Friday, August 9, 2013

Day 89 - Rodeo!

I have never been to a rodeo. While this not an event I ever sought to experience, I have always remained open to the idea of attending a rodeo. In my mind, every aspect of such an event represents a cross-section of American culture to which I have had very limited exposure in my life. Up to this point, the rough and tumble, gritty nature of event, the overt Western influence in the sport, and the dusty boots and cowboy hats crowd have remained something I only read about and saw on television. I never had the chance to experience it all first hand, and I figured after 30 years it was about time that changed. As a result, today I met up with a group of friends, put on my best flannel-patterned shirt, and made my way to the All-American Pro Rodeo in Footville Wisconsin for my first rodeo experience.

The evening began with a drive to the small town of Footville, Wisconsin. After work this evening, I picked up some friends of mine, Justin, Jamie, and Dalton before I began the trip south. Together we traveled through the rolling fields of Southern Wisconsin, passing over worn country highways and through small, sleepy towns on our way to the rodeo. Eventually, our path took us to the unfamiliar town of Footville, which sat nestled in miles of fields near a single highway running along the far side of town. As we drove through, the town seemed entirely too vacant to be hosting an event as significant as a rodeo. The few groups of people we saw seemed wrapped up in a typical, quiet Friday evening of time with family and friends and nothing in the town made reference to a rodeo. Although I knew we were in the right location, the unassuming nature of the events around us made me question whether we had arrived at the correct date and time. Continuing through town we debated whether to ask someone about the rodeo until Justin’s eyes caught glimpse of a highway sign and field of activity on the other side of Footville’s block stretch of downtown businesses.

Moments later, the unmistakable sight of cowboys, livestock pens, and trailers surrounded by a grandstand came into view. There, in the middle of a cleared field just outside of town sat the All-American Pro Rodeo grounds ready for the forthcoming events. Tents climbed high into the air behind the stands surrounding a high, rectangular red fence at the center of the grounds. It was clear we were in the correct location. We just needed to find a place to park, get inside the grounds, and prepare for to take in the events.

Whoooo Wee! Starting the night off right!
After making our way to parking spot in the open field, the four of us headed into the rodeo grounds. Passing through the gates, we paused briefly to take in the environment. Our surroundings felt entirely foreign to me. Around me people wearing cowboy hats, spurred boots, and massive belt buckles milled about the dusty, dirt covered ground. The smells of farm animals and grilled foods filled the air, and booths containing cowboy hats, chaps, and other classic Western gear lined the opposite side of the lot. It was hard not to be swept up by the happenings around us as we moved across the terrain toward the stands. After grabbing a drink, Justin, Jamie, Dalton, and I headed toward the center of the grandstand and found a small box of seats. Taking our position in the stands, we were immediately greeted by the sight of a rodeo clown telling jokes with an announcer in an effort to warm up the crowd. As we settled in the presence of the arena made itself known. Against the backdrop of a brilliant evening sun, the plot of gnarled soil at the center of the fenced area showed apparent signs of battles between man and beast. I was before an unfamiliar terrain with an obvious purpose. Excited by the idea of the forthcoming experience, I leaned forward in my seat and fixed my eyes on the gates at the far end of the arena. Just as I found myself gearing up for the event, the rodeo clown made his way off the field and the announcer spoke. It was time for the rodeo to begin.

Tents full of stuff!
In a matter of minutes the field in front of us erupted with the activity of men and women on horses taking to the field in a variety of events. The rodeo began with a bronco riding competition, wherein men attempted to ride bucking broncos for as long as possible before the horses finally threw them to the ground. The power of the broncos was staggering as the competition wore on. Even in the stands, I felt intimidated by the size and force of the animals. The contest was raw, and the fight was fierce. Eventually, the bronco bucking competition ended, which gave way to a steer wrestling contest wherein men took to the arena on horseback after steers let loose from the chute. One by one, the competitors raced to track down a steer on horseback, dismount, and tackle the animal to the ground by the horns. I sat in awe of the agility and fearlessness required to complete the feat as each cowboy took the field at near full speed and tackled the steer to the ground. For some time the competitors raced to complete the task, with obvious winners emerging as the contest wore on.

With the first competitions complete, the rodeo immediately moved into a lasso contest focused again on subduing calves. In a slightly different approach, to cowboys took the field on horseback, with one cowboy attempting to lasso the horns of a calf and hogtie it as fast as possible. Although the competition was slightly slower than the two preceding it, the excitement of the event remained. The four of us watched on as the sky turned from blue to shades of orange and pink. We cheered as cowboys made short work of the tasks before them despite the fading light. With night setting in, racks of overhead lights snapped into working order just before the bull riding competition began. With white light pouring down on the arena, we watched on as men attempted to last a full eight seconds on the bare back of some of the largest bulls I have ever seen. While most of them failed to last more than a few seconds before the bulls easily dispatched them, a few of the riders made a valiant effort. Eventually, an obvious winner emerged when one rider lasted nearly the full eight seconds on one of the largest bulls at the rodeo.

Night setting in...

...Time for some calf ropin'!
The bull riding contest wrapped up as the night pressed on. The final event in the rodeo was a barrel race in which female riders charged the rodeo arena on horseback, wrapping around and between three barrels on the ground. Although it was now late in the evening, the crowd remained electric through the race, which left Justin, Jamie, Dalton, and I in high spirits as the rodeo drew to a close. As if the evening had not been exciting enough, a raffle was held before the night ended, during which Dalton won a half of a hog from a local meat processing company. With the night an obvious success, the four of us stayed to listen to a live band for a short while after the rodeo ended. While Justin and Dalton decided to hang back, Jamie and I took to the dance floor for a few songs before all of us decided to call it a night and head back to Madison.

My first experience at a rodeo was full of surprises. While I am anything but a “country” guy, I must admit the event was a perfect mix of relaxation and entertainment. The skill and courage of the competitors left me in awe of the rodeo, and the company kept by friends and fellow attendees made it easy to feel comfortable in the experience. The only downside to these elements is that they made the rodeo move much too quickly. Looking back, it feels like the experience flew by in the blink of an eye; however, I know that just means it was one hell of a good time. After my first experience at the rodeo I don’t know when I will go back again, but I know I would jump at the chance in a heartbeat. This is one “I have never...” event that will likely remain one of my favorite experiences of the year. Perhaps it was the excitement, the environment, or just being with good people. Whatever the reason, the memory of this event will stick with me for a long time, and that’s a sign of a very good thing.

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