"Can't Judge a Book by its Cover"
-- Chapter 1. "Baked Potato", Friday afternoon, May 16, 2003
Ted is hungry. Actually, he's always hungry, and today he has been hungry for quite some time. There's been nothing to eat but dust for a long while.
We've been out wandering the countryside east of Miles City all morning, bouncing over two lane gravel roads along section lines, dodging open range cattle, savoring just the tiniest of gettin' lost incidents, and poring over topo maps of constantly increasing detail. The object of the search has been my great-grandfather's homestead, the subject of a small memoir my grandfather had written, which later became the anchor of Jonathan Raban's book "Bad Land". Ted had read the book and met Mr. Raban long before he met me, and now, since we were in that part of the country anyhow, he wanted to see the Bad Land for himself.
The cover of the book has a picture of an abandoned homestead building sitting on the most barren landscape you can possibly imagine. We were seeing the same sort of landscape, except without the abandoned homestead building. Ted marvelled at it. "This is a totally alien world out here. We might as well be on the moon."
To me, it just looked like eastern Montana.
There was also no food out here, and it was way past lunchtime. Ted had wanted to stop in Ismay (the town that changed its name to Joe) or maybe Mildred for lunch, but my personal feeling was that we were unlikely to find a cafe in towns with stated populations of 37 and 38 souls. Indeed, we didn't see any. No life at all for that matter, except for one or two ranch trucks travelling way too fast and kicking up clouds of dust. So we didn't stop for lunch, and Ted stayed hungry.
Finally the proper half-section and swale were located, just up the road apiece from the historic Whitney Creek School, and we stopped to take a good square look. (Picture Chevy Chase at the Grand Canyon in "Vacation": "This is it, Ted. I think. Take a good look. Okay, let's go."). And with that the mighty, dusty, Rent-a-Chumpmobile finally headed north out the Bad Land and back to the vicinity of the relatively civilized Yellowstone River valley. We knew we were approaching the real world when pavement suddenly appeared. "Caution!", said a roadside sign, "Crop dusting planes sharing roadway".
Soon the small town of Fallon also appeared, featuring a small business on the back side of town, with a blue sign reading "Bar and Cafe". Something like the Lazy J or the Lazy K. Some ranch brand name, anyhow. Not one of them generic next-to-the-highway businesses like for instance a McDonald's. It got Ted's vote; local color. Plus of course, food.
Ted fairly sprang from the car and headed for the door, with me following in a moment after turning off (and locking! looked like a desperate burg) the rig. I entered the bar and cafe just in time to witness the aftermath of stranger-in-these-here-parts Ted popping in the door and immediately asking to see a menu.
The two old cowboy types behind the bar were just standing there, stunned. The one patron on a bar stool was also motionless.
I approached the bar and asked if we could still get some lunch. One old guy finally came to life and said, "Well, you can get it from him (indicating his partner, the old guy in suspenders) but I'm leaving." Which he promptly did.
We took up seats at the bar and ordered beers, and the remaining old guy finally produced menus, which featured several different items, but his comment that "We pretty much got hamburgers, hamburgers, and hamburgers" clued us in that a hamburger was probably the thing to order. A hamburger with "choice of potato", or so the menu claimed.
Ted went with a hamburger. The old guy asked him what kind of potato he wanted. "Baked", answered Ted. The old guy stared in pained disbelief.
"Really don't know where you are, do you, Ted?", said I.
"Well, it says choice of potato."
The old guy proceeded to inform us we could get potatos all right, but it sure wasn't going to be baked. Turns out the choices were fried wedges, or spiced fried wedges. Ted went with the plain, and me with the spiced, to go with my order of cheeseburger deluxe. Sort of deluxe.
"Today deluxe is only pickles", the old guy informed me. "We're out of tomatos and onions and everything else."
"Well, pickles is better than nothing, isn't it?", countered I. He was forced to concede the point.
"Do you want ranch with that?" asked the old guy. No, answered I. Same question to Ted; same answer. Again the old guy stared in disbelief.
