Cattlemen’s Days: Let’s Rodeo

bullrider 0719
I didn’t borrow this photo; I took it, and of all my rodeo photos, this one’s my favorite.

I have this friend named Mark. Well, I have several friends named Mark, but this particular Mark is frequently responsible for changes in my direction, often after he volunteers me for things.

He was responsible for my short-term adjunct teaching career, and also my stint as “faculty advisor” for the then-college’s rodeo club. And he put me on the Cattlemen’s Days committee.

Shortly after I met him, doing a newspaper feature on him as a sled-dog musher, he married a horsewoman and moved to Doyleville, a sprawling metropolis of maybe 50 people spread over miles and miles. I don’t know if it’s still there, but the historic schoolhouse was really all anyone could point to as a “town center.”

Mark, a poet, is a total Renaissance man, who once told me, when I expressed concern over his daily commute, that it was the same distance to get across Dallas, where he worked as an undertaker, and he would much rather drive along Tomichi Creek than the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.

So Mark, child of the city, embraced his life in the country and learned to ride horses. And when I would go to the Cattlemen’s Days rodeo, I would ride the fence alongside Mark and Kym. Then somehow Kym ended up helping the organizing committee, writing up features on the parade grand marshals (always a doyen(ne) of the ranching community) and in charge of policing the grandstands. Where Kym goes, so goes Mark,  so he ended up on the committee, and where Mark goes, so gets TL volunteered, and there I was, on the committee as well.

It might have been inevitable, even if Mark hadn’t signed me up. I have another friend, Kevin (I don’t know as many Kevins as Marks), and at some point he invited me down to the rodeo grounds to ride his second horse. But Kevin is a team roper —

[I’ve never tried it from a horse, because I can’t ride and chew gum at the same time, but way back in college, in urban Boulder, I joined the rodeo club, where the faculty adviser turned out to be a high-school friend of my mom’s, and learned first that there are specific roping ropes and second how to throw one.]

–and his “new” horse wasn’t cooperating, so he reclaimed the horse I was on, leaving me with nothing to do but stand around. I noticed the ropers were having to wrestle their ropes off the steers’ horns, so I went over to help. This led to me “stripping” steers every Tuesday for the roping club’s jackpots; they even started paying me.

I don’t do this any longer, which saddens me. It was just barely social, with everyone gathered at the opposite end of the arena awaiting their turns, my interactions limited to the headers and occasional heelers who came after their ropes under a glorious setting sky. Sometimes I would gather up all the steers and push them back to the other end of the arena (and my dog of the time, Ashoka, a blue heeler mix, figured out that she could make the cattle move while keeping herself safe if she kept a fence between the steers and her) . . . I called myself a Tuesday cowboy.

So between Mark and Kevin I found myself on the Cattlemen’s committee, where I signed up for sub-committees that never seemed to require my input or action. At the rodeo, though, I was no longer on the fence, but in the arena.

At my most treacherous point Kevin realized no one was assisting the calf ropers (now they call it tie-down roping because it doesn’t sound so much like cowboys are beating up on harmless baby cows), and I got sent on a run to help hold down the calves while ropes were removed. Once I was doing this with a fellow named Brent, who did all the literal heavy lifting (setting the upright calf back on its side), but the roper wasn’t doing his part and we about got clotheslined by his rope.

That’s a job for young men (and women, if they want it), and I wasn’t sad to leave that one behind, although I was inordinately pleased once when Betty Light — one of my all-time favorite people — sitting arena-side in a booth, called me over, clasped my dirty hand and said, “I’m so proud of you!”

Generally I did best working the stripping chute, although at some point I turned that over to a member of Western’s communications department (also roped in by Mark) and went back into the arena, hazing steers toward the chute. I also had the trickier-than-you-might-think job of opening a larger gate for the calves after they had been roped and the steers that had been bull-dogged. That was the tricky part, because the cowboys jump off their thundering horses, leaving a riderless horse running at top speed toward my end of the arena.

I was also part of the “barrel crew,” which meant arriving at the arena two hours before the rodeo to locate the markers for the three barrels and putting lime down. During the rodeo I rode into the arena in the back of a truck, dispensing barrels until I finally hopped out with one, and during the barrel racing I tucked myself into a small gap in the fence, in case “my” barrel was knocked over during a cowgirl’s run.

So while I was enjoying my rodeo participation — you can’t get a closer seat than inside the arena — I was starting to have more and more trouble with rodeo itself. Not really on any sort of PETA level, because in general, rodeo animals are extremely well-cared for (it’s the cowboys who are always banged up), but the trappings surrounding it.

It seems that every announcer and rodeo clown out there can’t get by without falling back on misogyny and homophobia, and uber-patriotism seems on the rise. I am certainly not opposed to patriotism, but it always struck me as odd that in a sport populated by young men of prime service age, and not one of them in the service, we tout the military so highly. And Toby Keith’s “We’ll Put a Boot Up Their Ass” just is not my brand of foreign diplomacy.

But I would likely be out there still, had it not been for classical music.

It used to be that every year the Crested Butte Music Festival offered “Have a Beer With Beethoven,” serving beer and brats before the festival orchestra orchestrated one of Beethoven’s symphonies. I always wanted to go but never did.

A few years ago, though, the ads said this would be the final offering — and it was Beethoven’s Seventh. [Here is the rule: odd-numbered Beethoven symphonies; even-numbered Star Trek movies.] But it was on the same night as the rodeo.

So I asked Kevin (by now Mark had begged off his duties to help run a writers’ conference at Western) if he could get along without me for a night, and he said he could. But getting along without me really meant replacing me, and when I showed up the following night, ready to work, other people did all my jobs while I stood around.

The next year, as Kevin was rattling off the six people he had lined up to do the work of three, I told him I would be happy to help if he needed it, but I had plenty of things to do at work if he had it covered.

Thus ended my rodeo career, with the crash of symphonic cymbals and a little whiff of nostalgia. I did it and had fun, and don’t really miss it, but sometimes these days Cattlemen’s comes and goes, and I barely know it happened.

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