Consider the Cowboy

The rodeo is violent but does that make it wrong?

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At a week-long festival that advertises itself as the greatest outdoor show on earth, the rodeo is the main event. There are other things at the Calgary Stampede too—possibly safe carnival rides, fried foods stuffed will other fried foods, games in which you spend $40 to win something worth $4, fireworks—but I think people are probably more interested to watch a 160-pound cowboy climb atop a 1800-pound animal. In any case I was.

I don’t know very much about rodeo. Before I went for the first time last year I had a vague interest in bull riding but knew little more than a few random bits of trivia. Like for example, I heard that the rope the cowboy holds onto is fastened to the bull’s genitals. The harder the bull bucks, the harder the cowboy has to hang on which, in turn, tightens the rope, causing the bull greater discomfort so he bucks even harder. Makes sense right? Turns out this is a myth.

My university roommate, who we’ll call Tuf (after Tuf Cooper, a real cowboy whose real name was spelled with a single “f”), had transferred to the city earlier in the year to work as a manager for a company that shall remain nameless. He offered to host. I got in late one night in the middle of the week at which point we headed straight to a pub around the corner from his apartment. We caught up on the basic stuff—his soon-to-be-ex but now-current girlfriend, the zoo that was the American presidential race—while the highlights from the day’s rodeo played in the background.

“How do they get them to buck like that?” he asked, not really expecting an answer. I told him about the testicle rope so I could then tell him it was untrue and went on to explain the rules: The rider climbs atop a bull, which locked in a tiny enclosure, and lashes his hand to the bull such that the hand doesn’t always come out when he gets bucked off.[1] When the gate opens the rider has to stay on for at least eight seconds to be eligible for a score. Half the score is awarded based on how well he has ridden (posture, poise, etc.), the other half is based on how “rank” the bull gets. The harder he is to ride, the more points awarded.

In the top tier of this sport, the bulls are bred to be nearly impossible to ride, and I have seen them do things that should be impossible for a creature of that size. There is no testicle rope or other cruel methods of man that can make these animals do what they do.[2]

*

I went to my first rodeo expecting to be emotionally shaken by what I saw. I thought it would be a sort of self-reckoning, motivated by the same forces that drove me—someone who can barely stomach the prospect of gutting a deer but gets unnaturally excited to eat it—to go hunting for the first time. I wasn’t about to go drinking for four days straight in a cowboy hat and more denim than any human being should ever wear at once without witnessing the games at the heart of the city-wide bacchanal.

But I also knew that many people do not like the rodeo. Even the description of several events sound inhumane. Calf-roping, for example, requires a cowboy to chase down a young calf on horseback, sling a rope around its neck while it’s still at a dead sprint, and then slam it into the ground to tie its four legs together. Steer wrestling is similar except the cowboy jumps off a moving horse onto the young bull’s horns and twists it into the ground (see photo supra). The chuckwagon events, which are basically modern chariot races, are also famously dangerous though not as objectively bothersome to watch as the other two.

But I saw all of these things and, to be totally honest, they didn’t trouble me the way I thought they would. I became sort of obsessed with trying to understand why.

*

On day of the rodeo the rain was coming down hard and cold—like a bone-deep cold, which was particularly upsetting because it was July. We asked someone assembling hamburgers at a deserted stretch of food stands whether there was any chance the rodeo might get cancelled today. She said she doubted it.

“Cowboys are tough,” she said.

“What about the animals?” I asked.

“That’s the only reason they might. If it’s too slippery for them to run, they could break their legs. I don’t think it’s that bad though,” she said in complete earnestness while staring through a curtain of rain. Tuf tried to light about three cigarettes under his poncho which was tucked up under his cowboy hat. Each one was sopping wet by the time he fished his lighter out of his pocket. But she was right, the events were not cancelled. So we sat shivering in the open-air stadium through the whole goddamn thing, clutching beers in our numb fingers like idiots.

The show began with some lighthearted banter between the two commentators and the rodeo clown. Then the calf roping started. The very first cowboy caught his calf less than five steps out of the gate, dismounted, dropped the animal in the mud and tied him up, all less than six seconds. It was, in complete sincerity, one of the most impressive athletic displays I’ve ever seen. After a few seconds in the mud, the calf was untied and it popped up and trotted off to the gate on the far side of the arena.

