Thursday, June 11, 2015
Rodeos - A Memory of Montana
I'm looking at nothing but a line of denim clad rear ends.
No, I'm not at some bar in the city, I'm at a rodeo, and I'm five years old. I can't see what's going on ahead with all the people perched upon the rails, the sweated hats, the boots, bodies dense around the arena, no one talking very much, just looking inscrutably ahead at wonders I couldn't see because frankly, I'm too short!
With my Mom and Dad growing up around the Flathead Lake area, vacations and family events, often took place in the state where they grew up. Sure, we had the occasional trek to my Aunt and Uncle's ranch in the foothills of California, but luxurious vacations involving many miles and lots of dollars were not in our budget.
I remember just bits and pieces of those trips, traveling to small towns to meet up with friends from their youth. I remember setting off mini firecrackers under Dad's watchful eye in the high desert. I remember racing down the side of a hill in a formation of bikes with a war cry, one hand on the bars, the other pumping the air faster than a pulse, as we conquered yet another bit of land unclaimed by summer. I remember rushing out of the house after dinner into a vacuum of crickets, to see if it was true you could catch a bat with a sock and a small stone. I remember sitting on the back of a horse the size of a Star Wars ATAT. And I remember the rodeo.
But all I could see were the butts.
Fortunately, Dad spotted my predicament and lifted me up on his shoulders so I could see. I leaned forward into the wind to get as close to the action as I could. Finally, I could see over every one's head and the smile couldn't get any bigger. There I was, snow cone dribbled on my shirt, barbecue sauce at the corner of my mouth, grit in my teeth, the smell of blood in my nose and I was on my Dad shoulders seeing an actual cowboy on a wild eyed horse that looked like it wished to render both fence posts and rider into kindling. Yee Haw!
The rodeo has been a part of the American landscape for many generations. It's abhorred and revered, but you have to remember from where it came, a time when we subjugated the land and it's animals, using them as tools of work, courage and faith to settle a land and provide for future generations. The rodeo arose from working practices of cattle herding in many nations, not just the United States, based on the skills required of the cowboys. These skills go back as far as man and horse joined, in the Spanish traditions of the vaquero.
Early rodeo-like affairs of the 1820s and 1830s were informal events in the western United States and northern Mexico, with cowboys and vaqueros testing their work skills against one another. Later in the century, with the expansion of the trains and the introduction of barbed wife (yes that was a typo, that's supposed to be wire!) long cattle drives were fewer and many cowboys took jobs with the Wild West shows such as those organized by Buffalo Bill Cody, which featured riding and shooting and roping skills galore.
As a very small child at my first rodeo in the 60's, what clings to my memory is sight, sound and smell. The clouds moved past so quickly, so fast that a young girl on a fast horse can almost catch up. Barrel racing. Six legs, three barrels, two hearts and one mind. As a youngster I was never much into horses, the plastic horse I was given for Barbi ended up as a pack mule for GI Joe and never returned from the mission. My cousin Liz - who is like a sister to me, had horses and after my first exposure to them, my stance was "I won't ride you - you won't try and step on my toe" and horses and I parted ways.
But as a young adult, I took a different look at the animal and around my home are the many traces of them. I had a girlfriend who lived in the foothills in Nevada. I'd visit during college and after and remember waking up to wild horses in their front drive every morning. There, right outside their kitchen window, no more odd in their apparition there than a Robin or a Sparrow would be, wild horses. They simply shifted in and out of sight, there in the fog of the high desert, moving silently like breath traveling across a mirror, then disappearing before I was awake enough to know if I had truly seen them or not. .
The rodeo that day long ago was one diorama of action after another. After the barrel racing, there was the tie down roping, a blur of motion and hoof, a strong cowboy wrestling with a stark white calf the color of Christmas morning. Even as a child, I was at home there in the dust, the noise, the smells of hay, manure and hard work. I still am. Cows, horses and men, women, all were squinting into the glare of the sun and the wind, their hearts beating with the adrenalin rush of the buzzer, as overhead a raptor rides the updrafts. Coyotes watch from afar, making their living as gypsies that follow those that follow the trail.
As always, there were the rodeo clowns. As a kid I hated clowns, still do. But not these. For they weren't mere clowns, the buffoons of childhood parties and nightmares. These were amusing athletes, distracting the bulls or a bucking horse when a rider was down, exposing themselves to the greatest of dangers while protecting the cowboy, yet entertaining the crowd. As a kid I just thought they were "clowns that were actually cool". As an adult, I look at these bullfighters, for the word clown is not used much, and stand in awe of a skill and level of courage that's under appreciated by those outside those arenas.
