Rodeo remains a Western spark


About a mile outside of High Country News' hometown of Paonia, a stone's throw from railroad tracks where trains piled high with coal chug by every few hours, sits a small arena. There, on warm evenings around the Fourth of July, my family and I join a few hundred of our neighbors to savor the summertime ritual of the rodeo.

We sit in rickety wooden stands, absorbing the dust kicked up by horses and bulls, and observe the small-town dramas that unfold under a darkening sky. Teenagers, some decked in classic Western garb, cluster along the edges of the light; their younger siblings, wired on soda, candy and funnel cake, chase each other in front of the stands, throwing dirt clods at each other and sometimes pushing up against the wire-mesh fence that is all that separates us from the frenetic animal energy on the other side.

If you've ever wondered what life is like for the young men and women who follow the Western rodeo and bull-riding circuit every summer, or, for that matter, the bulls who spin at the center of the rodeo universe, this issue's cover story by Craig Childs should satisfy your curiosity. Craig's colorful and unabashed look behind the scenes is as sharp as the tinge of ozone in the air before a summer thunderstorm.

It was just such a storm that punctuated one of the first rodeos I ever attended, some 16 years ago. As the first bronc riders exploded out of the gates, a jag of lightning struck a slope several miles away; the next day, dry winds kindled the smoldering embers, then fanned a massive fire across the juniper and cheatgrass hills. The Wake Fire, as it came to be known, burned up 3,000 acres, including the homes of some of our friends and acquaintances. For me, the fire and the rodeo are forever linked.

Two years ago, I thought history might repeat itself, when, again at the rodeo -- which had morphed into a bull-riding-only event -- a spark from one of the passing trains started a fire a quarter-mile from the arena. As dark smoke billowed up and flames appeared on the hillside, the audience grew uneasy, its attention split between the bull-riding and the fire. Heads turned one way -- "Oh, he ate it on that one!" -- and then the other way -- "Man, that fire is moving fast! Should we get the hell out of here?" Then, from a new direction, came the sound of a fast-approaching plane. A yellow crop-duster buzzed the arena, then dumped a load of water on the flames, before banking improbably hard to avoid a collision with the valley wall. We all knew who the crop-duster was, and we whooped and roared to the tempo of his acrobatics: "Go, Leonard! You can do it, Leonard!"

At first, the fire seemed unaffected, but with each pass Leonard made, it was beaten back. A half-hour later, as the last bull-rider was thrown to the ground, only a few wisps of smoke remained. Charged with adrenaline and balanced on that fine line between order and chaos, we began to leave the rodeo grounds, wondering how next year could ever top this.

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