Even when the cowboys struggled, twisting the calves into all manner of unnatural positions, the animals always seemed to react the same way. That is, they didn’t react very much at all. They were smaller than the cowboys, but they were hardy little fuckers and they seemed fully capable of withstanding even the clumsiest attempts to pull them down.

*

One of the primary arguments against these events is that you’d never choke slam a kitten or sling a rope around a puppy’s neck[3] so why on earth would you do it to a baby bull? This is a dumb thing to say. Setting aside the physical differences, rodeo animals occupy a totally different space in our cultural imagination. If the day ever comes when a butcher in this part of the world can sell kitten chops without parades of people hitting the street with placards and megaphones, we can revisit this argument.

Still, I understand that my personal feelings after attending a single day of rodeo is not necessarily the best barometer of the ethical implications of these activities.

Between 1986 and 2012 nearly 90 animals have died at the Calgary Stampede, mostly as a direct result of injuries sustained during the chuckwagon and the steer/calf events. And there are thousands of rodeos that happen regularly throughout the Americas.  I also think the anti-rodeo crowd—many members of which have been all too eager to rush to the defense of rodeo animals, using cuddlier pets as rhetorical stand-ins—does deserve some credit. It’s because of them that many basic animal safety regulations are now enforced at sanctioned rodeos.

All this to say: I understand the inclination to want to protect these innocent[4] animals. I understand the events they are put through are violent and dangerous. The question I’m interested in here is whether something that is violent and dangerous is necessarily bad and ought to be stamped out of existence. I think that’s a more complicated question.

*

Tuf and I have been friends for over a decade. We went to high school together, played football together, roomed together through all four years in university. I remember one year, at a Halloween party, I challenged a person dressed like a wrestler to a wrestling match in the living room only to find out that his costume was actually a uniform, and that he was a regionally ranked amateur.

Following that beating, Tuf wanted a piece of the action, and in the ensuing tussle I was hit in the face until I bled all over the living room. Inconsiderate though it was to our host—a former-friend who, as far as I know, never forgave us for ruining her carpet—we agreed it was one of the best parties we ever went to.

Ordinarily, Tuf and I go out of our way to avoid confrontations with strangers (good-sporting wrestlers at parties excluded). And yet between us, even well into our adult years, there’s always been a rather vicious sense of competitiveness. We always get into these fights with one another, friendly and yet, in a lot of ways, not. I don’t have that relationship with anyone else and I don’t think I could. There’s an unspoken understanding that whatever reason or injury, these bouts end with a beer and a cigarette. It’s a primal way to measure and affirm our sense of ourselves.

To put it another way: the violence is something I cherish. I think Tuf does too.

I know this sounds like some macho psychobabble but you don’t exactly have to be Freud to see that this sort of thing: a) happens all the time, particularly in sports, and b) usually underscores a rather strong relationship. It is also, I think, the closest most of us will ever personally ever come to understanding the relationship between a cowboy and a rodeo animal.

There are a few key differences. One of the easy ones is that the animals can’t consent (refer to FN 4 for all I’m going to say on this). The other is that stakes are much higher. People and animals do die at the rodeo, but I also think that heightened risk generates a heightened form of respect—love, even. It is not a simple business transaction, where the animal is bred, fed, and turned loose. They have personalities,[5] professional records, people whose job it is to stroke their flanks while they eat wheat. Even the humble calf is not just some prop to be used in the show.

There’s a reason “cowboys love their animals” has become a cliché. The rodeo is an evolution of ranching practices; it remains a way of life in which humans rely on their animals and their continued well-being. To forget that seems to demonstrate a willful ignorance of the spirit of the event.

*

Most of our stereotypes of cowboys portray them as tough, laconic, and even-handed. They have a steel grip on their values. They’re independent, apprehensive of strangers, polite, and fiercely loyal. These people—and by extension, their animals—are not to be fucked with.

I met a few people like this in Calgary. One of them was an older gentleman who castigated Tuf for flicking his cigarette on the cobblestone street, getting up from his huevos rancheros on a nearby patio to explain that that, buddy, is how forest fires start. Another was a police officer in a truck who—clearly sensing we were hungover—encouraged us to “get it in ya” while we were slurping Gatorades at a crosswalk. Another was a very bored bouncer me and Tuf were talking to about hockey and politics one night in what seemed to be the one of the few empty parts of town.

