My Beautiful Rodeo

Posted by in May's Magazine

Downtown Denver, all chain stores and free eco-buses, is not the  America Kennedy Wilson is after; he’s here to ride the range

At Arrivals in Denver International Airport I am assailed by Native American chanting instead of muzak and enormous blow-ups of those famous Indian chief portraits by photographer Edward Curtis. A passenger walkway takes me across the tail end of the runway and looking down I can see a taxi-ing 777. In the distance are the Colorado Mountains illuminated by the reddest sunset I have ever seen. This is the New West. But I’ve come in search of the Old West of bucking broncos and roping steers. Perhaps surprisingly, I was to find that the Old West is still very much alive.


My first port of call is Grand Junction. Money has been spent to revitalise Main Street with modern sculptures and homespun boutiques. Its most famous son was Dalton Trumbo who left to became a Hollywood screenwriter and whose credits include Roman Holiday and Spartacus – about as far from Grand Junction as you can get. Old movies are not on the agenda. I’m looking for a real live rodeo.

At Crawford’s western gear store, which sells everything from saddlery and spurs to Annie Oakley Perfume, I look for a Stetson. Cowboy hats, I discover, come in a bewildering variety of styles. After 40 minutes of indecision I plump for a model called ‘Gus’ with modest leather thong hatband.

In the early evening after dinner I take a short drive to the Mesa County Fairground a little out of town. The Colorado Pro Rodeo Association’s annual finals start at 7pm. In much of the rest of the world the cowboy is something of a joke but in the Midwest cowboy culture is flourishing.

My beautiful rodeo is a real family affair. In the small grandstand young couples canoodle, dads drink beer from giant paper cups and toddlers play in the dust perilously close to the arena’s perimeter fence. 

There’s a $100,000 purse to be won. The sun is slowly sinking, the floodlights come on and the emcee booms his greetings like a preacher. Cowboys and Cowgirls enter the ring and gather in the centre, around 100 all told. The longwinded preamble is solemn, there’s talk of “this great country of ours” and anyone who has recently lost a family member in the armed services is asked to stand. 

Bull riding at Mesa County Fairground Rodeo

A 16-year old sings the national anthem a little off-key: “O say can you see by the dawn’s early light.” There are also prayers (hats off, including my Stetson) for the nation and for the cowboys in the ring who are about to risk all. I suspect that the dangers of the rodeo are a little over-egged until I notice the ambulance stationed behind the ring.

There are several heats, kicking off with down roping, one of the most competitive rodeo events. It involves the competitor lassoing a running calf from the back of a horse, dismounting and tying any three of the calf’s limbs all done against the clock. The calf is then released unharmed. There follows steer wrestling, bareback riding, saddle bronc riding, team roping and lastly, everyone’s favourite, bull riding.

Women, all flowing hair, bespangled blouses, play pretty much a supporting role. They are horseback flag bearers and help get bewildered calves out of the ring. The cowgirls specialise in ladies’ barrel racing which involves the horse and rider haring round a slalom of barrels. 

From Grand Junction I travelled south for Moab (pronounced mo-hab) in Utah, some 106km away. It’s pretty much a one-street town set in a basin of red rock mountains. The Colorado River runs through it. The topography lends itself to extreme sports and movie locations: Thelma and Louise and Cheyenne Autumn were filmed around here. There are two national parks offering amazing rock formations and drop-dead vistas. 

I’d come to ride the range and booked a three-hour group horseback trail ride. My base is the Red Cliffs Lodge, 22km out of town. It’s a massive spread: hotel, winery, river front cabins. The gentle quarter horses and western saddles make this a doddle for even the least experienced rider. Hard hats are available but no one bothers. In the morning sun I’m glad for the Stetson. 

Dazzling flashes of lightning lit up the great mitten shaped rocks of Monument Valley from behind, like some God given son-et-lumière show

Next stop is 240km away, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park; I arrive at the Navajo run View Hotel just as clouds threaten rain. The hotel is slap bang in the famous setting of so many John Ford films and was opened in 2008. Its unpretentiousness borders on the institutional. Every one of the 95 rooms has a spectacular view of the iconic mitten-shaped rock formations. The restaurant is very home cookin’ and the place is ‘dry’.

Unfortunately the same couldn’t be said about the weather. By nightfall the heavy clouds had not lifted – so much for opting for a ‘star view’ room on the top floor. But that night there was a ferocious display of thunder and lightning that lasted an hour. Dazzling flashes of lightning lit up the Great Mittens from behind like some God given son-et-lumière show. 

There are expeditions available into the Valley but just sitting on the hotel balcony watching the weather change minute-by-minute over this classic landscape is enough. It’s small wonder that the Navajo Nation see this particular soil of America as sacred land.

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