It’s not the right day for an ambitious hike. So you wander out into the rodeo grounds, where the dog can sniff around and discover the ghosts of bulls and broncos.
But he probably can’t hear the inaudible echoes that haunt the surreal silence: the announcer’s calls not coming from the booth today, the imaginary whistles from the invisible crowd, the loud thump of nonexistent hooves.
What a great show the Dubois rodeo was, and will be again! But not just now.
Our rodeo is a remarkable phenomenon, one that too many people miss because they choose to approach Yellowstone through Cody or Jackson rather than coming this way. It’s a true small-town event, with some outsiders but also the same locals week after week. This is not show business. It’s rural recreation.
On an early spring day, it’s my chance to go where I’m otherwise forbidden. Here’s where the livestock mill around, out of my view on the far side of the caller’s booth, while I’m sitting idly on my bench across the arena.
Can you see those men whipping flanks to drive the bulls into the chute?
Here’s where so much business happens, just before the gate finally opens and the rider lurches out straddling a mount that is mightily incensed and all too temporary.
I always wondered what it looked like for the bull or bronco riders waiting on this side of the gate. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be one of them.
But then how could I? I never was part of that strong and stoic male culture. My Dad was a professor, not a wrangler or a rancher.
“Rodeo isn’t really about roping and riding, Ranches are about roping and riding,” James Galvin wrote in his wonderful novel Fencing the Sky. which is based in this general region of Wyoming. “Rodeo is about damage and vast quantities of physical pain.”
I don’t like to dwell on this part of our charming small-town rodeo. I enjoy watching the skill of the barrel racers, and the antics of the guest-ranch guests as they compete to grab the ribbon off the racing calf and sprint back with it to the starting point. But the real point of the rodeo is the part where you hold your breath and then roar aloud with admiration and incredulity at the brave fellows who hold on for dear life and hope to beat the clock.
“Even people who don’t know much about rodeo,” Galvin also wrote, “know that whatever happens … the cowboy has to rise from the dust into an ocean of pain and make it on his own to the rail as if nothing at all has happened.”
I’m one of those who doesn’t know much about rodeo. But I have seen that.
I noticed this crumpled beer can on the inside of the gate. If it were me on that animal, I would have been drinking whiskey to wash down the handful of Advil.
To outsiders, this may all seem like foolhardy bravado. But at base it commemorates the life that created this little settlement over a century ago, in which injury was part of the bargain–in a way probably no cowboy at work today could truly understand. People drowned crossing rivers before there were bridges, got stranded outdoors and died of exposure or an animal attack, and sustained occupational injuries as a matter of course.
“When one works with horses he is bound to get hurt,” said Dubois’ first cowboy Andy Manseau, who came to the area in 1881. He told of being kicked by a horse he wanted to break, which broke his leg in two places and knocked his knee out of joint. It took him three hours to mount his saddle horse, after which he rode a half mile to a neighbor who got him to a doctor.
“I was laid up for a while,” he said, “but as soon as I could I went back to riding again.” After that he goes on to tell about his last accident, which was even worse, the one that finally made him stop.
Just across the river from the rodeo grounds sits Warm Valley Lodge, the new assisted living facility. It came to be there partly so that older ranch folks who can’t get along by themselves any more can still enjoy the vistas they have always loved.
I wonder what the retired cowboys living in there think when they hear the rodeo on Friday night. Does it make them long for the roping and riding? Or does it merely make them remember ancient aches and pains? I should ask sometime.
© Lois Wingerson, 2016
You can see Living Dubois in your email every week! Sign up at the upper right.