Friday, November 07, 2008

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant

In trying to get "rodeo" declared Alberta's Official Sport, Official Opposition leader Kevin Taft has either:
  1. lost his mind from the pressure of trying to convince Albertans to vote Liberal
  2. misjudged the effectiveness of political stunts (Sarah Palin?)
  3. come up with an unusual way to get complimentary tickets to Canadian Finals Rodeo this weekend
  4. got the wrong idea from What Not to Wear when a man was told to "wear more hats - they look good"
  5. grown tired of waiting for ice time at his local hockey rink
Or maybe all of the above. It reminds me of the bumper sticker on the janitor's car at a library I worked at years ago: "Rodeo: America's #1 Sport!". I never asked him to explain in what possible category rodeo could be #1. Similarly, rodeo as Alberta's Official Sport? Because when there is no ice on local outdoor rinks they convert them to bull riding venues? Because you can't walk through a St. Albert park without seeing dozens of youngsters steer wrestling? And goodness knows the number of times my daughter is down the block saddle bronc riding with her pals. Of course, women are only allowed to do barrel racing at the professional level, so rodeo isn't exactly the most gender-equal of sports. As to heritage, baseball is as old as rodeo in Alberta, both as a participant and a spectator sport.

Saskatchewan picked curling as their official sport. Most Albertans could probably name a curler but would be hard-pressed to name a rodeo star. I come up with Corb Lund and Ian Tyson but they're famous for singing about rodeo not for their horsemanship (which is stellar I'm sure). Some googling was unsuccessful in finding other official provincial sports (Newfoundland - cod jigging?). Perhaps that means soccer is still available, which means Alberta could grab it. A world sport for a worldly province. A choice that looks ahead to the future of sport, not back. A sport with a winter version that Albertans have taken to more than any other province (indoor soccer - the version played in hockey rink-style pitches).
That said, sure, rodeo indeed has an honoured place in Alberta heritage. Cattle and horses and the folks that love them will always be part of what makes Alberta Alberta. Read Fred Stenson's novel Lightning for an excellent look at the open range ranch era of the late 19th century in Alberta.

The contemporary challenge to cowboy life is covered in a recent book set in the state of Wyoming:The Legend of Colton H. Bryant by Alexandra Fuller (also available as a downloadable digital eAudiobook!). Wyoming is the epitome of cowboy country, the western US state with the smallest population, barely half a million people. Annie Proulx set her famous gay cowboy tale, "Brokeback Mountain", and the rest of Close Range: Wyoming Stories in Wyoming because that's where the cowboys are! Interestingly, the movie version of Brokeback Mountain was filmed in Alberta. Proulx has published two further collections of Wyoming stories: Bad Dirt: Wyoming Stories 2 and Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3. Fuller's non-fiction book is the story of a Wyoming cowboy, Colton Bryant, his love of all things Wyoming: rodeo, horses, hunting and pickup trucks, and the irresistible lure of the oil patch. And as many Albertans know, life as an oil rig roughneck can mean a short life. You can hear a discussion of the book as well as Fuller reading from it book thanks to an NPR podcast here.

Fuller has the credentials to write critically about the oil boom. Born in England, she grew up in war-torn Rhodesia (the future Zimbabwe). Her memoir of her childhood in Africa, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight is a must-read. In 1994 Fuller moved to Wyoming with her husband. She has published pieces on Wyoming in various places, including one on drugs and the oil i
ndustry in Wyoming in The New Yorker. She wrote the Wyoming chapter in the new book State by State that I blogged about recently.

The romantic allure of the rodeo and cowboy life continues, even as the oil patch p
ulls real cowboys off the ranch and onto the rig. There are a number of books in this vein (the dilettante cowboy memoir?): Two Canadian accounts of the rodeo world:Finally, two books that look back at the ranching life, of Montana in particular, with clear eyes:
  • Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt. The memoir of a 3rd generation Montana rancher, the story of a female rancher making her way in essentially a man's world.
  • The Next Rodeo: New and Selected Essays is a new collection of pieces by William Kittredge, who lives in Missoula, Montana and spent 29 years teaching creative writing at the University of Montana. Kittredge grew up on an Oregon cattle ranch and his essays talk of the changes to the West over his lifetime.


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