Pilot Journal
Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Cowboy Christmas

Rodeo in the American West

Champion calf roper K.C. Jones is backing his horse, a brown-and-white paint named Mornin’ Spot, into the right rear corner of what they call the box, next to the chute. He’s focused like a red-tailed hawk dive-bombing a field mouse." />

It’s achingly photogenic, the rodeo world. A few days after Greeley, we touched down in Window Rock, Ariz., for K.C.’s third rodeo of the day. The setting sun draped long shadows of purple and deep red onto smooth rock formations near the rodeo fairgrounds on the Navajo Nation. The rich ochre soil in the arena, fine as talc, dusted my well-worn Tony Lama boots, and bareback horses glistened lustrously under stadium floodlights as they launched from their chutes, bucking and snorting, taking bronc-busting cowboys in colorful, long-fringed leather chaps on a wild ride. This was the first time I’d seen an evening performance, and it was, to me, how a rodeo should look. It looked fabulous. Indeed, while there’s a definite electricity to the action in the arena, the real color is in the people who attend the rodeo. From the mud-caked, black-and-blue bull riders and the high-spurrin’ bareback riders, to the sequin-shirted barrel racers and big-haired rodeo princesses, it’s impossible to not burn compelling and beautiful images onto film or tape no matter where the lens is turned. And it’s a corner of America that city mice like me rarely see. In fact, this year, Gunnar Waldman and Eric Liebman of Showdown Pictures are joining me as we shoot a documentary about the life of a pro-rodeo cowboy, flying from rodeo to rodeo in a frenetic rush for points.

So K.C.’s sitting on his horse, waiting, watching, as a couple of cowboy kids slowly move forward to untie the wriggling calf, which saunters away like nothing happened. K.C.’s time, 10.1 seconds. Not bad, but he’s not thrilled. “Hopefully that’ll be good enough for me to return later in the week for another run, and a run for the money,” he says with an easy smile while walking Spot back to his three-horse, one-bedroom trailer, which is larger than some New York City apartments. After cooling down his horse, we all pile into K.C.’s fire-engine-red Freightliner and rumble off to a nearby dairy farm, plum tired and in desperate need of rest.

Airways Instead Of Highways
What do cowboys do when they don’t have two Cirrus SR22s chauffeuring them from arena to arena? They go west, young man, by highway instead of airway, and endure interminable hours on the open road. Most cowboys caravan from one rodeo to the next in diesel-powered Dodge Ram 3500 pickups or Freightliner semis (like K.C.’s), pulling cavernous, multihorse trailers, replete with living quarters and running water. But some fly, and at the airfields near the rodeo arenas, it isn’t unusual to share the ramp with other singles and twins also flying the rodeo circuit.

We’re Not Sleeping Much. “Hey, Have We Eaten Today?”
The next morning my alarm sounded way before dawn—we planned to be wheels up and on our way to the next arena at 4 a.m. Dragging myself out of the house, I glanced skyward at a crisp and placid navy-blue dome of mountain sky gleaming with so many stars it seemed they were smeared into space by a palette knife. The sky was so clear I felt as if I could fall up into it. I was also relieved, since we’d be flying way over the horizon—all the way to Prescott, Ariz., for Prescott’s Frontier Days Rodeo, the world’s oldest rodeo, and then up to Oakley, Utah, for an evening performance.


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