Book review Bucking the past 

W.K. Stratton pursues a legendary lifestyle and the ghost of his rodeo-bum father

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American sports culture is as diverse as it is divergent. NBA hopefuls, competitive cheerleaders, and freestyle BMXicans struggle, fail, and prosper in states of mutual obliviousness. A legend in one milieu can easily die unknown to the readers of People and the viewers of E! The world of sport has never been wider.

Still, it is kinda strange that a seemingly home-brewed concoction like rodeo should now be considered marginal. But facts must be faced: Can you name a rodeo star with even half the pop-culture recognition of an O.C. cast member? Exactly. Couple this with the growing suburbanization of the populace and the rodeo is now as exotic as ice curling to the average Haitian.

W.K. Stratton's Chasing The Rodeo makes the rodeo seem familiar even if the book defies easy categorization. A native Oklahoman, his love for bronc and bull riding is practically a birthright. His biological father was a rodeo bum (emphasis on bum), and his mother a certified cowgirl. His book is part rodeo memoir, part a series of profiles on rodeo greats and a survey of the sports' culture and folklore. We meet bull riders who log trucker miles to enter and win as many competitions as time and geography permit. There's still money to be had in the latter-day rodeo, though not a fortune. And not unlike other industries, there's little room between endorsement-deal success and midlist viability.

One of Chasing's great strengths comes in its unearthing of historical nuggets. Who knew, for example, that an African-American cowboy named Bill Pickett single-handedly invented bulldogging, or steer wrestling, and went on to become one of the sport's first superstars? However, his star status didn't protect him from Jim Crow laws that consigned him to sleep with the livestock while traveling by train. By way of compliments, his fellow cowboys bestowed such gems as, "Bill's hide was black, but his heart was white."

Ultimately, what Stratton seems to be chasing is an authentic American ritual that takes the stuff of hard work and transforms it into a celebration of hard play. As such, he attempts to settles the thorny debate on where the rodeo originated. While often described as "the only spectator sport originating entirely in the United States," with towns such as Prescott, Arizona and Pecos, Texas sniping for the designation as its bona fide birthplace, Stratton claims that like so many "American" goods, rodeo was made in Mexico. He contends that it predates the cowboy era by several centuries, as it was the rancheros of colonial New Spain who hosted charreada celebrations during the annual roundup, where competitive horseplay gave birth to today's rodeo events.

Stratton frets that in the rush to position rodeo as the next NASCAR, a breakout sport that's both a brand and a demographic unto itself, excessive branding will strip the sport of its soul and promote Toby Keith-style jingoism. He clearly prefers Oregon's Pendleton Roundup, where jumbotrons and corporate logos are verboten.

Chasing the rodeo:
On wild rides and big dreams, broken hearts and broken bones, and one man's search for the west

By W.K. Stratton
$25, 320 pages
ISBN: 0151010722

For all Stratton's reporting, it's his personal reflections that make the book most compelling. For as he's chasing the rodeo zeitgeist, he is chasing the ghost of his biological father, "Cowboy Don." While this quest is less than glorious and without a happy ending, rodeo is one of the few links Stratton has to his dad, who left his mother when he was an infant. A prodigious drinker and ladies man, this Denver native son was never much of a star and eventually wound up punching a clock as a construction worker. After a string of failed marriages and relationships, he died broke and largely alone.

While Stratton doesn't advance such an argument, it's hard to deny the connection between "chasing the rodeo" and the larger voyage for paternal communion. Whether it's baseball or bulldogging, sports are one of very few avenues by which a sense of manhood is conveyed. Perhaps this explains why highlight films on ESPN are as schmaltzy as anything from the likes of Nora Ephron.

Chasing The Rodeo may not satisfy hardcore fans of the sport, though they probably will benefit from its historical details. And while there's an excessive amount of banal narratives involving Stratton's rental car, motel, and press-box experiences, there's enough to this journey that makes it worth the trouble of saddling up and following along.

More by John Dicker



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