Jolly Ranchers 

Come to where the chuck wagon is -- the fifth annual California Cowboy Gathering.

We live in the West. These days, that means crowded freeways and valleys full of housing developments in the rapidly growing East Bay, but Mollie Palmer remembers when the wide open spaces contained cattle, horses, and real working cowboys. "Most of the ranches are gone," says Palmer from her Dublin cattle ranch, where she continues in the fifth generation of the family business. "They've become an oddity. Families staying in ranching have moved further out. We wanted to educate people, in a family-oriented way, about ranching, to continue the traditions. So we've gotten rolled into having this event." The event is the California Cowboy Gathering, a combination rodeo and theme park with a Bay Area artistic touch. It takes place Friday through Sunday at the Rowell Ranch Rodeo Park near Dublin.

Even jaded, festival-happy urbanites will be amazed at the Cowboy Gathering's lineup of folksy things to see and do. There's a Chuck Wagon Camp where you can learn to make authentic cowboy grub, a dinner and old-time Cowboy Dance with a Western swing band, lessons in blacksmithing and Dutch-oven cooking, a Cowboy School for kids, and an auction of Western-themed fine art and gear. Friday evening (8 p.m., $20) at the Bunkhouse Stage, Tom Russell, Andrew Hardin, Linda Hussa, and Paul Zarzyski sing and tell stories ("If they're unused to cowboy poetry, people are pleasantly surprised," says Palmer). And naturally, there are traditional rodeo events such as open branding, figure-eight roping, and colt-starting, performed by "ranch teams" of four to six people -- including women. Unlike regular rodeos, which are scored only on time, declares Palmer, judges at the Cowboy Gathering award points for teamwork, horsemanship, and stockmanship. Contestants and judges come from Idaho and New Mexico as well as California.

Who shows up at a Cowboy Gathering? "City people," replies Palmer with a laugh. "We also get a lot of visitors from Europe, places like Italy and Denmark. Ranch culture is very popular in Switzerland." Yer darn tootin'. General admission tickets are $10 at Rowell Ranch Rodeo Park on Dublin Canyon Road just west of Dublin. Children under twelve enter free. For more info: 866-269-2699.

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