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For the Hardy, Dean Calkins' Wagon Train Is One Way to Relive a Historic Sagebrush Saga

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By horse-drawn wagon, the 60-mile trek from Fallon to Carson City across the Nevada desert takes six days, with few natural watering holes along the way. For many pioneers who made a similar trip more than a century ago, it was a journey of death. Now, those who yen for a taste of the rugged frontier can experience a near duplicate of the perils of the Kit Carson Trail. Happily, everybody survives, thanks to a hard-riding, taciturn wagon master named Dean Calkins.

“I’ve never had an accident,” says Calkins, who has been in the rent-a-wagon-train business for 11 years. For $50 per person a day (less if you bring your own horse) he supplies authentically reproduced covered wagons, complete with wooden wheels for a properly jarring ride. The food, like all trail grub, tends to be more ample than gourmet, but at least there is no fear among his paying guests—30 or so of them each trip—of withering under a midday sun. The wagons are well stocked with cold drinks and beer.

Whatever misgivings his vacationers bring with them are usually dispelled at the start with a huge barbecue at Calkins’ C-Bar-D Ranch in Fallon. From that point on no precise timetable is maintained. Camp on the first night out is where the Carson River has been dammed to create a reservoir, something old-time pioneers never saw. Modern-day dudes sing around the campfires, and a few cowgirls volunteer for such less traditional activities as a wet T-shirt contest.

As wagon master, Calkins, 45, is himself an updated version of the genuine article. Sturdy and weathered, he is given to mumbling terse phrases like, “I don’t live by no books but I get by.” A bumper sticker on his pickup truck proclaims him to be A COWBOY, A LOVER, A WILD BULL RIDER, but Calkins is also a fledgling pilot with his own airplane. Despite considerable reluctance on his part, he has been cajoled into driving wagons in Hollywood films (The Shootist) and has handled bulls for a TV commercial (Merrill Lynch). But as a free spirit who “could never stand to punch a time clock,” he prefers the wide open spaces and his personal privacy.

The son of a teamster, Calkins was born in Cullison, Kans. and grew up in Oregon. “I’ve been around work horses ever since I remember,” he says. Quitting school in the eighth grade, he has been on his own ever since. Well, not entirely alone: Calkins has been married five times. He hasn’t kept a wife yet and says he’s quit trying. “Women want to leave their husbands for me,” he says matter-of-factly. “Guys like me shouldn’t get married.” He admits to being partial to children, however, and dreams of establishing a ranch just for kids—”if I ever get rich.” Even now he donates a part of his profits to benefit crippled children in Sparks, Nev. One of his own three daughters, Gail, 22, minds his 40-acre spread while Dad is on the trail. “She’s more my partner and friend than a daughter,” Calkins says. “She’s the ramrod of this outfit.”

Calkins’ unusual vacation package attracts all kinds of people, many of them repeaters. Among the regulars is Barbara Fasha, a real estate broker from Auburn, Calif., who has made three trips a year since 1970. “I go for the comradeship,” she explains. “I’ve met a lot of neat people.” Indeed, out where the majestic Sierra Nevada look down on the cottonwood, sagebrush and delicate-looking wild flowers, a wilderness democracy prevails. “Even if they arrive putting on airs,” says Calkins of his charges, “after a day or two they find out that everyone’s the same out here.”