THE FIRST RULE of watching rodeo: Don’t wear lip gloss. I learned this in 1994 at my very first rodeo in Gallup. My friends and I found our seats on the hot aluminum bleachers and munched on Indian fry bread while, in the middle of the rodeo ground a few feet away, a barrel racer riding a mustang made cloverleaf patterns around oil drums. At each tight turn, the mustang kicked up a puff of dust, which swirled up so the wind could catch it and throw it right in our faces. The lip gloss became like amber to ancient mosquitoes—it held the crystals of dust in a solid grip, encasing them for eternity. My lips actually made a crunching sound when I squeezed them together to free the sand.
A month before, I’d moved to New Mexico from Florida to work at the Gallup Independent newspaper. My new home was an old double-wide trailer on the Navajo reservation just outside of town. During my commute to work, I saw cliffs of red rocks a half mile to the north, low hills covered in pine trees to the south, and absolutely nothing but horizon to the west and east. It was so unlike Florida’s Disney-esque version of life, where anything rough-edged or disobedient had to be paved over and made into a strip mall.
I think that’s why, during the two years I lived in Gallup, I went to any rodeo I could in places like Farmington, Shiprock, Two Grey Hills, and Crownpoint. Everything about rodeo was rough-edged and disobedient. Not the least of which was the dust that turned my lip gloss into sandpaper that first day.
The bulk of what I knew about rodeo came from countrywestern songs, so all I could tell you was that blood rhymed with mud, and latigo (whatever that was) didn’t rhyme with anything. I would try to listen as the announcers gave play-by-plays, but—as in the announcements to shoppers at the local Wal-Mart—the important information was said in Navajo. All I could say for sure was that cowboys with the last names Yazzie and Begay got the longest applause.
If the rodeo was part of a county fair, it was easy to get distracted, because inevitably a powwow would be going on at the same time. Even if I didn’t have a clear view of the dancing area, I could faintly hear the beat of drums and almost see the intricate steps of the dancers, the ribbons of their costumes flowing like waves of color around them. I got good at spotting the powwow-rodeo moms who had sons in both competitions. The mother would perch on the highest bleacher seat above the rodeo grounds, keeping an eye on one son as he held tight to the back of a bronco and another eye on her other son as he did complicated dance steps at the powwow grounds next door.
One day, heavy summer monsoon rains cut an arroyo through the dancing grounds, and the powwow was postponed. I paid more attention to the bulls and the blood, the dust and the mud. I still had no idea what was going on. Luckily, rodeo people are friendly, so everyone around me explained the finer points. For instance, real cowboys wear Wrangler jeans. The reason for this is historical. Wranglers were first made in the 1940s specifically for cowboys. The jeans featured back pockets that wouldn’t chafe while in the saddle, and the metal rivet in the crotch was replaced by a strong zigzag stitch, which sounds like a much-needed improvement. Wranglers are the official jeans of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, which also has official hay distributors and official trailer hitches.
The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association also has official cowboy boots—Justin Boots, in business since 1879. When I decided to get a pair so that I could look like I belonged at a rodeo, I went to Zimmerman’s Western Wear on Route 66 in the middle of Gallup, next to Richardson’s Trading Post. More than 50 years ago, when Bob Dylan—aka Robert Zimmerman, from small-town Minnesota—wanted to create a cool persona, he said he was a Zimmerman from Gallup. I tried to play it as cool as Dylan as I went into the store, but I quickly got a turquoise-blue boot trapped halfway up my left foot. It would be hard for anyone to look cool hobbling like Quasimodo across the store, looking for help with a blue boot dragging behind one foot and a sweat sock with a hole in the big toe on the other. I walked out of Zimmerman’s with sensible black roper boots. I’ve had those boots resoled twice and still wear them when I want to feel tough.
Full of pride after buying my first pair of cowboy boots, I wore them to the very next rodeo in Shiprock, where the friendly folks around me explained the various types of rodeo competitions, including timed events such as barrel racing and roping, and roughstock events such as bull riding and bronco busting. In pro rodeos, women can compete only in barrel racing. (In amateur rodeos, they can also compete in roping categories.) Back in the 1920s, women rode bulls along with the boys, but after two women died while riding, the men became nervous and banned women from the rough-stock events. There are no statistics on how many men died doing the exact same thing.
