Days 144-146/ July 28th-30th – Pine Bluffs, WY to Cheyenne, WY: Rodeo gaga

There aren’t many young motorcyclists in America.  Judging from the hundreds of riders that have passed us on highways, interstates and country roads, an entire generation of young men wanting to be Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper jumped on their bikes in the late Sixties and took off in search of adventure.  Forty years later, they’re still on them – usually flicking us a languid V-sign in acknowledgement of fellow travellers as they roar by.  The biker who passed us on the highway into Cheyenne was no exception: in his sixties, riding with an empty sidecar, with a white handlebar moustache and a blue bandana on his head.  He caught sight of us as he passed, then slowed and wheeled around in a sudden U-turn to come and talk to us, nearly getting spatchcocked across the grille of a large truck as he did so.

“You guys want a ride into Cheyenne?”  We looked doubtfully at the side-car with its single seat.

“Oh, no, thanks.  We’re walking in.”

“OK!  But you get there before nine, they’re doing a free breakfast for everyone in town.  For Frontier Days!”

Child with gun at Cheyenne Frontier Days

"Roll up! Roll up! Twenty dollars for a licence to hunt this child!"

Frontier Days is, by some distance, the most important event in the calendar in Cheyenne, and possibly in Wyoming.  In a region where every small town has a rodeo ground, and no county fair is complete without bulls being ridden and cows roped, Frontier Days is one of the largest rodeos in the world, billing itself as ‘The Daddy of ‘Em All’, held every year during the last week of July.  We’ve contrived to just miss state fairs, town centenary celebrations and Fourth of July parades as we’ve walked across America, but fate had brought us to Cheyenne for Frontier Days, and we weren’t about to miss it too.

Traffic crawled into town from two miles out, and for several blocks around the venue, enterprising children were standing in their driveways with signs advertising a day’s parking for twenty dollars.  The showgrounds were huge, covering an area perhaps five blocks square, ringed with stables and corrals filled with expectant, stamping horses.  Half of the space inside was taken up by a fairground, and a line of stalls selling saddles, chaps, patchwork quilts, mink-tails, cowboy boots and, of course, guns.  There was a small queue in front of a sign reading ‘Get Your Hat Cleaned and Reshaped While You Wait’, and it was hard to credit, in a sea of Stetsons, that barely three weeks ago we were wondering when we’d see our first cowboy hat.

Wyoming Gun Owners donation form

Something tells me this means Democrats

We spent the afternoon in our seats overlooking the large dirt arena, watching men named Brock Butterfield, Beau le Doux, Hunter Herrin and Spud Duvall competing in a series of unfamiliar but utterly compelling events.  They had worked their way up through small-time rodeos in towns like Verdigre, Nebraska, Kaycee, Wyoming, Spanish Fork, Utah and Apache, Oklahoma, and this was their turn on the big stage.

There was steer-roping, in which a cowboy rode furiously after an escaping calf and lassoed it around the neck, often jerking it backwards with such whip-like force that it was flung off its feet and into the air before crashing down on the dirt, where its legs were roped in a blur of hand movements.  Steer-wrestling required no ropes, and involved larger cows, onto whose necks the cowboy leapt from his horse before flipping the understandably uncooperative creature to the ground in a kind of judo throw.

Bronco rider at Cheyenne Frontier Days

Another quiet Wednesday for Spud Duvall

The marquee events, though, were the bronco-riding (with and without saddles) and bull-riding, a truly terrifying spectacle during which competitors endeavoured to remain on top of 1,500 pounds of writhing, kicking, bovine fury for eight seconds.  Few did.  The riders were awarded marks out of a hundred, with fifty for their own technique and fifty, rather sportingly, for the level of rage exhibited by the bull.  The event was sponsored – rather morbidly, but undeniably appropriately – by the Dr. Carlton Reckling Spinal Center in Cheyenne, and in the minute or so between events – rodeo crowds having a very short attention span – a dashing rider would gallop across the arena carrying a billowing pennant emblazoned with its logo.

Bucking bronco at Cheyenne Frontier Days

The very best riders simply levitate their horses

The events were accompanied by a steady stream of commentary from the cowboy-hatted emcee, who had a delicious turn of phrase.

“Lookit him go, folks!  I declare he could catch and tie a woolly mammoth!”

“He clung to that bull like a monkey on a vine!”

Bull-rider falling off at Frontier Days

Bull-riding: Not as ridiculously easy as it looks

He barely changed style for the less successful competitors.  After one rider had been painfully gored in the buttocks, he looked up at the video-screen and said:

 “Let’s see that slow motion of him taking the old ivory enema, ladies and gentlemen.”

And, after a bucking bull had landed on the knees of a competitor it had just thrown:

“Man, that guy is tougher than a rat sandwich.”

It was a transfixing and unashamedly entertaining four hours.  Near the end, a large man sitting next to us stood up in his seat and shouted out with gusto, “Ride ’em, cowboy!’, and I felt that, at last, I could die content.

A line of cowboys at Cheyenne Frontier Days

Cowboys and cowgirls at Frontier Days

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