Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Pay Dirt

Photographer: Cassie Adel Armstead
Titled: Bronc Tack
Date: March 2011

If a stranger asked me where my favorite place in the world is I know exactly where I would answer and I seriously doubt with all the luck in the world he could guess where it is. Because the place I love the most is not a comfortable place, it’s not a safe place, in fact it’s not even place you can stay very long. Most people wouldn’t go there and even less will understand why somebody like me would want too. I’ve never spent more than seconds there. But cut those seconds in to tenths, into hundredths, maybe even into thousands and I can remember as vividly as the taste of blood in my mouth the moments that passed.

For some people death is an elusive mystery they spend life pretending isn’t there. For others it’s the hammer stroke that crushed them into pieces. For me, it’s the shape in the shadows I’m staring at but can’t ever seem to glimpse. I’ve called to it like a ghost in the darkness, taunting it, annoying it, trying like the damned to bring it out of the black and expose it for the miserable wretch I sense it is. If you’re starting to question my sanity you’re not the first and you won’t be the last; so please don’t worry about offending me. I’m not suicidal, emotionally damaged, troubled, or fearless. It’s just that I’ve spent most of my life chasing a feeling; a feeling strong enough to shake the fear of dying, being maimed, scared, or broken, away. Eventually, I had to ask questions about myself, what exactly I was after and where the hell had I been.

The place I’m going to describe is very real in both the physical sense and in the emotional one. And if you have ever been you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about if you haven’t I’m going to do my best to bring the experience to you. In the emotional sense it can be reached through almost any traumatic experience. Survivors of life-threatening accidents often describe their moment of redemption as a euphoric episode where the truth that they are alive is revealed to them in astonishing undeniable clarity. No matter how hard that may be to accept. At one point in a car accident, plane crash, or near drowning a person realizes death; something that seconds before was so unforeseeably distant is now horrifyingly close. The fear brought on by the immediate threat of dying grabs them hard. It’s like a firm pair of hands choking your senses and it causes what is known as tunnel vision. The funny thing is you don’t feel like your dying, yet, instead you feel more alive than you have ever been. The contrast of your emotions against your reality is sharper than a black and white picture. And that is why it’s so incredible, to survive.

Now believe it or not there is a place you can go get this feeling, actually it’s a better one. Why? Because when you survive this wreck you stand up to a screaming crowd, an arena of admiring competitors, and a wad of cold, hard, cash. It’s called a rodeo, the sport is bull-riding, and the place is pay-dirt…

I’ve climbed over a chute gate onto the backs of countless bulls. Some were mean, some were ugly, and some seemed to enjoy the performance as much as I did. A few years after I started a news-reporter at small town rodeo asked me what it felt like to ride bulls. I was barely fifteen and didn’t have a clue what to tell him. But that question hung around with me ever since. This is my third attempt to answer that question in writing. Maybe that’s because I’m just an adrenalin junky who’s trying to make his cause feel noble but I don’t think so. Most professional athletes can relate to the idea that there is a lot more to a sport than the rules. There are elements and dynamics that can only be seen and felt by the players themselves. In bull-riding there is 1 wreck for every 7 times the chute gate is opened. People die, people get paralyzed, maimed, broken, and crushed. I know the MMA fans are going to throw a fit when I say this, but on a strictly success to injury ratio it’s America’s most brutal sport. When your slung underneath an 1,800lb rampaging animal it’s not much different than getting in a head-on-collision at 105mph. it happens to fast for you to react, it smashes your body to shards, and the possibility that you won’t ever walk, talk, make love, or eat solid food again is right in your face.

If you stand to lose your life or well-being then you stand to win it; as frightening as that sounds it is also incredibly exhilarating. I believe Sebastian Junger described this concept exceptionally well in his recent book titled War. “In some way’s twenty minutes of combat is more life than you could scrape together in a lifetime of doing something else. Combat isn’t where you might die – though that does happen – its where find out if you get to keep on living. Don’t under estimate the power of that revelation. Don’t under estimate the things young men will wager in order to play that game one more time.” This concept is the emotional current that carries you to the place I am talking about.

When you nod your head on bull you’re turning to all your fears and telling them to get f---. Then for 8 seconds you’re on the back of a black tornado twisting, leaping, and plunging in every possible combination. What most rodeo spectator’s belief is that you ride a bull by holding on as tight as you can. Even though common sense dictates that unless you’re Hercules you’re not going to hold on to 1,800lbs of twisting muscle. Its balance that gets a bull rode; it’s more like a dance than a fight. Pro cowboy’s train hard just like any other athlete, they train there bodies to counter-balance the forces of gravity, centrifugal energy, and a bull’s strength. That’s the game and if you play, you play for keeps.

If you make the 8 second whistle the ride is over and the door to the place I love swings open. But you are not ushered in on a red carpet don’t forget you’re still on the back of a bull. Most bulls can’t be ridden for very long, it takes to much energy from your body. So when it’s over your defiance of gravity is going to come to an abrupt end and the laws of physics are going to hurl you threw that door. It’s beautiful. No matter how hard you hit the ground it feels like cotton pillows. Then you can hear the dull roar of the crowd over the torrent of blood pounding through your veins. If it’s a night performance the dust hanging in the glow from the stadium lights seem to sparkle. You’re drinking it all in, basking in the glory of the human spirit, that in a way unlike anyone else; you know is still free and still alive. And all the while you’re crawling, struggling to your shaking legs, and attempting to run from the beast. Then you’re gone. You left that place as quickly as you came. The crowd fades, the adrenalin starts to wear off and you feel first stabs of pain, from what is sure to be bruised ribs.

 Because your brain can’t tell the difference between a real and an imagined experience finishing a bull ride and standing up to talk about it feels a much the same as surviving a firefight in Iraq. You feel bullet-proof. After the show, back behind the chutes you’ll be talking smack with your buddies, making plans for the evening, and packing up your gear. You are covered head-to-toe in cold sweat and dirt with a trickle of blood running down your leg staining your jeans. You probably look like a dog that just rolled in something dead but your persona is the only part of you anyone can see. Because tonight you did what nobody else could, you’re living the dream. And you’re not going to shower until tomorrow cuz’ son, you’re covered in pay dirt…

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