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January 21, 1998

Way Out West

Wrestling with the rodeo

By RW Deutsch

IT'S JUST about 9 a.m. on a soon-to-be-piercing-hot February morning. I'm standing among a herd of people on a street corner in South Tucson, Ariz., waiting for what is billed as "the longest non-motorized parade in the world." The parade will introduce me to the 72nd annual Fiesta de los Vaqueros, otherwise known as the Tucson Rodeo. 

I'm about as excited as a grown man can be about a sporting event: it's my first rodeo, and I've been fascinated by cowboys and the Wild West since I was a child. But the parade is nothing more than a long line of advertisements. Beautifully reconditioned horse-drawn wagons carry waving businesspeople through the crowd. The announcer bellows from the grandstand: "And here's Jimmy Joe of Jimmy Joe Ford and Nissan. If you're looking for a bargain, Jimmy Joe's has one for you." The crowd, mostly tourists and retirees from points north and east, are keeping whatever warmth they have to themselves. 

In between every few wagons march junior high and high school bands. Bets get laid as to whether that trumpet player or that baton twirler is going to step into one of the increasingly numerous piles of horse poop. But like expert soldiers, they navigate around the steaming mines with style and luck. The Budweiser truck, pulled by the ever-famous Clydesdales, gets the largest response from the crowd. But soon, the parade won't stop. I start praying for something -- anything -- motorized, just to get it going. When the parade finally ends, I'm feeling pretty ornery. 

Before I left on this trip, when I'd tell friends where I was going, they either would be completely baffled or would fondly remember going to a rodeo as a child. But as the departure date came closer, a new string of responses started: "Are you going to protest?" Protest what? "The treatment of animals." It hadn't even crossed my mind. 

But as I watch the rodeo's events, I get a troubled feeling in my loins. "What makes those bulls and broncos buck?" I ask a cowboy named Tex (aren't they all named Tex?). "What'd make you buck like that?" he responds, laughing a little. Uh-oh. 

"They have this thing called a flank, which clamps down on their nuts real tight," Tex says. At close range I see the faces of the horses as the flank gets strapped on. My friend Flicka this ain't. 

But then again, riders, men barely in their 20s, risk broken ribs, broken backs, and worse. And for what? The top prize at this competition is $240,000, and as folks say down here, "That ain't chicken feed, pardner." I come to understand that what basketball is to some poor urban blacks, the rodeo is to poor country whites. It's a way out. 

For eight seconds of their life -- eight seconds Tex describes as "better than any sex you'll ever know" -- these boys can earn more money than what many earn in a lifetime. 

One of the riders, a four-time world champion, spent two hours signing autographs at a local Western clothing store and was paid $30,000. But others might be taken away in ambulances to spend the rest of their lives paying off doctor bills. 

Almost all of them start out at junior rodeos, graduate to the smaller circuits, and if they survive and are lucky enough, come to big-time competitions like this one. As I watch them struggle to hang on, and get thrown off and almost trampled on by hundreds of pounds of angry USDA choice beef, I am in complete awe. Yet I remain troubled. I watch the calf roping, and I'm even more disturbed. Yes, it's a skill on a ranch, but at the rodeo the act of tying up an animal is not connected to anything other than sport. 

A sport the frightened calf isn't enjoying at all. I find myself wrestling with a moral dilemma as I watch. This is not what I came to Tucson for. 

After two days of the rodeo, I can't take it anymore. I decide to take in the other sights of Tucson. I venture north to Biosphere II, where, enclosed by glass, a miniature rainforest still struggles to survive. A nonfunctional memorial to someone's vision of the future. I venture south to the Titan Missile Museum and descend the abandoned silo to see an inactive ICBM missile. Another nonfunctional memorial, to someone else's darker vision of the future. They seem to balance each other out. 

Luckily, at night I can enjoy the scene at my hotel. The Hotel Congress is Tucson's hipster central. The ground floor has a fabulous restaurant, a cyber café with T-1 lines, a bar, and a nightclub. I sit in the Tap Room, a rest spot for disciples of buckaroos and Bukowski, sucking down long-neck bottles of Texas-brewed Shiner Bock. I listen to the jukebox spitting out some twanging guitar through its twangy speakers. Above me hang huge drawings of lonesome cowpokes on the dusty trail and cowboys with their lariats. Here, in these two-dimensional images, I find the romance of the West I'm craving.