November 07, 2007

Sundance rodeo

Sundance, Wyoming wrapped its cowboy tradition around us within an hour of arrival. We sat back on bleachers and watched the whole town turn out to see local seat-of-the-pants toughness in action at the Crook County Fair.

Some of the toughest pants belonged to grammar school kids in full chaps and cowboy hats who tore around barrels and poles so fast I wondered what it must be like to be their mothers, watching their babies streak around the dusty arena at full gallop, cutting edges and corners closer than a buzz cut. We got dirt kicked in our eyes every few minutes, and loved every granule.

Outside the arena fence, pickups and horse trailers sat in the grass, and people led, fed, and groomed their horses. It was kids’ rodeo night, with both juniors and seniors competitions, and grade schoolers to teengers waited outside the fence, controlling varying amounts of nervous energy.

Inside the arena fence it was take-no-prisoners rodeo.

And, between outside and inside, the rodeo queen reigned from the fence at the chute that fed the riders into the ring. The queen was about 17, and she wore glasses, jet black cowboy hat and jeans, and a cobalt blue shirt of glittering sequins that dazzled and jumped like it was alive. Everyone around was dusty, but the queen sparkled.

I took a picture of her, from behind. She sat on the fence facing left, watching the next rider tuck her nervousness up under her hat and get ready to enter the ring.

The rodeo kids were amazing riders. Sharp-turning and lightning fast. Kids with names like Tess and Cody earned blue and purple ribbons, and their parents displayed them on the side mirrors of their pickups or lined them along their dropped truck bed tailgates next to the horse grooming brushes.

"Look at that lil’ cowboy!" exclaimed the announcer, as some tiny guy in jeans and boots and hat (how do they stay on at that speed?) raced tight around obstacles and thundered across the arena. Townspeople here know what kind of cowboy a kid is by the time he’s 10.

Above us, on the bleachers’ top two rungs, sat a group of lean, fit teenagers, all of them, boys and girls alike, with self-assured mountain good looks. "You ride that horse, girl!" They whooped and cheered for their barrel-racing friends the way other high school kids scream for the kids who make touchdowns and slam dunks and speed records in the mile. The harder and faster the riding, the tighter the corners, the louder the hoof-pounding, the dustier the ring, the greater the appreciation and approval from the rider’s peers.

Adam preferred the Sundance Motor Inn’s cable TV to rodeo, but Dana was utterly enthralled by this magical place where people lived and breathed riding and ranching and rodeo as a matter of course, threads in the fabric of their everyday lives. She saw past the spectacle of the Crook County Fair and realized in a hoofbeat that the people in this town – the kids and teenagers, moms and dads, aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas – lived a life centered on land and animals, the outdoors, hard work and hard play. They lived and worked in jeans and cowboy hats. Where we live, people gather for baseball and soccer games. Sundancers gather for rodeo.

Dana spoke barely a word while we sat on those bleachers. I could see her thoughts. I could see her eyes take in everything, every detail her senses allowed her to capture. I watched her mind catalogue Sundance, Wyoming as a dream town, the greatest place on earth to live.

Proof positive of the town’s magic came when the loudspeaker crackled and the rodeo announcer broadcast the news that there’d be a giant cake to celebrate 4-H’s 100th birthday. Everyone was invited to come back to the big exhibition barn where the cake would be cut, "after Karaoke Madness." Surely, heaven must be like Sundance. Horses everywhere and a cake big enough to feed the whole town.

I went out at 6:30 the next morning and ran the neat, tree-lined streets of tiny Sundance and ended up back at the fairgrounds, which sat next to the Crook County Regional School, "Home of the Bulldogs." The yellow school buses that had been parked since June still had last school year’s "Who Let The Dogs Out" and "Go Dogs Go" written in white paint all over their windows.

I ran behind the livestock barn where, the night before, we’d taken in the exhibitions and seen prize-winning pigs and cows and champion sheep, wrapped like royalty in little purple coats.

In rose-colored post-dawn, the scene was different. No flash or showmanship, just love, pride and hard work. A dozen or so of the ranchers and farmers who owned these show animals were in the barn, tending to their livestock. Feeding, washing, grooming, patting, talking, whispering. A family gathered around its goat, stroking it.

Out back, a lanky teenage boy with long, tousled brown hair nuzzled, soothed and said good morning to his black cow. He held the animal’s ears in his hands and rested his chin on the cow’s forehead. I left Sundance with this scene of love and deep contentment in my head.

excerpted from Ribbons of Highway: A Mother-Child Journey Across America