Tuf has long been in the habit of calling kind and good-hearted individuals “good people.” That bouncer was good people. Earlier that night we had met up with our friend’s mom, who was also in town for the Stampede. She was good people.  But then Tuf said that by way of comparison my mom—who was sometimes known to be a little abrasive and mean—was not good people.

I did not accept this. I told him my mother was one of the goodest people I knew and, basically, where the hell does he get off making that kind of deep and cutting judgment about her?

He shrugged it off. Neither of us talked about it after that, but it brought out a strange contrast between us and the people I had come to associate with the culture here. It seemed totally obvious that someone like the bouncer, or the police officer in the truck, or even the old man talking about the forest fires would never make a passing judgment like that about someone who was not from here. They would not question their character or something they held dear. We who were not from here did that sort of thing all the time. We do it to stake out that moral high-ground.

And when I was writing this, I thought about that a lot, and all the judgments I would inevitably pass.


 

[1] This usually results in but one of a variety of truly difficult-to-watch injuries that bull riders suffer.

[2] For a case study, I give you the bull quite appropriately known as Air Time.

[3] Leashes are not the same thing…

[4] Though I do think that “innocence” and “consent” and similar concepts invoked to defend animals end up being inapplicable here. Rodeo animals are no more or less innocent than bull that seems hell-bent on goring you, or a wild steer that succumbs to sickness and hungry coyotes out in the prairies. They’re no more or less capable of consenting than some free-range beef that was raised with the utmost tenderness before it was painlessly slaughtered. These concepts are projections, useful only insofar as they make us feel guilty or gracious.

[5] My favourite example is Bodacious, the bull who to this day is viewed as the most dangerous in rodeo. He had a reputation for the way he bucked, where he would force the cowboy forward just as he whipped his head back. On one famous occasion he nearly killed a rider, crushing most of the bones in his face. Bodacious was never disqualified or retired because of this, and yet it was widely seen as a purposeful and malicious act, even though the perpetrator was an animal. You see, formidable as he was, in rodeo circles Bodacious was an asshole.

 

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Consider the Cowboy

A Kook Goes to Hawaii

On the horrible, embarrassing, incredible experience of trying to surf

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Not me.

I love surfing. Well, that’s not quite right. I love the idea of surfing. The exotic locations, the commitment to something so elemental, ephemeral, and violent: the wave.

I recently finished reading Barbarian Days, a story about two young men who drag themselves malnourished and broke to the other side of the world to chase it. They would camp out by the sea and gnaw on rotting fruit rinds just to get in the water at sunrise.

The truth is, I love surfing the way a sixth-grader loves the popular girl going into high school: with a combination of impossible longing and fear. And that uncomfortable crush has never been stronger than it was last summer, when I went to Hawaii for the first time with my family.

*

I don’t think I’m alone here. I’ll occasionally see photos of friends on vacation, crouched uncertainly atop a rental board or holding it underarm while they stand on the beach, looking wistfully out there.

I get it.

Thing is, I don’t think it’s possible to really convey what they’re feeling. In conversations (or an essay like this one) it’s very easy to come across like the guy who he caught a glimpse of the Virgin Mary in a piece of burnt toast. You might have and I’m sure it really was incredible, but I’m also having a tough time getting as excited about it as you are.

This difference—between actually experiencing this thing and trying to tell your friends about it—sort of mirrors the dissonance between watching someone surf and acknowledging who is, at least occasionally, doing the surfing. The dude. The burnout. The artist. The wanderer.[1] The vocal fry sizzling, van-living, beachside-camping kid who’s going to get a real job soon he swears.

For example, arguably the best surfer in the world right now is a 23-year-old named John John Florence[2] who is impossible to confuse with anyone other than a surfer. Bleach blonde hair, wiry frame. He’s sort of distractible in his interviews. Uses words like “gnarly.” He just came out with the world’s biggest budget surf film to date called View from a Blue Moon (for which I have watched the trailer well over a dozen times) and in that movie/trailer, he is another person entirely.[3] Seeing him stuck in a chair for an interview is about as comfortable as watching a sea turtle drag its big, stupid body across a beach, but watching him in the trailer is like the first time you realized that thing is actually made to swim.

