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Cowboy Christmas in the Rockies

On State Highway 120 between Cody, Wyoming, and Red Lodge, Montana, a brown Ford van is streaking north across the sagebrush prairie at 95 miles an hour. I know the speed because I'm on its tail. Glancing up from my speedometer, I see the custom cover on the van's spare tire. Like the Wyoming license plate, the wheel cover bears a silhouette of a cowboy on a bucking bronco; inscribed across it are the words "NFR Qualifier Marvin Garrett rodeos with Queen City Motors." NFR, the National Finals Rodeo, is to rodeo cowboys what the Super Bowl is to football players. And here, in the rural West, just about as important. If we were to be pulled over by the Wyoming Highway Patrol, I can't help thinking, that wheel cover could come in handy.

Occasionally, I catch a glimpse of fair-haired Marvin Garrett in his rearview mirror. Next to him in the passenger seat sits dark-haired Mark, his little brother. It's 2:15 p.m. on the Fourth of July. Less than 20 minutes earlier, at 1:46 p.m., I saw Marvin score 78 points at the Cody Stampede riding bareback on a horse called Tom Thumb Featherlite; two minutes after that, Mark rode for a 70. Marvin's score was probably good for first place and $1,733 — and he rode a victory lap around the arena on that expectation — but there wasn't time to stay and find out for sure. At 3 p.m. they are both entered in a second rodeo — in Red Lodge, Montana — about 60 miles away. If they make it on time, they'll have a chance to win several hundred dollars more. Then it's a virtual cakewalk: four hours to drive 123 miles to the Roundup Rodeo in Livingston, the day's last event.

Cowboy Christmas, the Garretts and their friends call this rodeo-packed time of year, and there's no place to celebrate it like the corner of the Rockies where Wyoming meets Montana and both touch Yellowstone National Park. For only here can a man compete in three rodeos in a single day. Which means he can make more money. Which means that the normally frenetic pace of a rodeo cowboy's life on the road reaches its manic extreme.

I am following the van because I just met the Garretts and they haven't yet invited me to hitch a ride. I've just met them because the hard-luck cowboy I'd intended to accompany to these rodeos, Jay Kirkland, got too banged up and discouraged in the days before to carry on and has limped home to Billings. My boots are not caked with mud because my own small attempt to learn bareback riding a month earlier suggested I might be better off just to, ah, write about it. I am here in the first place because in the city, where I live, the beasts have been removed, returning mainly in the form of packages at the meat counter or supple dark coats. I am fascinated by the world of men who know animals, and who long to ride the wild ones.

Though each of these rodeos has its own name and following, cowboys know the three together as the Gateway Rodeos, because each of the towns is a gateway to Yellowstone. There are bigger rodeos this time of year, such as Cheyenne Frontier Days and the Calgary Stampede (the Garretts will head to Calgary later in the week), but the scenery here, the nearness of the national park, and the fact that the heart of the real West beats most strongly in its small towns make the Gateway Rodeos an especially congenial place to spend the Fourth of July.

Cody and Red Lodge, though closest on the map, are perhaps the most different of the three towns. Cody, named after Buffalo Bill of Wild West Show fame, continues to be the only place anywhere with a rodeo every day, all summer long. Aspiring cowboys move here the way painters once headed to Paris, working odd jobs so they can afford to test their mettle under the spotlights of the Cody Nite Rodeo. With its sprawling Buffalo Bill Historical Center, historic Irma Hotel, wide main street, and countless country bars, Cody has somehow succeeded in honoring its rowdy past without chasing present-day cowboys out of town, a difficult feat in the New West. It's a place where, just off the ugly commercial strip that leads to the rodeo grounds, you pass a painstakingly re-created Western village called Old Trail Town, full of boardwalks and restored cabins and the graves of such notables as Jeremiah "Liver Eatin'" Johnson. Past and present coexist here in a particularly satisfying way, neither one denying the existence of the other.

Up from the dry plains of cattle country, the fragrance of sage yields to the smell of pine. Nestled against evergreens and picturesque peaks, Red Lodge (population 2,000) seems more a village than a town. Rodeo has a strong legacy here, too — the local Home of Champions Rodeo is named for the area's generations of famed riders — but a more ongoing draw for visitors is the breathtaking views from nearby 11,900-foot Beartooth Pass and seemingly limitless opportunities to fish, hike, and ski. The place feels a bit more gentrified, a bit more protected than Cody. Antelope walk calmly across Route 212 just north of town; unlocked bikes are a common sight. Instead of Cody's big functional metal rodeo arena, Red Lodge has an old wooden one, perched on a shelf overlooking town, next to the airstrip.

