Along for the ride
Where the city of Calgary ends and Canada's prairie begins is never clear. It is a dividing line that moves almost daily as the city expands to sustain an oil boom. Yet beneath the corporate skyline here remains the heart of a cowboy.
Colloquially, Calgary is known as Cowtown, a western city with a northern address. Its football team is called the Stampeders, its hockey team plays in the Saddledome and, for a week and a half each July during the Calgary Stampede, it's the hitching post for every cowboy and cowgirl worth his or her spurs. The event is Calgary's international moment in the sun. Billed as the greatest outdoor show on Earth, it's a celebration of all things Western, drawing more than a million people into Stampede Park across its 10 days.
Much here is as you would expect - hats large enough to house small families, belt buckles as big as hubcaps, country-and-western music twanging across the grounds - but there's also plenty to justify Calgary's self-branding as the New West.
Standing among the Stampede Park crowd, I watch as one cowboy carries his girlfriend's handbag; others hold umbrellas or punch entries into BlackBerries. Cowboy hats range in colour from black to pink to orange and there are unlikely ranch comforts such as foot-massage machines and hand-sanitising stations. There is as much here that is John Citizen as John Wayne. I pull my hat over my eyes - it's a cowboy thing - and saunter off to the rodeo.
The rodeo is the Calgary Stampede's cornerstone and, with prize money of C$1.6 million (HK$11.5 million), it's one of the richest rodeos in the world. Invitation only, it attracts the finest cowboys and cowgirls on the planet. Competition in each event is broken into two pools of 10 riders, with the top four in each pool going through to a final that earns the champion C$100,000.
As I wait for the rodeo to begin in a fanfare of sequined cowgirls, I note the grandstand is like a housing estate of hats and I am comforted by the realisation I am not the only person here pretending to be a cowboy. For the vast majority of visitors, the Stampede is a sanctioned game of dress-up, a chance to wear a big hat and some ring-a-ding boots. If Boston is awash with 'plastic Paddies', then Calgary in July is filled with cardboard cowboys. And the best part? Nobody cares, not even the real cowboys.
The rodeo begins each day with novice cowboys and progresses to the big beef of the sport: bull-riding. Right off the bat, a teenage boy is thrown from a steer and almost trampled but, being a cowboy, he is up within seconds, trying vainly to hide a limp.
Through the next few afternoons I watch as cowboys are bounced about like popcorn, some lasting the requisite eight seconds, others ending up face down in the dust in the blink of an eye. Each day the rodeo ends the only way it can, to the tune of Happy Trails, and 20,000 spectators file out into the Midway, the Stampede's showground, where the event goes from mares to fairs, steers to beers.
Out here, it is difficult to appreciate the claim that this is the greatest outdoor show on Earth, for amid the agricultural displays, fairground rides and displays of modern 'horses' such as army tanks and jet fighters, it seems just like any other North American outdoor show. The closest things to cowboys are the stuffed cows being won at the shoot-'em-up stalls and, this being the Wild West, there is no food that can't be deep-fried, from hot dogs to doughnuts, green beans to macaroni cheese.
A few things elevate the Midway above the pedestrian.
One is the Indian Village, enclosed by dozens of tepees. This temporary village has been a part of the carnival since its beginning in 1912 and is the only time the five tribes of the area meet, competing in tepee-raising, meat-carving and dance contests.
Another highlight is the nightly chuckwagon racing, second only to the rodeo in the festival's honour roll. Billed as the half-mile of hell, chuckwagon racing is a professional sport in the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia, and has been staged at the Stampede since 1923. In each race, four chuckwagons, each with four outriders, sprint around a racetrack, meaning 32 horses - all of them former racehorses - on the track at a time, racing at speeds of up to 60km/h. It's like Ben-Hur, except the Romans here wear Stetsons. And there's a 21st-century prize: the champion wins C$100,000.
I find a spot at the rail among the crowds and it feels like a day at the racetrack, with everyone cheering home winners (even if it's illegal to bet on them). As the chuckwagons rip past I am showered in dirt from the 32 horses and fascinated by the intensity of the action.
It is more powerful than harness racing and more crowded than Happy Valley. The following morning, the chuckwagons have a more sedate purpose, lined up as mobile kitchens in Calgary's Olympic Plaza, dishing out free pancake breakfasts. Once the scene of the medal ceremonies for the 1988 Winter Olympics, the plaza is officially renamed Rope Square during each Stampede and is given over to pancake-tossing contests, hat stomping and a host of country-and-western singers.
It's a scene indicative of the event's impact on Calgary, which is all but stampeded by the Stampede. About 400,000 people line the city's streets for the opening parade. Stampede flags fly across the city. The mall fills with mascots and square dancers, and office buildings sport window murals like tattoos.
'The Stampede ... it's who we are,' one woman assures me when I marvel at the event's stranglehold on the place.
In Stampede Park, I meet a star of the show who is neither bull nor rider. Darrell Diefenbach is a bullfighter. Dressed like a clown, it is Diefenbach's job to distract the bull from fallen riders, to put his body between the cowboys and the boy cows, to dance with a raging devil. Earlier, two bulls had to be dragged out of the arena by their horns, but Diefenbach emerged without a scratch.
'I love bullfighting,' the Texas-based matador assures me. 'All the riders are my buddies and I get to take care of them for a living. When I see one of them down and I can get in the way and take a hit for them, it's awesome.'
Somewhat painful also, I suggest.
'I've had a broken back, face surgery, knees, ankle, arms, legs, ribs ...' He lists most of his body. 'Just the usual stuff.'
Today he's working overtime. Two bull riders are given the option to ride again to improve their scores - akin to asking somebody if they'd like a second shot at a car accident. Both cowboys accept the offer.
As another day ends at Stampede Park I make my own happy trail back into the city, riding off into the sunset on my contemporary Calgary steed, the light railway.
Getting there: Cathay Pacific (www.cathaypacific.com) flies from Hong Kong to Vancouver. Air Canada (www.aircanada.ca) and WestJet (www.westjet.com) connect to Calgary. This year's Calgary Stampede will be held from July 6 to 15. Tickets can be purchased at www.cs.calgarystampede.com.