Tony Perrottet
Writer, Editor, Historian
Tony Perrottet photo
Cuba Libre cover

Cheyenne Frontier Days

The West's biggest rodeo—billed as ‘The Daddy of ‘Em All'


"So—what size is your head?"

Marshall Jones, cowboy-wear specialist in old Cheyenne, was visibly shaken to learn that I didn't know my hat size—he was sporting an old-style, broad-rimmed Stetson himself, à la John Wayne in The Searchers, which nicely offset his frayed red goatee—but he drew a deep breath and began to explain the many subtleties of local sartorial style. This was the start of Frontier Days—Wyoming's answer to the Muslim hajj, the biggest rodeo in the United States—and I had very good reason to look the part: Under official rodeo regulations, any writer who wants to cover Frontier Days is required to wear full Western garb. So no sooner had I left the highway in those hot, empty plains than I'd made a beeline for The Wrangler, a barn-like cowboy couturier that was as lively as an Indian bazaar, and asked Marshall to give me a make-over, starting from 'lid' down.

I passed up a string of heavy felt cowboy hats with names like The Revenger, Badlands and The Renegade; The Gus as worn by Robert Duvall in Lonesome Dove; even, reluctantly, an attractive beige bowler (tempting though it was to look like the squirrelly reporter from Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven); ending up, inevitably, with a para-Panama—the classic summer cowboy hat made from crisp white straw. The fact was, despite the dizzying stylistic range in the cowboy hat department, this was pretty well the standard camouflage for every man, woman and child in Cheyenne trying to survive under the105 degree sun. Even babes in strollers were wearing them. "We sell about a hundred of these a day," Marshall admitted as he steamed the band to make it fit more comfortably, then curled the rims to give it snap. "In fact, we have trouble keeping them in stock."

All I needed was the shirt, the boots and the "cowboy-cut" jeans—"straight leg, snug seat" Marshall explained—and I was ready to blend in.

Back outside the store, the streets were hopping. For most of the year, Cheyenne is the archetypal cattle town of the Wyoming plains—quiet, orderly and, frankly, a little dull. Freight trains rattle through the middle of town, their horns tooting mournfully; teenagers in pick-up trucks cruise aimlessly past empty hardware stores. But for ten days every July, Frontier Days turns Cheyenne back to the rip-roaring frontier outpost it once was.

I wove along sidewalks packed with more authentic cowboys than myself, some still wearing their jangling spurs. Local belles were dressed up as bordello madams in black petticoats waving their feather boas at passing cars. Kids all wore chaps and six shooters. Over in the antique Plains Hotel—whose foyer is decorated with oil paintings of Native American chiefs, a chandelier with buffalo silhouettes and original signs that say "Howdy Pardner"—a band was belting out Johnny Cash classics. Where did all these people come from? I wondered. Everyone in Wyoming, the most thinly-populated state in the continental United States, seemed to have descended on Cheyenne at once.

But the real action was at the arena on the edge of town. More than 11,000 spectators were braving a staggering summer heat to witness the opening ceremony of the famous Frontier Days rodeo, which would in the next ten days cover every possible combination of man and quadruped, from bull riding to bronco busting and steer wrestling.

The announcer had the charismatic flair of a TV evangelist, and he held the crowd in his powerful grip. "Welcome to cowboy country!" he roared, to ecstatic cheers from the stands. The Star-Spangled Banner, of course, was solemnly sung. But then, to another anthem—the theme from Gunsmoke—two dozen cowgirls on horseback burst from the gates in formation and raced around the track carrying flags with the sponsors' logos. Known as 'the Dandies,' they all looked like solid Farrah Fawcet-Majors. "Frontier days is a Western extravaganza like no other!" the MC exulted. "It's a celebration of the cowboy culture!" All this was exotic to nobody but me. The combined scent of corralled animals and frying burgers carried the aura of Western tradition, thick in the air.

* * *

Rodeos began back in the 1870s as a casual part of American ranch life—it was a cheap way for cowboys to amuse themselves on their one day off a month—but they are big business in the West these days. More than 300 are held throughout the summer, ranging from modest small-town fairs to raucous, high-budget events that take over entire cities. Modern rodeo riders are nearly all professionals, traveling from one town to the next earning prize money. And Cheyenne Frontier Days is, as its publicity slogan declares, "The Daddy of 'Em All," attracting 1,800 contestants for eleven days of competitions. Every day includes 49 bull rides, 28 bareback rides, 28 saddle bronc rides, plus steer roping and steer wrestling, all for a US$1 million purse. As one sports writer memorably noted, you get "more views of cowboys biting the dust than the Outlaw Josey Wales."

