Thursday, September 29, 2022

One dozen destinations #4: Stampede Park

     I'm on vacation. In the meantime, I've taking you to a dozen spots you might not have visited yourself. This is Stampede Park in Cody, Wyoming, as described in my unpublished and no doubt unpublishable travel memoir, "The Quest for Pie."

     After a Mexican dinner we went to Stampede Park for the Buffalo Bill Cody Stampede Rodeo, a yearly event that just happened to be taking place while we were there, an actual competition as opposed to the weekly western show held for tourists year round. We waited in line for our tickets, at window under a big sign warning foreign visitors to stay in the grandstand so as not to spread foot and mouth disease. 
     The rodeo was a charming mix of sincere patriotism and blatant commercial hoopla married to a display of roping and riding skills. We gathered on metal risers in front of an oval open-air arena filled with soft dirt, ringed with a blue fencing festooned with signs for the “U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co.” and “Denny’s Guns and Maps.” The rodeo began with an enormous American flag walked into the arena, held at the edges by 18 members of the Cody Volunteer Fire Department wearing red shirts and gaiters. No flagpole outside of North Korea could fly so large a flag, so it was hoisted up the aerial ladder of their fire truck. 
     They were followed by U.S. Marines on horseback—four marines, in their dress blues, with white belts and white peaked caps, perched incongruously on four tan palomino horses. One marine held an American flag, another, a corps flag. It seemed a vision straight out of the Spanish-American War. Meanwhile, cowgirls on horses rode around them, their big sheer flags honoring Budweiser and Dodge trucks. The sun, slowly setting over the distant mountain range, poking in and out of big, billowing clouds, bathing us in a warm orange glow. 
     It was a low-key, desultory evening — minutes of waiting punctuated by seconds of bull riding and steer wrestling, team roping and barrel racing — the crowd kept entertained with stale jokes from the rodeo clowns, who wore wireless microphones. 
     “What do you call a pretty girl in Punkitown, South Carolina?” asked clown Frankie Smith, pausing before the punchline: “Lost!” 
     “You can tell he’s from Texas,” said Smith, introducing a contestant. “But that’s about all you can tell him.” 
    During the various events, the announcer would not only narrate the action, but also provide encouragement to the participants — “Git ‘er done!” he’d say, when a steer proved extra elusive to a cowboy trying to rope him. 
     It was all so colorful and rustic and cowboylike, I had a video camera in one hand and my little Nikon Coolpix in the other. I’m not sure why I took video. I was thinking of my father’s Super 8 movies of bullfights in Spain in the 1950s, and fancied it would be something we’d want to look at later. Though even as I was documenting the proceedings, it struck me that, by doing so, I wasn’t quite giving the action my full attention now.
     I also wanted a good photo of a cowboy on a bucking bronco to post on my Facebook page, and took a lot of photos toward that end. Facebook was like a new moon in the sky, exerting its own gentle tidal pull. Now I had this unseen audience of readers following our trip, watching. Since they were paying attention to me, suddenly I was paying attention to them. It was hard to freeze an action shot from so far away with the little camera, and I spent too much time trying to. Eventually I got one. The boys sat there, tired, munching on peanuts and just watching the action, which had a certain comforting repetition; like baseball, it did not demand continual or careful scrutiny. Cowboy after cowboy roped steers and rode broncos. They were awarded points on some system we didn’t bother even trying to understand, and since I wasn’t rooting for anybody we could just observe. A man came out with two enormous hump-backed white Brahman bulls and performed, standing on their backs and swinging pots of fire on cords. Clowns in yellow and red shirts would come rushing in, after the rider fell, and harass the wild horse until the fallen cowboy could scramble to his feet and lope off in the soft dirt of the arena. Young women on horseback raced each other around barrels — I guess that part did draw special interest; nothing catches a man’s attention like a bunch of racing cowgirls in snug Levi’s, cowboy hats and plaid shirts. It’s a good look. 
     Easy to see how people love this — before each ride, there was one completely still moment, when all the various rodeo handlers and hangers on, each in his cowboy hat, would be leaning over the blue metal rail, watching the cowboy brace himself on the back of his challenge — he would get settled on the sidestepping, shuddering animal, establish his grip. All would freeze for that single, delicious instant, a Western tableau, then the cowboy in the chute would give the signal, the gate would fly open and the beast would come charging out. The sun set, the rodeo ended, and, just as the audience was leaving, it started to rain. We waited for the cars to untangle themselves and leave the congested parking lot in Cody, Wyoming, the wipers slowly clicking back and forth, the rain coming down. The boys were nonplussed by the rodeo — it wasn’t something to be discussed, just another thing their father made them do. Back at the motel, they flipped on the TV and watched “Ghostbusters.”


  1. I surprised no one told the joke, where the guy asks everyone where they're from & one guy says Utah & the host says: "Where men are men & the sheep are scared"

  2. Not to be the internet dictionary police, but a steer is a male, not a female. "when a steer proved extra elusive to a cowboy trying to rope her"

  3. I knew a druggie from Berwyn who rode a bronco at a rodeo in Sycamore, after someone dared him to enter one of the contests. As far as I know, he had never been on an animal in his life, not even a horse. He did all right. He didn't get hurt, and he didn't get killed. He was a one-hit wonder. He never did it again, and calmly went back to his track-laying job on the railroad.


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