Hell or High Water

This blog entry about the events of Thursday, July 04, 2013 was originally posted on July 09, 2013.

PART 4 (DAYS 8-11): “How’s this look?” I asked Leigh-Anne, trying on a white cowboy hat in the Lammle’s concession store in Stampede Park, grounds of the Calgary Stampede festival. When you’re at one of the world’s biggest celebrations of western heritage, the least you can do is put on full-brimmed cowboy headwear.

“Uh, you look like someone who’s going to Stampede,” Leigh-Anne admitted.

“Good,” I said. “That’s the look I was going for.”

The Calgary Stampede, the self-proclaimed “Greatest Outdoor Show On Earth,” has been going on for over a century, and it’s an annual celebration that consumes the city, sort of like Mardi Gras to New Orleans or Oktoberfest to Munich. I’m told that most Calgarians get into the cowboy spirit during the entire 10-day festival, dressing up each day in western garb, even when going to work at a bank or law firm. Leigh-Anne told me that I might even be made fun of for not wearing jeans (I didn’t bring any), but I seemed to be okay with just the cowboy hat on. Besides, while Stampede is primarily a cowboy-themed event, sects of the festival pay homage to native heritage, and even the Chinese, as seen in a Chinese float surrounded by paraders during the inaugural parade that I saw on TV during a homemade pancake and bacon breakfast. (There were also “brojoes,” the poor man’s mimosa, with OJ and beer.) 

Each year, Calgary Stampede has evolved to fit in with the times. In 2013, the fitting theme was not surprisingly, survival after the floods that submerged a lot of the southern Alberta region just a week prior. “Hell or High Water” had been the motto of the city since, and from the looks of things, they did an incredible job cleaning up the joint. (For kids, t-shirts saying “Heck or High Water” were printed.) Seeing week-old video footage of Stampede Park under three feet of water was a stark contrast to the reality on opening day: the food stands, rides, and games of the midway were dry as a bone — minus the times thunderstorm downpours came through. (We found shelter in a horse show tent or beer tent during those times.)

It was a clear, sunny day for the opening ceremony, which was a huge spectacle. I failed to realize how big a spectable it was when I had a picture taken with what I thought were random cowboys — who turned out to be professional bull riders about to be lowered into the ground with stunt wires.

“This is so great,” I said in awe as the ceremony began just after the awesome pre-show of high-flying motocross stunts. I mean, I’d been to rodeos in Wyoming and Texas before, but those were minor sideshows compared to Calgary’s over-the-top big show.

“I’m glad,” Leigh-Anne told me. “I was a big apprehensive. I mean, I know you like fun things but…”

“I know, I’m a city slicker.”

“This is my Christmas.” (Coincidentally, it was also her birthday.)

We were both already double-fisting beers in the stands as cowboys representing countries like Canada, the USA, Brazil, and Australia rode around on horseback waving flags. Fireworks exploded behind them, and the crowd applauded, especially after the singing of the national anthem, “Oh, Canada!”


This is the battle cry of Calgary Stampede, not to be confused for the American “Yeehaw,” as I learned from the many “Stampede 101” signs posted around. (Another was “Beans are the salad.”)

The rodeo itself was pretty standard as far as rodeos go as a sport, only that the stakes are much higher; the purse is two million dollars, and it’s only available to the best professional rodeo contenders — in fact, it’s an invite-only competition which leads to the finals in Las Vegas. World-class bronco riders, top ropers, and bull riders showed their stuff off in the grandstand arena, all trying to best each other in time. And when they weren’t, the rodeo clown did his jokes and dance moves for the crowds (this one could do a mean Michael Jackson dance), and there were also interludes of native dancingmarching bands, and audience competitions, like when kids had to race each other with mini toy chuckwagons.

The rodeo events go on in the grandstand arena, and they’re something that you really get into, or pay less and less attention to the more you drink — unless of course you’re watching the nightly chuckwagon races (a.k.a. “the chucks”), and you’re really cheering on the racing wagons because you’ve placed bets amongst your friends during each heat.

During our days at the rodeo, we met up with Leigh-Anne’s friend Emma, whom I met once in New York, and Bryce, who had connections to get us into the Nashville North beer tent one evening without having to wait in a queue. Leigh-Anne and I had been to Nashville North a couple of times, where country stars like Terri Clark played for all the two steppers in cowboy hats. As that was going on, we’d met with Leigh-Anne’s friends Ashley and Emily, a fellow city slicker from Toronto and St. John’s who, like me, didn’t know most of the country songs being played.

“When you’re surrounded by country culture, you realize they don’t live in a bubble, it’s you that lives in the bubble,” I told her.

Not that it mattered with beer as the great social lubricant. Also, we found the credit cards and ID for some guy named “Chris Perotta,” and it was our goal — particularly Ashley’s — to track him down. Needless to say, she met a lot of dudes that night in her quest and even got a free drink out of it.

FOUR DAYS OF CANADIAN COWBOY CULTURE was only a preview of the entire 10-day Stampede festival, but it was enough to get the gist of it. Plus my liver thanked me, since every night not only ended in fireworks for the masses, but Leigh-Anne, me and company out somewhere getting drunk — may it be the Cowboys nightclubby beer tent or the restaurant Model Milk.

Hell or high water, I guess that was bound to happen.

Next entry: The Rodeo Within A Rodeo

Previous entry: Language of the Valley

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This blog post is one of fifteen travel dispatches from the trip blog, "The Global Trip: Cowboys, Duk-Duks, and Kiwis," which chronicled a five-week trip through the Canadian Rockies, followed by Calgary's Stampede rodeo festival, an assignment through different regions of Papua New Guinea, and a wintery jaunt to New Zealand's South island.

Next entry:
The Rodeo Within A Rodeo

Previous entry:
Language of the Valley


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