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Cowboys are as American as… Cowboys. So when I had the chance to go to cowboy country, I grabbed my saddlebag, my bedroll and my noise-cancelling headphones, and climbed aboard a Delta flight to Wyoming… Cody Wyoming.
Stepping off the plane at the Cody Airport, the big open sky over Rattlesnake Mountain told me where I was. This was Buffalo Bill country as in, Buffalo Bill Cody. Mr. Cody was one of the founders and an early investor in this high plains town that borders Yellowstone Park.
Since William Frederick Cody was already an international celebrity with his popular Wild West Show, it was just a marketing slam dunk to name the place after him. Not that the slam dunk had been invented yet.
The little town prospered and incorporated in 1901. It even had a luxury hotel, the Irma, named after Buffalo Bill’s daughter.
I was fixin’ to stay at the Irma, but my client, Park County Travel, put me up instead at the K3 Guest Ranch and Bed & Breakfast. This was a fun western-themed lodge just outside of town on a former cattle ranch.
I bunked in the Chuck Wagon Room, sleeping in an authentic 19th century Chuck Wagon, fitted with an authentic pillow top queen mattress. This was the same type of pillow top mattress used by cowpokes on their cattle drives along the Chisolm Trail. Sleep Number Beds hadn’t been invented yet. I got a good night’s sleep, cowboy-style in 400 thread-count comfort.
Here’s something you probably didn’t know about Cody: the 20th century abstract painter, Jackson Pollock was born here. The wide-open sky and textures of the high desert more than likely influenced young Jackson’s finger-painting technique.
The Cody Nite Rodeo
The name said it all: Cody… or… Rodeo. I could just envision the herd of wild beasts, tearing up the earth, thundering into the arena. This was where our video shoot would begin.
At the arena, the big sign called out: “Cody Wyoming – The Rodeo Capital of the World”. Entertaining folks for over 70 years, this rodeo was like going to New York for theater or Hollywood for movies – if you can make it in Cody rodeo, you can make it anywhere. It’s up to you Cody….
The crew and I hustled our gear onto the showground. Families, tourists, dating teens and errant children filled the stands. Out in the field, cowgirls, with their cute cowgirl outfits rode in big circles with banners and flags waving in the early evening breeze. Adorable little girls and boys, fully decked out in western duds rode proudly alongside the grownups.
This was followed by a color guard of Marines on horseback for the opening ceremonies. They were joined by the rodeo clowns who sang to the crowd, “Rodeo Time In Cody Tonight”. It was all bright and clean and fun. No dark undertones of sarcasm or irony so common today. No hipsters with a self-referential attitude. It was just pure entertainment and I was happy to be here, enjoying this pure western moment.
Then the announcer finished the ceremony with a sort of benediction, blessing the evening’s event. He spoke of America, our freedoms, the glory of the rodeo and wrapped it all up with, “….in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen!”
“Wha. WHAT?”, I snapped out of my homespun reverie. What did he just say? I looked around. Everyone was cool.
But it really threw this out-of-town Jew for a loop. What was this, some kind of church event? But no, as far as I was aware, the rodeo was a sporting, tourist, cultural, entertainment extravaganza for the general public. How had he managed to slip Jesus in there? Like he was one of the sponsors of tonight’s program.
Please don’t misunderstand. I like Jesus. I completely respect his teachings of love, tolerance, compassion and caring for the poor. Who wouldn’t?
But where did the assumption arise that we were all followers? What about the other two thirds of the world who believed in other faiths? Well… I suppose the feeling up in corporate was all those other folks just weren’t here in Cody tonight. Looking around, I had to agree.
But putting that aside, just what exactly did Jesus have to do with the Rodeo anyway? What was it about bucking broncs, spurs and lassos that inspired his name?
Whereas moments before, I was excited to be here, now I felt like an outsider. I wondered if Jesus would feel the same way had he bought a ticket to this evening’s show. Here he would be, sitting in the stands – a small, dark, robed Middle Eastern man, amongst this crowd of tall, white, cowboys.
They said they loved him. Would they make him feel at home?
