On my 61st birthday last year, I went to the Calgary Stampede for the first time in my life.
This year, along with countless other Canadians, I’m missing it deeply.
That reality has me humming an old Joni Mitchell song, Big Yellow Taxi.
Something that many of us have always taken for granted has suddenly, and irrevocably, gone silent for the time being.
For the first time since it became an annual event in 1923, this extravagant showcase of western culture and agricultural life has been stopped.
WATCH | Relive the 2019 Calgary Stampede:
The Calgary Stampede survived the Second World War, the Great Depression and the massive flood of 2013, but the pandemic has ground the rodeo and its accompanying midway to a halt.
“It’s definitely strange being here in Calgary and not to be covering the Stampede in some form for the first time in nearly three decades,” said CBC broadcaster Doug Dirks, who annually calls the chuckwagon races and has witnessed untold thrills and controversy over the years.
“It’s a huge stock show from an agricultural perspective and much more than a rodeo,” said three-time saddle bronc champion at the Stampede, Zeke Thurston of Big Valley, Alta.
“For a lot of people it’s going to be touch and go. More than anything, rodeo is how we make our living but it’s also our way of life. People work all year for this one event and for it not to happen… is kind of a bummer.”
A monumental absence
The Stampede’s absence amounts to more than an unfilled date on the calendar. For millions of people in Canada, North America and around the world, it’s a slice of the country’s character which is not only unique but defiantly based on long-held traditions and connections to the land.
“No matter if you’re a competitor or a fan, the Calgary Stampede is a foundational piece of the western fabric that we love and live in,” mused Paige Lawrence from her home in Stevensville, Mont.
Lawrence was raised on a ranch in Kennedy, Sask., and competed as a barrel racer before becoming an Olympian in pairs figure skating at the 2014 Games in Sochi. Her father Jim was a professional bull rider and Paige married a two-time bareback winner at the Stampede named Richmond Champion.
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She knows how deep these roots run.
“Nothing will ever replicate or replace the Calgary Stampede.”
Although he’s an American by birth, Champion is also feeling the loss of being able to connect with the Canadian treasure at this time of year.
“Ever since the Cowboy Christmas run came to an end, I’ve had the feeling that something was missing,” he said.
“I know it’s because I’m not in Calgary. I miss the feeling of running into the arena in the opening, nodding my head in the Championship Round, and being part of such an amazing community if only for a few days. Calgary has always held a special place in my heart.”
‘The smell of the barbecue smoke’
For 22 years, acclaimed photojournalist Leah Hennel has chronicled the Stampede for the Calgary Sun and more recently the Calgary Herald. She grew up spending summers at the family ranch near Stettler, Alta., and has always been fascinated by the prairie landscape and its lore.
A significant amount of her work, which is reflected in her published collection of photographs, Along the Western Front, surrounds the Stampede and its centrepiece rodeo.
The images she has captured, which recently appeared in Maclean’s magazine, reveal Indigenous horse racers, devout and praying cowboys, women who ride side-saddle in formal attire, youngsters who try to tame ornery steers, and the stark portraits of the confrontation between human and animal.
“Even though it looks the same — and smells the same — every year, even though the events rarely change, it’s always different… and I mean that only in a good way,” Hennel reckoned.
“I miss it all. The crowds, the lights of the midway, the smell of the barbecue smoke, even the long days and sweatiness after hours of looking for a photo gem. We all see the peak action of the rodeo winners, but I like to shoot behind the scenes which, for the most part, is hidden from fans.”
You can sense it’s not just the action Hennel misses. It’s the people.
“It’s one of my favourite times of the year and every day I meet someone new. To me that’s the best part.”
Bob Tallman is not new to the Stampede. Although he’s been calling the rodeo in Calgary for the past 40 years it seems like his voice has resonated here much longer. Perhaps, even, forever.
Speaking from his ranch near Fort Worth, Texas, with his trademark cowboy hat tipped back on his head, and experimenting with Zoom for one of the first times in his life, Tallman got emotional when asked about the shutdown of his favourite event.
“I wasn’t ready for this. Give me a minute,” he sighed.
Tears welled up in his eyes.
“I miss it a lot. A lot,” he managed to get out.
“This has been 40 years of my life. I’m not just talking about being a rodeo announcer. I’m talking about Alberta, Toronto, CBC Sports, the Calgary Stampede, the ranch at Hanna, the bucking horses and three generations of great people that I’ve known. Without the Stampede, my life got taken away.”
WATCH | Calgary Stampede through the years:
But undaunted and true to the frontier spirit that the Calgary Stampede has always espoused, Tallman vowed that the void of this summer will one day be filled.
“This is not a threat… it’s a fact. I will be back and so will the Calgary Stampede,” he said in an evangelistic sort of way.
It’s much more than a rodeo.
It’s a national happening.
Some even go so far as to say it’s The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.
The Calgary Stampede is ultimately a congregation that takes place in the Canadian heartland.
And for the first time — in a long time — we’ll all have to do without it.