BY: ALYSSA SCHWARTZ
"The best part of the Stampede is that we get to dress up and play cowboy for 10 days," our driver — a volunteer clad in the light-coloured checked cotton shirt, jeans and cream straw cowboy hat that might as well be the festival's official uniform — says as we pull out of the Calgary airport. We're destined for downtown and the self-proclaimed greatest outdoor show on Earth.
The words "dress up and play" aren't lost on me. As the Stampede celebrates its centennial, much has been made about those cowboy origins and whether they're still relevant to the Calgary of the 21st century, a city where one third of the population hails from outside of Canada and the view from the grounds is of soaring skyscrapers, blighting out every glimpse of the far-off frontier.
Back in 1912 the inaugural festival was, after all, meant to be the Old West's final hurrah, brought to the city by an American rider who found backing among the city’s “big four” businessmen, then mourning youths spent on horseback. As our driver noted, most days people here don't dress like cowboys anymore, and while Cowtown is still very much a steak town, there's also an Indian restaurant right across from my hotel. And yet as we discover, 100 years in, the Stampede still has its cowboy swagger.
Sure the news features that make it across the country are about the novelty food items (this year's most-reported include cotton candy cupcakes, deep-fried Kool Aid, and supposedly, red velvet funnel cakes — though they are specifically mentioned in the Stampede guide pamphlets, after hunting for them for hours, we’re convinced they’re the fair food equivalent of the unicorn) and the politics. And the Midway's careening rides, paced to remixed Top 40 tunes, are the same ones you can find at the Ex and CNE and all those other fairs that work their way across the country during the summer.
But after getting outfitted at Lammle's, the Stampede’s official clothing supplier, and then taking my first-ever spin in a heavy duty truck (GMC, my host for the weekend, offers test-drives of its pick-ups on the grounds; the badassery of driving the Sierra 3500 HD is tempered only by the fact that the route up to Scotchman’s Hill — with its sprawling vantage of the grounds, the Saddledome and downtown — is through a 30 kilometre-an-hour school zone), the spirit starts to prove infectious.
Lammle's has some seven outlets on the grounds but alas none of them carry boots, so we head to their Stephen Ave. store, which has brought in some 50,000 pairs for the festivities, including commemorative editions crafted by Justin Boots for the centennial. The place is a veritable costume warehouse for cowboys both real and imagined — while I opt for tried and true classics, a pair of distressed tan Ariats that boast "advanced torque stability" and a shantung Panama-style hat, there's also hot pink and teal, and sequins, and all manner of gaudiness no cowboy worth his salt would ever be caught dead in.
Cowboy culture is as genteel as it is rugged, and there are pockets of evidence of this among all the testosterone. In the BMO Centre, adjacent to the market with its as-seen-on-TV demos and man-made beach, you’ll find the Western Oasis, an art show depicting Western living. There’s a gallery, art auction, photography, even cowboy poetry (you read that right – it’s a tradition that dates back to campfire storytelling after long days on the ranch).
There’s also a prevailing civility to the spectacle. Though the Stampede is known as much for its debaucherous nightlife — girls in slutty tops and boots and hats, drunken hook-ups — it’s a community event, fuelled by the volunteer efforts of thousands and ingrained in the Calgary business scene. There’s an ol’ boys feeling to it — many of the volunteers are prominent locals, invited to participate. In donning their hats and shirts, they consider themselves ambassadors to the city.
Maybe it's because we’ve dressed the part or maybe it's all that cowboy charm proves to be damn irresistible, but inside the rodeo is where I’m truly, and totally unexpectedly, hooked. When bareback rider Bobby Mote pulls a 90 under Monday’s scorching sun, I’m probably the person most surprised by the loud noise that escapes my mouth.
Cliché? Pageantry? For sure. But at the Stampede, it comes from the heart.