Well one thing’s for sure: I just know he’d be taking in all the happy families and he’d delight in the fun they were having. Yeah… I guess Jesus would be OK here at the rodeo.
And I’ll bet he would really love those rodeo clowns. The clowns were smart, brave and ready to sacrifice themselves to save a fallen rider. When an enraged bronc or bull came thundering for the rider it had just thrown, the clowns put themselves in harm’s way to divert the beasts. These clowns didn’t get any prize money or accolades either, for all they risked. They were the meek of the rodeo.
Ride ‘Em, Baby Bronco
Coming to the Cody fairgrounds, I had expected lots of big, tough cowboys, one hand roped to a wild beast, one arm waving in the air. I hadn’t expected lots of little tough cowkids doing the same thing. But there they were, competing just like the grownups.
Granted these kids were riding sheep, not Brahma Bulls but the effect was the same. To a little kid, that bouncing sheep was as fierce as the meanest steer. I admired these steely little wranglers, with their junior-size cowboy hats. They gripped their wooly rides and hung on to beat the clock. They were tough and took their falls in stride.
I couldn’t imagine putting one of my kids on a bucking sheep. I wondered what my imaginary Jesus thought of this. But when I pictured him, to my surprise, he seemed to be enjoying the little kids’ event. I suppose they didn’t have anything like this back in Bethlehem. Or maybe they did and the kids brought back memories of riding wild donkeys. I shouldn’t make assumptions.
The Wild Bunch
After the cowkids competition, the calf roping, barrel racing and saddle bronc riding, it was time for the big event – bull riding. The crew and I moseyed over to the bullpens where the 2,000-pound brutes were warming up for the show.
The snorting beasts were immense – the size of a sedan. Their bodies were over-revving – itching to engage and explode out the gate. They pounded the walls of their pens, shaking their world, ready to crush it to survive.
We clambered up on the pens to get close with our camera – about two feet from the first rider and his mount. I had never been this close to any rodeo action and it was… charged. The bull was barely controllable; its eyes bulged with a faraway stare. But the thing that startled me the most was the face of the rider.
Seen from afar, these cowboy heroes appeared to take their task in stride. In fact, once out in the ring they’re moving so fast you can’t even see their faces. Up close, it’s another experience. These guys were young so maybe this was still new to them. But I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen such determination on a face and also, such terror. I wasn’t prepared for this.
The rider was hyperventilating and his eyes bugged out to a place I couldn’t imagine. He must have been seeing things the rest of us only know in nightmares. Same with the bull. For a few moments the two of them were linked - partners in an altered state.
The cowboy licked his lips, mumbled a few silent words, sucked in his breath and nodded. The gate flew open.
BAM! The bull hit the rails almost knocking us off.
“JESUS”, I cried out.
Man and beast tumbled out, kicking up dust, howls and sweat. The ride was furious, the bull’s hindquarters lashing out. The rider’s back arched, his head snapped and his legs flew up. He was airborne.
An instant later he smacked face first into the ground. The enraged bull turned, saw him lying there and came stomping for him.
“JESUS CHRIST!”, I implored of someone. Who? I dunno. Maybe Jesus.
The rodeo clowns moved in. One grabbed the rider and the other distracted the bull. My heart was racing. The clowns got the rider to safety – he was fine.
Breathing again, I silently thanked the clowns. I also thanked Jesus. I even thanked Jackson Pollock. In another second, that cowboy would have been turned into a Jackson Pollack.
Ok, so this is how it is at the rodeo. For me this was unexpected: Jesus was a player here after all. Perhaps that’s who the cowboy had spoken to before his ride.
I hadn’t expected a Jesus moment again tonight. But I guess there is some part of me that carries him like an emergency contact, should trouble arise.
Sitting up on the rail, watching the next rider get set, it occurred to me: we all need someone or something we hold onto – a guardian we hope will be there for us in a pinch. Maybe it’s Jesus and maybe it’s a rodeo clown.
Just as long as they can save us from getting trampled.
This is what I took with me as I left the bright lights of the Cody Nite Rodeo - a feeling of warm gratitude for the clowns, for the cowboys of all ages and for whoever else might be riding alongside me on that lonesome trial this night.