Weird Wagon Questions

Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

It’s springtime, and you know what that means: green grass, bouncy calves and branding on the wagon. Well, this last part is true for the handful of big ranches that still use a wagon to brand calves each spring. And most of these ranches use a pickup, not an actual wagon.

Confused yet? Here are a few of the most common questions concerning the ambiguous “wagon” process, along with their answers. Because just offering the questions wouldn’t help clear up anyone’s confusion.

Q: What is “the wagon”?
A: “Going out with the wagon,” “cooking for the wagon,” “camping on the wagon,” “packing for the wagon.” With the words “the wagon” used in so many different ways, it’s easy to see why it’s confusing. In the old days ranches pulled actual wooden horse-drawn wagons out to the far reaches of their country to brand calves. The modern-day version is a pickup truck and horse trailer, or maybe a revamped Army truck. But, the vehicle is still called “the wagon,” and the entire camping-out-on-the-ranch-and-branding-calves process is also called “the wagon.”

Here’s the Spanish Ranch “wagon.”

Q: How long does the wagon last?
A: This depends entirely on the ranch; some last two weeks (pansies! sissies! lucky bums!), some last two months.

Q: Where do the cowboys sleep?
A: In canvas range tipis, also called “rag houses.”

A cowboy’s home sweet home on the wagon.

Q: Are they waterproof?
A: Usually, unless it rains and the cowboy inhabitant discovers he forgot to bring a can of FlexSeal.

Q: Are they hot?
A: Always. Unless it is cold; then they are cold.

Q: Who cooks for the cowboy crew?
A: The cook. Duh. But seriously, this is actually a good question, because sometimes the cowboys wonder who is going to cook for them when the current cook quits halfway through the wagon. Getting up at 3 a.m., building a wood fire and cooking a full meal in a Dutch oven, then washing and repeating two more times daily before retiring to a tent without a shower isn’t everyone’s cup of black coffee. Wagons have been known to go through multiple cooks per spring works. It’s the kind of situation where if you openly state within that you like to cook, you will instantaneously find yourself wearing an apron and holding a wooden spoon.

Q: I keep hearing the phrase “wagon trash.” What does this mean? Is there a Hefty bag involved, or some type of rangeland recycling program?
A: “Wagon trash” refers to day help cowboys hired on only for the duration of the wagon. On the surface, it seems to be a derogatory term, but it really isn’t. No shame in being wagon trash; it can be a fun adventure and possibly lead to a full-time on the ranch after the wagon is over. Then, last year’s wagon trash can call next year’s day help “wagon trash,” and the circle of a cowboy’s life is complete.

Q: Do the cowboys shower on the wagon?
A: No. They usually go home about every 10 or so days to shower and have a day off, and by the ninth day the stench of menfolk can be smelled over the stench of cow manure and wood smoke across the branding trap. Cowboys’ wives have been known to hold their breath, look away, and dump the entire contents of their husband’s duffel bags into the washing machine when they return home for a day off. She may wash a lighter or a can of Copenhagen, but sacrificing some chew is totally worth it to not actually smell or see what happened to his pair of Levi’s out on the desert.

Q: Do cowboys like the wagon?
A: They like the wagon, but they also like to complain about the wagon. “Oh, man, I have to eat, work, and sleep in the dirt. The cook better be good. I hope it doesn’t rain. I hope it’s not too hot. I hate not showering.” Translation: “I get to be a real cowboy for 2 months each spring. No horse trailers, no house, no TV or cell phone service – just me, my horses, a cowboy crew and a whole lot of cowboy work. Bring it on.”

So. Much. Dirt. And branding calves, roping horses out each day, trotting out on a broncy horse, and basically living the cowboy dream.


Posted in: Featured, Ranch Life

About Jolyn Young

Jolyn Young lives near Montello, NV with her cowboy husband and 3 small kids. For more, visit

View all posts by Jolyn Young