My grandmother always promised me a painted horse if, that is, I expressed a love for her Gladacres Farms, where Pidge, my single parent mother, would exile me six weeks each summer during my adolescence. While friends waterskied away the stifling upstate New York heat at various Finger Lakes' cottages, I extracted hay chaff from my forearms, hauled buckets of water to the pigs and pitched out a winter's worth of manure from the pull barn on the dilapidated dairy farm. Still horseless at fifty, I've sidestepped country culture going on four decades.
I first subscribed to New York magazine at 13. My mom, however, wrote "to be 300-miles away on my farm" when asked to inscribe her senior year "wish" while in boarding school outside New York City. Her father and mother, an Italian cellist and a New York socialite, had purchased the farm at their daughter's request when she was quarantined with polio.
So why would I choose to explore all things agro at the Calgary Stampede? Blame this immersion on my mother again, who confided, after hearing my "travel life list" segment on National Public Radio, that the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth claimed top spot on her personal bucket list.
"Do you think we could ever go?" she asked in an uncharacteristically meek voice, familiar with her youngest son's rural antipathy.
"That could probably be arranged," I responded, aware that my mother, who turned 78 years old the same day the Stampede celebrated a century, was probably nearing the end of three-connection, cross-continental adventuring.
The Stampede would be my gift to Pidge, who migrated home to care for her parents on the 500-acre spread the day I left for college, converting the Holstein cow barns to accommodate Belgian draft horses, a herd that eventually grew to 50 gentle giants.
I figured I'd play the good, if aloof, son lingering in Draft Horse Town, chatting up the chuckwagon drivers, hobnobbing with the blacksmiths. But I had no idea how the Stampede changes even the most stubborn gait.
I've already included the Stampede on plenty of "Top 10" North American to-do lists over the years, well aware of its status among Canada's most celebrated cultural events. But damn, the magnitude of this one hundred year old barnburner blew me away on a global scale, a western hootenanny that deserves mention with Rio's Carnival, New Orleans' Mardi Gras and, no kidding, a visit to New York City.
From the 700-horse parade to watching David Cowley's horse, Spencer, ascend the Calgary Tower to seeing equine actors trot gracefully through their cues in "Tails: Three Horses, One Legend," I admit I feel a little dumbstruck.
Fortunately, I can count upon my mother's vision, hewn from eight decades of social and horse work, to capture the Stampede's thunder with the grace of chuckwagon driver Troy Flad bedding his team after cutting barrels and a hell bent, half-mile sprint.
"Dave Cowley said he speaks more horse than people," Pidge reflected, while we watched the rodeo Saturday from the Lazy S Club. "Which pretty much sums us up."
I'm not saddle shopping yet and I'll never claim to speak equine, but clasping the mane of my mother's horse whispering for a few days in Calgary caused my bucket to runneth over.