At the rodeo you notice that horses and cowboys are kind of alike. Horses stand around a lot, flicking their tails, breaking wind, doing nothing in particular. Cowboys are like that. They lean on fences, looking at horses. Sometimes they spit, sometimes they don’t. With their hats tipped down over their eyes, it is never easy to tell if they are asleep, like horses, on their feet. The similarity disguises a major difference of temperament. Cowboys are soft-spoken mild-mannered fellows. In the West it’s the horses that are the outlaws.
To the newcomer, cowboys are the surprise of the American West, like finding Romans in pleated togas waiting for the trolley buses on the Via Appia. Towns like Laramie and Cheyenne and Medicine Bow and Kit Carson are full of people who seem to have wandered off the back lot at MGM. They wear boots and ten gallon hats and leather waistcoats. In town they drink in saloons with swing doors and stand around on street corners in a bowlegged fashion. Back at the ranch their nearest neighbours are miles away. The men are lean laconic figures with lopsided grins. The women look like their idea of a good time would be to rope you and ride you round the corral awhile. The women are rather chatty. With cowboys there is a lot of silence to fill.
The West is America’s most vibrant sub culture with its own music, its own fashions, its own political orientation and its own folklore. They care nothing for the suburban world that is the American mainstream. They talk of Washington and back east as if they were part of Red China. It is one of the pleasures of Wyoming to find Americans who are as cantankerous and as sceptical as the regulars of any Yorkshire pub. If the West is the spiritual home of America’s ardent individualism, it is the landscape that is to blame.
Between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains lies a vast swathe of country that early cartographers called the Great American Desert. They were wrong but you can see where they got the idea. The West is a landscape of skies and infinities. In the loneliness of this place, self-reliance becomes a kind of religion. When the first settlers tried to farm this land, it broke their hearts. The West did not take kindly to the idea of fields. It was a vast sea of grass, a landscape for horses.
The rodeos that are held in small towns all over the West are like church fetes with Budweiser tents and bullriders, a chance to meet the neighbours and complain about the government. They are also the moment for the big showdown between the cowboys and the horses.
In Denver I hired a car called a Bronco, and headed north on Interstate 28. The road and the landscape emptied and the sky took over. Here and there wooden houses hove into view afloat on the swells of grass. Antelopes bounded away over the brows of hills. I passed four men in an old Chevy, sprawled in the seats, their cowboy hats bumping the windows. The boot of the car, tied down with baler twine, was bulging with saddles. They were rodeo cowboys heading for Caspar. They looked like clean living guys with big chins, ready to tame the wild equine forces of the West.
Rodeo cowboys have taken over from outlaws and bashful sheriffs as the heroes of the modern West, footloose fellows who struggle to make a living from the competitive world of bronco riding and bull wrestling. Lift a handful of their names from the program notes and they seem to describe a way of life: Lance, Cody, Chance, Skeeter, Shane, Chuck, and Rusty. In their pickup trucks and old cars, the cowboys tour the rodeo circuit from Texas to Montana, from Arizona to South Dakota. They often drive a thousand miles between rodeos, compete in the bronco riding for an afternoon, wave at the cheering crowds, then get back in the truck to drive all night to another rodeo in another town in another state. Their only income is the prize money they win. If they do well, it might cover their expenses. It is the kind of reckless itinerant life I dreamt about when I was fifteen — the American West, the open road, horses and prairie towns miles from nowhere, late-night bars and girls in tight blue jeans.
In Caspar, the banners over Main Street welcomed me to the Central Wyoming Fair and Rodeo. Most of the buildings on Main Street were hardly older than my father. At lunch in a turn of the century hotel I was served by a riverboat gambler with slick hair, a pencil moustache and shiny waistcoat. He looked like he had just stepped off the stage from Carson City. I asked him if he was from Caspar. He said he was just passing through.
In the late afternoon I headed out to the fairgrounds. Pens of horses and steers and a car park of pickup trucks surrounded the open-air grandstand. Just inside the gate I was greeted by one of those tall young men with perfect teeth and day-glow tans who make a living in America on afternoon soap operas. When the romantic leads run out, they turn their hands to running the country.
‘Hi, I’m John Thune, and I’m running for Congress.’ John gave good handshake. He wore cowboys boots and a T-shirt that said ‘Thune!’. ‘I want to get government off the peoples’ backs,’ Thune! said. ‘I sure hope I can count on your vote.’ I thought Thune! might make a start by getting off my back. But he was already on to the next punter. ‘Hi, I’m John Thune!…’
The only people with shinier smiles than Thune! were the rodeo royalty. I was still struggling to gain my seat with a plastic beaker of beery foam and a hot dog the size of Idaho when the Queens arrived.