"You're really not from around here, are you?", he accused.
"Well, I grew up in Montana", I offered, weakly, as if that was any excuse for not wanting ranch, not to mention not even knowing what the hail he was talking about. Perhaps something to enhance the culinary delight of choice of fried potato wedges?
"I suppose you're going to want your hamburger burnt, too?", he sarcastically queried of Ted. Ted didn't; he wanted medium rare.
"Nope. Can't cook it like that. State law.".
"Yump. State law", confirmed I, having learned all about that particular state law just a couple days before at the Great Falls OTB & grill when I had simply specified "medium".
The old guy in suspenders went in back to cook the burgers the same way he was going to do anyhow before he even asked the burnt question, and we struck up a conversation with the friendly patron next to us concerning the state law that said how hamburgers were to be cooked, how we were in these parts to see the Bucking Horse Sale, what time the big parade in Miles City was going to start the next day ("It's a good one"), and other stuff along those lines, plus of course the weather, all the while staring at the pictures of all the local ranchers on the wall, and the t-shirt with a picture of Osama bin Laden in the crosshairs of a gun sight. Another regular patron came in and struck up conversation with the existing regular, discussing the weather and the upcoming Bucking Horse Sale weekend and the cosmic link between the two. ("It always rains for Bucking Horse"). No doubt there's a cosmic link between the weather and other events in these parts as well, like there is in small towns all over America. But I suspected that around here the link might be more cosmic. After all, my grandfather's book had ruminated at length on the weather hereabouts, and that was 1910 or so. The important part, though, was that this weekend the cosmically linked event in the converation was the Bucking Horse Sale. Thus, we were pretty sure we were on the scent of A Really Big Event. So far, so good.
We ate our burgers and potatoes and sipped our beers in relative silence, paid our bill, and quietly escaped.
I imagine the story of how the strange fellers from the totally alien world of Chicago waltzed in and ordered a baked potato and didn't want ranch will be quite the topic of converation for weeks to come there at the Lazy J or Lazy K or whatever it was. But that's okay. This story has already been quite the topic of conversation around the Chicago tracks, and will be up on the Internet quite some length of time. People from Chicago really aren't so different after all. A good story is a good story.
-- Chapter 2. "The Bull-O-Rama & Street Dance", Friday evening, May 16, 2003
When I stopped by the Bucking Horse Sale for racing on a Saturday afternoon a couple of years ago, all the conversation on the apron had been about how bad a hangover the person telling the story had from the night before, or how some friend had got so drunk they either threw up or passed out in the gutter, or what other act of depravity this or that one had committed. There were some guys there then who had travelled all the way from Holland just to be at Bucking Horse, as well as pickup trucks with license plates from counties all over Montana, not to mention exotic locales like North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. I immediately deduced from the evidence that I had probably missed a real good time by not being in town for more of the weekend-long Bucking Horse festivities than just the racing, and was determined not to make that mistake a second time if ever I visited the Bucking Horse Sale again. Plus, when I'd mentioned to a Billings friend who had grown up in these parts more-or-less that I was visiting Bucking Horse that previous time, she'd sung the praises of the Miles City street dance, street dances in general being one of the highlights of life in Eastern Montana, with the one in Miles City specifically apparently enjoying quite a high regional reputation within the genre.
So, here we were, in town for more of the festivities than just the racing. At least, we were in town for a little while, seeing as how we'd kind of made our plans at the last minute and there weren't any rooms available in Miles City so we were staying the night quite a fur piece up the road.
A copy of the Miles City paper scored at a local gas station revealed the calendar of events for the Bucking Horse Sale. Specifically, it revealed that the street dance didn't start till 8:30 for which we were a tad early. However, in another revelation it informed us that there was currently a just-started Bull-O-Rama taking place down at the fair grounds. Not having witnessed a Bull-O-Rama before, and indeed not even knowing what a Bull-O-Rama was (but suspecting it might be related in some way to The Bull Thing at the Lincoln County Fair which I never learned what it was either), we decided that the Bull-O-Rama was just the sort of bull-event for us to kill some time. Admission: $8.
