Nothing to it.
Mahan grinned. He can sell almost anything, but what he sells best is himself. The cops picked up a few Larry Mahan ball-point pens that he passes around ("Hidy, hidy, I'm Larry Mahan, this thing's real handy for writing down somebody's phone number") and said we could get on down the road if we departed at a slower pace. They said that there was hardly a thing in Redwood City we needed to see strong enough to take a shortcut through a gas station. So we went on down there, and if we missed anything I don't remember what it was.
Larry Mahan's nickname is Bull. A lot of the other riders call him that, and he likes it. Bull, in fact, is the title of his biography, now being written by Doug Hall, author of a new book called Let 'er Buck!, which is also mostly about Mahan. Hall lives in New York and has long hair and a beard. He dresses like one of those cosmic-fantasy cowboys. When he traveled with Mahan on the rodeo tour, he was known as the Freak. Not that appearances matter as much as they used to. One young cowboy said, "We might be the biggest traveling hippie commune in the world."
He was laughing when he said that. But the cowboys do travel together to as many as 200 rodeos in a year, and they share everything from gas and hamburger money to girls and information on bucking stock. The standard size for riders is 15�-33 in shirts and 30-33 in jeans. They swap their Going Down the Road clothes. One bull rider travels with nothing but a toothbrush in his pocket. Mahan borrowed a pair of jeans from him once and found five different laundry marks in the pants, none of them the initials of the last rider who'd had them. Mahan flies his own twin-engine Cessna to many rodeos. He has crowded five cowboys into it and flown over the Rocky Mountains. Sometimes they stay six or eight to a motel room or borrowed apartment. Not many of them earn more than $5,000 in a year. Living like that, they get pretty well acquainted with each other, and the attitudes of the younger ones soak through the structure. But of course the old rodeo cowboys lived the same way. They just used different words for it. Instead of calling it community, they called it freedom.
On Halloween night, an old car painted with sunbursts and butterflies pulled up in front of a North Beach bar in San Francisco. Out of the front seat jumped a creature in an incredible costume. Furs, feathers, beads, makeup. He strutted the length of the bar, left arm extended, wrist flopping, right hand on hip, crying, "I'm Larry Mahan! I'm not afraid of anyone in this whole wretched place!"
Among the people who smiled at the performance was Larry Mahan, who was sitting at the bar with a glass of wine. Mahan doesn't drink much, but he does like a glass of wine now and then. "A few years ago, that would really get me," Mahan said. "There'd be blood on the floor in a minute. I used to be just about the straightest guy on the tour. I don't know when it started or what caused it, but I've loosened up. Some of my values have changed. Things are funny and enjoyable to me now that I might have taken a different way a few years ago."
At the National Finals, held in Oklahoma City the first week in December, the top 15 performers in each event get together for 10 go-rounds (a go-round is completed when each contestant has had one shot at his entry, whether it be the 15 bull riders in the National Finals, for example, or the 100-odd bull riders entered at the Cow Palace). Rodeo Announcer Clem McSpadden, Democratic Congressman and a bass-voiced, string-tied veteran of 30 years of grand entries, traditionally starts the National Finals by telling the crowd there won't be any hippies here, and one thing you can by-gosh do is tell the girls from the boys at a rodeo. Mahan, who is referred to by some Rodeo Cowboys Association officials as a maverick, has complained about the speech, saying the sport should outgrow that sort of thinking.
So many new cowboys are flocking onto the tour that a rodeo is liable to last for hours after the performance is officially scheduled to be over and the customers have gone home. At the Cow Palace, Mahan rode one of his bulls at one a.m. before an audience almost entirely of his peers. The financial rewards have not kept pace with the growth in number of rodeos, rodeo cowboys and spectators. Mahan's nearly $60,000 in winnings this year would hardly compare to the $278,124 in up-front money taken out of the golf tour by Jack Nicklaus, Mahan's approximate equal in stature in that sport. But the money is getting better, and the rodeo life is still kicking right along.
"Most of the guys are out here because they love to be around animals, love to compete, love the life," Mahan said. "They don't want to be stuck in some town all their lives at some dull job. The adrenaline flows pretty fast out here. Plenty of guys get hurt, but you worry about a good ride more than about your safety. I figure if I ride three more years, I'll be up on 1,500 more head of bucking stock. Now it's not reasonable to think you can ride 1,500 head of bucking stock without going to the hospital, so you just put that idea out of your mind and think about riding and winning and loving the life. I love it more every day."
At 30, after 10 years of competing in big-league rodeos, Mahan is approaching the end of his riding career. Only a few rare individuals like Freckles Brown, the famous bull rider, keep on trying to sit on a wild animal as a regular matter after their middle 30s. In the bull riding at the National Finals this year, Mahan is cast as the aging star against a brilliant new generation that includes the year's leaders, 22-year-old Bobby Steiner and 20-year-old Don Gay, both from Texas rodeo families. Mahan is the all-around champion because he rides in three events (bareback, saddle bronc and bulls), competes in more rodeos than most and wins more money than anybody. Mahan has won the bull riding twice, in 1965 and 1967. This year he was third going into the National Finals.