Here’s something that’s no bull: when it comes to interesting jobs, Zebulon native Jake Stepp has corralled the market over the past few years.
He spent a month to start this summer working as a ranch hand in Oklahoma. And from the summer of 2011 through the winter of last year, he found out the hard way bull riding isn’t an easy career path.
Neither experience paid Stepp well, but he says he wouldn’t have missed out on them for the world.
Home, home on the range
The 21-year-old found the recent job on a ranch in Porter, Okla., on Craigslist, simply hoping to get out and try something new in a place foreign to him.
“The land out there, there’s so many more ranches,” Stepp said. “Here, it’s all tobacco. There, it’s all cows.”
The job ended up being more extreme than he had anticipated.
“When I got there, the owner didn’t even shake my hand; he just asked me if I was Jake and then told me what to go do,” Stepp recalled. “He was pretty rough for a while, but after the first week or so he lightened up.”
The workday spanned from 7 a.m. to 2 or 3 the following morning at times.
“There were three of us ranch hands staying with the owner of the ranch,” Stepp said. “We would fall asleep on the couch sitting upright, then wake up at 7 a.m. and start all over again. It’s definitely an adventure.”
He and fellow workers started each day feeding the herd five or more round bales of hay, then rode the fences around the entire 5,000-acre property. It was common to find a handful of loose cows standing along nearby roads.
Stepp says the job also called for branding at least once a week and that at one point it required he milk a cow for five straight hours, since its calf wouldn’t feed.
“It’s a lot of moving cows from one pasture to another,” he said. “It was a long process – that’s where a lot of roping comes in. You’ve got to get them from the main pasture to the roping pen and pair them up with their calves and take them to the next pasture.”
Making a mere $300 per 70-hour week, coupled with having a girlfriend waiting on him back in Zebulon, gave Stepp plenty of incentive to call off his crack at being a cowboy after about a month’s time.
The ranch hand work wasn’t Stepp’s first attempt at being a cowboy.
Stepp’s parents took him to a small rodeo in the Pilot community for his 10th birthday and for years to follow he dreamed of crossing bull riding off his bucket list.
When the time was right, he didn’t hesitate to turn that dream into reality.
“My parents wouldn’t sign the paper to let me ride before I was 18, so the first week I turned 18 I rode,” Stepp said.
He hasn’t forgotten the gut check he felt before his first time astride a bull. “I’ve never had my chest pound like that before,” he said. “But the first time I rode, I just got up there.”
It quickly became an addiction. For Stepp, the feeling of doing good but knowing he could do better kept him coming back for more.
He rode in events in Benson, Fayetteville, New Bern, Raleigh, Statesville, Topsail and Greenville, S.C. And he rode as many times as six times in one night and in as many as five events in a single week.
“Anybody can tell you I took it seriously like it was a job,” Stepp said. “I would go at it for four days in a row, going to every rodeo I could find.”
Stepp said the upside of the rodeo trade was the sense of accomplishment that came with a good ride, “or when you get stomped on and still get up and everyone starts cheering – that’s the best feeling right there.”
The cons: “I’m still paying medical bills,” he confessed. He dislocated his shoulder three times, the third injury requiring surgery. And the most he made in a single night was $150. Eventually, he decided it was time to pull the plug.
“There’s a lot of cuts that went un-stitched that should’ve been stitched,” Stepp said. “It was just time to get another job. I wasn’t getting any younger.”
With college classes on the agenda for this coming fall, Stepp’s days of wild work have likely come to an end. But good luck getting him to admit it.