Turned out the Bull-O-Rama was a combination rodeo-style bull-riding event and bucking-bull auction all wrapped into one. Cowboys would get on a bull, and the announcer would tell us the bull's name and how many times he'd been ridden and how he normally rode. ("This is Satan II. He's a 5yo red [of some really mean breed] bull; been ridden 25 times. He'll take two jumps out of the gate and spin left. The cowboys say he's he's a kind ride, and have rated this one an 18".) Then the chute would pop open, the bucking and riding would commence, the rodeo clowns would get out there to confuse the bull, and bull and rider would do some jouncing about the rodeo ring. It was amazing how many times the bull would do exactly what the announcer had said he was going to do. Stupid bulls. If the announcer knew, don't you think your cowboy might have, too?
Soon as the bucking was over and the cowboy got his points for a good ride or else got unceremoniously (or spectacularly) tossed off into the dirt, an auction of the bull just ridden would take place. "Hey $200 gimme $225 got $200 $200 $200. $225! $225 $225 $225 $250! Gimme $300 $300 $300 $325! Gimme $350 $350. $325. Got $325 gimme $350, $350!". And so on. The big crowd in the jammed grandstand was enjoying it immensely, and so was I.
The bulls mainly seemed to bring something in the neighborhood of $800, and a real good ride would get the cowboys 67 points or so. It was my opinion that however you were keeping score, though, the bulls were winning. Four or five cowboys limped off in pain after being stomped, or smashed against the fence, or dragged along behind a rampaging bull, but no bull seemed any the worse for wear after the ride.
After the main part of the riding and auctioning was over, the 8 top rated cowboys were going to ride the top 8 bulls, for the big championship of the world, or at least the championship of this particular Bull-O-Rama of this particular edition of the Bucking Horse Sale. This wasn't any run-of-the-mill championship, though. This was also a wagering event, specifically a Calcutta auction pool wagering event. I thought probably Ted should see this.
Each of the 8 cowboys was for sale, and the bulls as a lot. If no cowboy managed a regulation-length ride, the purchaser of the lot of bulls would win the pool. If just one cowboy rode regulation, his purchaser would win. If two or more cowboys rode, the top rating would win.
Spotters took up positions atop the fence in front of the grandstand, and the Calcutta commenced. Nothing like a good auction, cowboys and bulls on the block, and this was a good auctioneer. He wrung the last possible dollar out of the crowd. It turns out cowboys are worth from $200 to $400 apiece. The lot of bulls brought $525. All in all roughly a $3000 pool riding on the outcome of the bull-riding finals, winner take all.
The wagering part on the bulls was definitely the high point of the Bull-O-Rama, so we didn't stick around to see the outcome, and headed down to the street dance instead. But secretly I hoped the bulls would win.
Even though we were there for the early part of the street dance, the part of it before everyone got really lit up to inspire the type of racing apron stories I'd overheard before, things were already hopping in the corralled-off section of Miles City's downtown main street. Every neon-signed bar, and even the ones without neon signs, was jammed with party-goers enjoying a beverage or simply purchasing a beverage to carry back out to the street. The street was full of revelers, food stands, and cowboy-hatted people fixin' to dance. Three stages had been set up at strategic points along the street, and the music was just getting started. And, I can personally report that, unlike other businesses in other towns that jack up the price of everything when the big doin's come to town, the drinking establishments of Miles City did not rip the patrons off. All beers were still a low, low $2.
At one end of the street the first band on the night's card was a blue-grass band, which played excellent music, but not so much dance-type music. A big crowd was gathered around the stage in the center of the street, where a country band was banging out quite danceable tunes, and the folks were responding enthusiastically, spinning and twirling and flinging their partners around in the specially energetic Montana style that is quite unlike the more sedate country dancing that you'll see in places like Texas or Arizona. How these women's arms don't come off at the shoulders I really don't know. You could tell this was a good party, as a good-looking woman actually came up and asked me to dance. Stunned briefly, I quickly recovered my senses and pleaded the lumbago, an old bowling injury, and two left feet, and sent her out to dance with Ted instead. (Turned out she was from North Dakota, talked by a friend into coming down to Miles City for "a good time". Hope she had one.) At the other end of the street, and around a corner, there was a woman singing country Jesus songs to a pre-recorded soundtrack. Not too many people dancing there, but I thought this was quite an excellent attraction, as she belted out favorites like "I Like Country Music, But I Like Jesus More" and others.
