A sign outside the Buffalo Chip bar in Cave Creek, Arizona says that anyone under the age of 21 must be accompanied by an adult, and that no weapons can be taken inside. Although firearm ownership is very much a fact of life in these parts, everyone accepts that guns and alcohol do not mix. I spotted a couple of guys at the bar wearing empty holsters on their belts, but for the most part evidence of this had been left in the car, or at home.
The many people at the Buffalo Chip were not just here for the beer, although it must be said that the beer is very good, Arizona being the home of several decent breweries (the beers of the Four Peaks Brewery are on tap in this particular establishment). Out back is not a beer garden but a rodeo ring, and two nights a week it’s rodeo night at the Buffalo Chip. On Wednesdays it’s amateur night, when anyone can have a go, and on Fridays it’s the turn of the professionals.
After dusk on rodeo night, the crowds gathered on the stands surrounding the ring. There were several hundred people – friends meeting up for the evening, families on a night out, folks up from Phoenix for the show. Appropriately enough, many of them sported cowboy hats. By way of a warm-up, a combination of rock and country music played over the PA.
As a man dressed as a cowboy but carrying nothing more lethal than a microphone entered the ring, silence descended. This man was our host, and after welcoming everyone and reading out ‘a message from our sponsor’ (the town dentist), he handed the microphone to a man in cowboy boots, jeans, plaid shirt and Stetson who turned out to be the minister of a local church. He led the audience in a prayer for the well-being of the participants of this evening’s entertainment. This was followed by a man on horseback parading around the ring carrying the US flag while The Star Spangled Banner was played over the PA. For both of these, the audience stood, hats off and hands over hearts. This foreigner was left in no doubt that God and the flag are taken very seriously in these parts.
This rodeo works like you might imagine any rodeo would. A bull is brought into a cage adjoining the ring, where a rider – dressed as a cowboy but clad in a helmet that looks like the sort worn by a baseball back catcher – is lowered onto its back. Some of the riders are local, while others – and this is particularly true of the professionals – are from neighbouring states. When the rider is ready, the cage is opened up, releasing bull and rider into the ring.
The rider must only hold on with one hand while trying to stay on top of the bull, which kicks and bucks in an effort to dislodge its passenger. According to the host, lasting eight seconds before hitting the dust (quite literally) is regarded as very good indeed. Most riders, especially on amateur night, don’t even last for one. The best of the pros, a man called Troy who apparently comes from California, managed ten seconds and was given a standing ovation.
Also in the ring are two men in colourful garb who are nicknamed ‘cowboy clowns’, although they’re anything but clowns. Their job is to help the rider to safety once he’s fallen off, and herd the bull to the exit gate. Sometimes this takes a while longer than the rider has managed to stay on. It’s at this point that the bull, flush from having divested himself of his unwanted human cargo, tosses his head and paws the ground in a manner that can only be described as menacing. I did not envy the clowns’ job.
As a spectacle, it’s exhilarating stuff, a portrayal of man’s struggle to master nature. This struggle was very much a part of the story of how the West was won, so on another level the rodeo is perhaps a lesson in the history of this region, a reminder of the days when cowboys roamed the ranches herding cattle along the trails. The last part of the continental USA to become a state, Arizona in the late nineteenth century was frontier country, full of settlers, miners, gunslingers and cattle-rustlers. As well as fine entertainment, going to the rodeo provided me with a glimpse, however fleeting, of the Old West – something that is as much a part of the heritage of rodeo-goers as showing respect for the Stars and Stripes. For a second or so, I could have been forgiven for thinking that John Wayne was at the gate, sheriff’s badge on his chest, making sure everyone handed over their guns before walking in.
This reverie, which may or may not have been aided by a few pints of Four Peaks Kilt Lifter beer and a tequila shot purchased from a roving cowgirl-waitress, came to an abrupt halt when the host announced that it was time for the ‘sheep riding’. Had I heard correctly? I had. This was a sort of junior rodeo, with the bulls getting replaced by sheep and the riders being about seven and not looking all that keen on what was about to happen. The sheep had a different idea from the bulls as far as dislodging their riders was concerned – they just ran straight at the fence, and the force of ramming into it was sufficient. The kid who cried the most got a medal for being the best young rider.
Since witnessing the sheep riding last week, I have described it to several people who at first did not believe me. I told them to head on down to Cave Creek to see it for themselves!