In the far North, a bit of the West

Posted on September 28, 2012

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The Stampede in Calgary, Canada, was first staged in September 1912. 100 years later, Baradwaj Rangan experiences the sights, sounds and, yes, smells of the frontier.

When you barely scrape five-foot-six, you don’t seek out a Stetson. This is what we’ve been taught by the John Ford movies, many of which featured John Wayne, who inhabited the higher realms of six-foot-two. He wore a ten-gallon Stetson like a king wore a crown. Big hats belong on big men. It is with some apprehension, therefore, that I anticipate being slapped on the head with that hat. Will it flop down to my shoulders? Will I be the hat with arms and legs? To my relief, the hat (made, to no one’s surprise, in Mexico) is much smaller. It fits well. Maybe they don’t build men like Wayne anymore. The size of the Stetson is as much a surprise as its existence. Who knew there were cowboys in Canada? (And in their equivalent of the John Ford movies, who do they fight off? Canadian Indians?)

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Everyone’s wearing a Stetson at the centenary edition of the Calgary Stampede, a 10-day event which was staged for the first time in September 1912, as a tribute to the traditions of the great West. The sprawl of the show is surprising, spread out over a 20-acre park, over the perimeter of which the outlines of distant high-rises seem to belong in a different universe. The horses on display are surprising – you may never have set eyes on so robust a beast as Bert, a 20-year-old chestnut blonde from Belgium that weighs 2000 pounds. The red car parked near Bert is surprising. (It’s a Mustang; someone surely has a sense of humour.) Even the smells are surprising. The John Wayne oeuvre, after all, does not prepare you for horseshit. I suppose all those sacks of oats have to go somewhere. But the feedbags of the horses here, which poke their heads from an endless row of stables, are also laced with vitamins and electrolytes. These animals aren’t just on display. They will be ridden, every evening, in the chuckwagon races.

These races, comprising your basic show-off moves like the Figure 8, began as a friendly competition between ranchers to beat the boredom while moving cattle down long trails. The winner won $25 and a cowboy hat. Today, though, the winner will take home $10,000, from a total purse of $1.154 million. It’s no longer just fun – it’s big business, with big business prominently featured on the wagons’ tarpaulin tops. The economy of Calgary is measured by how well the tarp auction goes. One of the wagons that will navigate the track fondly called “half a mile of hell” is sponsored by Continental Alloys & Services. The driver’s name – Brian Laboucane – is relegated to a side panel. It’s surprising that such a massive conflation of sport and business has not found more favour down south, in the US. (It exists. It’s just not as organised.)

To walk around the stables is to witness the workings of a strange world. A sign for Cowboy Church Services announces that everyone is welcome. A kid (with a kid-sized Stetson) comes riding by, and the face of his mount is covered with cloth. It’s to keep away flies. But step away, and this is like any other fairground. Cotton candy. Ferris wheels. Hot dog on a stick. Funnel cakes. A henna booth. Smoked beef on a Kaiser bun. Country singers huddled in a tent. A carousel. Break-the-bottle-with-a-ball. Dogs doing tricks. A haunted mansion. And Megadrop, one of the many rides calculated to empty the contents of one’s stomach. It takes people up and suspends them upside down for a few agonising seconds before plunging to earth, dangling its screaming passengers just a foot above the concrete. (“The reason for fear of heights has arrived.”)

But it’s the rodeo everyone’s here for, seeking plum seats right from the heats, the winners of which go into the quarter finals. An announcer boasts, “Canada’s elite paid more than $8 million for prime seats at rodeo and chuckwagon races.” There are commentators, excited and apparently very patriotic viewers (the races are preceded by a rendition of the Canadian national anthem), and swarming television crews in the VIP area resounding with the thunderous hooves of thoroughbreds. These animals, sometimes, are a source of controversy. In the Edmonton Journal a few days later, Wendy Julyan will write, “I am horrified that three horses were killed and one was injured in the chuckwagon races at the Calgary Stampede. Please, can we put an end to [this] cruel sport… before more of these beautiful animals die violent, unnecessary deaths?” Valerie Kulchisky will add, “I guess we should feel sorry for Stampede organisers who play down this despicable fabricated sport that has no place in our history… These ex-race horses were built for speed and never bred to pull wagons.”

But what chance do epistolary protests stand in disbanding an event that’s not just a cultural institution but also a commercial juggernaut? Jim Dunn, a 56-year-old Stampede veteran, says, “This is the biggest rodeo in terms of prize money.” Dunn is a three-time champion in bareback riding (from a time the term applied only to daredevilry on horses) and a two-time Calgary Stampede Champion. (He won in 1981 and 1983.) He lived on a ranch, so he gravitated naturally towards animals, but he says he’s seen extremely able bull riders (as opposed to horse riders) from the Bronx, in New York. These events, Dunn explains, are judged on the basis of both rider and animal – how well you ride the horse (or bull), and how hard he bucks. “Riders have to be invited to participate,” he says, “based on world standings.” There are 10 participants, daily, in events like saddle bronc riding, bareback bronc riding, bull riding, steer wrestling, calf roping, and barrel racing (for women).

The first saddle bronc rider has a hard time staying put. “You need to practice every day,” Dunn says, disapprovingly. He has no real explanation for the diminishment of the Stetson. “Just like clothes styles change, hats too change. No real cowboy wears it,” he says. “You might find something like that in the movies.” The Marlboro Man is clearly dead, and it’s a little strange to receive this news at an all-out extravaganza celebrating the West. It’s calf roping next, where cute little beasts scamper about in an attempt to evade the lasso. Watching the affectionate interplay between rider and animal, I wonder if Dunn was ever tormented by the realisation that the calf he’s roping today is going to end up on his dinner table tomorrow. He thinks for a while, and then laughs. “They’ve got to grow up a bit first.”

An edited version of this piece can be found here.

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