I was in heaven. It was maybe 9:30.
Despite prevous conversations about the dangers of deer on Montana highways after dark, we almost hit one on the way back to the night's digs anyway, right when The Dusty Chaps were singing about "Beulah From Missoula" on the CD player. But we didn't.
-- Chapter 3. "The Big Parade", Saturday morning, May 17
Before I came I'd been told "don't miss the parade", and the guy at the Fallon bar's endorsement had only cemented it. So here we were, on Miles City's main street again early Saturday morning, waiting for the parade, along with many other folks.
Pretty soon the telltale sign of a parade, the blinking lights of an authority vehicle, hove into view, and quickly the parade was on. And what a parade it was.
This parade had it all. The local high school marching band. Majorettes. Rodeo queens on horses from near and far. A whole bunch of people wearing t-shirts from the local bank. Wagons drawn by several different breeds of draft horses. Various floats, which for some reason seemed to feature a lot of boats, including one float with a beef standing in a boat, and one with a canoe covered in brown bag paper to look like birch bark. One religious float had a still life of a live cowboy with a gun standing over a dead cowboy on the ground surrounded by several stunned onlookers, with black death and white death at the dead cowboy's head. The float banner said "Know Where You're Going".
There were Shriners in tiny (but not real tiny) vehicles, a mini-parade of all the 50 state flags (some borne by horse, some by motorcycle, and some on the back of muscle cars), and more bands. One band marched by in kilts out there in the Montana badlands, followed by a passel of small girls dressed in tartan and doing a jig. Another was the Custer band, dressed in 7th Cavalry regalia, all the way from Sheridan, Wyo, for the event.
But mostly, there were vehicles. Any vehicle out the ordinary for miles or maybe counties around had been brought in for the parade. There was authority vehicles and emergency vehicles and the local motorcycle and motor home clubs and antique fire trucks with surprisingly large dalmations and classic cars and tree trimming vehicles and some kids in an old Cadillac. Classic cars aplenty, including one being pushed down the street by two husky, sweating young men, one of whom remarked "She's a runner, alright!" to some friend in the crowd. One shiny pickup truck passed by and we couldn't figure out why it was special other than it might have been the only clean truck in the county.
But the highlight was saved for the end, when all the antique tractors came steaming and clanking by. Flywheels spinning, wheels (or treads) creaking and clanking, smokestacks puffing ... it was quite a sight.
And then, with another authority vehicle bringing up the rear, it was all over. The patron at the Lazy J or Lazy K or whatever had been right. It's a good one.
Ted was hungry again, so we set out in search of breakfast. The really good-looking cafe on Main Street was jammed, so we ended up at the Olive Hotel, which I can only rate as passable. It didn't really even have breakfast, and I lost my $3 racing program (with many keen insights I'd inscribed therein) in the process of eating a quite mediocre, overpriced, early lunch. Thumbs down to the food at the Historic Olive Hotel.
Afterwards, we (and a number of already "happy" early revelers) tried to catch up with the Custer band from Sheridan, Wyo, as they paraded from bar to bar down Main Street, alternately playing tunes and enjoying the bars, but they continually confounded us by going the wrong way or just escaping. Sneaky devils.
-- Chapter 4. "Bucking Horse racing", Saturday afternoon, May 17, 2003
Finally it was time for the racing, and Bucking Horse Sale, down at the Eastern Montana Fairgrounds.
