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. As the calf bucks against the chute’s royal-blue bars, K.C. takes a few practice swings with his lasso; its large loop traces four wide circles through the air as he feeds it and then pulls slack before tucking it back under his arm. And he’s got his Day-Glo-pink, nylon pigging string, with which he’ll tie down the calf, clenched between his teeth, its frayed tail tucked into a belt loop behind his back.
He’s ready. Everything goes still and quiet for a short beat. K.C. takes a measured breath and gives a quick nod. The calf launches from its chute and makes a beeline for the far side of the arena. A split second later, K.C. and Spot explode from the box at full gallop—in a torrent of kicked dirt and sweat, they chase down the fleeing calf. After three swings of his rope, K.C. throws the loop forward, ringing the calf’s neck. As Spot and the calf jerk to a stop, he’s off the horse and straddling the calf, tying it down. Time! Now we watch and wait as K.C. nonchalantly walks back to his mount. If the calf remains down and tied for six seconds, his time will count. If it wriggles loose—no time, and no money.
So this is the rodeo. I’m in Greeley, Colo., at the Greeley Stampede. The bulldoggers have just finished wrestling their steers, and the calf roping is now under way. K.C. is one of the best ropers in the country, and this week, some friends and I will be flying him to rodeos all over the American West in two brand-new Cirrus SR22s. This is the week they call “Cowboy Christmas”; there are more rodeos and more prize money up for grabs this week than during any other week of the year. It’s quite a ride and quite a grind. We’re planning to hit as many as three rodeos a day in cities and towns across the prairies and mountains, and the only practical way to do that is by private airplane.
This is my second summer with K.C. doing Cowboy Christmas on the pro-rodeo tour. Last year, I flew with K.C. to shoot a photo essay and write a story—the beginnings of this one. I didn’t know how enamored with the rodeo I’d become.
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.
A quick call to weather confirmed my own starry-sky observation, and I was glad there were no big Midwest boomers like the ones that flanked us for about half of the 4.8 hours we clocked on our way to Torrington, Wyo., the other day, where we began this adventure with a practice day at the ranch of K.C.’s friend, cattle rancher Larry Hume. The Avidyne integrated flight displays on our decked-out, GTS-trim SR22s sported XM Weather, which has changed the way I fly, and it sure came in handy that afternoon. Besides painting a near-real-time graphical picture of what’s going on in the atmosphere, it showed the METAR observations, TAF forecasts and winds aloft along my flight-planned route. Some of our flights throughout the week pushed five hours, and it was nice to have the current conditions at my planned destination (and en route, too) always available. On long flights like that, I’m usually asking ex-New York Mayor Ed Koch’s trademark question, “How’m I doin’?” a lot, and not just about weather.
I’m three hours out. How’m I doin’?
Time to change tanks. How’m I doin’?
I’m almost there. Already? How’m I doin’?
Because I wasn’t too keen on flying over new-to-me mountains at night, for the flight to Prescott, I filed IFR and flew down the front range, hanging a right near Albuquerque, N.M. In just under five hours, we alighted in the southwest heat at PRC with 21 gallons still in the tanks. In the Cirrus, I always like to land with at least 18 gallons on board, and the aircraft’s fuel totalizing system is one accurate son of a buck. How’m I doin’? Pretty good.
It was at Prescott that we got our first taste of real “desertlike” density altitude (DA) conditions. Outside temps were well into the 90s, and with a 5,000-foot-plus field elevation at PRC, the density altitudes figured in the 9,000-foot range, which we confirmed with a glance at the DA readout on the Avidyne MFD’s engine page. Because takeoff runs in such conditions were longer commensurate to the higher altitudes and elevated summer temperatures, rather than hold the brakes, go full power and lean according to the max power fuel-flow table placarded on the Cirrus panel, I’d multitask during my takeoff run and squeeze back the mixture control while referencing the digital fuel-flow value on the PFD. That worked well and saved the prop from possible damage from debris it might stir up and ingest.
Dodging some straggling lightning from a passing storm, our flight of two slipped into Heber City, Utah. After K.C.’s ride at the Oakley Independence Day Rodeo that evening (8.7, not bad), we hooked up with his friend, Scott Morgan May, at the Flying J Ranch for dinner and a place to hang our 10-gallon hats. By the way, how much usable gas does the SR22 have? Eight hats. Scott was astonished that I’d never dined on elk, so he fried some up in a cast-iron skillet, and some veal too. Not wanting to seem persnickety, though I don’t eat veal, I cowboyed up and dug in. After a few bites, Scott told me that I was eating roadkill. “You see…” he told me, “my friend hit this calf, which had wandered out onto the road, with his car.” I kept chewing, smiling my best, “Who cares?”–smile. “Butchered it myself,” he cracked, showing lots of teeth. I still don’t know to this day if he was telling the truth, but if that veal really was roadkill, it was the best roadkill I’ve ever had.
