Big Timber lies in the rolling ranchlands north of Yellowstone, with a mountain range called The Crazies looming white and jagged to the west. Bull-a-rama marks the unofficial arrival of spring in these parts, and folks come in from throughout the surrounding counties.
Sturdy looking men and women walk into the Sweetgrass County Fairgrounds carrying six packs of Bud or Coors in cans, making steady progress through the evening's festivities.
Bull-a-rama is rodeo for the attention-deficit generation. Sort of the monster trucks for the agricultural set. Strip away all the barrel racing and horsey crap and you're left with a guy on a bull getting the shit beat out of him.
Rodeo cowboys are professionals in a sense, though the circuit is short on glamor. Bullfighters follow the competition from town to town, driving hundreds of miles across the west, paying entree fees and hoping to bring home enough gas money to keep going.
Each cowboy carries his duffel bag to a shared corner of the stockyard. Most everyone dresses there, stripping down to boxers and putting on Wranglers and cowboy boots with raking spurs. Some stretch and limber up, others practice the wildly jerking moves of the ride's first seconds. Fans stand and gawk. A knot of fat girls titter at the sight of grown men in their underpants. Everyone else lines up at the burger stand twenty feet away.
As sports go, Bullriding rules are basic. Sit down and hang on. The particulars are a little more problematic. You're climbing onto the back of two thousand pounds of irate beef that will do nearly anything to get you off. If he does, there's an excellent chance he'll try to pound the stuffing out you for good measure.
The bulls are led into a series of rough wood chutes. This angers them greatly. The cowboys sit on their backs, which does little to improve matters. Cattle aren't generally known for their acrobatic propensities, but rodeo bulls leap, lunge, pirouette and spiral with surprising speed and agility. The effect is only enhanced by cinching the bull's testicles with a leather strap. As one cowboy put it succinctly. "You put a strap around my balls, I'll jump too."
When the chute's gate flies open, the next seconds fill with almost unimaginable violence. You can watch damn near anything on television and it won't spoil your supper. But seeing these bright eyed young kids hurled, thrown and trampled tears at your heart. Still, folks pay ten bucks and drink a beer while they watch it.
And truth be told, I had a blast.
After the final bull, the dust settles and the crowd ambles toward the exit. Prize money and the winner's prize saddle and belt buckle are handed out. In dust and headlights, cowboys limp out to their trucks. Beers are cracked in the parking lot before the long drive to the next show.