For the cowboy in us all: Calgary Rodeo stars bulls and show biz

Email|Print| Text size + By Sandra Shields
Globe Correspondent / July 3, 2005

CALGARY, Alberta -- Big Joe Lisk slides through the mud on his stomach, his fist gripping a rope tied to a black bucking horse. One of the oldest cowboys to compete in the Calgary Stampede Rodeo, the 51-year-old rancher is in the wild horse race, an event straight out of the early days of rodeo where 16 bucking horses are let loose in the arena and each is pursued by three cowboys. With all those bodies and flailing hooves, some say it's more dangerous than bull riding.

''Everyone out there is crazy," Big Joe says later, ''the cowboys and the horses."

One million people come to the Stampede every year. The rodeo arena is part of a massive fairground on the edge of downtown Calgary, an oil-rich city on the Canadian prairie where the suburbs have names like Ranchlands and Saddle Ridge. The fairground is a sprawling place of carnival games, fast food stands, roller coasters, and Ferris wheels spread over acres of concrete and filled with people walking around dressed like extras in a Western.

The cowboy lodged in our collective hearts in the late 19th century, when he was invented as a show-biz hero by Buffalo Bill Cody and taken to England, with a group of Native Americans and a small herd of buffalo, to perform for the queen. Today, the Calgary Stampede, which runs from Friday through July 17, is the world's largest tribute to the legend of the Wild West. It is a 10-day cowboy party that kicks off with a parade of marching bands, dignitaries on horseback, and natives in feather headdresses.

Cowboys of every kind come to the Stampede and almost half the people who come each year are tourists. The rodeo is billed as The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth, and each afternoon it draws 15,000 people to watch cowboys from Canada and the United States, along with a few from Australia, New Zealand, and South America.

Big Joe first competed here more than 30 years ago. He grew up on a ranch where the last real cowboys were his baby sitters.

''They ruined me for life," he says. ''They told me all about whiskey and wild women." Big Joe isn't ready to quit rodeo yet; he likes the adrenaline.

''It's a hell of rush when you could just about be killed," he says.

Big Joe says it's the same for cowboys and spectators: The closer to the edge, the more they like it. As he gets to his feet in the mud, he grits his teeth against the pain of a dislocated shoulder. He picks up his hat, waves it in the air, and the applause grows louder.

The Stampede was theater from the start. The days of the open range were over by the time the first Stampede was held in 1912. Not long before that, Canada had been the end of the trail for the cowboy, the last frontier where a man could ride for days without hitting a fence line. In the years since, the cowboy has survived as a cultural icon because he adapted so well to the entertainment industry.

From the blood sport of rodeo to the soft sounds of Nashville, the many and sometimes contradictory incarnations of the cowboy myth are all on display at the Stampede. Each year, cavernous barns near the Elbow River are filled with prizewinning farm animals competing in an international agricultural show. The equally cavernous exhibition hall at the other end of the grounds hosts a consumer trade show where a cardboard cut-out John Wayne often sells extension ladders between booths of silver jewelry, reclining massage chairs, and kitchen gadgets. There are quilting displays and music competitions. Cowboy poets perform on a stage in the middle of several dozen Western art galleries. The casino is the size of a football field, and in the saloons, the country music and two-step dancing starts in the afternoon. For tourists and locals alike, the Stampede is a chance to make like cowboys after a long cattle drive. It's crass, commercial, and contagious.

Of course, you can't have cowboys without Indians. On a grassy field at the back corner of the Stampede, a large circle of tepees forms Indian Village. Ed Calf Robe has been coming here and staying in the family tepee every July since he was born more than 60 years ago. His father, a leader of the Siksika Nation, was at the first Stampede.

''Cowboys and Indians really got along," Ed says. ''It's only in Hollywood that they fight."

As he talks, the sound of drumming and the chanting of voices reaches into the tepee from the open arena where a Native American dance competition is underway.

The pace can grow frenzied. The wait for amusement rides was more than an hour long. The casino was full by noon. At the rodeo, top cowboys psyched themselves up for their last chance at $75,000 in prize money. The audience went wild when the announcer boomed, late in the day, that another cowboy was about to try a 2,000-pound bull that had never been ridden.

The rules of bull riding demand that the rider hold on with one hand and stay on the bull for eight seconds. A hush falls on the crowd as the bull explodes out of the chute with a cowboy on his back, the 58th one to try a ride. The young rider begins to slip sideways but manages to hang on at an almost impossible angle until the buzzer sounds. The crowd roars. After the cowboy accepts his prize, the stands empty quickly, and the beer gardens fill up. Bull riding is the last event of the day.

At the other end of the grounds, in a Western town with wooden sidewalks and buildings made to look old, two guys in rhinestone-studded 10-gallon hats are tuning their guitars. The polished spurs on their cowboy boots catch the light as they start singing ''Home on the Range" for the families and older couples sitting at picnic benches nearby.

With the summer sun low in the western sky, they croon the words of a popular Cole Porter song: ''Give me land, lots of land under starry skies above. Don't fence me in." The old men in the audience smile, their families sway to the familiar tune, and by the time they hit the last, ''Don't fence me in," even the teenagers in the park are singing along.

Sandra Shields is a writer in British Columbia.

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