Mission Valley family deeply rooted in Old Chisholm Trail Ride history (w/ video)
What's left on the trail
• 3:30 p.m. Wednesday
15-mile trek to Reynolds Transportation in China Grove
• 3 p.m. Thursday
14-mile trek to Splashtown in San Antonio
WESTHOFF - The deep growl of an oil tanker rumbles down U.S. Highway 87, its high-pitched, high-speed whistle fading over a hill outside Westhoff.
The countryside falls silent once again; and slowly cascading over the opposite side of the hill is the distant sound of country music and the thick clip-clop of horses - many horses.
Wyatt Rowlands blends into the group, holding tight to the reins of Gus, as he, his family and about 200 others prepare to settle for camp on night one of the Old Chisholm Trail Drivers' yearly trek to the San Antonio Livestock Show and Rodeo.
The Old Chisholm Trail Drivers trail ride is one Wyatt, 10, is familiar with, but this year is different. Wyatt is the trail ride's mascot.
The coveted title is one that already runs in the family, said his stepmother, Sarah Rowlands, who also was once a mascot.
But the experience the Rowlands have on the trail ride is about more than a title - it's truly a family affair.
"The trail ride brings together three things," Rowlands said. "It's family, friends and the love for our western heritage."
A family that rides together, stays together
Wyatt sips a Coke and adjusts his red and blue plaid shirt on the last of the trail ride's breaks.
"Wyatt, let's go," his father, Daniel Rowlands, says as he tries to make sure his family is set for the last leg of the ride.
"Wyatt," he says, again. "Come on, let's go."
Already, a light dust is lifting as riders begin filing onto the shoulder of U.S. 87.
Wyatt jumps onto Gus - an old, faithful horse, as his family calls him - and immediately starts making his way toward the middle of the trail ride.
Holding the mascot title means Wyatt gets to lead the trail ride when it enters cities.
The feeling is exhilarating, he said.
The Old Chisholm Trail Drivers trail ride started just more than half a century ago and makes its way west to the San Antonio Livestock Show. That's what Wyatt is most looking forward to.
"I'm excited to ride into the grand entry," he said.
Sarah Rowlands was 5 when she became mascot, but she's been involved in trail riding since she was 6 months old.
She started off on the Six Flags Trail Riders group from Victoria, which no longer exists, said Sarah Rowlands' mother, Donna Odem.
Rowlands was packed into a tarp-covered wagon that first time in 1985, and it was a cold winter.
Rowlands' mother said she cherishes seeing her daughter passing down that experience to her children, Wyatt, Madilyn, Karoline and Colt, 10 months.
"It's pretty special," Odem said as she took a break from the first day of the trail ride Saturday. "We all just come together, and it's a family event."
Rowlands said the experience of taking care of horses is a lifetime lesson in responsibility.
As the sun begins sinking into the western horizon, the Rowlands and the countless others make their way onto a field to make camp.
Dad has already fired up the grill, and the aroma of the spicy marinade wafts around the family's camper.
Wyatt, Karoline and Madilyn slide off their horses and begin the process of unsaddling and tending to them.
"The kids know the horses have had a long day. They've worked for you, so now it's time for you to give back to them," Sarah Rowlands said.
Wyatt said each horse takes a lot to maintain.
"We feed them; we put the blankets on them if it's cold," he said.
And even though they are not doing the walking, the experience can be exhausting. Saturday's leg of the ride was about 21 miles, while the other days average 15 to 17 miles per day.
"Your legs start hurting, but there's nothing you can do," he said. "It's a lot of fun being with my family though."
At the end of Day One, there wasn't a thing to worry about as Wyatt, his sisters and older friends whom the family doesn't see often ran around the field.
"They're like our second family," Rowlands said. "It's our annual vacation. Even with all the hard work, it's something we look forward to every single year."
And while this is the only life the Rowlands know, come Friday, the reality of what it takes to be Old Chisholm Trail mascot will really hit Wyatt when he enters San Antonio and a parade of onlookers cheer him on.
"I get the first look out of everyone," he said, cracking a smile.
"You sure do," his mom said.