‘We have five visiting Rodeo Queens here today,’ the announcer boomed over the loudspeakers. ‘And I jes know you’re gonna want to give ‘em a big Caspar welcome.’ The Queens, in spray-on Levis and shiny shirts, galloped in on white horses. They were dazzling figures. There was Miss Country & Western Music, Miss Rodeo Iowa, Miss South-west County Fair and Livestock Show, Miss Rodeo South Dakota. They cantered past in a blur of fixed smiles, big hair and royal waves. The minor royalty tended to outshine the major players. With high-voltage eyes and a hairstyle with fins, Miss Laramie Feed and Hardware Store had more than a little of Princess Michael of Kent about her.
‘Welcome, laygeezeengenelmen, to the Greatest Show on Dirt.’ The announcers, the D.J.’s of the rodeo, had the honeyed tones of the revivalist tent. They made jingoism an art form. The National Anthem was their big moment.
‘We’re here for a good time laygeezeengenelmen. We gonna forget our troubles, let our hair down, go a little wild with the wild west rodeo…[crowd roars]…but first, I’m gonna ask you to pause for a moment. [crowd noise subsides]… I want us to remember just how lucky we are…[crowd is silent] The Good Lord blessed us with this Great Land of Ours, we must never take for granted the Freedoms that We Fought so Hard to Win… I am gonna ask you to stand now, laygeezeengenelmen, for the most beautiful colours on earth, the red white and blue of Old Glory. God Bless America, laygeezeengenelmen, the Greatest Country on Earth.’
I prided myself in being able to get through these introductions without resort to the sick bag.
Behind the chutes the cowboys were warming up. Some were stretching like ballerinas, others were rocking on saddles on the ground, working the resin into the leather. One was performing a practise mime of bull riding, one hand above his head, snapping his back in slow motion. Another was trying to make his peace with God. He stood with his hat tipped down against the top rail of a corral, praying. A massive bull with a cynic’s face and testicles the size of basketballs, eyed him malevolently from the other side of the fence.
I said howdy to Randy, a rancher I knew from the hills back of Kaycee where the Butch Cassidy gang used to hide out after raiding the Union Pacific railroad. Randy was a bony taciturn cowboy with pale eyes and red cheeks. He was so soft-spoken, in that cowboy way, that conversations became a series of furtive whispers. He had been a bronc rider himself until a horse had thrown him over a wall, breaking his back. He missed the rodeo, and he hung around behind the chutes, chatting to the cowboys, like the ghost of rodeos past.
The bucking horses arrived, snorting and pawing the ground like demons as they were herded into the stalls. A row of cowboys climbed up on the buckboards to set and adjust the saddles. One of the horses snorted and reared in the box, and a tall cowboy in a white hat shot backwards like a cartoon character, coming to rest against the front row of the grandstand. The horse had caught him with a powerful left hook and broken his jaw. It was a sobering moment. These horses were dangerous and bad to know, the kind of horses you warn your daughter’s pony about.
When the broncs were saddled and the judges ready, a cowboy lowered himself gingerly onto the first horse. There was a moment of anxiety as he settled himself. Gripping the head rope, the cowboy leaned back, adjusted his hat, stuffed a wad of chewing tobacco in his mouth and nodded to signal he was ready. When the chute gate swung open, all hell broke loose. As the horse charged into the arena, it hardly seemed to touch the ground, and the cowboy, flesh and blood but a moment ago, was whipping back and forth like a rag doll.
The idea is to hang on for just eight seconds, a feat which barely half of the cowboys manage. Hanging on would be enough to occupy most people, but the cowboy must also meet certain criteria to score well, including spurring the bucking horse in the requisite manner, rather like stepping on the accelerator when the car is already out of control. Two of the other rough stock disciplines, bareback bronc riding and bull riding, have the added difficulty of remembering, when you are thrown, to fall off the right side. If you come off the wrong side, opposite to the way your hand grips, your hand is trapped in the rigging with consequences too grim to describe.
For bull riders of course their troubles only just begin when they hit the ground. The bulls make the horses look like teddy bears, and they tend to bear a grudge with people foolish enough to ride on their backs. Part of the job of the rodeo clowns, who entertain the crowd between events, is to distract the bull while the rider makes a hasty escape over the boards. In the world of comedy this is trial by fire; if the bull isn’t taken with the clown’s stand-up routine, he doesn’t just heckle.
I asked Randy why they did it. It is wonderful entertainment but one could understand a young cowboy preferring a quiet career yee-hawing at a herd of docile cows.
