True Confessions of a Dude Wrangler.
Photos and Story by Gary"Arizona" Johnson
Cowboy Guest Wranglers and Outfitters have to be tough, skilled, diplomatically adept rugged individuals and Don Donnelly was no exception; He was a John Wayne facsimile kind of cowboy, sporting a take-charge attitude and a Silver-belly Stetson. At 6 foot 4 inches tall, he was an imposing figure with a big smile and a good story for everyone he met and those friendly attributes made him the best Guest Wrangler I ever met.
A former champion Saddle Bronc Rider, and Rodeo Performer, Don spent many years traveling the country with a Wild West show. After several injuries he decided to find a more profitable way to make a living in the saddle. He figured that becoming a first class outfitter couldn’t be any more difficult than riding wild horses. So Don and his wife Shelly put together the outfit which eventually would include a hundred good horses in a world class Dude String.
Don started every ride by introducing Himself at breakfast he would pour coffee and explain the day’s happenings to the guests, and then after chuck introduce the guests, to their horses. “I know some of you have never been horseback riding and some of you have ridden a mite, but only at a stable. I can see a little trepidation in some of your faces. “Trust me.” He would say. “You have nothing to worry about.” I know many of you don’t have lots of experience riding, so we have taken the time to match your horse with your abilities. Those of you who have never ridden before… have been assigned horses that have never been ridden before.”
In Monument Valley at Thunderbird Mesa there’s a natural wind carved red sandstone canyon at least three hundred yards wide and surrounded by cliffs four hundred feet high. This beautiful place was our base camp in Monument Valley.
After their arrival from a full day of riding, the guests would get comfortable and ready for dinner at the chuck wagon. After a dinner of beer batter biscuits and steak, potato fries and baked beans with Dutch oven apple cobbler, we would gather around the fire, entertaining the guests with tall tales and singing cowboy songs.
After dark, the stars of the Milky Way are like a cloud of sparklets strewn across the deep blue, velvet sky. Our voices softly echoed off the steep walls of the canyons. The night air was cool and dry and soft as buckskin. The cracking campfire with its warm smell of cedar wood was the center of social activities on the trail.
As Ramrod, Don was the campfire leader and I was the singer and story teller. Don did the introductions with a wild flair. “Now… our entertainer has been with our outfit a lot of years and as you notice he is playing a guitar tonight instead of the piano.”
“Because of a tragic accident this year, he had to give up tickling the ivories and was forced to learn the Guitar. On a tragic evening not long ago, he was playing at the campfire and the neck strap broke on his piano… and it nearly crippled him for life! On his Doctor’s advice he changed to the Guitar. It’s easier on his feet and those nasty headaches and backaches he used to get have practically disappeared!”
Many guests would use the nightly gathering to confidentially confess their various aches or pains and discomforts to the wranglers in hope that we would have some magic, secret, soothing balm for their relief.
What they didn’t know (nor would they believe) the pain from riding goes away after the second or third day. The wranglers could just listen and offer a cup of coffee and sympathy for their physical complaints.
It was the end of June and the Sun beat down on a group of guests from the east like the drummer at an all night round dance. When you hail from cooler climes such as Vermont or Rhode Island, dehydration is a very common affliction in the Southwest and a good wrangler is always looking for signs of dehydration on the faces of their guests.
After a full day of dusty riding in the bright Arizona sun, we headed back to camp in the late afternoon. One of the guests, a man from New Hampshire was bobbing and weaving in the saddle as he rode along in the warm air. He was wearing an all black outfit, black hat, black jeans, black western, shirt, black boots, and a red scarf
It was a104 degrees in early June. His face was as bright red as his scarf. One of the wranglers rode along side him and asked if he was feeling all right. He said he wasn’t.
Shelly Donnelly asked “How much water do you have in your canteen?” He replied proudly. “My canteen is completely full!” She asked if he’d consumed any water today.
He looked at her like she was crazy and explained, he was saving his water in case we got lost or stranded. “I haven’t touched a drop!” He said. Then stopping abruptly, he solemnly announced he could go no further and he started to dismount.
She practically begged him not too get off his mount because he was only four miles from camp. She knew if he got off his horse, she wouldn’t be able to get him back in the saddle again. Shelly, always the plucky Wrangler suggested he drink all the water he could and she’d lead him back to camp. He protested vigorously and then proclaimed. “No. I’m staying here!”
She asked him if he would like a nice cold beer. His eyes lit up like two headlights on a stormy night and he said. Sure! Shelly said. “I’d love a nice, cold, icy, brew wouldn’t you?” Then she suggested. “If you stay in the saddle ‘til we get back to camp, I’ll see if we can find us some nice cold beer.” He agreed.
