“CHASING THE RODEO: on Wild Rides and Big Dreams, Broken Hearts, and Broken Bones, and One Man’s Search for the West” by W.K. (“Kip”) Stratton. Copyright 2005. Harcourt, Inc. ISBN 0-15-101072-2
The rodeo community is not a closed one -- in fact, when Bob Scriver began to do rodeo sculptures, he found them more than willing to share ideas and resources. But it is rather a privileged society because it is competence-based. Bob got along with rodeo hands because of his competence as a sculptor. He ended up doing many portraits of the biggest names for the Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association, therefore getting to know them and their families.
Ironically, because it is a loose, moving, constantly reconstituting community that includes animals as well as people, rodeo also can be a magnet for floaters, drifters and grifters -- especially the carnies that exist alongside like camp-followers. Something about this is very American, maybe because it is a sort of melting pot.
Kip Stratton’s book has two structuring elements: the amazing 1967 ride that Freckles Brown, an aging but still competent cowboy, made on Tornado, an aging but still unridden rodeo bucking bull. As a child, Kip was there, and he describes it vividly. I was there, too, (ten years older than Kip), but could not describe it to you so well, so I relished the replay. What I remember is measuring Freckles and Tornado the next day so that Bob could commemorate the event with a double portrait.
The other narrative thread is the life of Kip Stratton’s hit-and-run father, who wandered in and out of both carnie and rodeo. It was the sort of life that leaves behind genes tested by many kinds of hardship, but almost no advice about how to cope and certainly no resources. “Cowboy Don” was a drinkin’ man, but not the kind who can ride and work in spite of it. Wandering from woman to woman, he played off mystery and charm. You know -- the kind of loner that Harry Dean Stanton plays in the movies and that Sam Shepherd sometimes writes about. Kind of a Western type.
Stratton goes from rodeo town to rodeo town, buttressed by his rodeo-fan-mother’s choice of a second husband, a man rock solid and prosperous, absolutely competent. Stratton pays out the clues to his genetic father while he sketches the latest transmogrification in the long transit of rodeo from a jackpot cowboy competition in some dusty venue where people gather idly, to the latest re-framing of bull riding as an “extreme sport” with the riders wearing tennis shoes, flak jackets, and football helmets, quite unable to actually fork a cayuse -- even unwilling to do that. Their goal is not competence so much as money, BIG money, and a rock star lifestyle. The working cowboy is replaced by the greedy daredevil fool. Take note, America.
Stratton, like many of the rest of us, would rather go back to the Oklahoma City National Finals of twenty years ago instead of today's Vegas lasers and explosive music -- would rather go back even farther to the days when Pendleton was the top rodeo and Indians camped in lodges pitched by the amphitheatre. He includes the stories of the men of color, the hatred and discrimination they have faced, and their success in spite of it, from Bill Pickett to Jackson Sundown to Will Sampson.
This is a quickly-read book, probably not the definitive work on rodeo, but it is from the heart, a work of love and longing without turning away from the pain that always brings. He notes the names and characteristics of the bulls and gives us a little taste of the perils of the women -- though as a happily married man he kept his defenses up. In general the latter were the more dangerous, of course.
If I say Kip Stratton is a “competent writer,” it’s not damning with faint praise -- it’s saying that he’s worthy of his subject. Like me, his all-time favorite rodeo movies are “Junior Bonner” (1972) and “The Lusty Men.” (1952) I saw the latter when I was about the age Stratton was when he saw Freckles Brown ride Tornado. It is an impressionable age.
A thorough and interesting review of “The Lusty Men” is here:
A rather amazing philosophical review of “Junior Bonner” is here:
As for rodeo itself, it’s the season. Calgary Stampede coming up. Backyard events everywhere. Getchur hat.