There are moments in life that you never see coming: moments when clothes, colours, flavours, words, and maple syrup pancakes combine in a kaleidoscope of surprise and deep-fried sandwiches.
The Calgary Stampede takes those moments then flings them into a dirt-stomping, buckle-shining extravaganza of week-long events that left me gasping for breath after just two days.
Dubbed “the greatest outdoor show on earth” by some locals, and the “trampede” by others, one thing’s for sure: Canada’s biggest rodeo is no place to go if you’re looking for a quiet life.
Amid the brilliant bucking horses, fluorescent First Nation feathers and campaigns to further the reach of science, you may also find yourself posing with a giant beaver:
Every year, Calgary attracts over one million visitors to its 10-day Stampede, bringing and binding together almost everything that is modern Canada: rodeo and Western culture, modern art, music and dance, First Nations traditions, agricultural education, science education, language education, free-spirited Burning Man soul mates and deep-fried everything with the odd organic treat…together with a whole lot of drinkin’ and dancin’ and foot stompin’ fun.
If any one of those components puts you off – it shouldn’t. This place is big enough and bold enough for everyone to find a home, from bright-eyed children to, well, those prefer the Cowboy bar and it’s slogan “the most fun you can have with your boots on.”
At the heart of the Stampede is the rodeo, a strictly monitored two and a half hour event that attracts professional cowboys from across the world to compete for some of the best atmosphere – and money – in the sport.
To really appreciate rodeo, you need help to understand the rules and I’d highly recommend taking a behind the scenes tour or (better yet) visiting a smaller rodeo first where there’s more chance of interaction. Talk to the vets, cowboys, volunteers and pick up cowboys (it’s not what it sounds like) to put the competition into context.
In particular, I could address many of my concerns around animal welfare: the animals in professional rodeos receive better healthcare than most people across the Americas and the legends about tying barbed wire to genitals in order to make bulls buck turns out to be utterly false.
Stock contractors (the people who own the animals) have an economic as well as moral imperative to look after their animals: a bucking bronco costs around $100 000 dollars and only earns money if healthy and happy enough to buck. If well cared for, such a horse can have a career spanning over 20 years.
Competitors are disqualified at any sign of animal cruelty and vets are on hand throughout the entire event, checking on the animals more often than anyone checks on people. If you’re against farming in general (no eggs, dairy, meat, fish, leather etc) or pets (cats, dogs, horse racing) then this is unlikely to suffice. For everyone else, it’s more likely to make you more closely question how much thought and care you’ve given to your food in the past when you’ve asked for your eggs to be sunny side up.
But whatever your stance on the rodeo (and the associated agricultural education areas) you could still lose a week here seeing everything else.
The food stalls love to shock, aiming to out-fry each other through dunking oreos, “peanut butter ‘n’ jelly” sandwiches and cheese donuts into the batter.
An Indian village (yes, that is the politically correct name) invites guests into genuine tipis. Young, approachable interpreters roam around to talk about growing up in modern Canada as part of any one of the local First Nation tribes.
At night, the rodeo arena converts itself into a high level scaffolding stage where dancers, singers and acrobats put on a show to rival an Olympic opening ceremony (well, the show put on in 2015 was the brainchild of an Olympic show director so its flamboyance reflects its roots.)
But for a European visitor, perhaps the most striking aspect lies in the small details. Cowboy hats. Cowboy boots. Belt buckles and big hair and rodeo princesses and the frequency of deep southern drawls.
For many, Western culture is a real way of life based on hard work on ranches and a certain code of hospitality. To see that away from the movies and come to respect it is one of the greatest treats that travel has to offer.
My stampede experience left me with plenty more questions: about stampede royalty, First Nation history, 21st century interpretations and more.
But a girl can only cover so many things at once. And while those deeper thoughts swirl around, clarification does arrive on simpler matters.
Those deep-fried oreos? There is a reason they haven’t caught on.
Everything else at The Stampede? Go check it out for yourself!
I travelled to the Calgary Stampede as a guest of Destination Canada as part of the Must Love Festivals project sponsored by Expedia. As ever, as always, I kept the right to write what I like. Otherwise, we’d all be eating oreos…