Of course there was the rodeo food. There's not too many places on earth where you can experience every kind of critter known to man, barbecued, deep fried, roasted, seared and dusted with chili powder on bun, bread, plate or stick. It's a combination of the best of road trip food, fair food, and farmhouse table cuisine. As a kid it was food euphoria, as an adult biting into a seared sausage on a bun, homemade lemonade in hand, I knew indeed what the seventh deadly sin tastes like. But first I bowed my head as my parents taught, without embarrassment or hesitation, to notify God that I was about to eat and thank Him for the privilege.
The bull riding was a crowd favorite, as we watched a superhero in a hat climb about a heaving, breathing beast in a chute. You never knew what to expect from a bull. They were capable of anything. Of any height or twisting moment, only to be remembered in dazed incomprehension in the aftermath of the taming, eight seconds of heaven that so quickly could turn into hell. The bulls never stood down, never disappointed. They were man's subject, but they were also God's creation, set alive and in motion, capable of all things, for He had created them out of the hot breath of the desert and the wild wind of the Plains.
It wouldn't have been a rodeo without the saddle bronc riding. This is one of the "classics" of the rodeo, and grew naturally out of ranch cowboys breaking wild broncos to use as working cow horses. Like bull riding, it's a short event, to keep intact the spirit and health of the horse, but it's powerful, the cowboy attaining power over an animal that refuses to sacrifice grace. A communion of man and animal under the blessed sky.
I notice the hands, muscles corded, ropes digging into flesh. If you work around horses, you learn about rope. It's heft, it's feel, lying across your hands, burning into it. You learn that rope has it's own life, a feel and responsiveness that connects you to something. A bale of hay, a horse. It's a transference, from the guile of your mind and the laughter of your heart, through a rope, onto a horse's flesh, a subtle wordless tool that communicates your intent just as sure as if you had spoken. I watch another barrel racer, a mane of hair flying, rider and ridden, connected by a tether of purpose, the horse flying with joy, happy to be connected again.
The air is rife with sound, of man, of animals, hands muscles, sweat and breath of both man and beast coming out in puffs of sweet air. Too soon, it was time to leave, sunburned and tired parents ready to take us back home. Home, rooted in dust and leather, denim and rope, a hundred years of memories in those men and women, hoofs and horses, the cowboy's way as steady and strong as history.
There was another thing I took home on that day. A lesson in not giving up. Some of the falls were brutal and had to be exquisitely painful. Some could be fatal. But I never saw anyone get up, throw a temper tantrum and walk out of the arena. They calmed their frustration, looked their adversary clearly in the eye and got back to the actuality of rodeo, not the dream of it.
I'd remember that as I took a deep spill on my bike, coming off yet another hill, and again, years later in life, when hurt and loss tapped me way too early in life, as it is prone to do. And I'd dust myself off with a laugh, the sound tickling my throat and I'd look off into the trees, the light slanting through the them like slats in a fence, knowing others were watching, perched there in the shadows, murmuring voices of encouragement and hope, counting on me to get up off the ground. I'd think of bulls and blood and dust and mud and I knew I needed to laugh, or I'd be crying. And I'd get back on the damn horse, for that is what anyone of them would do.
The cowboy and cowgirl know not of quitting. They know of smooth muscled flanks and leather. Something you could see, touch and conquer. It's a small moment in time, a small space, a traveling island of determination, a symphony of testosterone, adrenalin and nerves. It's courage that cleaves the air like a bucking horse, displacing it and then filling the soul.
Like the patriot, they didn't give up, they didn't apologise for what they believed, what they had done, or what they stood for. They moved past their fear, back into that relationship with the one thing that let them be part of something greater than themselves. Sure, there had to be fear, you could smell the dense coppery taste of it in the air. But it's only momentary.
Like the first American cowboys, they had the supreme confidence in their destiny, even if momentarily airborne. That unruffled belief in their own abilities and their knowledge of those creatures that God gave us dominion over. That unruffled commitment to a way of life that launches them out of the chute, off the back of a horse and out into the wild open blue. It's a place where the American Spirit of the West still lives, flowing on in the veins in the cowboys and cowgirls of today
If I get a chance when I'm out West to go to one again, I will. It's like the tractor shows and steam fests I love, something about such pieces of history that no words can describe, whether you are young or old. The rodeo will always be something something of my history, the landscape of the West that continues on, dependable and wild, like a horse that wanders down from the hills on the morning dew. Movement, motion and courage sounding out as prairie dust flies up with the stomp of a hoof, the sound of a buzzer breaking the lie of inertia.
- L.B. Johnson