A brush with cowboy culture

  • A local boy "mutton busting" during a Labor Day weekend rodeo last year in Ignacio, Colorado.

    Jeremy Wade Shockley/Southern Ute Drum

On a gray, blustery, spring evening, my family and I drive into the Sky Ute Fairgrounds in Ignacio, Colo., eager to get to the rodeo. My 2-year-old son can't wait to make his debut in "mutton busting," an event in which young children cling to the backs of sheep loosed from bucking chutes.

As we pull up outside the coliseum, I'm transported back to my own childhood. I grew up about an hour from here, in northern New Mexico, and spent my youth competing in regional and national horseshow competitions. Year after year, I passed endless hours in the warm-up ring, loping my show gelding in circles.

I now live in Denver with my husband, our son, our baby girl, and our dog. What free time we have is filled with music classes, story times, swimming lessons, visits to the zoo, walks in the park with dog and Frisbee. Since I left New Mexico, I've lived on both coasts, and in my various roles -- as an exchange student, a researcher and then a journalist -- I've been to Argentina, Antarctica, Iceland and plenty of countries in between.

When I was growing up, my family didn't talk a lot about current events or watch much TV. We worked outside until sundown. We didn't walk our dogs; we let them walk themselves to the barns and the pasture. Back then, the world around me didn't seem nearly as complex as it does now. But I suppose that's why I left -- I wanted to know what was out there, to learn a different language and dance the tango. Now, my family is always glad to see me, but I know they're aware of the differences in our experiences and outlooks. When I go home, I steer clear of political discussions, which only remind all of us how far I've strayed.

Inside the coliseum, we shiver as we settle onto the cold metal bleachers and breathe in the aroma of manure, dust, livestock and leather. I'm struck by the scene: the men in cowboy hats and Wranglers, the women decked out in ostrich-leather boots, oversized purses studded with chunky turquoise stones, and rhinestone belts with showy silver buckles. Each time I come home for a visit, I crave these symbols of my old way of life. I occasionally indulge in the boots or the glitzy belts -- only to find that when I return to Denver, these possessions feel impractical and out-of-place.

For his first rodeo, I've dressed my son sharply in a navy-blue button-down Western shirt, a tooled leather belt embossed with his name, and a silver belt buckle bearing a steer-roping motif. I'd imagined he would fit in perfectly. But as we walk tentatively toward the rodeo chutes, I realize we are thoroughly outclassed. His cousin, a year older, wears a cowboy hat, nylon-and-leather bronc-riding vest, shiny, fringed leather chaps with silver conchos and tooled leather, and leather boots complete with sterling silver spurs. In fact, every other child aside from my son is adorned from head to toe in what are apparently essential pieces of the Western wardrobe.

The grownup cowboys gather in the middle of the livestock pen and kneel in patriotic reverence. The announcer's deep voice bellows over the loud speaker as he intones a cowboy prayer. Then the national anthem kicks off the evening's events.

As I stumble over manure and dirt clods behind the bucking chutes, I look down at my brown leather Mary Janes and suddenly feel like I'm in a scene straight out of City Slickers. But the noise and tension drown out my reflections. With each squeal of rusty hinges on the bucking chutes, the knot in my stomach grows. My son clings tightly to me, his wide brown eyes filled with awe and fear. The announcer's voice rumbles through the loudspeaker, mixed with blasting country music, as my son's number draws closer. The sheep seem unexpectedly big and formidable. The scene that we've both been anticipating all week is a bit more than either of us bargained for.

Watching his expression as he takes it all in, I am reminded of my adolescent desire to fit in, a feeling I've never fully outgrown. Does my son see himself as different from the other little cowboys? Does he care?

When the time comes, his Uncle Shilo, a bronc rider, helps rein in the sheep, and holds my son steadily atop for a few long seconds -- until I dash out for a rescue. My son will have to wait another year or two for a solo ride, but he's proud of his accomplishment: When his tears dry up, he high-fives us and grins smugly.

I often wonder about who my son will become as he grows up. How will his brushes with cowboy culture influence him? Will he shun it or embrace it? It's daunting to know that everything I expose him to -- museums and rodeos, barbecue and Mediterranean food -- will shape his character, even if only deep in his psyche. Like me, he may always struggle to find his place in two worlds. Or perhaps he'll learn to be comfortable in both, and be richer in character as a result.

Home in Denver, I clutch at remnants of my other life, singing along on the way to the park to old-time country tunes from Merle Haggard and Tanya Tucker. I brim with pride as my son, eyes twinkling, gestures largely and exclaims "BIG sheep!" to our friends. But I sense that for him, as for me, the rodeo already has the faded quality of a distant dream.

Amanda Leigh Mascarelli is a freelance journalist who writes primarily about science, green technology and environmental dilemmas.

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