Clay S. Jenkinson talks about an article written by Hugh Sidey which appeared in Time magazine in 1978. Sidey writes about his visit with the acclaimed Thomas Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone. Describing Jefferson, Malone says, “Jefferson was a humanist in the complete sense of the word. Human beings always came first … His world is gone. His standards and values went with rural life.” Near the end of the show, Clay receives a very special present from long-time listener, and friend of the Jefferson Hour, Brad Crisler.
My daughter and I had the opportunity last weekend to see the famous Calgary Stampede. We were here on professional business, had time off, and reckoned that if you're in Calgary during the Stampede, you'd regret it if you didn't see what is billed as "the greatest outdoor show on earth," and is widely recognized as one of the handful of greatest rodeos in North America.
We bought our tickets online, made our way to the stadium using public transport, and zipped through an electronic kiosk with the greatest of ease. The seats were well marked and comfortable, with good sight lines to the big arena. Because it was Canada, everyone behaved with a kind of civility we haven't seen in American life for decades. In the row behind us, a man and his young son had taken the wrong seats (wrong section). When this was politely pointed out to them by the rightful occupants, there was no dispute of any sort. Everyone apologized to everyone else for a while, all around, and then the father and son edged their way through twenty sitting patrons to the aisle without experiencing a single sigh or glare. Oh Canada.
The arena was flawlessly groomed, the shoots freshly painted in white, with red trim, all the signage professional and tasteful, and every reach of the entire facility, from the restrooms to the furthest reaches of the stands, spotlessly clean.
Calgary really knows how to host a show.
The Calgary Stampede is an invitation-only rodeo. That means that only the best riders in North America participate, which makes for breathtaking but rather predictable rides. The overwhelming majority of bareback and saddle bronc riders stayed on their horses, and well more than half of the bull riders held on for the full eight seconds. The lowest percentages we saw were in tie-down roping and steer wrestling. It's fun to watch that level of professional ability, and to speculate on what it takes for a 20-year-old kid to get that good at riding a large dangerous animal bent on throwing him to the ground and maybe stomping on him too. How many times have you been bucked off bulls in small rural arenas before you learn to stay on more than half the time?
The announcers, some of them famous on the rodeo circuit, kept us informed about who was coming off reconstruction knee surgery, who had to sit out last year after three consecutive concussions, and who got "all tore up" in Las Vegas last year when the clown and bullfighters could not distract some legendary bull from his wrath. The winning barrel racer explained that she now wears a helmet after a fall that required five reconstructive facial surgeries. About one out of four bronc riders lurch-limped out of the arena in excruciating pain, not because they were hurt in today's ride, but because they got "stove up" a week ago somewhere else and determined not to let that slow them down. When the announcers cheerfully explain each rider's recent chapter of grave injuries, from dislocated shoulders to groin pulls, it makes you wonder if these are heroes of the Old West or people lacking in the most rudimentary good sense.
Rodeo had its origins in actual ranch life, often during the spring or fall roundup, when the gathered cowboys would take turns during leisure hours trying to ride unbroken horses or show off their roping and tying skills. That's what I like most about rodeo. It develops and showcases skills that were once, and to a certain extent still are, essential in ranch life. From up in the stands, it is easy to take the skill level for granted, especially in an all-star rodeo like the Calgary Stampede where North American champions make everything look so easy. But when you get down to arena level and observe the actual relationships between man or woman and horse more closely, you begin to feel how the strange, powerful, almost mystical connection works. It is a cliché to call a great rodeo rider a "centaur," the half man, half horse figure from Greek mythology, but there is something to it. The horses are magnificent to watch in action, backing gracefully to their marks, responding to the slightest nudge of a knee, stopping on a dime to let the cowboy jump down to tie three legs of a terrified, squalling calf, or leaning almost prone to the ground around a barrel with only a few inches to spare.
