From the opening of the chute to the instant I get bucked off the horse is 23 frames on the 8-mm. film. It's another 13 frames before I hit the ground, and getting up requires 49 more. In all, the grainy sequence shot by my father with his trusty Bell & Howell lasts less than five seconds.
It was my worst ride. But that snippet of movie film is the only record of my brief career as a bareback bronc rider, and, despite my performance, it documents an occasion I recall with curious satisfaction—the Paradise Ranch Rodeo.
Located in Woodland Park, Colo., Paradise Ranch existed for tourists, not livestock. From mid-June to mid-September it staged weekly rodeos on Sunday afternoons for visitors willing to fork over the dollar admission charge. I lived nearby and, during the summer after my freshman year in college, I became a participant.
These rodeos weren't sanctioned by any official organization, but were independently run jackpot competitions in which the contestants' $5 entry fees for each event were pooled to pay the winners. Jackpots are to rodeo what sandlots are to baseball, but the Paradise Ranch rodeo was somewhat different. The reason: spectators and hoopla.
Rodeo purists would gag at the thought of the Paradise Ranch competitions, but it didn't matter to me or the tourists. They could have been Cheyenne's Frontier Days. And when I heard my name crackle from the P.A. system in official testimony that I was a bareback rider, I briefly became my own hero.
Public recognition was important to me because I first mounted a bucking horse at a near-private event arranged by my friend Randy Witte, a member of the Colorado State University rodeo team. We were casual acquaintances whose paths had crossed on a summer job. Our friendship awakened, however, during a conversation one afternoon when we discovered a common interest in rodeo. Mine had been fantasy, but Randy's had substance.
Randy rode bulls and bucking horses and let me tag along to a few Rodeo Cowboy Association events. Tolerant of my naiveté, he served as a tutor in riding technique and a benevolent adviser in the intricacies of rodeo decorum.
For example, I learned that one doesn't wear a straw cowboy hat to a winter rodeo. Only saddle broncs, not bareback horses, are to be called just "broncs." And Levi's, worn extra long in the legs, are tucked into only the inner half of the boot when one is riding.
It wasn't the world of gritty, unshaven cowhands that I had expected. Instead, rodeos were primarily populated with athletes who, in their own idiosyncratic way, were similar to football players I had known. Most were neatly groomed, serious competitors dedicated to their sport. The more I learned of their skills and the practice required to excel, the more I appreciated them as athletes.
The sound of spurs stirred me in a way that the clatter of cleats in the locker room never did. And the boots, chaps and cowboy hat gave me a presence no sports uniform had ever bestowed—a blend of John Wayne and Mickey Mantle. The ritualistic preparation for an event was more satisfying than any pre-game warmup I'd participated in. There were the customary stretching and loosening exercises, but I derived the most pleasure from preparing my equipment.