The difference isn’t just huge—it’s transformative.

For me, on the other hand, getting in the water had precisely the inverse effect. Surfers have their own term for beginners: they’re called kooks. As surfers know, and as kooks quickly learn, we do not belong in the path of the great forces at work in the ocean. The wave inflicts levels of physical and psychological humiliation, and other surfers compound this humiliation to scare us off and keep us out. If you ascribe to the belief that this is more sacred art than sport, then we kooks are obnoxious tourists in a holy place.

Which is to say, I’ve been a beginner at a lot of things, but never has it been quite as embarrassing as it was being a kook in Hawaii.

*

I had taken a surfing lesson once when I was in Mexico. We took a shuttle to a beachside hostel where we spent the first 10 minutes on the sand learning to pop up and down. That was the whole lesson. Just get from your belly to your feet as fast as you can.

So when we got to Hawaii, there would be no lessons. All I wanted was a board and directions to a spot where I wouldn’t die.

As soon as we got to our hotel on Waikiki beach I looked out through the open-air lobby and saw surfers in the water, bobbing like action figures way out at a distant break. Most had parked in this public lot up the side of the harbour where they launched off a rocky pier. Waves didn’t seem too intense. Maybe shoulder-high, I thought to myself. It’s just water for Christ’s sake.

I went out over there alone for a closer look. In the parking lot, there were vans with surfboards lashed to the roof and pickups with surfboards sticking out of their cabs. A few people were tailgating, sitting on cement parking blocks and huddled around charcoal barbecues, their white flakes rising on currents of hot air.

I walked out on the pier to where the surfers were going in and coming out of the water, stepping gingerly across the gaps in these immovable boulders while crabs scuttled over and around the slick contours. I saw a guy standing there with his surfboard under his arm, watching people who I imagined were his friends in the water. I asked him if he was going in. He said he was. I asked him if this was somewhere someone who hadn’t really surfed before could try and he said absolutely not. He was nice about it, but I got the feeling I had violated some social norm, like asking a stranger to puff on their cigarette. He said I should walk farther down the beach. Here the reef was too shallow and when I fell I would get knocked around pretty good.

I noticed he had an accent and asked where he was from. He said Israel. I asked whether or not he was enjoying his vacation and he told me (rather excitedly) that he actually lived on Oahu. After I walked back to the beach I saw him and the other surfers walking back across the pier, their silhouettes set against the sunset like something you’d see on a postcard. At that moment, nothing in the universe could dispel my impressions of how cool these people were.

Over the next few days I saw him hanging around our hotel’s courtyard, working a booth where he sold wind mobiles. I never approached him again.

*

In the four days I was in Waikiki, the guy at the surf booth urged me not to go surfing because the conditions sucked. But this was Hawaii, and I wasn’t about to let some surf booth operator tell me I shouldn’t go surfing in Hawaii.

Now I couldn’t say for sure whether that first outing was more a result of the shitty conditions or my overwhelming incompetence but I spent a solid hour paddling to spots where the waves just finished breaking (I would soon learn that this is very much a waiting game), trying to stand up on teeny waves that didn’t so much break as collapse into a mushy pile of whitewater, and confusing the shimmering reef under the clear water with what might have been a shark. I also learned what a rash guard is and why people wear them.

So that sucked. But only a few days later, we flew to the island of Maui and we heard about a surf spot close to our apartment complex called Whaler’s Village. It’s an outdoor mall on the beach with a sandy break just a short walk away from some of the hotels.

I rented a board from a hut on the beach, approaching the owner to ask about the conditions. He made a bunch of hand gestures and told me a bunch of things I pretended to understand. Then he handed over a big blue soft-top and I took off towards the water.

*

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Will Finnegan in Java (photo via Deadspin)

In Barbarian Days William Finnegan writes that once a wave exceeds 20 feet, the number of surfers who are willing to ride that wave drops off precipitously. He quotes one surfing scholar who puts the number ready to ride 25-foot waves at less than 1 in 20,000.

