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That's a Lot of Bull




A cowboy falling of a bull while a rodeo clown rushes to help
Bull Rider, Monte Vista, Colorado

I have long suspected one of the most popular rodeo events was born in a drunken barroom bet.


While many rodeo events like cattle roping or steer wrestling have their origins in ranch work, there is only one logical explanation for why a human thought of sitting on an angry 2000-pound animal and hoping for the best: whisky. And a lot of it.


There’s a reason it’s called the most dangerous eight seconds in sports.


The first time I’d ever photographed a rodeo was in the early 90s when I covered Cheyenne Frontier Days for a small newspaper in northeastern Colorado. Frontier Days had a policy for press photographers covering the event, Western wear was required, hat and all.


My two friends Dan and Heath, and I didn’t come close to looking like genuine cowboys. Even with our hats, button-up shirts, and blue jeans, we looked like the closest we had ever been to cattle was a McDonalds’ Big Mac. A little green alien who has never heard of Earth would have had more success at pulling off the Western look than the three of us.


There’s a reason I’m mentioning our appearance.


One evening, after the rodeo was over, the three of us decided to quaff a beer before we went back to Denver. As near misfortune would have it, we entered a bar packed with bull riders, the ones who weren’t spending the evening in the local hospital.


For some inexplicable reason, a disco song came on the jukebox. The three of us joyously sang along with the chorus.


Three things quickly became obvious: bull riders weren’t generally known to be a joyous lot, they didn’t seem too interested in singing disco and, most importantly, the only joyous, singing trio in the bar looked like we had lost a bet.


It was the closest I had ever been to being the epicenter of an angry mob.


Fast forward about ten years, and I was back at the side of a rodeo arena, this time working at the Valley Courier, the newspaper covering southern Colorado’s San Luis Valley.


This past week has been hot and muggy here in Tbilisi. I haven't had the desire to wander around with the camera, so I finally sorted through hundreds of photos I had taken of rodeos during my time at the Courier. The project seemed like a good way to spend time under an air conditioner.


At the height of several summers, the Courier's sports editor, Lloyd Engen, and I covered the various rodeos in the valley, including Colorado’s oldest professional rodeo, the Ski-Hi Stampede.


It was always a hot, dusty affair, but I loved it. I didn’t have to try to pass off as cowboy, and the arenas were much smaller than the one in Cheyenne, allowing for better photos.


But the main reason, I looked forward to those events was being able to spend the day with Lloyd.


Lloyd had a way about him that made it impossible not to like him. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of every high school and college athlete who had played in the San Luis Valley for the previous twenty years and treated each of them like superstars.


One year the local shelter had a Christmas party for homeless mothers and their children. Lloyd played Santa Claus.


Because of his white hair and Norwegian background, he was the perfect fit. As I watched him interact with the mothers and their children, bringing smiles to everyone, I could have easily been convinced Santa was real, and his day job during the year was working at a small-town newspaper.


One evening at a rodeo in Alamosa, Lloyd came up to me and told me if I wanted to take photos inside the arena, the organizers said it would be okay.


He said it with a straight face. He was serious.


Did I want to take photos, just several unprotected yards away from an angry bull who just tossed some cowboy into the dirt?


No.


I told Lloyd that I suspected it was a conspiracy. Somewhere in the crowd of bull riders, there must have been a few who recognized the disco-singing city slicker with the camera and thought it would be funny to see said person being chased around by a ticked-off beast.


After every rodeo, Lloyd and I would stop for a beer on the way back to the paper. We’d joke about the repetitive rodeo jokes, heard year after year, between the events and talk about who had the best ride and who looked like they ended up in the hospital.


Lloyd passed away a few years ago.


I photographed one more rodeo without him. It wasn’t the same.


Bull Riders, Alamosa, Colorado

Short Ride, Alamosa, Colorado



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