Off they rode back to camp. Arriving about thirty minutes later, the dizzy dehydrated guest immediately slid off his horse. Down he went right to the ground where he disappeared into a cloud of dust. As his hindquarters hit the dirt he shouted. “Where’s my beer!”
“There is no beer allowed on the reservation.” Shelly said calmly.
“You lied to me!” He exclaimed as he sat there in the dirt.
“No I didn’t.” Shelly explained, as she tried to get him to his feet.
“I just asked you if you wanted one, I didn’t say I could actually get you one!”
He was a little disappointed and down right annoyed until the next morning when he admitted that the only thing that kept him going was the hope she instilled in him. Shelly Donnelly’s practical ability to make the best of a bad situation, and his quest for cold beer, were the elements of his rescue.
One of the hall marks of a great Guest Wrangler is the command of interpersonal communications; this skill must be demonstrated by the wranglers at all times. The ability to listen to the guests complaints about muscle soreness and sunburn and be sympathetic to their aches and pains without really being able to do much about it is a common situation which must be dealt with tactfully and without seeming disrespectful to the guests situation. If a wrangler can do this consistently they can be a real asset to the outfit.
On a beautiful moonlit night in October, I remember vividly a small group of intrepid adventurers sat quietly around the fire soaking in the atmosphere and drinking their coffee in the quiet of the desert. I was softly playing the guitar, singing and spinning yarns, when one of our guests, a dusty, kind, woman from Philadelphia was sitting on the ground next to the fire circle. She pulled her hat back, revealing her sunburned face, now illuminated by the soft flicker of the flames, it shone bright pink from three days in the sun and she had a rather pained look on her face.
I asked her how she’s doing. After a long pause she said. “Well I’m not sure really, I’m sun burned, my lips are chapped, my hands are chapped, my legs are chaffed, and I have sand in places that I couldn’t imagine sand could get into. If I had known this ride was going to be this tough I might not have come!
A lanky guest from England spoke up, saying dryly. “Darling… It’s called the Wild West. Not thee… slightly inconvenient west! What did you think…that it was going to be like a walk in Central park?
Our Navajo Guide, Lonnie Yazzy recounted an incident one night around the fire concerned a Motion Picture Production Company that hired Him and another fifty Navajo men dressed in costume as Lakota Sioux warriors for a horse mounted chase scene in the motion picture “Back to the Future III”.
While they were taking a break between scenes, a busload of German tourists happened into the area. The Hollywood warriors, in their war paint and costumes, couldn’t resist the temptation and charged the bus on horseback, at a full lope with blood curdling war whoops and rifles a blazing.
The Germans were near panic stricken when the war party surrounded their bus. After the bus driver calmed everyone down… the war party posed for pictures.
One of the disadvantages of outdoor adventuring is that you are at the mercy of the weather. On a journey in early May a terrible storm blew into the Valley, it was all we could do to keep the tents up in the sixty mile per hour wind, fighting the blasting sand the lightening and driving rain proved to be too much, so we all crawled under what was left of all of our tents and hunkered down for the night..
The next morning the sun rose and all was quiet, we awoke to find the tents completely and utterly flattened and knocked down. We soon discovered most of the pots; pans and equipment had blown out of the chuck wagon when it flipped over in the night, our supplies were strewn across half a mile of sand dunes and rocks.
One of our guests noticed a lone dome tent that was last seen pitched by the chuck wagon the night before, had flown away in the harsh winds and landed 300 feet up on top of the edge of Thunderbird Mesa, intact!
It was an amazing sight! Don and Shelly Donnelly awakened by the noise of the guests, looking rather disheveled, as they crawled out from under what was left of their tent which collapsed in the wind at midnight, stood up and said. “What’s all the fuss about?
The precarious position of the tent was pointed out... Always the making the best of the situation Don said. “Boy are those folks gonna to be surprised when they get up for breakfast!”
Don left us at Christmas time several years ago, for his last ride to that big, guest ranch in the sky. For those of us who knew him the west will never be the same without him.
The outfit is gone now and all the wranglers and horses are scattered to the four winds. There is a small town where the D Spur Outfitters used to be. Don Donnelly’s name is now emblazoned on a street sign overlooking a golf resort near the Superstition Mountains in Gold Canyon Arizona.
With his passing he left us a great gift. That gift is…our memories, our reflections of the fun, the hard work and the adventures we had wrangling dudes in those wonderful times.
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