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Monday, 22 August 2011

I enjoyed the rodeo, as much for what took place in front of me as for the memories it brought back. In 2006 I spent several weeks following the senior pro circuit in Utah and Nevada. I met some great characters down there, ranging from millionaire ranchers to Hollywood stuntmen to a bunch of highway workers on a two-week vacation from Wyoming. There were guys, and women, aged fifty, sixty, seventy and beyond, people who loved rodeo-ing so much they weren’t about to give it up just because of what it said on their odometers. ‘No rocking-chairs’ is their motto. Mostly they were lithe and fit, but what was apparent was that they generally looked more elegant on their horses than afoot, and I got used to shaking hands with guys and finding they had a finger or two missing, due to some  roping accident. Some of those people, the ones who could afford to, were on the road almost continuously from April to October, racking up points towards a coveted world championship. Others dropped in and out as they were able. Some were retired, some were young enough to have pre-school children with them. Walking down to the fairgrounds in Wells or Wendover, or Panguitch, Utah, strolling amongst the horse-boxes and trailers, pausing to sit on a hay-bale and chew the fat over a can of beer, was like being in a small town on the edge of town. They were very much a community, and within it they were safe. They embraced many different types of people. There were the churchy ones who invited me to Sunday worship on the bleachers, there were the committed party animals who stayed up late telling stories – and lies - and there were plenty who belonged in both camps. But they all lived by their version of the cowboy code, and on Saturday night in Wells, Nevada, when the rodeo sponsor threw a party and barbecue for them all, well, of course everybody showed up, wives, visiting writers and all, even though it was at Donna’s Place, a licensed brothel across the railroad tracks.

I learned a lot about the rodeo that trip: the terminology, the culture, some of the skills and dangers involved. I learned about the rivalry between headers and heelers, heard the jokes about bull-riders and their supposed dumbness, and saw practical, self-reliant people working as a community, engaged in intense rivalry but always willing to applaud a competitor and help him out if needed.

But I was going to explain about the sheep in yesterday’s picture. And because it amuses me, I’ll show the picture again.

Mutton-busting. I didn’t quite catch the announcer’s words, but it seemed to be for the very young, most likely pre-schoolers. The sheep came barrelling out of the gate with a tiny kid clinging to its back – generally for about three seconds. Kind of bronc riding, but not quite so dangerous.

After the rodeo I linked up with Ken and his wife again. They ushered me into the pick-up and set off to visit friends, farmers growing wheat and corn on the better land south of town. We sat and drank beer and ate chips, and after a couple more beers out came the whiskey. I tried to decline; mixing drinks is fatal for me, but of course they were being hospitable and I didn’t want to appear unappreciative. They were great company, and, very solicitous. You get to expect it out west. ‘Hey, that beer of yours is getting warm, lemme fetch you a cold one.’ So by the time the sun went down and we piled back in the pick-up, I had a serious headache coming on. Not the ideal preparation for an hour of stand-up comedy and a hard-rocking country band. I forget who the singer was, but I remember that he had three names, looked about nineteen, but was blessed with the sort of rich, deep voice which, if you heard it on record, you’d assume belonged to a grizzled fifty-year-old. The girls up front loved him, and he was in his element, signing autographs by the dozen as he sang.

We got back to Ken’s place some time after eleven. A huge red half moon was just breaking the eastern horizon. I thanked him for a great day out, pointed Mercy out onto the highway, headed south and took the dirt road back here. Well, almost here, because I’m still not risking the drive down the series of gullies and wash-outs that used to be the road. As I picked my way carefully down the sandy track, flashlight bobbing, I realised my headache had gone. I fell into bed at a little after midnight and slept like a dead man.

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