‘It’s a western thing,’ Randy whispered. ‘They’ve been around horses all their lives and they like the challenge. They also like the independence, life on the road, nobody telling ‘em what to do. Lot of guys when they stop ridin’ and get some job somewhere, long for the days when they were a poor young cowboy, driving across Wyoming to the next rodeo.’
I was impressed. I had never heard Randy talk so much. He seem kind of tuckered out by his monologue, and retired to the beer tent. When I looked round the steer wrestling had begun. Ostensibly this is a more sedate event for cowboys who might have second thoughts about climbing aboard deranged livestock. They chase runaway steers instead, jumping on their backs when they have reached full speed. Participants liken it to driving along a road at about forty miles an hour and then stepping out the passenger door to embrace a passing tree. The cowboy is meant to throw the steer but the fun lies in the fact that it is often the other way round.
The next morning I hit the road in the Bronco. I drove west to Laramie where the rodeo was in a windswept grandstand with a view of the Medicine Bow Mountains. I went north to Belle Fouche in South Dakota where a bronc rider broke his arm and the post-rodeo street party was washed out by a freak storm out of Nevada. I turned west again into Montana to the night rodeo at Billings where I learnt that the cowboys have their own union, the PRCA, the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. Presumably health care is one of the comrades’ chief priorities.
Montana has dispensed with speed limits, which are nothing but a Washington conspiracy to deprive the American citizen of his inalienable right to see if he can get his pickup airborne. The Bronco snorted and took off across the plains while I clung weakly to the steering wheel. I was in Idaho before I knew what had happened. The next day I was back in Wyoming, barrelling down the Platte River Valley beneath a huge sky decorated with mare’s tail clouds. I was heading for Cheyenne and the ‘Daddy of ‘Em All’, the Cheyenne Frontier Days, the country’s biggest and oldest rodeo.
Cheyenne is the product of the Union Pacific Railroad, the Black Hills Gold Rush of the 1870’s and the cattle wars of the 1880’s. It’s an archetypal cowboy town, with wide streets and plain flat-faced buildings. The pawn shop was full of saddles, and the jukeboxes in the bars were devoted to Garth Brooks and Dolly Parton.
Begun in 1896, Frontier Days takes place over ten days in July and attracts almost 20,000 spectators a day. All the best cowboys come here, and all the best riding stock. The bucking horses are wild creatures from a ranch in the Rattlesnake Hills of Colorado and the bulls, part Brahma, are as big and as ornery as you are ever gonna see.
The climax of each day’s events were the wild horse races. The idea is simple enough. The cowboys compete in teams of three. A herd of wild horses is released into the arena, and each teams runs out to lasso and saddle a one. The cowboy who has drawn the short straw then gets to ride the horse round the track. That’s the theory anyway.
Few of the teams even get so far as saddling the horses. As the mustangs charged into the arena, white-eyed and wet-nuzzled, a blur of dust and horseflesh, the cowgirl behind me become hysterical. She was trying to explain the finer points of the race to a friend. To her it was a simple imbalance in male hormones. ‘It’s testosterone,’ she shrieked. ‘It’s pure testosterone. It’s madness.’
She seemed to be on a first name basis with most of the testosterone-laden competitors. ‘Come on Cody. Come on Tuff. Get him Skeeter, Get him.Wrassle em, Duane,’ she cried.
The cowboys were doing their best but the horses were winning. One took off down the track dragging a hapless cowboy at the end of a rope. It was an impressive burst of speed but sadly he was going the wrong way. The cowboy reappeared, later in the afternoon, limping badly. Another horse head-butted one of the cowboys then swung round and chased the whole team into the grandstands before taking off to terrorise the suburbs. A third simply bit everyone who came near him. Half an hour later when they were all herded back into their corral, they were as frisky as children, whinnying their pleasure at such a jolly outing. The cowboys limped away, their hats crushed, their clothes covered in dust, their levels of testosterone seriously depleted.
That evening at the Hitching Post Inn the car park was full of stretch pickups loaded with saddles and hay. The Hitching Post was the happening place after hours. In the saloon bar it was wall to wall cowboy hats. Cowboys clean up real nice, and they were all turned out in their best shirts. It is said that cowboys have three pairs of jeans. A size too big for practise; the right size for the rodeo itself; and a size too small for the dances afterwards.
The next morning in the western outfitters I bought a handsome Stetson from a sales girl with a mean pair of boots and a serious chewing gum habit. A sign by the till read ‘It’s Never Too Late to be a Cowboy’. I had already decided it was too late for me. I wasn’t sure the testosterone levels were up to it. I put on my hat and went out into the wide streets of Cheyenne. I was happy to walk the walk and talk the talk but there was no way I was going near those horses. They were the real thing, the last remnant of the Wild West.