, or sleeping near the herd under the stars. And the money isn’t what they really do it for anymore. These ranchers continue the tradition to preserve an endangered way of life, and honor the work of their ancestors by keeping America’s longest-running cattle drive going yet another year. Bill Whitaker and 60 MINUTES’ cameras ride along on this one for the next edition of 60 MINUTES, Sunday, Oct. 17 (7:30-8:30 PM, ET/7:00-8:00 PM, PT) on the CBS Television Network.
Albert Sommers is one of 11 ranchers who work together to drive more than 7,000 cattle through the Green River Valley south of Jackson Hole, up to summer grazing grounds in higher elevations. “It takes about 13 days from when we start to when we get up there, where we want to be. We travel up to about 60 to 70 miles,” says Sommers. “My family has been doing this since about 1903.”
While the cattle are grazing in the mountains, the ranchers plant crops of hay on their home ranches that they will need to feed their cows over the long, cold winter. As soon as they feel the first frost of fall, the cattle know it’s time to head or “drift” back toward their ranches in the valley, hence the drive’s name.
Some 20 miles away from Sommers’ spread, Jeannie Lockwood joins the drive from her ranch. “This was my granddad’s ranch. He homesteaded this in 1889,” she tells Whitaker. But today, she and all the other riders sleep in beds during the drive, rather than out on the range. They transport their horses to the cattle herds each morning at dawn for another day’s drive, taking their lunch on tailgates rather than from chuckwagons and returning home each night. “We’ve got it easy,” says Lockwood.
Women like Lockwood are among the most important people on The Drift. This year, most of the “range riders,” who watch over the cows all summer in the mountains, are female. Lockwood tells Whitaker that she believes women make the best range riders, simply because “they’re hard workers.”
The ranchers are lucky if they make $50 per-head profit on their herds. Some have left better-paying jobs to come back to the family ranch, so its decidedly not for the money, but to keep this Old West tradition alive and reap its spiritual rewards.
As Lockwood puts it, “If somebody says, you know, you’re a rich rancher, only rich in the fact that we get to do what we do and we live where we live and we get to see the sun come up over those mountains. That’s the rich part of this job, it’s not the money.”
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