One snowy June evening, I took my two older sons to the rodeo in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
It was a Wednesday. The Sunday before, we’d traveled from Nashville to a dude ranch two hours’ drive from Jackson Hole. Way out of town, way out of any town, on the muddiest, slickest unpaved road I’d ever driven, past sheer-drop canyons with no guardrails.
By rodeo Wednesday, I and my sons, then 6 and 8, had spent three sleeting days as near-novice riders on horses wrenched from winter grazing only the weekend before. The other kids, all older than mine, had appraised us immediately (two unhappy, too-young children and one delusional mother), and then retreated to their iPods and Hunger Games.
My boys unraveled into whining and bickering. Our one triumph, those first days, was that my 6-year-old survived when his horse bolted from the plodding trail line, straight downhill into a very steep ravine, racing back to the barn. Smart horse.
By Wednesday afternoon, even I could see I’d over-fantasized the whole dude-ranch venture. I loved horses, sure. And I’d loved riding before my sons were born. My vision had been pure: the three of us would leave the toddler brother back home in Nashville with the horse-averse Dad, and canter free through western fields with the Tetons rising behind. The three of us, learning cowboy songs around a campfire while our horses nuzzled us gently out of love and respect. Turns out, my boys mostly grieved that the ranch swimming pool was closed for snow. And the teenagers rarely shared the one board game.
So, the rodeo. True, a salvage operation, but still. We fishtailed back into town for the evening show.
One family’s run the Jackson Hole rodeo for more than a century. It takes place in an outdoor ring that would fit inside any small county fair. Two modest stands face off across a dirt arena. A cinderblock snack bar hides under the bleachers. Could it possibly be worth the four hours’ drive?
My sons slumped beside me. Another round of Cokes.
Into the ring charged a horse and rider racing furiously around a course of tall barrels. The horse floated off the ground, nearly horizontal, on the turns. Another set of headlong barrel racers followed them, and then another. More levitating horses.
My boys perked up.
The gates across the arena opened, and out rode a cowboy on a horse bucking so wildly the man’s head would surely rattle off his spine. The man spiraled out of the saddle, high into the dusty air, and hit the ground hard. Out came another bucking bronco, this one even wilder. Another flying cowboy.
Then out of those gates came a gigantic angry bull, snorting and glaring. You could see his ferocious eyes even from where we sat, clutching our Cokes and Hershey bars. And on the bull’s back, again, was a man in a cowboy hat, hanging onto this unreasonable, terrifying creature while it kicked and spun and pawed a dusty path across the ring. Off flew that cowboy too – in ran the incongruous rescue clowns – and then another cowboy and another crazed bull raged in, then another. And another.
My 6-year-old was standing on his seat now, his face shining, his eyes shooting sparks. “Next up,” the announcer declared, “the moment you’ve all been waiting for.” My son rose to his tiptoes.
The announcer paused, then roared, “Bareback riding!”
My son turned to me with great joy. “Now they’re going to ride the bears?”
The fantasies I chase elude me, always. But there I had my young son, whose imagination was so free, so unbound by habits of ordinary impossibility, so transported by the exotic wonders he’d just seen with his own eyes, he was perfectly prepared to believe the next marvel out of the gate across the ring would be a cowboy riding a grizzly.
What could I say? “Maybe not this time.” I handed him a Hershey square. “But who knows for next year?”
Photo sources, from top: my own; jhrodeo.com; Longmont, CO TimesCall.com; Arnica Spring, jhrodeo.com; pbr.com; successfulworkplace.org.