Holding each other up, through 25 years of finals

I know I’m not the only one who notices how things change as we get older. In particular, there’s something about traditions, holidays, and milestone events that allow for a comparison through time. Last week, for example, the Canadian Finals Rodeo became a bit of a time machine for me.

I joined my mom on Friday to watch a performance of this year’s “CFR.” While we were in the stands, I realized it had been 25 years since we first attended one of these rodeos. While we didn’t really mark our silver anniversary (should have got a silver buckle!), it did get me thinking.

Each CFR includes six performances, and we used to attend all of them together. Until very recently, that meant going to Edmonton and getting a hotel there for most of a week. A few things have changed about that arrangement: most recently, the rodeo moved to Red Deer after Edmonton got a new arena. And, more steadily over the years, I let other commitments get in the way – I’m now a more sporadic spectator.

Along the way, the rodeo changed too. Compared to when we first started going, the organizers seem to have put the whole thing in fast-forward. There isn’t time anymore for the clown to do his tricks, for the “Miss Rodeo” contestants to show off their riding skills (or lack thereof, which I confess I always got a kick out of), or for the more ceremonial elements they used to incorporate into introductions at each performance.

In terms of the competitors, the barrel racers are wearing less flashy clothes, but some of their horses’ gear is more colourful than I remember. The teenage steer riders look like they have a more difficult time these days: they used to hang on for a few small hops and jumps, and now they’re riding animals that act almost like full-fledged bucking stock. In the meantime, the bull riders are mostly wearing helmets now, and the bronc riders have neck braces – neither was common until recently.

There’s also a difference in how I relate to all those people.

Going to the rodeo at age 12, I imagined becoming a barrel racer; I’d only recently got a horse, and running a barrel pattern on the real deal seemed like a step in the right direction – and away from the days when my friend Jackie and I pretended our bikes were horses, riding an imaginary course around manhole covers.

A few years later, I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to be a Miss Rodeo Somewhere. I also wondered what it would be like to date a real cowboy. At minimum, I thought it would be fun to go two-stepping at the after-rodeo cabaret. I was always a bit disappointed when my mom wanted to go straight back to the hotel.

These days, however, the cowboys and rodeo queens seem like babies; most of them are at least a decade younger than me. And I know enough about their lifestyle now that I prefer my own. And the cabaret? Well, my aunt and mom decided we should check that out last week. I agreed, and it was fine. But all I really wanted to do was finish my beer and go to bed.

All those changes aside, I’m most nostalgic for the time in Edmonton spent with my mom. Staying in a hotel downtown was a big deal for a kid from a town of 2,000 people. We ate in restaurants; we laughed at ourselves while learning to take the LRT; we managed busy streets and got lost in the underground pedway system while shopping; we explored the craft fair and tradeshow, looking for Christmas gift ideas. Most nights after the rodeo, we joined friends of my mom’s for snacks cooked in their hotel room kitchenette. They put rodeo replays on TV and debriefed various events of the evening. Even in the years when I did homework during those evenings, their conversation was a comfortable backdrop.

This year, there’s one image from the rodeo stuck in my head. One of the bull riders was having a tough time getting setup. The bull he drew wasn’t cooperating as they tried to get the rigging on, and there was a bit of a delay while the group around the chute sorted things out. Within all that action, there was one man – as there always is – holding onto the neck of the cowboy’s vest, supporting him and ready to pull him up if need be. The camera angle was such that this man’s hand appeared on the jumbotron for quite a while. (It looked a little like the photo for this post, which I found online by Travis Dewitz.)

Maybe it’s because I was thinking about – and feeling grateful for – all those earlier rodeo experiences and memories with my mom, or maybe it’s because I’m just so tired of the division that seems nearly everywhere (people are so quick to complain, accuse, insult), but I keep thinking about that man’s hand. For those who don’t watch rodeo, you may not know about the spirit of cooperation that underlies these events. I don’t know the man’s relationship to the rider he was holding. Maybe he was the dad or uncle. But he might also have been, at one time anyway, a stranger.

After all: this is the same sport that saw Friday night’s crowd cheering as much for the high-ranking Mexican bull rider as anyone from Alberta. It’s the same sport that – back when I was a kid – welcomed and encouraged a rider from Quebec. They encouraged him so much that he’s got his own legacy out west, and his son has also become a CFR competitor.

I don’t know how many of the people in last week’s arena have signed up for the “Wexit” groups, or how many still feel moved by the Canadian national anthem – though there were certainly a lot of folks singing it. But wherever anyone lands on those things, I hope we can all agree that there’s something worth thinking about in those guys holding each other up.

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