Q: What do you call a bull rider who breaks up with his girlfriend?
On Saturday I went to my first rodeo, in Durango, CO. The announcer told the above joke, which, for the uninitiated, sheds some light on rodeo culture.
As a kid growing up in England and western Washington state, I had no inkling of the deep pathos underlying this seemingly happy-go-lucky sport. My upbringing was such that I was never exposed to broncs and bulls outside of superficial pop-culture references that emphasized the glitz and pageantry. I rode horses as a kid, but always English, and, although I had a couple of friends who dabbled in barrel racing, I never had any inkling of the deep-seated pride, passion and hunger that drives cowboys and cowgirls to compete in one of the most dangerous sports in the world.
Thus, whenever I heard Garth Brooks’ “Rodeo” (despite my lack of contact with the culture that spawned it, I’ve always liked country music), I missed the poignant subtext of the song:
Along with the glamour and glory is the reality of an itinerant, perpetually broke (and broken) lifestyle. Young men travel the rodeo circuit, driving hundreds of miles, for a chance to compete, often sacrificing the security of steady jobs, stable relationships, home-cooked meals and intact skeletal systems. The big shiny buckles, the cash prizes and the adoring female groupies known as “buckle bunnies” are significant motivating factors. And yet, from what I’ve gathered, its the matchless exhilaration, the ecstatic, consuming rush of riding bulls and broncs that really drives these cowboys. I’ve heard it described as an addiction, which certainly rings true: “he’ll sell off everything he owns just to pay to play her game/And a broken home and some broken bones are all he’ll have to show…” I can only imagine the way it feels to cling to the back of an extremely ticked-off, 1800 lb bull, but I’m sure it’s better than any drug, just as habit-forming, and probably more dangerous.
As I watched the cowboys preparing for their rides in the bucking chutes – clinging to the rails, bouncing up and down, doing little dance moves, grabbing their crotches – their jumpy excitement was palpable.
“I miss that feeling,” my friend, a former bull rider, told me. “You feel nervous, sick to your stomach, but so amped-up, so excited.”
I could see why. The story I wrote for the 3-Day Novel Writing Contest contained an extended rodeo scene, and I’d studied up by watching YouTube videos, reading and talking to my friend. But seeing it in person really brought home the extreme danger and difficulty inherent to staying on a bull for eight seconds. Having broken a few bones in my time and finding it highly unpleasant to gimp around on crutches, I’m fairly risk-averse, at least when it comes to activities that seem certain to end in grievous bodily harm. But I can definitely relate to those whose singular passion is to risk life and limb in the pursuit of that incomparable high, and to the buckle bunnies who love them. After all, reckless folly and heroic bad-assery are two sides of the same coin.