The first Frontier Days was celebrated in 1897, with a lavish parade orchestrated by the famous impresario Buffalo Bill. The rodeo soon took off as the ultimate exemplar of the romantic Wild West, luring authentic legends whose resonant names seem to come from dime novels—Hoot Gibson, Slim Pickens, Lane Frost, King Merritt. Today, the names of contestants are just as theatrical—Cody Custer, Cimarron Gerke and "Buster Barton from Walla Walla"—and they are now flashed up on a Broadway-esque electronic sign above the arena, accompanied by a cacophonous blast of country music or classic rock.

The entertainment is non-stop. From dawn until dusk, the schedule cracks along with an endless stream of super-cowboys plunging headlong into the arena. The most dangerous event was the bull riding. Despite the best efforts of the clowns, who are employed to distract animals after the rider had fallen, several serious injuries brought ambulances onto the field. One unlucky rider had his head had his head whipped back and blacked out, going into convulsions. "I don't want to alarm anybody," the announcer intoned gravely, "but this is America's extreme sport." As medics rushed the victim off the field, he added: "It never hurts to offer up a prayer. It would be appreciated, I know it would." Another rider who was badly stomped dragged himself to his feet and hobbled out of the stadium. "Give him a hand!" cried the exultant MC. "These are cowboys, they're not ordinary humans!"

As I wandered behind the scenes, along corridors awash with chewing tobacco, I met another ring-in like myself, named Jonathon from Fox TV casting in Los Angeles. He was touring the rodeos to find a suitable cowboy for a Reality dating show, but he was having a difficult time.

"It's not as easy as you'd think," he confided. "It's pretty conservative out here, and a lot of these guys are married by the time they're twenty five. The guy's got to be single, he's got to have sex appeal, and most importantly, he's got to have all his teeth..."

* * *

After a week in Cheyenne, I could talk rodeo with the best of them. I'd seen hundreds of rides from all vantages, including the chute and 'the pit' (a below-ground refuge for photographers, where the riders came so close the dirt was sprayed in our faces). I knew the intricacies of the "wild horse race," where teams of cowboys saddled an untamed horse then charged it chaotically around the track, creating a scene of mayhem straight out of Ben Hur. And I'd paid my respects at the peripheral cultural events, like the chuck wagon cook-outs, where fanatical chefs from across the US whip up cowboy beans and biscuits, sweltering in full period dress. I'd even heard Willie Nelson live one night, choking the audience up with his final anthem, 'My Heroes Will Always Be Cowboys..."

But no-one really experiences Frontier Days, I was told, until they spend a night at Cowboy South, the West's ultimate rodeo bar. So on the climactic Saturday night, I took the Cowboy Shuttle into the plains. The driver deposited me at a nondescript bunker surrounded by pick-up trucks, so I hunched up my shoulders and squeezed inside.

A blast of country music hit me like a wall. I was instantly shoulder to shoulder with cowboys and their rhinestone-clad dates. I retreated to the balcony, from where the dance floor below was like a sea of white cowboy hats, rippling back and forth to the rhythm.

"I been drunk since I got to Cheyenne," confided a women from Portland, who was perched at the bar in a white buckskin outfit. "My friend there, she just punched a woman who ran into her. If someone punched me, I'd just cry."

Around three am, two ranch hands from Laramie insisted I undergo the ultimate Frontier Days ritual. They pointed outside, to the mechanical bull.

"You cannot leave Cowboy South without one ride. It ain't legal!"

My logic may have been slightly muddied by half a dozen Teton ales, but I did notice that a small crowd seemed to gather when it was learned that I had never ridden this diabolical device before. "Aw, you ever see John Travolta in Urban Cowboy?" one guy laughed. "That movie tells you damn near all you need to know."

As I clamored into the saddle, the operator gave me a sweat-soaked leather glove. Earlier that night, someone had dislocated his shoulder bone, I was helpfully informed. Another guy had broken his wrist, "but it wasn't real bad."

"Okay, now you hold here with your right hand. Raise your left hand above your head. Try to move with the machine. We'll put it at its lowest level."

They might even have been honest about that last statement. I don't know how long I lasted before I ate plastic mattress. People said it was about two seconds, although I like to think three.

I picked up my cowboy hat, and with as much dignity as I could muster, hobbled off to the waiting Cowboy Shuttle.