The flight into Heber City also put to good, practical use the terrain avoidance warning system (TAWS) that comes standard on all Cirrus aircraft. Since I was new to flying in the mountains, I flight-planned using both IFR and VFR charts for their respective info and chose my routes and altitudes accordingly, confirming with TAWS along the way that I’d comfortably clear the granite. Ultimately, I ended up flying a kind of combination IFR/ VFR in that I’d sometimes fly airways for the concrete numbers the IFR charts offered, and then I’d transition to the other type of IFR flying (I Follow Roads), and on the way to Heber City, the road at the bottom of the valley lead us right to the airport—perfect.
The Legacy Of The American West
Calf roping, like most other rodeo events, was born on ranches of the Old West, and as such, it’s impossible for city slickers like Eric, Gunnar and me not to feel like we’re witnessing, perhaps, just a little bit of true American history. In fact, they’ve been rodeoing in Prescott, Ariz., since 1888. The rodeo in Oakley was K.C.’s first night performance of the week, and the venue and the crowd were electric and upscale. It was last year at Oakley that I first saw bareback riding and saddle bronc riding, which are quintessential rodeo events—action-packed and visually stunning.
After Oakley, we cooled the heels of our Luccheses and Justins for a day before launching that evening for Belle Fourche, S.D. Some pilots might find Belle Fourche airport a trifle challenging during the day, but our late-night arrival had both Paul Sallach (the Cirrus pilot/production assistant flying the other plane) and I sitting up straight and leaning forward. Besides the occasional stray bolt from the storm just east of the field punctuating our approach—we’d been watching that cell’s movement on the XM Weather—there was no moon, and the runway’s lights seemed to have two settings, dim and off. After unpacking the planes, we hightailed it to a local motel for barely four hours of shuteye.
The Black Hills Roundup is one of my favorite events. It just seems so charming and pure. Adjacent to the chutes behind the arena there were a few cowboy kids playing cowboys and Indians. (What else would they play?) As I readied my Contax G2 to reel off a couple shots, I asked one of the kids, who was, maybe, six, where he was from. “I’m from the country,” he smiled back. I almost wanted to say, “Hey, kid, don’t talk to strangers,” but I imagine that in the town he’s from, there are no strangers. Later, while K.C. geared up for his go-round, I leaned back in the creaky bleachers and got lost in the Western sky we’d come to know so well over the week.
Saying “adios” to Belle Fourche, we moseyed (do SR22s mosey?) back to K.C.’s hometown of Cody for some much-needed downtime before another whirlwind day of three rodeos—a morning ride in West Jordan, Utah, near Salt Lake, a second visit to Prescott Frontier Days, and then an evening performance at Window Rock, Ariz., which I mentioned earlier. The SR22s really proved their mettle on that circuit since shuttling Cody to Salt Lake City, to Prescott via the Grand Canyon, and later from Prescott to Window Rock, Ariz., would have been impossible by either scheduled airline or Freightliner semi.
Our final event for the week was in Steamboat Springs, Colo., at the Steamboat Springs ProRodeo Series. Two nights, two evening performances and some ground-shaking fireworks on July fourth. The Stock contractor (they bring in the bulls and bucking horses, and in this case, the music) for this event was Bad Company Rodeo of Del Rio, Texas, and they really know how to throw a rodeo. The combination of the venue, with bleachers cut into the mountain, the stylish, resort-town crowd and the rock-and-roll music, made Steamboat the rockingest rodeo of the week.
On July 5th, the denouement of an amazing week, as we flew in a flight of two back to Cody, K.C. asked if we’d like to see some wild Mustangs on the open range southeast of town. Within minutes, we were orbiting over families of athletic horses speckled with brown-and-white patches and long, piecey manes fluttering in the breeze. They were as free as the wind, prancing and frolicking. It was unforgettable and the perfect end to our week as cowboys. Upon landing at Cody in the shadow of Yellowstone, we were as spent as ranch hands after working land on the homestead. Cowboy Christmas was over. We returned to K.C.’s ranch on the outskirts of town, where I practiced throwing a rope at a calf dummy as dusk washed over the prairie. While concentrating on ringing the plastic calf horns about 10 feet away, I reflected on how we were able to touch, and live, true American history by flying two of the coolest, newest, high-performance airplanes.
Log on to www.showdownpictures.com to learn more about our film, Cowboy Christmas.