Hang on to your Stetson, pardner. Get ready for excitement, tension and exceptional drama. There’s a rootin’, tootin’, rip-roaring, down-and-dusty rodeo that takes place in Calgary, Alberta, Canada every July — the Calgary Stampede, known as the “Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth” — and yep, it’s happening again July 9 through 18. Each year, more than one million visitors from around the world come to Calgary to experience the heart-stopping action of the world’s richest rodeo, featuring bull riding, barrel racing, steer wrestling, saddle bronc riding, tie-down roping and more fun than should be legally allowed! This is also one of Canada’s largest music festivals, with five stages and 300 performers, including a slate of international music headliners. Calgary, located in the heart of the Canadian West, one hour from Banff and the Rocky Mountains, is a vibrant, bustling city of more than one million inhabitants and the proud host of the Calgary Stampede since 1912.
How the West was once
From the vaqueros to the American cowboy, rodeo history is filled with interesting characters and a multicultural mix of customs and practices. At the heart of rodeo, however, is a sport that rose out of cattle herding and was based on the skills required of working ranch hands. A highlight of the Calgary Stampede and one of the most exciting events unique to this rodeo is Chuck Wagon Racing. It is nothing short of heart-stopping. Also, the Stampede’s bucking stock is a rare and highly respected breed. Its bulls are a hard-hitting, no-nonsense bunch that challenge the best cowboys in the world.
I had the fun-filled pleasure of attending the Calgary Stampede, a citywide celebration. It was the most memorable western experience I could ever have wished for. The moment I deplaned, I just knew that this experience was going to be something really special. The airport was filled with happy, partying people and live, loud, good western music with songs like “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and that perennial Hank Williams’ favorite, “There’s a Tear in my Beer.”
A parade fit for royalty
I began my adventure at Rope Square, where hundreds had already gathered to line dance and enjoy (free) delicious pancakes and bacon served right from the back of a chuckwagon! I loved the Stampede Parade, a 2 ½ mile extravaganza that kicks off this greatest outdoor show on earth, a ribbon of pageantry that featured 40 floats, 30 marching bands, 750 horses, riders and celebrities. (A few years back, William and Catherine, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, were one of the parade highlights).
Midway family fun
Then it was on to the Stampede Midway at the fairgrounds. This place had enough to impress even the biggest thrill seekers, from hair-raising rides to challenging games, live music, agriculture shows and hundreds of shopping and food experiences. I had some terrific choices — giant squid on a stick, octopus pizza, cricket grilled cheese. I went for the somewhat safer bacon onion bomb and deep fried pineapple rings, topped off with a hot ice cream donut sandwich. Heaven.
The wow factor
Soon, the reason I was here — the rodeo, the heart of the Calgary Stampede — began. I witnessed amazing events — ladies barrel racing, steer wrestling, bronc riding as cowboys exploded out of their chutes and were shaken like Margaritas in a blender, calf roping done in seconds and with no harm to the animal, and bulls roaring into the arena, their riders twisting, turning, flipping sky high and trying to stay on for the required 8 seconds. Piece of cake, right? Not if you’re on a flinging, jumping 2,000-pound crazed creature that wants nothing more than to get you off its back. But stay on and ride the bulls the cowboys did, and with élan and class.
Indian Village has played a major role in the stampede from its beginnings. I was captivated by 26 hand-designed tipis representing five Canadian Indian nations, dancing and drumming, arts and crafts, storytelling and some traditional dishes like nannock, a delectable pan-fried bread. I had a guided tour that was informative and offered a rare glimpse into the tribes’ traditional lifestyle.
Each night, there were the chuckwagon races, with competitors vying for more than $1 million in prize money. It was heart-stopping action, start to finish, a hooves-pounding, ground-trembling event and a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I was blown away by a rare, behind-the-scenes dressing room tour to see hundreds of props and costumes used in the spectacular “Grandstand Show.” I met members of the Young Canadians, a group comprised of 125 dedicated youths ages 7 to 21 from the Calgary area. The Young Canadians train and perform throughout the year, culminating in their performance for an international audience of more than 150,000 spectators at the annual “Grandstand Show.” A finer, handsomer, healthier, more engaging group of young people I won’t soon see. They were fantastic.
My VIP Cowboy Dressing Room and Chute tour: Be still my heart. I mean, come’on — the chance to check out those Brodys, Chads, and Chances — real-life, utterly cute, professional, competitor cowboys — yes. And standing right behind them as they mounted those insane bucking broncs and roared into the arena — the very best way to experience a rodeo.
‘Grandstand Show’ spectacular
As the sun set, magic filled the night and the 90-minute outdoor musical extravaganza began. It was nonstop entertainment by international guest artists – at once dazzling and explosive, and the show concluded with an amazing award-winning fireworks finale. It was fitting end to a spectacular event. So, all you cowboy and cowgirl wannabes, pull on some boots, put on a Stetson and come on up (down or over)
I think of a quote from the late author Pat Conroy: “Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends.” In my case, that’s utterly true, because I plan to make this Calgary Stampede voyage every single year.
For more, visit calgarystampede.com.