I’ve been meaning to blog about last week’s rodeo, but it needed a little time to sift its way through my consciousness (that and there was a big fat literary party last week that kind of threw me off my center for a few days — those things always make me feel like Sally Field at the Oscars — I still can’t believe the French editor had read my book, had remembered it, and had liked it. Of course, it would have been nice if he’d published it, but perhaps when the next one comes out).
So anyway, the rodeo. It was, without a doubt, the wildest rodeo I’ve ever seen — and I’ve been to a lot of rodeos. The stock was incredibly rank — the bawling calves kicked themselves loose and invalidated most of the calf roping, the steers mostly either stopped short or outran the ropers and bulldoggers, the bucking horses (both bareback and saddle bronc) defeated the vast majority of the riders, and the bulls allowed only one or two successful rides per night (yeah, I fess up, I went all three nights). The bucking horses were completely out of control — climbing the bucking chutes, going down on the riders (and often coming back up with them still on). In one case, after going down on a rider, then stepping on him hard coming back up, a bucking horse managed to elude the pickup riders long enough for them to get the hurt cowboy out of the ring, then as they were herding this still-bucking horse out of the arena, it somehow managed to flip himself backward over the gate by the buldogging chutes, nearly landing on the cowboy he’d just hurt and the two paramedics who were treating him (the paramedic was quoted in the local paper as saying “I ran one way, and my partner and the patient ran the other). The ropers were all on that end of the arena since their event was next, and it took 15 or 20 ropers two whole minutes to catch that horse. Two minutes is a long time when you’ve got a freaked-out horse with its bucking strap still on running loose.
And then a horse broke his leg. It was terrible. The ride was clearly all off from the beginning, and then the horse landed and its right front leg bent the wrong way and came back up with the leg dangling and the whole arena got really quiet. The pickup guys managed to get the rider off, and get the horse calmed down, then a swarm of guys who must have come from the bulldogging chutes got him to the ground, strapped him to a gate and carried him into the trailer. They took him out of the arena before the local vet put him down. The whole thing took maybe three or four minutes. There’s nothing you can do with the image of a horse’s leg dangling like that. And as much as I love rodeo, and as much as I know that animals get hurt all the time — as much as I know that a horse can break a leg in the pasture, or the show jumping ring, or when you’re out on a trail — there’s a culpability in knowing that that horse, that really really rank horse, broke it’s leg for our entertainment. Unlike the many cowboys who got the shit kicked out of them over those three days, that horse couldn’t choose to be there — and that’s where it seems, we’re collectively responsible for that broken leg.
And then the rodeo went on, and a 41 year old guy was in the chutes, and that horse came out and that man did the most impressive piece of riding I’ve ever seen. The horse nearly went down twice, and shifted directions at least three times — this was not the buck-buck-buck-buck rhythm a rider hopes for, this was utterly unpredictable riding, and that horse wanted that guy off him. And that guy, that old guy (not in regular life, but to still be riding bucking horses at 41?) kicked into some other zone — it must have been sheer muscle memory and he rode that horse. It was astonishing. It didn’t in any way make up for the horse with the broken leg, but it was one of those moments where you see someone perform some amazing athletic feat and it reminds you why people do these things at all.
And that’s what I mean by the wildest rodeo I’ve ever been to. All sorts of things happened, most of which were pretty much out of the control of the human beings involved. There was that one moment where that older guy got up there and rode the wildness, but he wasn’t controlling it, he was just somehow synched up with it for a few seconds. As much as I’ll always feel partially culpable for that horse with the broken leg, I’d also hate to see rodeo get too tame, too safe, too tidy. It’s like having predators here to deal with — it sucks that I can’t hike alone because there are grizzlies and mountain lions and wolves, but it’s important that there are things out there bigger than we are, and that we have contact with them. Thoreau’s dictum was “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” a phrase so opaque that it has fueled a thousand doctoral exams (including mine), but it’s what I’m arguing for here — leaving some wild space, some space unmediated by regulations designed to protect us from disaster, some space in which the truly wild ride can occur.