Wednesday, July 06, 2011

How I became a rodeo junkie

We spent this past weekend in Strathmore Alberta for the 2011 gay rodeo.  This was my 5th gay rodeo and by far the best.  It has taken a few days to unpack my brain (and the fella's car) from everything that happened.  

This was my first year actually participating in the rodeo and I am so glad I made the decision to get involved.  In previous years I was content to go down and party hard for four days while cheering on friends as they got dirty in the arena.  I managed to convince my buddy Daren to come to the rodeo school they set up for beginners on the friday.  

A large part of me thought this whole thing was a terrible idea.  Here i am a desk jockey who has not been around farm animals in over 15 years and who is admittedly terrified of anything larger than a husky, going to go wrestle 600 pounds of angry beef in the dirt.

The rodeo school was brilliant and really helped me feel more comfortable with being around these animals. You really get a sense of how much these people respect both the lives of the stock and the participants.  I really dug the philosophy of doing your best and going as hard as you can  but knowing when to let go before you hurt yourself.  

The sense of camaraderie and family behind the chutes was really amazing.  Competitors helping each other out, giving each other tips, calming them when they needed it.  All of this is happening even though there is some real prize money on the line.  

I also learned a lot about how much of the rodeo events are basically just skills that farmers need to be able to safely and efficiently produce all of the food we eat.  When you see a package of ready made burgers sitting in a store you really do have no idea how much blood sweat and tears went into getting that animal to market for you to consume.  It has given me a glimpse into our invisible food chain and it really blows my mind how hard these guys have to work to keep us fed and them paid.  

The level of skill and athleticism shown off by the participants was very impressive.  I would say it is on par or above any sport I have played.  When you screw up in baseball or soccer there is no chance of being trampled by a huge animal.  In the rodeo that is almost a perpetual concern.  

I participated in three events. 
  1. Steer Deco: Which is a team event.  One teammate reels in a steer from the chutes using a rope and the other ties on a ribbon to the steer's tail.  I teamed up with a fellow rodeo virgin named Andrew.  It's an incredibly tough process as the steers kick and can be very hard to get control of.  Andrew was totally amazing however and managed to get up every time the steer knocked or dragged him down.  You also have to be in constant communication with your teammate as doing things in the wrong order will get you disqualified.  In our first actual attempt I had to run after the steer after Andrew got stepped on.  I thought the thing was going to drag me all over creation but I managed to hold my ground until he got to his feet.  We placed 12th on the Sunday out of 13.  Our time was 28 seconds.  About 20 teams participated but not everyone managed to get the ribbon on or the rope off.   I am also pretty certain we were the only first timers to place that day.  
  2. Chute Doggin:  This is the really scary event for me as you have to get up close and personal with a steer.  These things are massive and some of the veteran participants mentioned they were the biggest surliest stock they had ever seen at a rodeo.   Theres an element of luck involved to all of these events sometimes you get a good steer sometimes you get satan.  Our instructor at the camp actually got a hoof to the face as he was demoing the event to us.  Needless to say it did not make me want to hop in to this tightly enclosed space with an animal 3-4 times my weight.  Chute dogging is all about technique and control. It has very little to do with brute strength (tho that helps I am sure).  You basically grab the steer by it's horn and mouth and direct it out of the chute and flip it down so that all of it's legs are in the air.  You have to be in complete control of yourself as the animals can sense nervousness and fear.   You also have to be in complete control over the animal or else it will drag you across the arena.  You give it an inch and it will take you for a ride.   I managed to hurt my leg at the school because I gave the animal a chance to take control.  I had a great coach help me out on Saturday and Sunday.  Saturday was by far my best attempt.  I had a good steer and was feeling really good about things.  As I was getting into position I heard my name being called into the arena and I could hear my cheering section go crazy.  When that chute opened and I walked that steer out and started to flip it I felt like I could do anything.  The steer ended up flipping the wrong way despite me fighting it for a while.  I never got all 4 feet in the air and eventually had to let go as it was getting close to being able to gore me as we wrestled around on the ground.  I was so close!  That adrenalin rush was unlike anything I have ever felt in my life.  I was vibrating.  Totally elated.  I wanted to get naked and run around.  Something had flipped from fear to incredible joy.   I was beginning to realize that rodeo is the best drug around.  Sunday I let the steer get the best of me and didn't make a time but it was a great learning experience.
  3. Wild Drag: This is another team event and requires a man a woman and a drag queen.  Last year at the rodeo I met a great steer deco team who were looking for someone to do the drag position so they could compete. After a few drinks I said yes which is what started this whole rodeo participation thing to begin with.  The concept is very similar to steer deco except you put the drag queen on top of the steer and then get it across a line.  It is very dangerous as you are basically doing steer riding in a dress of some sort. I have never really done drag before so I dived in as best I could.  I make a very ugly woman. Our steer and the other team steer ended up getting too close to each other and we had to let it go before we could get a time. 
Sunday half the Rodeo was cancelled and we were evacuated to the main hall due to a tornados in the area.  The giant flying spaghetti monster must love the gays however as the storm cells split around the rodeo grounds and all we got was some rain and wind.  The Strathmore theatre was not so lucky apparently.  

Argra the organizers behind the rodeo really worked so hard to put on a safe fun event for everyone and I think they hit it out of the park.  The people of Strathmore could not have been more welcoming and supportive (its always amazing how money trumps politics when it comes down to it.  You really get a sense that this event has managed to change some people's minds in ultra conservative small town Alberta.  It is amazing what a little visibility can do.  Of course there was one or two assholes causing trouble and stealing from the campsites.  I even had to give a statement after identifying one of them. Overall however the only protesters there were animal rights activists.  A refreshing change from the usual bible thumpers. 

I feel different now post rodeo.  My body is sore all over still but I feel personally like I can take on anything at this point.  I feel stronger somehow.  The fella said I walk differently.  I didn't even miss not partying with everyone on the camp grounds. There is something visceral about facing fears and performing a real task with real stakes.  I loved that feeling of agency in chaos.  Control when there is none.   

That rush is something I am going to have a hard time recreating.  I can not wait until next year when I take what I learned and do better than this year.  

I wanted to thank my teammates and all the other participants that have made this such a wonderful learning experience.


Allan S. said...

You are so fucking awesome. I know that experience is evolving you in ways that you seem to notice and in ways that haven't reached your awareness.

Brian said...

Way to go, Aaron! Talk about getting out of your comfort zone :D

I've had friends go to the ARGRA rodeo and say I should go...have always wondered about it. Great detailed post...this looks like a lot of fun. I think next year for sure.