July 4. There’s a sad little cluster of peeling white bleachers, but they face the sun. Most locals elect to sit on a blanket on the hillside opposite, where the view is great in spite of the dust. To keep the blowing grit down, a tractor and sprayer work the arena to a perfect moistness; children in battered Stetsons and their best boots hug the fence and squawk in pleasure when the wind blows the spray at them. Four small clones in white long-sleeved shirts and big black hats climb up to sit astride a barrel, the most natural way to watch the show.
Killdeer, population 790, clings to a curve on ND 22 just above ND 200. The Killdeer Mountains, north and west of town, once site of a nearbloodless Army-Indian battle, rise incongruously from the clear plain, a dark reminder that anything is possible. One can drive around the mountains in about half an hour, climb them in 15 minutes, and from the top see forever across mildly rolling grasslands and chest-high wheat, hazy in the heat. Only 150 miles from Canada, Killdeer nonetheless acknowledges mainly the “west” in “Midwest.”
At 2:00 exactly, a stunning, wide-nostrilled buckskin carrying an even more stunning blond (red boots, red hat, white satin shirt, red satin pants it would take a paramedic crew with a Jaws of Life to pry her out of) prances into the arena and then breaks into an easy lope. The woman is Miss Rodeo North Dakota, the buckskin just another taut, obedient part of her body. Most men would stand to see her better, and some men to see her horse; all the men here, and the women with them, stand because Miss Rodeo North Dakota bears the American flag, its pole tucked neatly into the top of her right boot. She circles twice, then reins up slightly east of center. Behind her are two horsemen with the state and rodeo association flags.
The local VFW has planned a special Independence Day ceremony. A gate swings open, an anonymous woman behind the fence starts her ragged tattoo on a snare drum, and a dozen more-than-middle-aged men in unmatched uniforms enter, out of step. The drill sergeant shouts directions so that no one is hurt too badly in the melee of negotiating turns. They carry Old Glory, too, and come to a halt in the center of the arena. I watch, amused and touched—then notice that every cowboy hat in sight is over its owner’s heart. No one smiles at this rag-tag remnant of the local armed forces. Their memories are not that short.
Five of the VFW carry rifles. They aim, with less precision than sincerity, straight at the announcer high in his booth, and fire. Again. Again. The horses hate it. When the twitchynecked buckskin gathers himself to leap. Miss Rodeo North Dakota, perfectly still, moves her lips a little, and he freezes.
A local woman will sing our national anthem. I expect the worst and am gratified and surprised: her voice is confident, tone-true, rich and shimmery, what city folks call “country-western.” No one fools around or talks or opens a Coke or a beer; all eyes are straight ahead, all hands over a heart. The smallest children play quietly. We applaud after the anthem, and then, in what is almost but not quite a prayer, the announcer reminds us that we are celebrating today a way of life we love and the freedom that only this great nation of ours can offer, and we should give thanks to our Heavenly Father Who has seen fit to be so generous with us. There is a moment of silence, unbidden, from these people, some of whom lost their farms this year. An ancient VFW member plays a pretty respectable taps. The arena clears.
Sitting on a blanket on the hill, we are surrounded by solid, youngish men with farmer tans and hard arms, older, rounder men in string ties, women in tank tops or chambray shirts tucked into tight jeans. My husband’s five-year-old nephew is with us, determined to hate the rodeo, his first (he changes his mind before it’s over); Steven looks silly in a blue surfer shirt and shorts, sandals, and sunglasses, surrounded by kids in down-at-the-heels Tony Lamas and serious-looking dark felt hats. What will happen first? he wonders. Calf roping, his mother says. Cat roping? he asks, only mildly interested, and we fall all over each other on the lumpy hill. Tie that sucker fast, Clem, or the claws’ll getcha. . . . And here’s Bill Sorenson, folks, on a big brown tabby named Muffy that’s never been rode. But our silliness seems out of place, shallow and a little mean, somehow, in the midst of all this hearty camaraderie.
Miss Rodeo North Dakota’s dazzling buckskin bulldogs the calves back to their pen after every calf-roping contestant; the duo are not a mere showpiece. In every event, the hometown boys get a big hand—the announcer asks for it, but he wouldn’t have to—regardless of how they score. Several bowlegged teenagers in snug jeans and chaps fail to stay on their broncs; they’re local heroes, headed for the Nationals later in the summer, and toe the dust and blush when we applaud their good tries here today. Outlanders get applause, too, for nice rides on broncs or bulls or winning times wrestling their steers to the ground. So do horses who outwit their riders (the livestock racks up points for orneriness and grit just like the human contestants do). Let’s hear it for Todd Splonskowski, ladies and gentlemen—he’s one of the best, and he gave it everything he’s got. And while you’re at it, let’s give a big hand to Old Ironsides. He had a job to do and he done it. Todd limps out, and Old Ironsides ditches the pick-up men for one last spry cowboy two-step around the fence.
The smart cowponies, who, with or without a rider, can counter every move a calf or steer might dream up, draw admiration from the announcer and the crowd, but the bovine stock isn’t given much credit for quickwittedness. Other than to whistle low at the big old bulls’ slow-motion twisting and bucking—imagine a refrigerator-sized block of cement rolling end over end down a mountain—we don’t respond to the cattle with much admiration. I’ve seen a wily, ring-wise little calf outwit a big man on a horse, though, by hightailing it to the far end of the arena and then sliding under the gate to mama, slick as Lou Brock stealing home. Everybody comes here to work.
There is some money to be won, but not a lot, especially after gas and feed and entry fee bite into it. It’s hard to think of a harder way to make a dollar. Yet there are riders up here—this is North Dakota’s oldest rodeo, but it’s not a particularly big one—from Iowa and Kansas, Wyoming and even Texas; these fellas aren’t hobbyists. Each one will stay on that bull or get thrown, loop that calf or lose him, flip that steer or miss by a hair and fall open-mouthed into the dirt at 30 miles an hour—and then pick up his crushed hat, dust himself off, amble to the trailer, pack it all up, and drive 30 miles south to Dickinson for that rodeo three hours from now. Tomorrow it’s South Dakota, maybe, or Montana.
I never go to a rodeo without some dread; softhearted about animals, I didn’t grow up using them. Always in the back of my brain is the fear that I’ll watch a horse break a leg or see a calf’s neck shattered by his own speed after a good throw. (I’d hate to see a hurt cowboy, too, of course, but part of me figures they ask for it.) Still, there is an aspect of surprise pain in real life, and what these guys do in the ring (aside from bull-riding and wild-cow milking, that is), they and other men do every day because they must, with much more to lose and less to win. There are parts of life that can’t be computerized.
So here I sit on this Fourth of July, a city girl who can’t even ride, sucking a cold beer and feeling suddenly, strangely self-satisfied. There’s no special moral to this tale, except that maybe Heaven isn’t a hammock in the shade. What’s here is immediate, strenuous, authentic. Old Glory snaps above the announcer’s booth in the harsh plains wind. Tonight there will be firecrackers, and watermelon, and a room full of people who love me; and tomorrow in the shadow of the distant, improbable Killdeer Mountains, anything is possible.