Yesterday we took our time prepping for a day on the road. Donna started the day with walk. No bear encounters this time. In fact, I’m surprised at the lack of wildlife sightings. We’ve only come across antelope on the way here, a few deer sightings and Donna’s bear encounter. I was hoping to see big horn sheep and mountain goats.
We hit the road at 11am. Our route took us back down highway 89. This is a tough slog with steep hills and tight turns. We planned to take a short cut across MT49 to US 2. We saw a sign that advised “no vehicles over 21′ long on MT49.” Oh well, so much for the shortcut. We continued on to Browning and picked up US 2 there.
Shortly we were hit by a thunderstorm. This was inevitable since I spent 2 1/2 hours washing the coach and trailer yesterday. We didn’t have a destination today, We only knew we wanted to take Route 200 toward Idaho where we will visit my best friend, Jim Birditt, in Priest River.
In Kalispell, Donna spied a shop called Redneck Chic. It was a women’s western wear boutique. Donna has been wanting to find a pair of cowboy boots. I found a place to park and we walked to the store. They didn’t have her size in the boots she liked. It was probably just as well since the “discount price” was $450.
A little after 5pm, we hit Route 200 at Plains, Montana. Coming through town, Donna was looking for a place to park for the night. Driving through the Lewis and Clark National Forest, we didn’t find any place suitable for a big rig to pull off.
Donna saw a county fairgrounds sign. We followed the signs to the fairgrounds and found the Sanders County Fair was happening. They had RV parking and presently we are parked in a fairly level pasture. Donna cooked linguini with clam sauce for dinner and then we walked to the fair.
It was the usual county fair midway. The only difference was no admittance fee! There was an arena and we learned that bull riding was about to start. We bought tickets for the rodeo and watched the bull riding. I asked Donna, “Did I ever tell you about the time I rode a bull?” It’s a standing joke. She’s heard this story many times. I won’t let that stop me from telling it now though.
It was 1976. I was living in Longmont, Colorado with my high school buddies, Jim Birditt and Chris Nirschl. I found work at Anderson Fence Company. During my job interview, the foreman, Merle, said to me, “We have this opening on account of the last guy quit. You want to know why the last guy quit?” I said, “Okay.” He said, as he was looking at my shoulder length hair, “The last guy quit because the cowboys on the crew cut his hair.” I replied, “If the cowboys want to cut my hair, they’ll have a heck of a fight.” He said, “When can you start?”
Shortly after I began working on the crew as a laborer, another long haired guy was hired. His name was Brad. The cowboys constantly teased us. One day as I was hauling a wheelbarrel full of concrete, a cowboy named Harvey was making catcalls at Brad. Brad had enough and said, “You guys think you’re so tough, well we’re just as tough. Mike and I will ride a bull and show you.” What? Mike and I? What could I say?
When I came home from work and told my roommates what happened, Chris said, “Are you serious? They aren’t talking about the dairy cows down the street. Have you seen the bulls they ride?” He drove me out to a ranch and showed me a proper bull. It was huge and rippling with muscle. I grew up in San Diego and had never even been to a rodeo at that point.
About a week later, Harvey approached us and said he’d made arrangements for us to ride at the rodeo in Greeley on Saturday. He said, “Wear gloves and a jock strap. A couple of cowboys will lend you bull ropes.”
Saturday we drove up to the arena in Greeley. Harvey introduced us to a couple of pro bull riders. They told us what was about to go down. I had no clue. The cowboy walked me down the catwalk behind the chutes and told me how to get the rope set up. He said not to waste too much time. Once I had the rope wrapped around my glove, I needed to go. The chute can be dangerous as you’re in a confined space with the animal. If the bull becomes agitated in there, it can be bad.
I asked him why the bull doesn’t buck as soon as I climb on. That’s when I found out how this works. He told me about a device called a flank strap. This is a strap wrapped around the bull just ahead of his hind quarters. When the gate is opened, an operator pokes the bull with a cattle prod providing an electric shock. This makes the bull jump. He said, “When the bull jumps, the flank strap pulls at his gonads and he thinks you did it.” Oh my. What have I gotten in to?
We drew lots to determine which bull we would ride and what the order would be. Brad drew a mean looking 1,800-pound Brahma bull. I drew a 1,600-pound Charolais. I would ride right after Brad.
Brad’s turn came up and he was very stylish. He climbed aboard the bull and strapped his hand in place. He held his cowboy hat in his free hand and yelled, “Let ‘er rip!” The chute opened and he had a great ride. He came flying off the bull just after the 8-second buzzer. You need to ride 8 seconds to attain a score and Brad made it.
However, when he was thrown off the bull, I watched him fly through the air in a superman pose. He hit the dirt in a belly flop. I was very close to him, watching from the cat walk and heard the wind knocked out of him. At that moment the bull swung around and one of his rear hoofs came down in the small of Brad’s back. Brad made a sickening groaning sound. Two cowboys dragged him from the arena. I was stunned.
The chute operator looked at me and said, “You’re up.” Oh man. I looked across the arena and saw my friends sitting in the bleachers. I saw Harvey, the cowboy on our crew. I saw a couple of good -looking young girls watching me in anticipation of my ride. I climbed on. What else could I do?
I wrapped the bull rope around my gloved hand tightly and sat on it. I said, “Hit it” and all hell broke loose. The cowboy that schooled me knew this bull. He advised me not to lean forward at all. This bull had a reputation for throwing his head back. If the rider were to lean forward, he would be smacked in the forehead and knocked out cold.
I thought about that for about a second before I quit thinking altogether. The ride was so violent, I couldn’t even see. My eyeballs were rattling in my head and the world was a blur. About five seconds later, I was airborne. I didn’t know up from down and had no idea where terra firma was. I found out when I landed on my head and right shoulder. I staggered out of the arena before any more damage could be done.
That was my one and only rodeo experience. I vowed to never get involved with that again.
The next Monday, Brad didn’t come to work. He was still nursing a sore back. Harvey came up to me and said, “I have to hand it to you guys. It takes big cajones to ride a bull.” Then he added, “I’d never do that. Bull riders are crazy. I ride saddle bronc.” The cowboys on the crew never teased us again.
Today we’ll head up Route 200 through Sandpoint, Idaho to Priest River. We’ll visit my old friend, Jim Birditt (aka Jimbo or JB). Maybe I’ll ask him if he remembers the time I rode a bull in Greeley, Colorado.