Calgary, AB July 9, 2023
Even when you are a not very famous travel writer like me, you don’t always get to pick your assignments. The business of big-time blogging means the occasional hazard duty.
The conversation at Ramble On World Headquarters with my editor went like this:
Editor: I need you to go to the Calgary Stampede.
Me: “A stampede? Was anyone hurt? Also, what is a calgary?”
Editor: “it's in Alberta”
Me: “...still nothing.”
Editor: “It’s a rodeo.”
Me: “Ahhh... well this would be my first rodeo. Shouldn't you send someone with actual experience?”
Editor: “I think we're finished here.”
So, I packed my boots and saddle and headed to the Calgary Stampede “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth”. This tagline is likely a little dig at the biggest rodeo in the world which takes place in the Houston Astrodome, i.e., inside. I mean who rodeos indoors? That would be like playing baseball indoors.
The Stampede dates back to 1886 and is now the second biggest rodeo in the world. Rodeo size is based on attendance, or prize money, or number of rodeo clowns, or something else. I didn’t do much research for this article – it is more of a first-person observational think piece.
We camped east of Calgary at the Mountain View Campground (which most certainly did not afford a view of the mountains, but did offer a fairly-priced $7 Stampede Pancake Breakfast). Ready to rodeo, we boarded the campground's Stampede Shuttle, which was a school bus driven by a guy named Lloyd. Lloyd delivered us to the Stampede grounds which is also the site of the Saddle Dome, home to the Calgary Flames hockey club. It’s a hockey arena, but from the outside, well, it does look a bit like a saddle. So that's fun.
Tim Horton’s was handing out free blackberry flavored drinks as we entered the grounds. Much appreciated Tim, as it was already steamy on the midway by noon. We took our cool drinks and waded in. It was the same rides, games, and carnies (smell like cabbage, small hands) that you see on every midway at every state fair the continent over. Later, the lines would be enormous; an hour plus just for the sky ride, which I honestly think they should pay you to go on. But the lines were still short this early in the day; so we rode the Spine Separator and the Bowel Evacuator before I won Lori a 6-foot-tall blue teddy bear at Mini Hoop Basketball. The net outlay for games and rides was $386 (I swear those rims weren’t regulation minis).
We still had more time to kill as the rodeo itself didn’t start for another hour and a half. So, using a very particular set of skills honed over a lifetime, we found the bar straightaway. They had two mechanical bulls and $10 Buds. Problem solved.
It’s always amusing watching tourists go bull riding because it’s a bit like fair games – you’re not supposed to win at it. The saddle is not grippy raw-hide leather but some sort of slick Teflon plastic. There is no rope to wrap your hand around like the real cowboys get, just a flimsy little saddle horn that you can only use one hand on. So, the operator just throws people around onto the padded mats and says “who’s next?”
A good time waster if there ever was one.
All The Pretty Horses
Finally, inside the rodeo grounds proper, the first order of business was more beer...
...and mission accomplished!
Next came the opening ceremonies for the day: an impressive display of Canadian national pride, an apology to the native tribes of the region for stealing their land (this is Canada– nothing if not polite), rodeo chit chat, fireworks, and girls riding really fast on horses while holding flags. Lori was positively giddy with anticipation by this time, and I was enjoying myself enough to waive down my beer guy again.
Lori is a former rodeo champion, having competed at something called the Badger Buckaroo in Badger, IA. And if you're a fan of the show Yellowstone, you know what Barrel Racin' girls are like! She also apparently excelled at something called "Western Pleasure" which sounds intriguingly sexual to me.
As I mentioned in the title of this piece, I was new to rodeo. I grasped the concept (I think?) which is to do stuff for the longest, or the shortest, or the bestest. That seemed to be the gist of it at least. We saw buckin’ broncs, bull ridin’, barrel racin’ and steer ropin’. All very entertaining even if we couldn’t really tell who was winnin.’
Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys
Truer words were never spoken. These dudes and dudettes take an absolutely ungodly beating out there. My back is a mess and I have never, not even once, rode atop of an angry bull’s backside. I just can’t imagine. Tougher than a $2 steak these guys.
And the prize money... I mean okay, if you win the whole darn rodeo (which is 10-days long) in your event, it’s $100K (Canadian). But that’s the big winners. And if you know any horse owners, you know that $100K will barely meet your hay bill for the summer. Horse life is big $$$. The fellow that wins the day’s pool gets like $7K. That isn’t even gas money.
On the other hand... the lads do seem to do okay with the ladies. Maybe because they all have great cowboy names like: Wade, Chanse, Dallas, Stetson, Creek, etc. (all real names). That can’t hurt. And the Stampede grounds are bursting to full with attractive gals dressed in boots and cutoffs who seem eager to meet these guys. They sport T-shirts that say things like “Cowboy Pillows” across the chest.
So, on second thought mamas, do let those babies grow up to be cowboys.
The unrivaled highlight of the day was The Wild Pony Race, which I would rename the “Draggin’ Little Kids Behind Ponies Show.” It’s fantastic. Three kids wearing hockey helmets (we are in Canada after all) are on a squad. They are behind the gate and holding a rope that is tied around the neck of an unbroken pony, who is on meth. They open the gate and the pony tears off into the ring, like a pony on meth. The object is for one of the little cowpokes to ride it, bareback, before it gets away. The most determined kid who gives up last and won’t let go of the rope gets a Nantucket sleigh ride through the dirt on their stomach to delighted applause. It’s first-rate entertainment and I think you could make a whole rodeo just around that event.
Time for another beer, I’m definitely warming to this.
But not warming so much that I would come back for a second day. But... we had tickets to the signature event, The Chuckwagon Races, for the next day, and my editor insisted this piece be at least 1500 words. So more pancakes and back on Lloyd’s bus to the Stampede we went. Back to the bar to waste time watching tourists get hurled off the plastic bull and back to the grandstands.
The Chuckwagon Races are crazy. We never could figure out what was going on, but boy did those horses move out. It was kind of thrilling. And as soon as that ended, they went into the big evening spectacular. A massive stage was wheeled in as the last horses were heading to the barns and wham I could barely blink for the next 90 minutes with the singing, dancing, acrobats and what have you before the fireworks shot off to announce the end of another day of The Stampede.
We hustled out of the stadium, through the tumultuous throngs still trying to win bears or buy beaver tails to our ever-faithful Lloyd, waiting with the midnight shuttle to East Calgary.
Way, way past my bedtime, but what a ride.