“I had surfed alongside a few big-wave specialists on the North Shore, but I thought of them as mutants, mystics, pilgrims traveling another road from the rest of us, possibly made from a different raw material,” Finnegan writes. He quotes an old-time big-wave rider who once said “big waves are not measured in feet, but in increments of fear.”

I saw in this passage a crucial revelation about surfing: fear is constant and there is a point when things get so heavy that talent doesn’t really matter.

This—and this is not an exaggeration—kept me up at night. Comparing the waves here to anything over 20 feet was preposterous, of course, and yet knowing this was no more comforting than your father’s perfunctory reminder that you would be safe riding a gigantic-seeming roller coaster as a kid. I wasn’t scared of drowning, exactly. When I imagine drowning I imagine a struggle, but there would be no struggle here. In the lizardy part of my brain, it seemed half possible that my body would be swallowed and washed into non-existence.

Worse, this feeling didn’t even really go away after the first day surfing in Maui. Even in bed, I could still feel in my limbs and my gut a faint sensation of being tossed around, like I was being shaken in the cradle of a giant’s massive palms. Oddly enough the only time this feeling went away was in the water. In the moments I turned my head to paddle, I didn’t have time to think about how big the wave was going to get before it came down on top of me.

*

Getting out there was probably the toughest part. The first few sets were were easy to paddle through, but as I got farther out, the roiling whitewater rushing towards shore became taller and too difficult to push over. So, I went under.

Given that my board was probably buoyant enough to float a refrigerator (beginners all get these huge clumsy boards because they’re easier to ride) this was also a challenge. The first few times, I thought I would try to hold onto it, barrel-rolling under the water and hooking my hands and my heels over the rails. This was dumb. The force of the wave would rip the board away from me and send me tumbling back towards the shore. Trick was let go and dive deep, letting the rubber ankle leash hold on as it bounced through the waves.

I did make it to the break where probably six or seven other surfers were waiting. I sat up on my board maneuvering by twirling my legs in the water like eggbeaters. The fact that many of these surfers were, by my estimation, ‘legit’ was actually comforting. I tried not to crowd them while acknowledging that where they were was probably the best place to wait. I stood up on a couple waves briefly but when I fell and came up I was battered repeatedly by the next sets (a phenomenon known as getting caught inside). Every time I tried to climb on my board, the next wave was right there to sweep the board right the fuck out from under me. The whole experience conjures the image of a drill sergeant, throwing buckets of water in your face while you gasp for air. The ocean might as well have been asking why I’m such a pussy.

After about 30 minutes of this, I crawled ashore for a break.

*

After reading Finnegan’s book, I wondered for a long time whether or not I should write anything about surfing, mostly because I’ve been told it’s difficult-to-impossible to write about surfing well if you actually surf, let alone if you’re a goddamn tourist.

In an essay-style review of Finnegan’s book for New York Magazine, Jay Kang writes about some of the cringeworthy first-person accounts of surfing in Hawaii: the long rides in to shore, the “ecstatic bliss,” the wipeouts (there are invariably more examples in this piece you’re reading, I’m just too green to know what they are). “(They) were writing about the sport in the way they might have written about eating ahi poke for the first time in a Hawaiian hotel,” Kang writes. The kicker was that this “kook bait,” as he calls it, was penned by Mark Twain and Jack London.

Which brings us to the obvious question: what am I—a writer unfit to sharpen Mark Twain or Jack London’s pencil—trying to do here?

The honest answer is that I don’t know. All the reasons I’ve run over in my head—to distance myself from this romanticized notion of surfing (“the sunbaked spiritual pornography,” as Kang calls it), to describe the not insignificant physical and psychological toll of actually doing something that seems so gracefulnow sound stupid.

I’m sure that as a landlocked Canadian, I’ll never learn to really surf, and despite my absolute best efforts, I don’t think I’ll ever be much better at writing about it.

But you’ve made it this far so if you’ll indulge me for just a little while longer, I’ll try to tell you what it is like to stand up on a wave.

*

You begin paddling, hard, and long before you can judge whether you should be trying to catch this wave. Soon, your board will begin to tip forward as the water rises up behind you, but unlike the other times, the nose will not dig into the water. The wave will not pass under you. It will not curl overtop of you. It will begin to carry you.

