Chasing the Rodeo
By W.K. Stratton
(Harcourt, 336 pages)
American sports culture is as diverse as it is divergent. NBA hopefuls, competitive cheerleaders and freestyle BMXicans can prosper and fail in states of mutual obliviousness. Even still, it's odd that a seemingly home-brewed sport like rodeo is so marginal in today's mix. Author (and Southwest native) W.K. Stratton's Chasing the Rodeo: On Wild Rides and Big Dreams, Broken Hearts and Broken Bones, and One Man's Search for the West makes the sport seem familiar to those of us who are out of the loop, while also sharing Stratton's own personal affinity for the rodeo way of life.
Not just a memoir, Chasing the Rodeo contains profiles of riders, travel narratives and lengthy digressions into rodeo culture and folklore. It's full of fascinating historical nuggets, such as the entry about African-American cowboy Bill Pickett, who invented bulldogging and steer-wrestling, and went on to become one of the sports' first superstars. Of course, this didn't protect him from the dehumanization of Jim Crow oppression, which consigned him to the livestock car whenever he traveled by rail.
Ultimately what Stratton seems to be chasing is an authentic American ritual that takes the sweat of hard work and transforms it into a celebration of hard play. As such, the author attempts to settle the thorny debate over rodeo's origins. While rodeo is largely considered the only spectator sport that's entirely from the United States, Stratton contends that it's a Mexican invention, one that predates the Wild West cowboy era by several centuries.
Stratton worries that rodeo is being positioned as the next NASCAR and that its use of Toby Keith jingoism and sensationalist branding will strip the sport of its soul. Though he notes that today's "logo" cowboys can make a decent living through promotion, he clearly prefers the rawness of Oregon's Pendleton Roundup competition, where corporate clutter is verboten.
For all of his reporting, Stratton's personal reflections are what make the book exceptionally readable. There's the legacy of Cowboy Don, Stratton's biological father, who, we learn, is a big part of the reason for his fascination with rodeo, as it's one of Stratton's few connections to the man. While Stratton doesn't advance this observation, it's hard to ignore how his latent quest for paternal communion via sport transcends his own particulars. As sports are one of the few ways manhood is conveyed in today's world, perhaps much of our sports obsession is tied up in daddy issues. This would certainly explain why ESPN highlight films are as schmaltzy as anything found on Lifetime.
While there's an undue amount of banal narratives involving Stratton's rental cars and motel experiences as he travels the circuit, there's enough substance in Chasing the Rodeo to make the journey worth the trouble of saddling up and following along.