My guess is that Mark Garrett, age 28, has closed his eyes to catnap while his brother drives: just over 14 hours ago, at midnight, they performed at the Greeley Independence Stampede in Greeley, Colorado, 450 miles away. Then they drove all night to get to Cody. In the five days before that it was Pecos, Texas; Williams Lake, British Columbia; and Ponoka, Alberta. In Canada, however, they weren't driving: the Garretts are part of a small lucky rodeo elite whose high winnings justify the occasional charter of a small plane to cut down on cowboy wear and tear. They would still be with their legendary pilot, ex - bareback rider Johnny Morris, and his trusty Cessna 210 if the plane's engine hadn't caught fire on takeoff a few days earlier, when the aircraft was loaded with rodeo stars. ("Nothin' to worry about," Marvin says dismissively. "With Johnny everything is always okay.") Now Johnny is grounded, and the Garretts are doing the best Cessna imitation they can in their brown Ford van.

I picture Marvin, the one whose boot presses pedal to metal, waking his younger brother as they pass the Bear Creek Saloon, locally famous for its pig races. The rodeo is only 10 minutes away. Mark will use the time to tape his left arm again, the arm he uses to hold on to the horse. Bareback riding puts an incredible strain on that one arm, and riders guard against hyperextension and other ills by taping it into a slightly bent position. Then they roll the sleeves of their snap-cuffed western shirts back down so no one can see. The same is done with knee, elbow, and ankle braces, midriff supports, tailbone pads, and bandages of all descriptions: under their duds some rodeo cowboys look practically like mummies. Marvin's arm will have to wait until he's at the rodeo. I eat their dust as they zoom up a back road to the arena and, with the merest wave at a security officer, into the contestants' lot.

Bareback riding is traditionally the first event of rodeo, and bull riding the last; mixed in are saddle bronc riding, the other of the so-called "roughstock" events, and calf roping, steer wrestling and barrel riding, the "timed" events. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is playing as we arrive; hidden behind the chutes, the Garretts stretch, tie shut the tops of their boots so they won't fly off, and apply pine rosin to their gloves and rigging handles. The first rider is out of the chutes almost the moment the music stops; the Garretts are pleased to note that the organizers have placed them last in the order-to-ride roster. More than five minutes to spare!

Though they know most of the other guys, the Garretts are concentrating too hard to socialize. They greet only Deb Greenough, a nationally recognized bareback rider descended from the local dynasty (his great-aunts performed in Madison Square Garden), who is just down from the Calgary Stampede. "Back in action, huh?" asks Mark Garrett with a smile. "Yeah, looks like it's gonna hold," replies Greenough. "Wanna see?" They nod and Deb Greenough removes his shirt. He's short, like many successful roughstock riders, and has a heavily muscled torso. He flexes his right arm and the biceps pop oddly into the shape of a tennis ball. (Recently, part of the muscle separated permanently from its attachment near his shoulder during a ride.) It looks a little grotesque, balled up like that, but what matters is whether it affects his riding, and Deb says no, he doesn't think it will. "Ride good," he tells them.

The highest possible score in a roughstock event is 100 points, but nobody has ever gotten that and even 90s are almost unknown. An 80 will win most small rodeos. To get each competitor's total, the judges add two scores together: one for the performance of the cowboy and one for the performance of the horse. The maximum possible score for each is 50. Since the horse (or bull) is so important, most serious participants will decide whether or not to ride a particular rodeo on the basis of the stock they've been randomly assigned in advance by a computer at the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association in Colorado Springs. Animals all have reputations, and usually the rider is likely to know whether a given animal will merely canter across the arena (bad) or stay in one spot and buck like gangbusters (good). Once a cowboy is in the chute, though, he has to make the best of what he's got.

After taping his arm and donning his chaps, Marvin does some staring into space. "I start thinking about the next ride as soon as I'm off the last one," he told me in Cody. "I keep in my mind the best ride I ever made and just look back on it now and again."

Mark has drawn a mare named Sunriver Bay and thinks he can do something on her. Before putting both legs into the bucket chute and settling down on the rigging, he slaps his thighs, spits out his tobacco, pulls his black cowboy hat hard onto his head — and sees Canadian Darrell Cholach score a heart-stopping 80 points to take the lead. Marvin, standing at the side of the chute to make sure his brother's horse turns its head into the arena when the gate opens, murmurs encouragement. Mark sets his jaw, firms his grip, nods tensely, and awaits liftoff as the gate swings open. The horse rockets out, and in eight hectic seconds Mark Garrett earns a 76, tying for second place.

Three minutes later, Marvin is next. "This horse went to the Dodge National Circuit Finals," says the announcer of Marvin's mount, Class Act. Marvin nods to the gateman, then hangs on for a spectacular 79, good for second place and $733. Mark ties for third and $367. They've been at this rodeo for 19 minutes.

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