I prefer sneakers and sandals to calf-hugging leather boots. Baseball caps to Stetson hats. Horse power under the hood to horses under a hard saddle. Restaurants with waiters to cans of pork and beans over a campfire.
I’ve never fantasized throwing a lasso over a calf’s head and wrestling it to the ground in under four seconds. I’ve no desire to dig spurs into a bull’s hide or get my front teeth knocked out after being bucked off a wild horse. I never wanted to be slammed against an iron gate when a bull decides to buck before the gate is opened. I never thought it glamorous to be attended by a sports orthopedic surgeon for a pulled shoulder, broken kneecap or slipped disc. I don’t think it’s something to brag about or one day tell my grand kids that I survived the 24,000 pounds of angry bull that landed on my sore and prone body after being thrown, as that force equals ten times the weight of the animal at rest. I could do without the concussions often suffered from rodeo events. I never cared about wearing chaps over my jeans or have fringes hang from my suede jacket. I never wanted to brand cattle, chew tobacco, or spend my day on the open range swatting away annoying flies and mosquitoes. I never aspired to live in a motor home and travel from rodeo to rodeo, plunk down a $400 fee, and hope the horse drawn, steer to be roped and tied, bull to ride wasn’t the toughest, meanest or fastest that would keep me from recuperating the entrance fee at the very least.
I don’t like guns.
But then I met a real cowboy named Troy Dorchester at the Calgary Stampede. A chuckwagon driver. That’s four horses pulling a chuckwagon in a race against three other wagons in a modern-day version of the old Roman coliseum chariot races. It’s a Canadian thing. Troy’s father, uncles, and cousins have all done it, and it’s as much in his blood as pretending to be other people is to a Fonda, Sheen or Barrymore. Troy knew about actors and the movies because he’s been a stunt man on the Steven Spielberg mini series Into the West, worked with Jackie Chan on Shanghai Noon, and was waiting for Brad Pitt to arrive so he could take some falls for him in his new western. Dorchester is guy who takes the real fall for the star who gets the glory. But the movies come up a poor second to the rodeos he loves to compete in. Because Troy Dorchester knows the difference between the real and the make-believe. And he prefers to keep it real.
So, with Troy as my guide, I attended the 10-day July party they call the Calgary Stampede, where 1.2 million visitors from all over the world don denim clothing, straw and felt cowboy hats and compete for who can yell “Ya-hoo” the loudest as they watch the rodeo or compete amongst themselves in games of chance along the Stampede fair grounds. Where the lines seem longest are at the lotteries for new cars, new motor homes, and even a new dream house. Ten dollars will buy you one ticket, twenty dollars will buy you 20 tickets, fifty dollars will get you 100 tickets and if your ticket is chosen, you will owe the tax man whatever taxes tie on to your new wheels or home.
Or instead of trying to buck those odds, you can bop a plastic mole, squirt water into a puppet clown’s mouth, toss a ring around a soda bottle and win a stuffed Bart or Homer Simpson doll. You’ve never seen so many variations of games of chance as at this Stampede. You can also visit the Indian Village and watch First Americans compete in their native dances and see how they used to live in tepees—there are a lot of tepees and it’s kind of a trip to walk around and imagine what those days on the prairie must have been like for these people (you can also go to the Glenbow Museum in Calgary and see how tepees were made and how they functioned).
But after strolling Stephen Avenue Walk (8th Ave) downtown, joining in the outdoor square dancing at Rope Square, listening to the free live music, trying on hats (lots and lots of hats that range from $20-$150), checking out the oversize belt buckles on passing cowboys (“Buckle Bunnies” are groupies who flock to the most impressive buckle wearers) and eating some “prairie oysters” (bull testicles—fried or sautéed) at Buzzard’s restaurant (word of caution: my family ate them and didn’t sleep well that night), it’s the rodeo and chuckwagon races where you want to be. Because that, really, is what the Stampede is all about. That and the partying before and after, the drinking, the dancing, the happy camaraderie of strangers meeting in this curious Alberta city.
And this is what Troy Dorchester helped me appreciate. For instance, I always wondered what made a prize horse or bull buck, year after year. One would think once they got used to a cowboy on top of them they’d calm down a bit. Was it the spurs kicked in their sides? Was it a hidden electric prod to their testicles? “It’s the cinch strap,” Troy told me. “It’s made of soft wool that’s tied around the animal’s groin and it irritates the hell out of them. That’s why they buck.” I never knew that. Nor did I know that a lot of the cowboys wear Kevlar protective vests, developed by the military to stop bullets. Because when they get thrown, or when their body comes in the way of a sharp bull’s horn, the vest will keep it from puncturing the skin.
Being a rodeo cowboy is obviously rough work. There isn’t a cowboy out there who hasn’t suffered knee, elbow, neck and head injuries; who hasn’t been laid off for months recuperating from some torn tendon or displaced shoulder. They’re out there hoping to win a few thousand bucks to keep their horses fed and their motor homes in gas, but it’s one hell of a way to make a living. The Stampede though is the premiere event of the year for these cowboys. The money is higher, the exposure is wider, and reputations are made or ruined. For most people, it’s the first and only time they’ll attend a rodeo, and the people of Calgary want to put on a good show. So they go all out. They bring in the best riders, the toughest horses and bulls, the wiliest steers, the best sheep herding dogs, even the youngsters get involved. There are boys and girls under ten who compete in teams of three to hold still a wild pony, while one mounts it, and rides it as it bucks. These tough kids wind up being dragged along the ground while holding onto a rope or getting thrown off their pony, only to get up, wipe the dust off their clothes, and gripe about not hanging on long enough. For me these kids were a highlight, as were the Eukanuba Superdogs, and the cowboy clowns who must get the attention of a pissed-off bull whose horns and hooves are going after the rider who dared attempt to stay on its back for eight long seconds.
These clowns also have microphones attached to their lapels so they can tease the cowboys as they dig their heels into the ground trying to bring down a scared hopped-up steer. “If you slid on your rear end you’d leave a trench you could bathe in,” one says to the delight of the crowd as one cowboy fails to turn his steer onto its side.
But as much fun as these events are, the crowning end to the Stampede are the chuckwagon finals. For nearly two weeks 36 drivers have competed against each other, trying to accumulate one of the four lowest times so they could be in the final race, the one worth $50,000 for the winner. It’s a race that takes all of 16 or 17 seconds, but it’s one hell of a race, where not only the wagons and their quartet of horses compete, but each wagon has a team of four separate cowboys on their horses, and they must also ride just behind the wagons and get in on time. There are penalties for knocking over a barrel on the figure eight turns, penalties for not throwing a barrel and two poles into the wagon at the very beginning, penalties for cutting off or bumping another driver, and penalties for doing things that only the judges can tell. To the novice, it’s hard to figure out why a winning wagon winds up last and the guy who came in third is named the winner. But the thrill of the race is to be enjoyed by all, it’s fast, it’s powerful, and it appears to be fun. For my man Troy however, he didn’t make it into the finals but he wasn’t complaining. His horses weren’t at their best; he’s had better luck in past Stampedes and looks forward to future ones. It’s not all about winning for these guys. It’s about the lifestyle. The freedom. The machismo.