(Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic.)
BEHIND THE RODEO GROUNDS on the edge of pincher Creek, a small town in southwestern Alberta at the confluence of highways 6, 507 and 785, cowboys have improvised a locker room. Sitting in the grass, they tape themselves up for another ride, shoring up busted elbows and knees with Ace bandages. Steer wrestlers limber up with squats and jumping jacks, while saddle bronc riders put their saddles in the dirt and jerk back and forth in pantomime of the ride to come.
“It’s pretty hard to explain what it feels like to someone who’s never done it,” says Dustin Flundra, a native of pincher Creek and, with three Canadian Saddle Bronc Championships to his credit, one of Canada’s more decorated rodeo cowboys. “When things are working, and you’re on a perfect bronc ride, it gets kind of addicting.”
Last night, when the stands here were empty and the stock was out to pasture, Flundra came home. He had been on the road all week, hopscotching between rodeos in Idaho, Washington, British Columbia and Montana. Sometime after dark, his Dodge pickup would have reached a familiar stretch of country at the base of the Rocky Mountains. With the window down, he would have smelled hay and earth. Fifty-metre wind turbines would have stood like ghostly sentinels, stirring in the cool air. Somewhere in the dark sea of fields would have been the lights of a small town, just a few streets set along a swiftly moving creek.
“I’ve probably been to 1,000 rodeos in the last 13 years, but this one is always special for me,” Flundra says. He’s squinting in the August sun now, thumbs hitched into his belt, framing an enormous buckle that reads Canadian Pro Rodeo Assoc. Saddle Bronc Champion. “This is my hometown rodeo. I know just about everybody here. They’ll all be watching.”
UNDERSTANDING THE PINCHER CREEK RODEO, held one weekend each summer for the last 61 years (and on and off well before that), begins with numbers. pincher Creek has 3,685 residents. Most years, the rodeo fills all of its 1,000 seats. “It’s safe to say it’s the event of the season,” says Farley Wuth, curator of pincher Creek’s Kootenai Brown Pioneer Village museum and unofficial town historian. Inside his office, shelves are crammed with copies of the pincher Creek Echo newspaper dating back more than a century. After introducing himself, Wuth, who is stocky with a large moustache, hands me a book with the heft of a family Bible — the 984-page town history. “Labour of love and all that,” he says.
On a hot afternoon before the rodeo kicks off, he takes me out to Main Street, a binder of historical photos tucked under his arm. We walk past a two-screen movie theatre, a Canadian Legion, a Sears catalogue store, two Chinese restaurants, a liquor store and a Sobeys supermarket. Every few minutes, people slow their cars, wave and exchange a few words with Wuth, shielding their eyes from the bright sun with one hand.
“The first competitions date back to the 1890s,” he says, fumbling through his binder for a grainy, black-and-white shot of townsfolk in their Sunday best gathered for a chuckwagon race. “Then in the 1920s, we moved things to the high school over there.” Out on the street, one horse trailer after another rattles by bound for the new rodeo grounds on the edge of town. “You have to understand that some of the ranches around here have been in the same families for five or six generations,” he says. “Rodeo isn’t just some salute to the past. It’s our future.”
BACK AT THE GROUNDS, the smell of grilling burgers and manure hangs in the air. The stands are filling quickly. Seated shoulder to shoulder are old-time ranchers, faces lined from years in the sun; young girls in cowboy hats; bonnet-wearing Hutterites from the colony just outside town and Piikani First Nations members from the reserve up the road. Up at the 4-H concessions, long lines have formed for $1.25 ears of corn and cans of pop and shaved ice flavoured with syrups in neon shades. Little kids, cowboy hats sagging down to their noses, race along the grass in front of the stands, trying to lasso each other.
Rodeo, if you haven’t grown up around it, can seem spectacularly, sometimes shockingly, violent — for horse and bull and steer and calf and no less so for rider. The day starts with bareback. Cowboys try their best to stay on bucking horses for eight seconds: hard enough in itself, but in this case it’s without the benefit of a real saddle. One after another, the animals explode from the confines of their metal chutes. Heads lower, legs rocket back and — in a spasm of terror — all four hoofs clear the ground. It’s hard to believe their muscles and bones can stand the strain. It’s even harder to believe that someone could hold on.
I watch as one cowboy after another is whipped about like a rag doll. The lucky ones hang on until the buzzer. The rest are rudely unseated, flung high into the air only to crash back to the dirt, where they sit, stunned, then dust themselves off. One competitor breaks his leg early in the competition, writhes on the ground, and then is carried off by other cowboys who form a sling with their arms. What motivates bareback riders, steer wrestlers and bull riders to get up and get back on, over and over again, can be a mystery, even for them.
“For me, it’s just about the challenge, I guess,” explains Otys Little Mustache, a steer wrestler from Brocket, a community on the Piikani reserve. Little Mustache, who has shoulderlength black hair spilling from beneath his cowboy hat, is waiting his turn on the edge of the infield. With a broad smile, mirrored sunglasses and a Dodger-blue buttoned-up shirt (but no moustache of any size), he looks equal parts GQ model and cowboy.
“My dad used to steer wrestle, so it kind of runs in the family,” he says. “Only back then, it was hard for people to get a fair shot, you know.” Challenges led First Nations cowboys to form their own rodeo associations in the ’70s, and last year Little Mustache finished second at the Indian National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas. Today, however, he’s nervous. “I went to the gym at 10 o’clock this morning just to get the jitters out,” he says.