As you can probably tell by now, if you have managed to read this far, horse racing is only one part of the Bucking Horse Sale weekend festivities. Actually, it is a three day meet, with one day of qualifier type races the weekend before Bucking Horse, and then the two days of racing during the sale. It is also the initial meet in the Montana racing year, followed up by a semi-extended weekends-only meet in Great Falls, with a two weekend meet in Kalispell, a one weekend meet in Shelby, and a five day blowout in Missoula tossed in, and then finally another extended weekends-only meet in Billings finishing off the summer. All told, it's not too many days of live racing. Used to be a lot more, and in more towns, but of course the lottery and two million keno casinos came along, so horse racing ain't what she used to be in Montana, just like everywhere. But, for a few glorious days anyhow, it still figures prominently into the Bucking Horse Sale.
Parking free, but be sure to get an outside row, as the parking works entirely on the anarchy principle in this big dirt field. Another $8 admission. More money if you wanted a seat up in the stands, which were all reserved. And of course another $3 program.
As we walked in, the rodeo queens were already out in the rodeo ring, carrying the Three Important Flags (America, Montana, Coors beer) on horseback, and a recording of John Wayne reciting a patriotic speech over America the Beautiful was just starting up. We were urged to remain standing for Our National Anthem, after which the rodeo queens with the flags departed at a gallop.
To set the stage:
The grandstand itself is a medium-sized, open air, covered affair of indeterminate age, but it had been there awhile. Construction style I forgot to write down, but I think it was mostly metal and wood. Metal bleachers off either end to add seating, and a big asphalt apron out front, where were located the concession stands (beer: $2, food: unknown, chewing tobacco: also unknown), and the restrooms kind of out back to the right.
Down under the grandstand is a low, dark concourse, where are located the betting windows and a groovy bar which I think is called "The Horseman's" where, at least the night before during the Bull-O-Rama, they'd had a big deal special on multiple or perhaps even unlimited Jim Beam-based beverages if you cared to partake. I tried one of those, and it was poured so strong I decided not to go back to the Horseman's again. But it was an option.
The track out front is a 4f dirt affair with a QH chute, kinda long on dirt clods and rocks. Inside rail of the finest PVC tubing, and a more substantial one of wood and wire on the outside. No Winner's Circle; just a designated spot on the track. The infield is mostly taken up with rodeo ring, chutes, and viewing/judges stands, plus a small toteboard. The rest is bare grass field, populated this day by pickup trucks and RV's. Lots of big mature trees as a backdrop.
The crowd on the day was a huge one for a facility this size. Every seat in the grandstand was taken up, and the apron was elbow-to-elbow. It was so crowded that many people couldn't even get up from their seats and go down to bet. One deputy I asked estimated 2,000 people on hand. Maybe not that many, but it seemed possible. At least 1,000 were wearing cowboy hats. Ted found that remarkable. I didn't.
Also on hand in the crowd was Montana Governor Judy Martz, occupying one of the best seats, and also wearing a cowboy hat. A black one. So you know this was an important event in the state.
Finally I have to mention the people who acted as our unofficial hosts for the day and made the day very comfortable for the baked-potato-boys from Chicago. A big "thanks" to these folks for a very hospitable and informative day: Jill Ronan-Ouren and Robert Ouren, who do the Equibase charting for Montana; Sam Murfitt, Executive Secretary of the Montana State Board of Horse Racing; Tony and Brooke Shipp of Miles City (Tony was clerk of scales for the meet); racing secretary Carol Sivak; the head of the whole Bucking Horse Sale whose name I don't remember; the MT stewards whose space we briefly invaded; and anyone else I met but have forgotten here. Your hospitality and company was very much appreciated.
Now then, as to the racing program itself. Racing at the Bucking Horse Sale isn't quite like racing anywhere else. Sure, the Anthony Fair might have greyhound races in between the horse races, and the Crow Fair might have rodeo events in between, but nowhere else I've been bucks and auctions horses in the interval between races. And that's how it was: Race, bucking and auctioning, race, repeat. Just like the Bull-O-Rama the night before, except horses. Plus racing. They'd just swing these big gates open or closed to turn the place into either a racetrack or a rodeo ring, and away we'd go with whatever was set up. Quite entertaining for racing afficionados and bucking horse fans alike.
