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Cowboy Christmas in the Rockies

It's 3:25 p.m. in Red Lodge. Livingston doesn't start until 8, so we have a couple of hours to poke around. Outside the chutes it's less tense, and when we get hot dogs and coffee, the Garretts strike me as human beings for the first time: Marvin spills ketchup on his pants, and Mark tips his hat to Miss Red Lodge Rodeo 1992 as she struts by in her vest and chaps. Together the brothers field the admirers who approach seeking signed rodeo "baseball cards" with the stars' pictures on them. I can admire their celebrity because I've seen how hard it is to ride a bronc well. They seem to think it's hilarious I even tried, but it gives us something to talk about.

Rodeos, like similar spectacles that date to the ancient Romans, are all about the ritual separation of man and beast. It's accomplished here, as at most rodeos, by the placement of things. The grandstand sits on one side, the stock and the cowboys on the other. The grandstand is redolent of burgers and popcorn, cigarettes, and not-so-fancy perfume; the chutes and pens smell like the animals and what comes out of them. Tourists are here, but mostly it's locals, dressed in the manner of true rodeo folk: wearing Wranglers, not Levi's (and nothing stonewashed!), wide belts, not narrow (and often with big rodeo buckles), and favoring low-heeled, round-toed riding boots.

I spot women's national bareback champion Vickie Crawford, whom I met previously on a plane from Denver to New York. Crawford is the only woman I've ever seen dare walk behind the chutes at a men's rodeo. She informs me that the brim of my hat is shaped the wrong way, that I "look like a dude." Setting straight the East Coast city slicker is a time-honored Western tradition. The next night, in the kitchen of her boyfriend's house in town, she'll hold my hat over a teakettle and reshape the brim, sparing me further embarrassment.

The clown act partway through the performance is one we've all seen before (the guy with the mule that lies down and won't get up), but the twist today is that the arena is so muddy the mule won't lie down.

Following this interlude are saddle bronc riding — the classic rodeo event — steer wrestling, calf roping, and the only women's event in mainstream rodeo, barrel racing. These last three — timed competitions — interest the Garretts less than the roughstock events they participate in. (The timed eventers, whose pickup trucks pull trailers containing their own horses, constitute a separate tribe in rodeo.) Like the crowd, the Garretts are waiting for the big final event, bull riding.

Afterward, I see Marvin chatting with a saddle bronc rider who hitchhikes — with his saddle slung over one shoulder and a duffel in the opposite hand — from one rodeo to the next. Marvin offers him a ride and then beckons me in, too, and we hit the road to Livingston.

Traveling with the Garretts is a lot different from traveling with Jay Kirkland, the older bareback rider who had also planned to be in all three Gateway Rodeos but then changed his mind. In 1985, 1986, and 1987 Jay missed the NFR by the barest of margins; he had labored mightily since but fell increasingly short, sometimes not even making his "nut," and coming no closer as he aged. This was heartbreaking even to a casual acquaintance because Jay, though a simple man, had a big desire.

I first met Jay when he picked me up in Great Falls, Montana, on his way from a rodeo in Reno, Nevada, to one in Ponoka, Alberta. In the backseat of the car were three Canadian cowboys, all headed home. When we reached the border about 1 a.m., the Canadian immigration officer leaned from his booth to peer into Jay's 1983 Olds Delta 88. Inside, besides me, were the four men in their Wrangler jeans, boots off, legs propped up, ice packs sitting on a swollen knee and a blue-colored ankle, soft-drink bottles filled with tobacco juice rolling on the floor, cowboy hats arrayed on the ledge behind the backseat, and, on the dashboard, a roll of tobacco, an alarm clock, a radar detector, a wad of dollars, adhesive tape, and a road atlas. The official had a trained eye.

"Rodeoin', eh?"

Those who were awake nodded. "What nationality?" We told him. "Buy anything?" Burgers and Skoal. He waved us through.

Though the guys in the back were doing okay, Jay, 34, hadn't won any money in more than two weeks, and his grubstake was running low. After some 25 years of rodeoing, the muscular blond cowboy had scars from surgery all over his body: on his right wrist, his belly, his knees, his shoulder, and his skull. He walked with a limp and reached frequently for the big bottle of Motrin tablets in the glove compartment.

In Ponoka three days later he did well enough to make it to the final round. But during an intervening trip to Williams Lake, British Columbia, we blew a transmission gasket near Jasper National Park, spent two nights in a motel and several hundred dollars on repairs, and at the last minute rushed back to Ponoka. Half-way there the transmission broke again and Jay, who had drawn an excellent horse in the final round and was very likely to make money, elected to abandon the car and charter a plane for the last 285 miles.

