Only in the hard yellow light of day does the elemental man-against-beast loneliness of rodeo emerge. Up close, under any illumination, rodeo is splintery wood, creaking leather, dust, rasping rope, straining strength and the sweat of animals and men. But at a little remove, in the proscenium-stage backlighting of a high-country late afternoon, the mind's eye can blink away the grandstands, the polite uproar of the crowd, the crowd itself. All that remains is the quick equestrian contest of old—cowboy roping dogie—with only the silent sage plains and distant blue mountains as witness.
Darkness confines and encloses a rodeo; it walls out the rolling rangelands. There is still romance, but it is of a more modern and cinematic kind. Behind the chutes at a night rodeo like Casper's Central Wyoming ridin' and ropin' the floodlights shine through belly-high clouds of dust kicked up by the stock, lighting them an opaque white and silhouetting against them the horses and their riders and the buffalo banner of Wyoming. The effect is Hollywood posse.
Rodeo is a curious blend of the back-country-corral past and the citified big-time present. It is a sport that each year pays out $3.5 million to its participants, and one that draws 10 million spectators a year, more than the National Football League. Yet it is also a sport whose promoters give its stars billing just below oil-slick hillbilly singers, clowns, daddy's-daughter cowgirl queens, dog acts, second-rate television performers, third-rate movie stars and fourth-rate politicians. Any hummer, strummer, mummer or publicly paid plumber can get ranked ahead of any rider on a rodeo poster or program.
Rodeo is thus a great upholder of tradition. It has always been a cowboy's place to be nameless—and perhaps faceless, too. Who distinguishes one long-jawed, dark-haired, stubble-chinned subject of Remington or Russell from another? Then, too, by the very nature of his calling, a cowboy's face is forever being blurred, vibrated, contorted and ground into the dirt.
Be they as physically gifted, handsome and personable as Arnold Palmer on a day when stocks are up—and a remarkable percentage are—rodeo riders' status remains wholly incommensurate with their stature as athletes. Because they are an exceptionally amiable lot, this anonymity scarcely even strikes them as a disadvantage. Seldom does one of them think to complain about the insecurity of making a living in a sport that guarantees not one dime to participants and that, instead, levies stiff entrance fees.
Five-hundred-mile drives with station wagon and trailer to reach the next day's competition are routine with cowboys. Most of them compete in 50 to 60 rodeos a year. A man might like to have more than a couple of weeks off from the longest season of them all, but that's money lost. (Outdoors and in, north and south, rodeo runs year-round. A week of hunting in Montana or two weeks at home in Boise with his family are the extent of a cowboy's off season.) That $3.5 million a year in prize money remains a powerful incentive, and only the man who goes to a lot of rodeos can win his share—maybe as much as the $33,000 to $43,000 won by the all-around champion.
Still, after a few years of 500-mile drives to sample the dust of one small-town arena after another, rodeo looks like anything but easy wealth. All-day rides across the sunbaked, sun-bleached, sun blasted landscapes of the West succeed all-night rides over the vast empty plains—often without money to replace worn tires. Often scarcely enough money is left over from the rider's last winnings to pay the next entry fee. And at any moment during the competition a cowboy may sustain an injury that will cripple him and cut him off from his livelihood. So great are the hazards that only one insurance company in the country will cover rodeo cowboys. Despite the danger, cowboys act as if it were perfectly normal to approach a 650-pound Mexican steer, grab it by its horns and wrestle it to the ground. A cowboy's standard costume—wide-brimmed straw U-Roll-It, cheap but neat long-sleeved plaid shirt, and Wranglers rolled down to hide most of the boot—usually conceals several yards of tape.
Injuries are a part of the rodeo tradition. Bareback Rider Jim Shoulders once got such a yank on his arm from a bucking bronc that it snapped his collarbone. He completed the ride, got the day money, rode another bronc to win the event overall and finally rode a Brahma bull to win that event. Then he laid off a week to let the fracture mend.
Since there are some 3,400 active rodeoers, of which Stock Contractor Harry Knight estimates "there's not 45 guys in each event makin' a livin'," one wonders why more don't go back to punching a time clock instead of cattle. The answer lies in the character of most of the people associated with rodeos. There is bound to be strong mutual respect in a sport where each man goes into every competition solely on his own and dead even with everyone else, whether a champion or rookie. In the democracy of rodeo, breaks stay equal, too. Expensive horses are regularly lent around. A top money winner hazes for a near-novice bulldogger who, with the benefit of that help, can get lucky and take the day money. A cowboy fighting for bread never refuses to share information with his closest competitor on a particular animal's quirks—where the rein should be taken on a bronc, how a calf comes out of the chute. Other sports would call this sportsmanship; in rodeo it is simply the way things are done.
One of rodeo's foremost democrats—and certainly the exemplar extraordinary of the origins and character of its athletes—is Dean Oliver, 37, a three-time all-around world champion who just missed a fourth consecutive title in 1966. A big man with a deep-lined grin, Oliver remains the very archetype of the modern cowboy.