Not to mention making what looked to be a long day. The card was seven live races and one special simulcast, and there was like 45 minutes in between each one while they bucked and auctioned a bunch of horses.
On the card we had a good selection of quarterhorse, mixed breed, and thoroughbred events. The big feature of the day was the Dan Lockie Quarter Horse Derby, 350 yds for 3yo QH, purse $11,855. Also a Paint Horse Derby for $8,075, and a thoroughbred maiden for $4,000. After that it kind of went downhill purse wise. The big event of the day, however, was to be the simulcast of the Preakness Stakes, for which the track was going to have its own pool and for which someone who ran a local satellite dish business had managed to pipe in the NBC feed for us to watch on TV. Jockeys consisted of many of the usual crowd - Joe Coversup, Gilbert Rivera, Shawn Iorg, Shaunda Larsen. Trainers I didn't recognize so much.
The long day went by in a flash, with lots of bucking in between races, a few beers, much visiting, and a brief demonstration by a Percheron draft horse team that got to galloping around out there in the rodeo ring and the place was literally shaking like thunder. One horse that was part of an entry ran in the A1 saddlecloth, as it was on inside out. Someone dropped $1200 to win on some horse, in pools that rarely approached $1000, and the place was abuzz for awhile. Especially abuzz when that horse lost. No real stupid stuff, though. The racing went off very smoothly. Nice job by all concerned.
Bettingwise, I didn't win so much money. In fact I managed to lose $8.20 on the day. My horses kept doing dumb things like getting slammed out of the gate and getting hung wide on turns and stuff like that. Ted did good though. He wanted to bet Funny Cide in the Preakness but was afraid to unload due to the smallness of the pool. But bet fairly big he did anyhow, and when all the smoke had cleared, he'd got back a $6.80 win price instead of the national $5.80 price. In the Racing Office, where I watched, someone yelled "That's right - show 'em, Jose!" when Santos held up his empty hand. So there, Miami Herald!
But, before we left, there was one more special event: The Wild Horse Race. I'd never seen a Wild Horse Race before, so we decided to stay for that.
From what I could gather, it works like this:
First they close up the gates so it's a rodeo arena instead of a racetrack, and then they unloose a bunch of wild horses in there and they start running around like mad. (No one could say where these wild horses came from. Jill thought maybe they were some of the bucking horses.) Three teams of cowboys get in there with ropes and saddles, and their job is to catch a horse and get it saddled. After the first horse gets saddled, the gates open up, a rider jumps aboard and hopefully takes a lap around the track, and the first team to make the lap wins.
That is the theory. In practice it worked more like this:
The horses got turned loose and started running around. One team caught one and got it saddled. Another team caught one and started saddling it. So far, so good. The gates opened, the rider of #1 got aboard, and immediately got bucked off about 50 yards out of the gate. Meanwhile, all the rest of the wild horses made a beeline for the open gate and escaped onto the track, including the one that had almost got saddled, saddle dangling beneath him. But one remaining team still had a horse under control, sort of, so they still had a chance. He fought for a long time, that horse did, rearing and striking with his fronts, and I was surprised someone didn't get their brains dashed out. Finally they managed to pin him against the fence and start saddling him, with a cowboy wrestling him by the head, one trying to saddle him, and two others trying to keep him halfway still from the rear. Suddenly the horse let out a mighty kick with his rear feet and knocked the two cowboys to his rear flat on their backs, escaped, and took off after his friends around the track. The Wild Horse Race ended with wild horses running all over the track and infield, knocking down the PVC pipe inner rail, the one with the saddle dangling under him taking a turn past the stands, and cowboys on horseback in mad pursuit of them all, lariats swinging over their heads.
"Well", says the announcer, "I don't recall us ever not having a winner before".
Oh, but you did. You did have a winner.
Earlier in the day, observing the bucking, cowboy hats, and other things, Ted had remarked, "I feel like I'm in a whole different country here."
Not me. I just felt like I was home.