In a car more suited to light grocery shopping or picking the kids up from soccer practice, our friends Conor Creighton and Kendall Waldman are travelling across the bottom half of the USA on a road trip from South Carolina to California. They’ll be trying to swerve the cliches to send us updates on all the cool stuff they come across. The series' name is From Sea to Shining Sea.
If it’s Saturday night in Albuquerque and you’re wondering why the streets are empty, it’s probably because there’s a bull-riding event at The Pit. In New Mexico they build their cowboys mean, lean and close to the ground. All the better for hoisting them on animals the weight of family cars and watching them fly off like idiots. But before coming to Albuquerque, New Mexico, I think I was labouring under the impression that being good at bull-riding was no different to, say, being good at coin-tossing. You dropped onto a 2000-pound bull, tucked one hand under the belt, then rode your luck for as long as it would have you. But apparently there’s an art to it. There are schools and professionals and at bull-riding competitions these professionals are judged on everything, from how they hold their free hand, to the grace with which they land ass-over-tit in the dirt.
Skeeter Kinsolver is just 22 years old. “Bull-riding is the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning,” he claims. The second thing he thinks about is chewing tobacco.
In a short career on the pro bull-riding circuit, Skeeter has already managed to buy himself a farm in Kansas. That’s a very American thing. They could market a game of marbles here, and there doesn’t seem to be a sport in this nation that can’t turn you into a rich man if you’re good at it.
But bull-riding will also turn you into a cripple. A good rider can keep riding till he’s about 35, but at that stage, and this goes for most of them, his back and shoulders and fingers and legs will have more surgical scaffolding than muscle tissue. Skeeter was mowed over by a bull at a friend’s farm once, breaking an arm. “It hurt like hell,” he says, and the sky is blue and grass is green and summer follows spring.
But therein lies that element of bull-riding that sets it apart from other sports: It’s always going to hurt like hell because you’re never really going to win. You’re never going to see a bull stop short, see sense, quit bucking and become submissive in light of the superior athlete sat on its rump. A bull is considered ridden once the rider has stayed on it for eight seconds. So the best a good bull-rider can hope for is to lose well. Second, they can hope to fall lightly, and third, they can hope the clowns who are supposed to haul them out of their alive do their job, and the bull doesn’t tear them a new one as they scramble around in the dirt.
The crowd know that the bull-rider is largely screwed so they root for him, but they’re also rooting for the bulls because, well, cheering underdogs continually is no more fun than old age. Nick is the owner of a bull called High Octane Hurricane. High Octane’s got a 97 percent "buck rate", which means that High Octane is practically unrideable. When he’s thrown another thin streak of cowboy piss off his back, he’ll strut round the ring, bow, then stroll back to his pen snorting at the crowd. “In the ring he’s mean, but you should see him at home, my wife baby-talks to him at night,” says Nick. Bulls get hurt too. High Octane popped a shoulder and was out of the ring for half a year.
How’d that make you feel? “I was distraught,” says Nick, “I love my bulls. Say what you like about my wife, say what you like about my family, but don’t ever say anything bad about my bulls.” Not to worry Nick, we might shit on most subjects but we would never shit on a bull.
Follow Conor on Twitter: @conorcreighton