Back to the Rodeo

87th Fiesta de los Vaqueros

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Today’s blizzard-like conditions don’t augur well for my visit to Tucson for the 88th Annual Fiesta de los Vaqueros. Bisbee was pounded with heavy wind and snow, and I expect all that’s melted on the roadways will be ice by morning. I know Tucson got hit, too and don’t expect a pleasant drive. But what the hell, right? There’s a job to do, and if there’s one thing I can take comfort in, there’ll be plenty of cheap beer and whiskey to take the sting out.

I can picture the grounds, wet with melted snow, settling into a muddy soup. I missed last weekend’s performance – something I lament, but can’t control – but after all the time I’ve spent out there, I can conjure a pretty clear picture: metal railings slathered in mud, pens filled with anxious steers, the aroma of leather and manure. There’s a certain kind of unpredictability before the rodeo; one can sense the adrenaline, anticipate the thud of hooves, the grunting of worked-up rough-stock. It’s a nervous feeling one gets, but it keeps you sharp. Things unfold quickly in the arena and I don’t want to miss a good shot.

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I’ve been photographing the rodeo for years and I’m still pretty dumb-founded at my enjoyment of the sport, considering my earlier years, and the misfit toys that occupy my inner sanctum. I could intellectualize it, I suppose, and there’s definitely a rich history to the sport, but that isn’t really it. At the end of the day, folks could give me a once-over and assume – with some accuracy – that they’re looking at a blue-state sort of guy. So then, what is it about the red-state atmosphere in the rodeo arena that I find so appealing? It isn’t the pop-country rattling the aluminum grandstand, and it isn’t the whiskey; it isn’t about pretending to be anything I’m not, either, donning my hat and walking clandestinely among real cowboys. All I can figure is that my roots are in the Midwest. I took field trips to the Kansas City Royal in elementary school, just like the kids from the Tucson Unified School District spill into the stands up in Tucson. Notions of the Wild West permeate our culture, and I get to participate in this tradition by reporting on it and preserving it.

Everything’s pretty fast-paced out there, and I really dig the challenge.

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There’s a lot of heartland pandering, but that’s nothing new. The idyllic “cowboy” has been used to sell trucks, whiskey, music records, and jeans for as long as I can remember. Salt-of-the-earth imagery is an effective tool to tap into our desire for so-called ‘simpler times.’ The notion of getting one’s hands dirty, being connected to the earth, and having a Calvanistic appreciation for hard work all play a role. Plenty of literature has been devoted to the topic, but this isn’t a screed I’m particularly interested in right now. Rather, I’m interested in the opposite end of the spectrum.

The competitors at these Pro Rodeo events are, in a manner of speaking, the genuine article. These cowboys put their bodies through hell, and have real, quantifiable skill. I’ve seen enough broken-toothed grins and scarred bodies to respect the risk these guys take, and I’m interested in that intense combination of bravery and madness that motivates a 160 pound man to mount an angry beast ten times his weight.

The cold weather’s gonna suck, there’s no doubt about it. But in my experience, the press box and photo pit empty out when the weather doesn’t cooperate. A little bit of discomfort is worth getting the shot that nobody else is around to capture. Wish me luck.

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