The minute you spend time at a rodeo you realize what a remarkable subculture it is. I generalize but this is what you tend to find: seriously Christian, intensely patriotic, grounded in the best rural values of decency, discipline, hard work, neighborliness, and grit. Country music in every boom box and ear bud. Corny but generous announcers who specialize in "western grammar," who tend at some point during the rodeo edge up towards a hint of sexual or racial stereotyping, but who console the losers and remind the winners that just a week ago in Saskatoon they were thrown headlong into the dust.
My daughter and I drove through the rodeo grounds at Bowman, ND, in early June during the state high school rodeo competition. We threaded our puny Honda civic through a sea of fifth wheel horse-campers the size of Rhode Island, pulled by pickups that you have to use a ladder to get in. Each one had a couple of beautiful horses tied up by its side. There were patios and pullouts and giant gas grills and flags of every sort and tiki lights and deck chairs and racks of cowboy boots and hats that made it feel like an outdoor sales event. It is not an exaggeration to say that some of these rodeo families have more invested in their rodeo rigs than I have in my home, and these are just the amateurs, ranch families working to provide their kids with wholesome recreational opportunities and hold up one of America's great traditions.
We loved the Calgary Stampede, but the truth is that three weeks ago we went to a small rural rodeo in the boondocks of North Dakota, ($6 bucks, "no returns"), and had a much better time. The riders fell off well more than half the time. Almost no team managed to rope a calf at both ends successfully. The announcer dreamed of being famous but he's not likely to quit his day job anytime soon. In the uncomfortable bleachers (no luxury boxes, no jumbotron) neighbors chatted in that familiar friendly way and shred out food. There were no urban wannabees in gleaming new cowboy hats and worn-for-the-first-time cowboy boots scouring their official programs trying to figure out the rules.
The Cowboy Prayer chokes me up every time because it is so perfectly corny, so steeped in romance and faith and Americana. The Calgary Stampede is too slick, professional, efficient to be an authentic expression of rural life, the riders are too masterful, and there aren't enough pint-sized kids bouncing around the arena on giant horses. The rodeo queen and princesses at the Calgary Stampede seem to come from central casting, not last year's prom.
What makes rural culture great is its earnest amateurism, real people doing remarkable things with heart and cheerful imperfection. It has to be just a little clunky to be fully life affirming, and fully authentic. That's what makes you smile and believe again.
A week or two ago I left work a little early and drove out to a ranch north of Wing, North Dakota, to attend a bull sale. When I told a colleague about it the day after my return, she laughed out loud (possibly even snorted) at what she regarded as the absurdity of an urbanized bookworm like me going to an authentic agricultural event. I was a little hurt by that. I tried to tell her that I have hauled my share of bales in my lifetime, and disked and cultivated thousands of acres, but she couldn't listen because she was walking away chuckling to herself.
I stopped in Wing briefly in hope of getting coffee and pie at the celebrated restaurant the Chat and Chew. I love rural nomenclature: Klassy Kuts; Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow; Toes & Tan; Tan-Tiffic (owner named Tiffany). But the Chat and Chew was closed (winter hours). So on I went.
The Vollmer Ranch is located where the rolling plains just begin to meet prairie pothole country. The meadowlarks sounded like they owned the territory, and the yard was filled with 75 pickups and trailers, with license plates from five or six states, including one from Missouri. This was a scene where a Ford F-150 would be regarded as a starter pickup.
I slipped into the sale barn as meekly as I could, because I had "stranger nerd" written all over me. I was one of the few not wearing cowboy boots and a shirt that started its retail life at Runnings, and I was I think certainly the only person in that barn not wearing blue jeans.
How can I describe the scene? It was a large red barn (a Morton building), with tables in the back covered with nice plastic tablecloths. Closer to the front there were risers on both sides, like the kind you would see in a small gymnasium. On the wall a large American flag, and about twenty feet away a bright yellow "Welcome to Bison Nation" flag. Near the doorway a spotlessly clean commercial refrigerator chock full of beverages. A card table with a wide range of cookies, bars, carrot cake, and other desserts, plus an endless box of purchased doughnuts, which one pre-adolescent boy in boots and hat did his best to tuck away.
