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Papa Was a Rodeo
By John Dicker

Chasing the Rodeo:
On Wild Rides and Big Dreams, Broken Hearts and Broken Bones, and One Man’s Search for the West

By W.K. Stratton Harcourt, 320 pages, $25

American sports culture is as diverse as it is divergent. NBA hopefuls, competitive cheerleaders, and freestyle BMXicans struggle, fail and prosper in states of mutual obliviousness. A legend in one milieu can easily die unknown to the readers of People. Indeed, the world of sport has never been wider.

Even still, it’s odd that a seemingly home-brewed concoction like rodeo should become marginal. But facts must be faced: Name a rodeo star with even half the recognition of a Paris Hilton hanger-on? Exactly. Couple this with the growing suburbanization of the populace and the rodeo is now as exotic as ice curling to the average Haitian.

W.K. Stratton’s Chasing the Rodeo makes the sport seem familiar even if the book defies easy categorization. As a native Oklahoman, Stratton’s love for bronc and bull riding is practically a birthright, as his biological father was a rodeo bum (with the emphasis on bum), and his mother a certified cowgirl. His book is part rodeo memoir, part series of profiles on rodeo greats, and part survey of the sport’s culture and folklore.

One of Chasing’s great strengths comes in its unearthing of historical nuggets. Who knew, for example, that an African-American cowboy named Bill Pickett single-handedly invented bulldogging, or steer wrestling, and went on to become one of the sport’s first superstars. After gaining props from the likes of President Teddy Roosevelt, Pickett went on to star in silent films composed of all African-American casts that attempted not to engage in crude stereotypes. However, his star bona fides didn’t protect him from Jim Crow, which consigned him to sleep with the livestock while traveling by train. By way of compliments, his fellow cowboys bestowed such gems as, “Bill’s hide was black, but his heart was white.”

Gulp.

Ultimately, what Stratton seems to be chasing is an authentic American ritual that takes the stuff of hard work and transforms it into a celebration of hard play. As such, he attempts to settle the thorny debate on where the rodeo originated. While often described as “the only spectator sport originating entirely in the United States,” with towns like Prescott, Ariz., and Pecos, Texas, sniping for the designation as its birthplace, Stratton claims that like so many “American” goods, rodeo was made in Mexico. In fact, he contends that it predates the cowboy era by several centuries, as it was the rancheros of colonial New Spain who hosted charreadas celebrations during the annual roundup, where competitive horseplay gave birth to today’s rodeo events.

In an age of mass consumption, the question of authenticity is often conflated with fashion. Historical accuracy takes a backseat to the kind of branding not familiar to most cowhands. Stratton chronicles the various jean companies who struggled to make themselves “the” premiere rodeo denim. For years, he was convinced Levis were the end all and be all of cowboy wear, only to find that in the 21st century it was Wrangler who cornered the market. All this is to say nothing of the fact that real cowboys wore chaps, not jeans.

Stratton frets over the rush to position rodeo as the next NASCAR, a breakout sport that’s both a brand and a demographic unto itself (for more on this see “Rove, Karl” and “Dads, NASCAR”). The fear is that excessive branding will strip the sport of its soul. Stratton clearly prefers Oregon’s Pendleton Roundup, where jumbotrons and corporate logos are verboten.

For all Stratton’s reporting, it’s his personal reflections that make the book most compelling. For, as he’s chasing the rodeo zeitgeist, he is also chasing the ghost of his biological father, “Cowboy Don.” While this quest is less than glorious, rodeo is one of the few traces Stratton has to his dad, who left his mom when he was an infant. A prodigious drinker and ladies man, this Denver native son was never much of a star and eventually wound up punching a clock as a construction worker. After a string of failed marriages and relationships, he died broke and largely alone.

While Stratton doesn’t advance such an argument, it’s hard to deny the connection between “chasing the rodeo” and a larger voyage for paternal communion. Whether its baseball or bulldogging, sports are one of very few avenues by which a sense of manhood is conveyed. Perhaps this explains why sports highlight films on ESPN (the male Lifetime) are as schmaltzy as anything Nora Ephron might produce.

Chasing the Rodeo may not satisfy hardcore fans, though they will no doubt benefit from its historical detail. And while there’s an excessive amount of banal narrative involving Stratton’s rental cars, motel, and press-box experiences, there’s enough to this journey to make it worth the trouble of saddling up and following along.


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