Stonyford: Final Thoughts

IMG_8983 I took this photo just off of main street in Stonyford.  It is peaceful and serene - idyllic.  But what I have not written about (and what my photos do not show) is the wild and woolly nature of rodeo weekend.  Walking around town I saw people wearing official rodeo t-shirts that read "Do you remember last year's Stonyford Rodeo?"  and then on the reverse side: "Me neither."  Another had the classic Vegas motto: "What happens in Stonyford stays in Stonyford."  For the most part, they were right.


During the rodeo I watched grown men stumble through the grandstand mouthing off to strangers, their faces red and glistening in an alcoholic sweat.  Fights and scuffles around the rodeo seemed to be ubiquitous; I witnessed young men brawling in the dirt, shoving and hollering slurred vulgarities at each other.


In many ways it felt like the wild west - a place where the law had no hold.  There was a significant police presence, but it didn't seem to be nearly enough to counter the drunken mayhem.


My focus in photographing Stonyford was the rodeo itself.  But if I were to go back next year,  I would put more emphasis on capturing the people of the rodeo and their drunken escapades.  I saw so many interesting people - like the old drunk man with the walker who putted around the rodeo with a small Jack Russell Terrier tucked in his shirt and two beers balanced in one hand; or the rodeo clown who got so drunk and belligerent at the bar one night that the sheriff had to come and escort him back to his trailer; or there were the seven or eight young men who stood in the back of their truck pounding Bud Lights and yelling at passing women for what seemed to be the entirety of the weekend - when they finally drove away on Sunday morning they left behind a veritable carpet of beer cans around where their truck had been.   Those people were the true spectacles of the weekend.


But most of the rest of the year Stonyford is a very sleepy town.  From the turn off the highway it takes about twenty miles of dirt road, and then another twenty miles of patchy, rough, pot-holed blacktop, to get to Stonyford.  It is about as far off the grid as you can get in California and still have access to a bar, a store, and a gas pump (amazingly gas was cheaper in Stonyford than in San Francisco).  And yet, people live here.  They ranch, they wait tables and bar tend at the Timberline Bar, they ride in rodeos. To me Stonyford felt like stepping back in time, but to the locals it's just business as usual.


Calf Roping

IMG_8774 What's going on here?  Why does it look like the calf is being pulled off stage by a vaudeville hook a la The Muppet Show?  The calf has actually just been flipped by the cowboy and the rope is tied off to his horse, which is trained to keep the rope taut while the cowboy works.  Once the calf is on the ground, the cowboy then ties its legs together - as seen below:


This is calf roping.  Unlike bull riding and bronco busting, calf roping requires a certain amount of finesse and artistry to go along with brute strength and endurance.


The event begins with the rider chasing a calf into the arena.  He must rope that calf, drop from his horse while still at full gallop, catch the calf and flip it, and finally tie its legs.  After that, the rider must wait six seconds to make sure his knot holds, and then he receives his time.


So many things have to go right for a rider to get the best time; calf roping may be one of the most challenging events at the rodeo.

The Ride

IMG_8707 Within the sport of bronco riding there are two categories: saddle broncs and barebacks. Saddle bronc riders have the advantage of putting their legs in stirrups; bareback bronc riders cling to the horse with just one hand.  I imagine it must be a very difficult thing to ride a bucking bronco without the benefit of a saddle.


Photographing the saddle bronc riders gave me classic results - a cowboy on a fully extended horse (usually with his hat still on) with one hand high in the air.  But when I photographed the bareback riders, the results were much more uncomfortable.


This guy in particular was my favorite.  He lost his hat right out of the gate, which meant that I got a good shot at his face.  And his face is what makes the photo.  His face tells me that there's nothing stylish about bareback bronco riding.  You hang on for your life with the one hand while the rest of your limbs flail about and the back of your head slams into the horse's rear end with each ferocious buck.


His face tells me that as a bareback rider you don't beat the horse, you survive the horse.  And if you survive the horse with a minimum amount of awkwardness, you get the high score and win the money.


I'm tempted to make fun of this cowboy for his facial expressions, but then I remember why he's making them and I shut my mouth.  Plus, who cares what faces you make as long as you hang in there, which this cowboy did - the full eight seconds.


Bull Riders and Bullfighters

IMG_9092 Bull riders are the rock stars of the rodeo.  They ride the biggest, toughest animals and risk the most with every turn out of the chute.  When the bull riders take the arena, everyone stops to watch.



Stonyford was a bit more small time than the stuff you see on TV.  Most riders struggled just to make the eight seconds, but a couple guys got in the money with 70 and 80 point rides.


It takes guts to strap yourself to 2,500 pounds of angry bull flesh and try to hang on with just one hand; bull riders are tough men.  But more impressive to me were the rodeo clowns.  Officially they're known as bullfighters, which makes sense considering that they're on the ground with the bulls and in their face.  Once the rider has been bucked off, it's the bullfighter's job to steer the bull away from the thrown cowboy and give him a chance to run away.  The bullfighters get right up next to the bull, sometimes even putting the palm of their hand on the animal's forehead.  These are tough men.



This guy in the barrel wasn't much a bullfighter.  He was more of an entertainer.  He pulled stunts between riders and told jokes over the PA.  He had a few close calls in the barrel  (I kept hoping the bull would butt it and knock him over) but mostly he was left alone.


Watching a bull explode out of the gate is absolutely thrilling.  As they buck and twist, their eyes glaze over and they becomes true forces of nature.  Long ribbons of snot fly from their flared nostrils and their bodies flex and strain.  Bulls are bred to be vicious and they buck from natural instinct.  The flank strap (which people mistakenly think is wrapped around the bull's genitals) is an added provocation meant to cause the bull to kick up its back end more; this helps the bull rider achieve a higher score.


A lot of people think that bull riding is cruel; I'm sure PETA doesn't care much for the sport.  But as far as I'm concerned, PETA be damned.  The bulls are bred to be ferocious.  Bucking is what they were born to do.  Plus, bull riding is just plain fun to watch.