It is during the team and individual roping events that the stereotypical lasso comes out. In the individual event, a rider must throw the rope around the neck of a calf. The horse then leans back to pull tension on the rope. The cowboy jumps down, grabs the calf, and lays it down. Then, in some sleight-of-hand trick, he ties three of the calf’s hooves together in one fluid motion. The second he is done, the cowboy throws his arms up in the air to show he is finished—a combination of a magician’s “Ta-da!” and a gymnast’s “finish” position. It is the ultimate sign of confidence and completion. I started making that gesture in the newsroom when I would finish a story at deadline. I would type in the last period and throw my arms into the air, like I had just hog-tied a baby cow.
After working in Gallup for two years, I moved to Santa Fe to work for the New Mexican newspaper. One of my first writing assignments was an article on road construction. Without thinking, as I typed in the final period, I threw my hands in the air. Most of the newsroom ignored me. But one woman, in jeans and cowboy boots, walked over to me and introduced herself, saying, “I can tell you’ve been to a rodeo or two.” She had grown up in Window Rock, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation, and found herself fighting the urge to do the same thing when she finished a story.
It was she who told me about how a bull becomes part of the rodeo circuit. The bulls, along with the bucking horses, are trained to buck, and the best buckers are treated like royalty. One of the biggest names in bulls is Bushwacker, who has a Clint Eastwood stare and spots on his face that make him look diseased. He has been successfully ridden only twice since 2009. He bucks off 96 percent of cowboys in 3.3 seconds, leaving them far short of the required 8-second ride. Because bulls like Bushwacker are so prized, they are pampered and specially bred to work in rodeo. They are often given names designed to scare the cowboy—Fear Me, Bucking Machine, or Pain Maker—or scare the bull—Meat Hook or Crack the Whip. The cowboy who is able to ride for the full 8 seconds might go on to win the most prized trophy: a really, really enormous belt buckle.
It was before moving to Santa Fe, when I was still making the rodeo rounds near Gallup, that I learned another rodeo rule the hard way: Never ask a woman if she is a “buckle bunny.” I had been told that you could tell a bunny by her denim shorts, small shirt, cowboy boots, and dedication to meeting the rodeo rider who has won the biggest buckle. I thought the perfect way to meet one was to write a story about bunnies. But I went to rodeo after rodeo and never saw one. It was late summer, and, with the rodeo season winding down, I was worried I’d never get an interview.
I was at a rodeo in Grants when I finally spotted one through the crowd. She wasn’t wearing denim shorts, but instead had on a long purple skirt with a hem that reached down to the dirt, leaving only the tips of her boots visible. It was her blouse that made me suspect she was a bunny. It was very sheer; you could see everything underneath in the bright sunlight. Her bottom half was A Prairie Home Companion and her top half was exotic dancer.
I pursued her past the cow-plop field, where people were betting on the exact spot a cow would defecate, and the mutton-busting ring, where toddlers in cowboy hats held tight to the backs of fluffy sheep. I finally caught up with her outside the burrito truck, where she was chatting with a bull rider still wearing his leather chaps. I introduced myself as a reporter and told her about the story I was working on.
In hindsight, I probably should have thought it through. Let’s just say that you should never suggest that a woman might be out to find the man with the biggest buckle.
I live in Albuquerque now, and the rodeos that come to town are held in indoor stadiums with artificial lighting. There is little chance any dust will get stuck in my lip gloss. That might be why I haven’t been to a rodeo in years; inside, a sense of wildness seems to be missing. But maybe the next time I drive past a hand-painted sign for a local rodeo as I go through Gallup or Grants or Cuba or Crownpoint, I might just stop for some Indian fry bread and sit for a moment on hot bleacher seats. I’ll wait for the wind to blow some dust in my face and see if I can spot a bull with a Clint Eastwood stare.
And maybe I’ll finally find out what a latigo is.