The airport at Williams Lake is the sort that apologises for being there. It’s a straightforward, humble affair with a waiting room the size of a doctor’s surgery and a runway reached by sole of foot on tarmac.
It’s humble perhaps because it knows that passengers have just had the flight of their lives, soaring over the snow-crusted ravines and plunging deep green of the British Columbia highway that runs from Vancouver to here along the Cariboo Chilcotin Coast.
Across the road from the airport, a giant welcome sign stands in the shape of an enormous hat.
A plastic hat.
A cowboy hat. Perched at a cheery, jaunty angle.
Moments later, a different hat slides into view. It bears the same shape but is substantially smaller and sits atop a crown of brilliantly buoyant red hair.
This hat belongs to Patti, my “interpreter” for the next few days.
I don’t know how I should phrase the opposite of “this ain’t my first rodeo.” My blunt British accent sounds ridiculous with any kind of drawl.
But it is my first time. And the hat is my first real surprise of the many that would follow as I entered this athletic, disciplined, principled world.
MORNING AT THE STAMPEDE
Patti drives me past the bleachers, pulling in to a grass car park filled with trailers and caravans larger than the brick and mortar place I call home.
The snuffle and scuffling sound of horses fills the air, floating with the fizz and sizzle of a Canadian pancake breakfast and the expectant taste of syrup. Sweet, slick-flowing maple syrup. The syrup that makes getting up in the morning more than worthwhile.
Denim jeans and plaid shirts swarm around as we pick up our programmes.
From the top of the bleachers, the view is of hats.
For we are in Williams Lake. And the Stampede is in town.
Until today, all I knew of rodeo came from a hazy memory of Brokeback Mountain, a point I rather wish I’d kept to myself.
It’s not often (alright, not that often) I find myself in a situation where I have so little idea of what is going on. Despite the many shared characteristics between Canada and Britain overall, without Patti, I’d be lost.
The bell rings, the gate slams open and we’re off.
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