He’s the only stagecoach driver/park ranger in the National Park Service
Stagecoach driver Burrel “Buckshot” Rambo Maier tells his cargo, a family of three, that it’s his first day on the job and he’s “a little nervous” as a pair of trotting horses pulling the coach embark upon the bumpiest stretch of their journey. The wagon jostles and dust flies, but the horses’ steady gait and the driver’s grizzled beard make the newbie act hard to believe. The family giggles and Maier slips a sly smile.
Maier has been driving stagecoaches in Yosemite for more than 40 years, work he started at age 16. He’s the only stagecoach driver/park ranger in the National Park Service, a title he’s very proud of.
The red-and-yellow stagecoach, “his office,” is the crown jewel of the Pioneer Yosemite History Center. The cluster of cabins is reached by a covered bridge along the south fork of the Merced River in Wawona, a relatively quiet corner of the park away from the bustle of Yosemite Valley. Maier uses the stagecoach as a fast and fun way to share history that he intimately understands.
“Burrel truly is one of Yosemite’s legendary employees. … His love of Yosemite is contagious,” says supervisory park ranger Dean Shenk, who has worked with Maier since the 1970s.
One of Maier’s young passengers, 10-year-old Alex Varner of Arizona, is so impressed that he says he’d save his money for two years to buy a stagecoach of his own if it cost what it did in the late 1800s – about $350.
“I could ride around on that before I’m 16,” Alex says enthusiastically, “and then you don’t have to buy a $5,000 car. … You can just work a lot of chores, get your wagon, and ride away and have fun!”
During Maier’s stagecoach season, spring through fall, he lives in a bunkhouse by the river in Wawona that was once inhabited by a mountain lion. In winter, he settles into a cabin on a ranch in Exeter in the central San Joaquin Valley, where he looks after the four horses that pull Yosemite’s stage.
He’s befriended pioneers like the late Wawona Washburn Hartwig, whose father owned the historic Wawona Hotel (now called the Big Trees Lodge), and he used to drive a stagecoach that belonged to Galen Clark, the iconic explorer and guardian of Yosemite’s Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias.
Maier says the most rewarding part of his job is “keeping it going.” The 61-year-old is now the park’s lone steward of a mode of transportation that was instrumental in the protection of Yosemite and eventual creation of the National Park Service. Among the millions who have ventured into Wawona – once the park’s busiest stagecoach stop – was President Theodore Roosevelt during his famous 1903 trip that included camping beneath giant sequoias with conservationist John Muir.
Maier reminds visitors of what a trip to Yosemite once required: 36 hours of travel by train and stagecoach from San Francisco to Wawona, then eight hours by stage from Wawona to Yosemite Valley with four stops along the way to change horses. “That’s 16 head (horses) to go 27 miles one way.”
By contrast, a drive from Wawona to Yosemite Valley today takes less than an hour. Alex marvels at the difference and how the invention of the stagecoach led to the automobile.
Maier also passes on his knowledge to schoolchildren through a Park Service Environmental Living Program. He believes that “history is really important because you are carrying on the tradition of life.
Wild West roots
A ride with Maier is educational, but above all, entertaining. In character as Buckshot the stagecoach driver, he sometimes tells people that he’s searching for a wife. “You got to have all your teeth, be able to cook and sew, I make $40 a month, and I take a bath once a week whether I need it or not.”
He follows a strict routine in caring for the horses and cleaning the barn and corral, and he dons a trademark red shirt, suspenders, wide-brimmed cowboy hat, and scarf tied around his neck – always silk. (Cowboys wear silk and farmers wear cotton, he explains, matter-of-factly.)
“It’s really a trip with a character out of the Old West,” says friend David Manchester, “molded by people in his childhood who were in the Old West.”
Some of it’s an act, but overall, “on the job and off the job, it’s pretty much the same guy,” says another friend, C.M. Wilhoit.
“He’s always animated,” says friend Kansas Carradine, “but it’s authentic, it’s not fake. He really cares deeply about the American West and history and preserving our heritage.”
This concern, and his flair for performance, was instilled by his father, Tommy Maier, a Hollywood stunt rider and rodeo cowboy with a trick riding and roping show, the Riata Ranch Cowboy Girls, which toured internationally.
As a boy, Burrel Maier performed in a Wild West show at his father’s Riata Ranch horseback riding camp, which operated out of Exeter and Bass Lake, just south of Yosemite. Maier’s nickname of Buckshot was reinforced during the skits, when he was occasionally accidentally shot with a spray of low-intensity pellets while pretending to be a gold-seeking prospector.
His stagecoach training can be traced back to childhood, when he got around by driving a small cart pulled by a donkey. Polio made walking a challenge, but leg braces and surgeries couldn’t keep him from enjoying a fantastical childhood. Exotic animals used in Hollywood movies were often left at the Riata Ranch by a family friend, including a young lion that lazed about the property. Burrel once raced on the back of a baby elephant against his older brother, Clay, perched on an ostrich.
Clay says his brother inherited their father’s creativity and drive to make people happy. “Burrel makes sure when they get on the stagecoach, they get their dollar’s worth.”
Maier became Yosemite’s stagecoach driver in the early 1970s, replacing Clay, who he had started working with at age 14. Clay was the first to hold the post at the pioneer history center, driving the stagecoach for a few years before going on to travel as a rodeo cowboy and trainer with a horse show that toured internationally.
“Now I want my job back,” Clay says with a laugh.
Maier has no plans of obliging that request. Stagecoach driving is hard work, but Maier has never seen it as a job. It’s a passion, one he hopes to still be enjoying in old age. He loves everything about being in Wawona, even cleaning up “road apples” – his horses’ manure.
“I’ve dedicated my life to this and it’s paid off wonderfully,” he says. “I’m still happy.”
A new stagecoach and horses purchased by the Yosemite Conservancy a couple years ago, along with a corral reconstruction underway, are helping keep the dream alive.
“It’s like a violin,” he says of the stagecoach and horses. “You tune the violin to make it sound good, and right now I’m tuned up pretty good.”
Maier’s passion was on display for millions to see during the 2016 New Year’s Day Rose Parade, where he drove the stagecoach in a procession celebrating the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.
His long list of extraordinary experiences includes running a traveling donkey basketball program, where children played basketball while riding donkeys; staging a pretend bank robbery as a fundraiser for a local charity; and riding a horse in an Indiana Jones-inspired performance during a 49ers football game halftime show at Candlestick Park. But of all the colorful things he’s done, there’s nothing he loves more than being Yosemite’s stagecoach driver.
Carradine says Maier embodies “the American values that I think we could use a little more of today: Honesty, hard work, integrity, taking care of nature and real friendship, camaraderie.”
Sitting happily in the corral after another day driving the stagecoach, Maier says definitively, “It just don’t get no better than this.”
How to ride the stagecoach
Stagecoach driver/park ranger Burrel “Buckshot” Rambo Maier offers 12 to 15-minute stagecoach rides from 2 to 4 p.m. on Wednesdays, and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Thursday through Sunday in Yosemite’s Wawona. Tickets are $5 for adults and $4 for children and can be purchased at the large barn near the end of the parking lot within the Pioneer Yosemite History Center in Wawona. Stagecoach rides are available until Columbus Day in mid-October.