Up in the booth (called the Block) were Sara and Troy Vollmer, she recording, he taking calls and talking to the auctioneer. Below them three giant screen televisions in front of the 50 or so folding chairs that were set up on the barn floor. This was a video bull sale. No bull ever entered the barn. Professional videographers had come several weeks before the sale to take high-resolution video of each of the featured bulls--walking, standing, drooling, glowering, exhibiting those parts for which they will be purchased. It has some of the feel of a video of a runway fashion show. A graphic on the bottom of the screen tells you the bull's sale number, which you then check against a glossy 24-page sale catalogue, which provides photographs of some (not all) of the bulls, and for each bull a series of data points that make no sense to me, but which explain their genealogy, birth date, birth weight, weaning weight, adjusted rib eye area, intra muscular fat content, and some data about their private parts that seemed a little personal.
The catalogue also has a thoughtful and generous welcome letter from Troy, with one color photo of his parents in front of a Christmas tree and another of Sara and Troy and their three daughters at Disney World. The three daughters look so innocent, hard working, cheerful, cute, and respectful, but with a hint of mischief, that it feels as if they were ordered from a 4H catalogue. Who would not want such children?
The auctioneer was a man named Roger Jacobs from Billings, Montana, but he has roots in southwestern North Dakota. He was absolutely perfect: tall, rail thin, straight as an arrow, in a crisp white shirt and a nondescript tie, with a big tan cowboy hat on his head. There was not an ounce of intra muscular fat on him. He looked like he might have been young Ronald Reagan's cousin twice removed. He was essentially all business, selling a bull on average every 24 seconds, but offering up a bit of commentary now and then ("This, folks, just might be the best bull in the yard," "This bull is ready to go to work"), and teasing some of the cattlemen he knew in the audience, "Ralph, I just know you are going to go ahead and buy something before the day's over!" It was a masterful performance. Among the buyers you could observe every form of bidding gesture known to man: the wink, the one-finger forehead touch, the big nod, the slight nod, the wrist tap, the "I know I'm payin' too much, but I'm going to do it I guess" smile. I was taking photographs from the hip, afraid to raise my camera to my eye lest I go home with "Rockytop 4199" in the trunk of my Honda.
I looked around at the hundred or so people who had gathered for the sale. Mostly men, most of them middle aged, strong, a little weathered and some a little gnarled up, men who have never been to a fitness club but who could lift and throw an elliptical training rig into the back of a pickup. Couples who have been together for a long time in isolated rural farms and ranches, sitting quietly side by side like the best sort of life partners. Some young men, bearded, studying the catalogue with a kind of wistfulness, trying to figure out what they can really afford just now. Half a dozen young women who look like they married a country boy before they quite thought it through and are still making the transition. Two or three young cowboys who have taken some trouble about how they look, with silk one-color neckerchiefs, and flattop cowboy hats, leaning back against the wall like characters out of a Marlboro ad, thumbs in their pockets. A big cattle buyer who exuded confidence in every possible way, whose slightest nod or grimace got the attention of the auctioneer. Weary older ranch women with one hand on their husband's shoulders.
There was such experience and character in their faces, such authenticity and integrity and self-reliance and rootedness that I choked up in the Vollmer sale barn and almost burst into tears. (I'm pretty sure that gets you booted out of the arena). Two weeks previously I had been sitting in the Church of the Gesu in Rome, the mothership of the worldwide Jesuit order, at the same hour of the afternoon, gazing at some of the most splendid Baroque artistry in the world. And now I was in the heart of the heart of America among no-nonsense agrarians who produce food for the rest of us, people who represent some of the very best of the American spirit.
That barn with those unself-conscious farmers and ranchers seemed profoundly removed from Syria and Afghanistan, from lower Manhattan and Washington, D.C., and pretty seriously removed even from Fargo and Bismarck and Grand Forks. I fell in love with North Dakota all over again.
And oh my the meal—brisket, a macaroni coleslaw salad, and a bean-bacon thing that just made you want to swear off health altogether.