You’ll pop up, not really expecting to be able to stand but you’ll stand anyways. You will feel like you’re hovering above the water, like you are defying physics. You are not defying physics, though. That big dumb board could probably carry a second person, but this thought will never occur to you—not if you rode a thousand more waves like this.

You’ll become lucid, piercingly aware that you are now doing exactly what you were trying to do since you got in the water—that the other times when you made it half this distance aren’t like this; not even close.

You’ll remember something you saw when you were watching the other surfers and you begin pumping your legs to gain momentum. You are now slightly more surprised you haven’t fallen off but, like a bicycle gaining speed, your balance is more assured.

Now the wave is beginning to die under your feet. You don’t just want to jump off. You want to stay in control. So you fall forward onto your board, bracing yourself with your arms. This is when you finally slide into the water. You climb back on, calmly.

You paddle back towards the beach. But in your goofy reverie, you forget about the ocean behind you. The undertow pulls you into a breaking wave and smashes you hard into the steep sandbank. Your body is full of sand and shame. You’re suddenly very aware that the beach is pretty crowded and you scramble to pick yourself up.

You see kids running with boogie boards straight into breaking waves, doing backflips as they shoot off the water like a ramp. You wonder if the people at the hut are going to check if your board is damaged. You think it is definitely damaged.

It was incredible and ugly in equal parts. But you also know that when you leave this place, you will not regret having failed.


[1] I actually got these from a list of surfing stereotypes that were published in a surf magazine. They are, of course, not exhaustive and I already feel bad about lumping massive numbers of talented surfers into these not-so-flattering categories.

[2] Even just his name

[3] I know a lot of this has to do with things like production value, but I can’t imagine the effect is greatly diminished when you watch him surf in person.

A Kook Goes to Hawaii

Surviving the Zambezi

On a pleasant summer day back in 2006, Harrison Lowman was brutalized by the harsh mistress known as the Zambezi River.

He and his family were on Safari in southern Africa. They spent many of their afternoons camped out under the blistering sun, waiting to catch a glimpse of one of the beasts that roam the veldt. It could get frustrating, Harry said. There was never any guarantee that they would see anything.

So they decided to try something different – white water rafting. On the morning of their excursion, 80 vacationers piled into a series of white school buses leaving the resort. They passed groupings of thatch-roofed houses as they rode through the Zambian countryside clutching life vests and helmets in their laps.

The buses came to a stop in the middle of the forest. After a quick lesson on how to paddle and “holding on tight,” they started down towards the rushing water. Where the Zambezi cuts through the landscape, it leaves two shear cliffs on either side more than 100 feet high. The winding path was enough to make those in flimsy footwear a little uneasy.

At the parts of the river too rough for tourists, the raft’ers would stand at the edge and watch each guide steer their 10-person raft through the rapids themselves.

“Our guide would always go first,” Harry said. “He was fearless.” When he went down these parts of the river, he stood up on the raft and let his dreadlocks and beads shake freely while the other guides kept their helmets tightly fastened. He was a short black man with bloodshot eyes, big blue lips and a thick Jamaican-sounding accent.

“I’m gwan keep ya safe Mamma, don’t ya worry boot it!” he would tell Harry’s mom, Lisa. Whenever they hit a big wave, the guide would grip her lifejacket to make sure she stayed in the raft. Everyone else would have to reach for the frayed rope that ran along the side to hang on. Harry didn’t.

They went over a drop in the rapids that bumped him out of the raft. Instead of grabbing the rope, Harry grabbed his younger brother.  Both of them ended up in the churning waters.

“It’s so crazy the way your body feels when you hit that water,” he said. While Harry’s brother was pulled right back into the boat, he was sucked underneath it. The crisscross of currents pulled him down to the bottom, tossing him around like a doll in a washing machine.

After he got free of the currents, his mom grabbed hold of him before his dad and the guide were able to pull him up from the water. “It was totally blown off, I don’t think people realize that I fucking thought I was going to die. They were just like, ‘okay, he’s back in the boat, let’s keep going.’”

At the foot of the rapids were gentler waters and a chance to enjoy the scenery. Afterwards they all piled back into the bus where they got drunk on cheap African beer. Harry was 15.

Surviving the Zambezi