It seemed predestined that weather would delay the flight and we'd arrive in Ponoka 15 minutes after the bareback event ended. Hitching a ride back home to Billings, disconsolate but then pleased to be reunited with his fiancee, Teri Kaye Tryon, Jay elected not to do all three Gateways, only performances earlier in the week in Livingston and Red Lodge — at which he came up, again, "a long ways from a paycheck." A friend of his at Red Lodge, Todd Nunn, talked about Jay afterward: "When we was kids, eight or ten years old and riding in Little Britches Rodeo, there weren't a lot of kids who had a lot of try. Jay always had the biggest heart of all of us." That and his good nature sustained Jay, and in his gumption and suffering Jay Kirkland showed me things about rodeo that the stellar Garrett brothers could not.

It is, as the title of Jimmy Buffett's song goes, a Livingston Saturday night. Livingston, though still a small town, is by far the hippest home of a Gateway Rodeo. Peter Fonda has been coming here for years; more recently, Dennis Quaid, Meg Ryan, Brooke Shields, Jeff Bridges, Michael Keaton, Tom Brokaw, Whoopi Goldberg, Glenn Close, and Ted Turner and Jane Fonda have all bought property in the area. Robert Redford came to Livingston to film "A River Runs Through It," Norman McLean's novella about fishing and family in small-town Montana.

At the same time, houses sport green yard signs reminding neighbors, this family supported by the timber industry. When the Burlington Northern line cut back most of its operations here in the early 1980s, lumber and tourism dollars became more important. A campaign to preserve the historic brick and stone facades along Main and Park streets appears to be reaping great rewards, with plenty of shoppers afoot and a mix of stores containing everything from the legendary Dan Bailey's Fly Shop to Russell Chatham's art gallery.

Railroad tracks define one edge of Livingston where most hours of the day you can still catch a whiff of diesel and feel the low rumble of an idling locomotive. On the opposite side of town it's the sights and smells of the rodeo grounds, and this night — just as for the past two — they are crowded. A couple in line for tickets ahead of me is advised by friends to scan the grandstands for Peter Fonda — he's a big fan of bull riding. A group of local ladies staff a kitchen, selling hamburgers, hot dogs, and Coors to raise money for the rodeo; the Shriners are vending Sno-Kones. The rodeo announcer, from his perch across the arena from the grandstand, blows into his microphone and, though they aren't really necessary yet, the spotlights are turned on. Then, instead of playing a cassette, the announcer himself sings "The Star-Spangled Banner" and the bareback riders know they're up.

Marvin Garrett is hunkered over a big Appaloosa named Snake Oil Willie when the announcer hails him as "one of the best bareback riders of all time" and "one of the three best cowboys in the world." These pronouncements, though disputable, seem to hearten Marvin, who emerges from the chute in an inspired fashion and spurs rhythmically, raking the horse's neck while his upper body flops wildly across the animal's back and sides. The horse looks absolutely possessed and practically levitates off the arena floor in great paroxysms of protest while Garrett, allowing his head to flop around in his trademark rag-doll fashion, somehow conveys a sense of being completely in control and yet on the verge of certain disaster as the horse leaps and bucks. Finally it's over, and the crowd rises to its feet as Marvin's score hits the boards: 80 POINTS! The only bareback total even near it for the three-day rodeo is a 75.

A golden aura seems to surround Marvin as he collects his hat, waves to the crowd, and then walks behind the chutes to receive the congratulations of his peers. Fifteen minutes later, though, alone and stripping off chaps in the shadow of a wooden fence, he is rubbing his left shoulder — it clipped the gate on the way out of the chute, he explains. Only now does he feel it. "Things got a little Western out there, didn't they?" he says with a grin.

Meanwhile, Mark has garnered 74 points for what all the cowboys tell him was a "good spur ride"; he splits third place with Larry Sandvick. "You're disappointed, aren't you?" Marvin asks, and Mark nods. Mark's winnings for the day are $788, while his brother has come away with $3,338. Mark can do, and has done, better. In 1989, for example, at only 23, he went to the NFR fourth in the world standings and grossed nearly $60,000 for the year.

But one good thing about the pace of their lives is that there isn't much time to dwell on the past. As skydivers drop into the arena and fireworks — the Cowboy Christmas lights — spangle the skies over Livingston, the brothers are back in the van, cruising up Main Street, forsaking the country bars whose festivities spill onto the sidewalks, aiming for the interstate, for North Dakota by morning.

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