Minutes later, the jitters don’t show. In a matter of seconds (4.3, to be precise), he has raced alongside a charging steer, leapt off his horse and landed on the animal’s shoulders. In one brutally graceful motion, he plants his heels, wrenches the steer’s horns 180 degrees clockwise and throws the nearly 230-kilogram animal on its back. Little Mustache raises both hands and pumps his fist. Friends and family in the beer tent are hollering and whistling. He collects himself, then breaks off at a trot to join in the celebrating.
DURING A LULL IN THE ACTION, I make my way through the stands, past a pen where enormous bulls glare from behind glassy brown eyes and down to a parking lot at the edge of the agricultural grounds. Inside a fifth-wheel trailer that serves as his home on the road and dressing room, Ash Cooper is anxious: his makeup has smeared. “You’ve got to put baby powder on or it will do that in the hot weather,” says Cooper, a rodeo clown who goes by the stage name CrAsh and wears oversized pants and suspenders with a red-and-white striped Where’s Waldo-style shirt. A former semi-pro hockey player from Saskatchewan, he came to clowning by accident 20 years ago. “I like the spotlight and I thought, ‘That looks like fun,’ ” he says. “Of course, it helped there was a shortage of clowns at the time.”
Cooper closes one eye and paints the lid blue, then repeats with the other. “You definitely don’t do it for the money. It’s the lifestyle you get hooked on.” A typical year sees him criss-crossing the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, performing on rodeo’s biggest stages, including Alberta’s own Calgary Stampede. “But it’s the little rodeos where you feel the crowd,” he says. “These people here remember jokes I made three years ago.” Before I leave, Cooper tells me to pay attention during an upcoming intermission, when he’ll put on a pair of stilts and do a backflip in the middle of the arena. “Broke my back doing that a few years ago, but it always gets the crowd going.”
This time, Cooper lands the flip without incident. Afterward, he sticks around to officiate something called a calf scramble. Two dozen six- to nine-year-olds stampede around the arena, trying to corner a pair of spooked calves and tug ribbons off their tails. With new bikes on the line, the animals don’t stand a chance, and two blonde-haired girls claim the prizes in less than 30 seconds.
The day’s few clouds have burned off now and bright sun bakes the dirt of the infield. Tie-down ropers lasso calves and bind their hooves in a blur, and ladies barrel racers on horseback thunder across the infield, long hair whipping from beneath their hats as they weave through hairpin turns around barrels. From the beer tent, the smells of barbecue — smoke, pork and corn on the cob — rise and sail on the breeze.
It’s near the end of the day when I find Flundra, the hometown favourite, waiting his turn behind the chutes. For someone about to get on a 540-plus-kilogram hunk of tense, rippled muscle named Chicken Hawk, he’s surprisingly calm. “Rodeo’s been good to me. It’s had highs and lows, but everything in life comes with that,” he says. Lately, however, bumps and bruises have been starting to add up. “Tore a meniscus, tore an MCL, dislocated a fibula, broke an elbow, tore a ligament in my elbow, had my head stepped on and ended up with a severe concussion,” he says, pausing to remember if he’s missed anything. “That’s just in the last three years. But doesn’t do you no good to sulk.”
Moments later, the crowd and announcers go quiet as Flundra settles into the saddle. His horse bashes at the steel siding with its hoofs, thrashing in the tight space. When the chute door finally swings open, the animal gives a pair of frantic bucks, hurtling onto the infield. Flundra’s head snaps back; the fringes of his chaps whip through the air. Hundreds of cowboy hats in the stands swivel in time, following each stutter and lurch across the dirt.
But the horse loses enthusiasm, slows and bucks lamely along the fence. Flundra holds on, but his score leaves him out of the running for top honours. “That’s how it works sometimes,” he explains afterward, disappointed but trying not to show it. “All you can do is get back in the truck and head down the road to the next one.”
The 61st annual pincher Creek rodeo ends at 5 p.m. sharp. By 5:15, hundreds of cars have left the rodeo grounds, crawled along Main Street, paused at the stop sign at Christie Avenue and left the town centre. It’s still the same bright, hot Sunday, but now it’s quiet: no booming announcer’s voice or country music coming from the Horseshoe Pavilion. On Main Street, the two Chinese restaurants are closed. The movie theatre’s doors are locked. Those who aren’t on the highway to the next event are on their way home to make dinner and catch up on chores neglected all weekend because the rodeo was in town.
RODEO’S CLOSING TIME
A dance with a cowboy
After dark — when the bucking horses and bulls have all been ridden and the calves and steers have all been roped and wrestled — attention in pincher Creek turns to the Cabaret, or the Cab, as the kids call it. The annual dance is staged inside a football-field sized barn next to the rodeo grounds, with a dirt floor and a smell like damp hay. Inside, young guys wear their flashiest belt buckles, with gingham shirts half unbuttoned. Girls are in summer dresses or flannel shirts knotted in front. Big metal horse troughs have been filled with ice and beer, and a band called Sweet Tequila is playing something by Johnny Cash.
Two-step is the dance of choice tonight; in fact, it’s the only dance. By midnight, the lights have been dimmed, picnic tables are crowded with empties and the air is warm and heavy with the heat of bodies. Glances exchanged at the day’s rodeo turn into cheek-to-cheek two-steps, helped along by Kokanee and coolers. During the song “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy,” older couples get the hint, ceding the floor to the next generation of pincher Creek’s cowboys and cowgirls.