By Dan Jewel
December 07, 1998 12:00 PM

During a chilly week in October, Virginia Giritlian found herself in the desert, learning firsthand how to rope and brand cattle at the Arizona Cowboy College. For most city folk that would have been culture shock enough. But when instructor Lloyd Bridwell handed the 47-year-old Beverly Hills film producer a knife during his calf castration demo, she did as she was told. “It was bloodier than I expected, but the calf didn’t flinch,” says Giritlian. “On farms this is done every day.” Still, she notes, the course “is not for the fainthearted.”

Obviously not. Like the cowboy getaway popularized in the 1991 Billy Crystal comedy City Slickers (and unlike cushy dude ranches), at Scottsdale’s Arizona Cowboy College, which Bridwell founded in 1991, students sleep under the stars, wake before sunrise, cook over campfires and live like actual cowboys for a week. But there’s one big difference: “They never sweat in that movie,” says Bridwell, 45. “This is the hardcore, real thing.”

Bridwell, the cowboy who coaxes such unlikely behavior from his pupils, offers his course eight times a year, accepting up to eight students per session (at $750 each). For the first few days he mixes opinionated lectures on the ranching biz (an environmentalist, he maintains, is “the worst enemy to the public land there ever was,” for trying to restrict cattle grazing) with instruction in basic cowboy skills. (Naturally he also sings and plays guitar.) The three students enrolled this October—Giritlian, Raúl Sánchez, a 70-year-old retired truck designer from Pontiac, Mich., and Jimmy Mott, 44, an NBC cameraman from New York’s Long Island—begin by lassoing calf mannequins. Later they help local ranchers round up cattle. “It saves me a lot of time,” says Ed Hanks, a friend of Bridwell’s and owner of the Triangle M ranch near the town of Mayer. “When Lloyd and his greenhorns are here we accomplish in two days what would take me four.”

Despite the exhausting work, the students rarely complain. “Look how fit Lloyd and Ed are. What use would there be for a gym trainer out here?” asks Giritlian, a divorcée who decided to take a year off from filmmaking to “find out who I was outside of my environment.” She took up volunteering at UCLA’s medical center, where she transports patients, and left her Mercedes and makeup behind to explore ranching. “All the expensive cosmetics in the world won’t do what a week of fresh air can,” she notes. “I’m filthy, but my skin’s never felt better.” Bridwell responds with a smile. “You could have this way of life tomorrow,” he says, “but you’re opting for the city.”

Bridwell got roped by the cowboy life early on. His father, Bill, 67, a retired aerospace engineer and small businessman, once competed in rodeos, and his mother, Delora, 68, a real estate agent, still rides daily. In 1969 they and their four children settled in Scottsdale, where Bill opened an auto service station. After high school, Lloyd worked as a ranch hand and cowboy for four years before getting an associate’s degree in business and joining his dad at the service station in 1975. It took another decade for Bridwell to realize he liked his horsepower saddled. In 1986 he opened an equestrian training center with wife Lori, whom he met in 1981 at a Scottsdale rodeo (where she was crowned rodeo queen) and married two years later. The lightbulb went on as Bridwell lay in bed with the flu one day in 1990, watching television. “All these commercials advertising trade schools came on: ‘Learn to drive the big rigs; learn to be a poodle groomer.’ ” Thus the Cowboy College was born. Lori, 40, says the course allows Lloyd to “interact with almost any type of person, from the president of a company to a rancher.” And because his own children—Buc, 23, a firefighter, Christa, 21, a hair stylist, and Alisha, 20, a student at a local community college—have not chosen the cowboy way, it gives Bridwell the chance to pass it on to others.

Judging from graduates’ reactions, the college succeeds. “This has completely changed my life,” says Giritlian. “I realized I can do things I didn’t think I could do.” Just ask that calf.

Dan Jewel

Meg Grant in Mayer