We drove into the storm until it surrounded us. Lightning was brewing in the distance and then it was beside us. “Do you think they’re gonna cancel if it’s raining?” inquired Leah.
I really didn’t have an answer. “I’m certain that rain or shine is pretty much the rule here. This event is sold out, and there are no rain-checks for this sort of thing,” I hoped.
As we were approaching Belle Fourche (known as the geographical center of America), the rain abated. We dodged a bullet, but the evening was early. We navigated our way through town by following the crowd.
Townsfolk were homesteading on their claim of sidewalk with folding chairs and coolers in an effort to capture the best view, hours before the fireworks. Leah and I were on our way to our first rodeo in the “official” middle of nowhere.
We picked up tickets at will call, and continued through a cowboy arcade of beer, buckles and bows, mixed with the sweet smell of manure. We were shown to our seats by an usher in his sixties. Wiping them dry, the usher cautioned, “I hope I only need to do this once.”
“How much did it rain here?” Leah wanted to know.
“Not so bad. Couldn’t tell ya if it’s gonna start up again, and I used to do weather forecasting for a living,” the usher confessed. “But you know what they say about South Dakota weather?… ‘If you don’t like the weather, wait fifteen minutes and it will change.'” I looked up from my seat. We were sitting in Row C, and the overhang eave was positioned perfectly over our heads.
“Could that explain why you’re an usher today?” I jested.
The usher turned back without hesitation. “That’s what my wife asks!”
The evening opened with a salute to America. Retired Sgt. 1st Class Dana Bowman, Special Forces maneuvered through a dark and gloomy sky, dangling from his Coca-Cola-sponsored parachute.
Bowman streamed into the arena amid cheers, proving to naysayers that the first double-amputee ever to reenlist in the military has the audacity to demonstrate that disability is only a state of mind.
The 98th Annual Black Hills Roundup attracted cowpokes from near and far,
each one competing for a share of $170,000 in prize money with a daring-do skill set that defies sanity. It’s risky business, but the guys on the rodeo circuit take a beating for eight seconds of work–often times coming up lame and short on funds.
Yet, if they don’t remount, there’ll be no payday. So riding injured is a way of life. The roundup was filled with traditional rodeo events:
Barrelman Dennis Halstead provided slapstick shtick between events, while concessions provided corn dogs, cookies, and coffee.
Not to be outdone, Cowboy Kenny Bartram and his protege performed X-Game stunts on their steel horses after all the real horses had been stabled for the night.
And if that wasn’t enough, the night finished with a flurry of fireworks.
It rained for much of the drive back to the Airstream in Rapid City, making the trip longer than necessary, but a time for reflection. The America I witnessed tonight was spirited and inspiring.
It was cathartic for the cowboys to chew tobacco, drink beer and raise hell, while young families dressed their kids in patriotic onesies, and showed off their newest Western boots. It was an evening dedicated to perpetual promotion–from the ads, the banners, the announcements, the props, to the flag-waving riders.
And it was a chance to see how important rodeo is to the qualifiers, and applaud how they risk their futures to compete and entertain the crowd.
But more than anything, I was grateful that I would wake up tomorrow feeling better than the cowboys.
* Description and Rules provided by PRCA.