Gustafson: The wilds of the West still whisper
Peering through a window to the past, time stands still in those silent, brief moments when the dust settles onto the rodeo arena floor as the breathless contestant clambers to his feet and wipes the blood-tinged sweat from his brow. Squinting through the rays of the setting sun, he slaps his hat clean against his thigh, and then in one swift movement he hurls himself out of sight, leaving behind only the ring his spurs make against the rails.
The commentating from the announcer’s booth resumes, and the modern musical soundtrack returns while the laughing children and chattering crowds around me persuade my return to present day.
Amid the scent of horse blankets, aged leather, livestock and dirt, the ground trembles under the weight of thundering hooves. Here the sound of horse knickers and brays can transport me back to a bygone era that hasn’t changed all that much since the Snowmass Rodeo arena opened in the summer of 1973.
Aspen was born in the age of mining, but this village has the raw roots of the ranchers to thank for our heritage in the Brush Creek Valley.
And the allure of the rodeo is not just for the tourists. As teenagers, my friends and I were drawn to the seemingly unrestrained cowboy mystique.
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We had friends that would compete each summer, and we often found ourselves sneaking in and sitting under the contestant bleachers, dodging the raining droplets of chewing tobacco and listening to the stories that were not meant for our young ears.
When the competition ended and the horses were cooled off, untacked and fed, the gear wiped clean and oiled, and the last of the spectators had cleared out, the gritty showmen would sidle up to the bar and time would shift between past and present. If I was lucky, I could linger a little beyond curfew, just long enough to watch the Snowmass Stable hands and wranglers begin to cut cards before I had to head home, stepping out of time and back into the present.
Now, many years later, the wild spirits of our pioneering past still rise up and ride like the ghosts of the Western world that once was, returning for a brief moment of timelessness. The pulse of the past continues to beat in the hearts of the men and women who saddle up for our weekly rodeo.
From the cowboys and cowgirls whom I’ve met over the years, I learned that living the rodeo lifestyle isn’t about turning away from modern technology or intentionally staying unchanged by time. And they are not just putting on a show for the tourists, nor is there much money in the purse, at least not at our small-town event.
The hard-core Western lifestyle is inherited; it’s a culture of determination, infused with a passion for adventure, and they simply eat, sleep and breathe rodeo, reveling in every mud stain and bruise picked up in the arena. In fact, most are well-versed in state-of-the-art training; they are athletes in mind and body whose livelihood depends as much on modern technology as it does on the grit passed down to them from generations of ranchers and Wild West pioneers.
And though most rodeo cowboys embrace the modern world, it still seems there is a part of them that lives to maintain the wild Western traditions and lifestyles of their parents and grandparents, those of the founding fathers of our valley.
As a teenager, I spent a few days on horseback helping a friend’s family drive their cattle from Woody Creek out to fall pasture on a true cattle drive. I’ll never forget sitting around the campfire at night, playing Texas hold ’em and hearing the old-timers sharing some of their raw stories that were so timeless that I might just as well have been back in the 1880s.
It was there that I was set straight by a man I believe was as hardened as the characters played by Clint Eastwood or John Wayne when he told me that a cowboy is someone who “knows when the bullpucky is inside of your boots instead of on the outside where it belongs.” He would say that once “rodeo gets into your blood,” it filters the way you see the people around you as well as the world at large.
Over the years, rodeo has, at times, been criticized by animal-rights activists who feel it is cruel or inhumane. From my experiences watching friends who grew up on the rodeo grounds surrounded by horses, I always felt the lifestyle promoted a deep connection to the well-being of the animals and the land. No education compares to learning how to care for another living creature, be it a house pet or barn animal, or by living a lifestyle that preserves a time when horses were our principal means of transportation. After all, the West was pioneered on their backs, and for every footprint that broke the trails here, there were hoofprints to match.
Today’s cowboys still embody the spirit of those pioneers of our ranching era. They move around, restless and unsettled, still searching for a place to tame, wild at heart and frozen in time, like ghosts of the past. And when they rise up and take over the arena on Wednesday nights, I feel like I am watching the past resurrected. And then as the lights go down and the horses go back out to pasture, the cowboy vanishes into the night.
Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind. After all, if we always agree, what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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