Jim German has wanted to be a cowboy since he was a little boy. And for six days this month he became one.
And for six days this month he became one.
For his vacation, the 59-year-old San Francisco man enrolled himself in the Arizona Cowboy College — a small ranch at the edge of Scottsdale that gives ordinary people the chance to experience the true cowboy lifestyle.
“I’ve dreamed about this all the time, but I never had the opportunity,” says German, covered in a thin layer of dust from a 20-mile horse ride. “Here, for one week, I get to live out my dreams.”
German is one of 2,000 students who have attended the college since it opened in 1989.
Unlike a typical dude ranch, the one-of-a-kind college markets itself as the true cowboy experience — students sleep under the stars and learn horsemanship skills including riding, roping and shoeing.
“We don’t play cowboy here,” says Rocco Wachman, senior instructor at the school. “We do an old-fashioned day’s job. I really show them how life was like 100 years ago.”
And amid the changing landscape of the Sonoran Desert, the college is helping keep a small part of the cowboy lifestyle alive.
The concept of the college took a while to catch on when it was first created by Lloyd Bridwell, an Arizona rancher. (After his death in 2000, his wife, Lori Bridwell, and Wachman kept the ranch running.)
It has evolved into a popular vacation destination for outdoors enthusiasts across the country, and has been developed into a reality television show called “Cowboy U” that is taped at the ranch and airs on Country Music Television.
But it takes a different type of person to want to pay to spend their vacation doing demanding physical labor, Wachman says.
Students spend the first two days of the program living in bunkhouses, learning to ride, rope, shoe and care for horses. During that time they rise at the crack of dawn and take 20-mile horse rides through the desert looking for stray cattle. The last four days they ride out to a remote campsite and spend their time working on a real Arizona cattle ranch.
“Not everyone is cut out for this experience,” says Wachman, wearing a plaid shirt, Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots and spurs. “I think it comes down to the pioneer spirit.”
Taking a step away from the daily stresses of his everyday life is what lured New York resident Charles Audette, 32, to travel to Arizona and spend his vacation at the cowboy college.
At home he’s a supervisor for an electric transmission and distribution company. At the cowboy college, he gets to discover his inner cowboy.
“I’ve always wanted to do something like this,” Audette says. “The best part’s been not hearing my cell phone ring from work.”
HOW THE WEST WAS LOST
But just like the cowboy profession, the rural landscape that houses the ranch is disappearing.
The college has relocated three times due to Scottsdale’s growth. The first location was at Shea Boulevard and 110th Street, until urbanization forced it north. Since 1999, the college has been at its current location, near Dynamite Boulevard and 152nd Street. But construction continues to creep up their way.
“When we first came out here there was only six or seven houses,” says Wachman as he looks toward the frame of a house being built directly behind him. “We watched (the city) grow up around us.”
What’s left of the untouched desert piece from the edge of Scottsdale to the Verde River is threatened, he says. Whether that desert will be there in 10 or 20 years weighs heavily on him.
“It’s how the West was lost,” he says. “I cry about it every day. This is such a unique type of desert, and to concrete this is a crime.”
Still Wachman takes pride in being able share the cowboy way of life with people who really value it.
“We put them through an experience that is real and it pushes them to do things they never thought they could do,” he says. “And after they leave they talk about how this experience has changed them forever.”