Finding America at The Little Britches Rodeo
What does it mean to feel patriotic?
There was a time when I spent long summers in Salmon, Idaho, guiding on the Middle Fork and Main Salmon rivers. As guides, we weren’t actually in Salmon very much. With 6-day trips and a launch every 8 days, we found ourselves in town for about 24 hours each week, enough time to do laundry, shower, pick up mail, call home, repair cracked hands and feet, eat a meal you didn’t cook, and, occasionally, go for a night out.
One such night, we went to the Little Britches Rodeo, which was held at the county fairgrounds just north of town. It was a warm evening, the air sweetly pungent with the smells of tilled soil, sweet alfalfa, and a Noah’s Ark of animals roaming the farms nearby. In a place like this, everything on the land, in the air, is alive. And being on the 45th parallel—which you cross just before driving into Salmon from the south—means it’s balmy and light long into what you think should be nighttime.
Promptly at 8 p.m., a deep baritone voice came over the P.A. system. We stood: four river guides in shorts and flip flops and a couple hundred more spectators in Wranglers, shirts with pearly snaps, and stiff, cream-colored cowboy hats. Hats went to hearts. Ten little girls on full grown horses ambled into the arena, then trotted around its edge, each bearing an American flag, their hair streaming behind them. The national anthem began, and we all sang. Even the children in the stands, some not more than five or six years old, knew the words. They sang with eyes shining. The Bitterroot Mountains loomed above the fairgrounds, stunning and forthright. Mesmerized by the heavy cadence of hooves in the soft dirt, seeing the strength and conviction in the eyes of those little girls, I became lost in the stars and stripes spinning before me. Something welled up, overcame me. It was one of the most patriotic moments I’ve ever felt.
Many days I’ve wondered why; what swept me up that evening? What was it about that scene that made it seem like America—the idea, the people, the country—was coursing through me? And what exactly does it mean to feel patriotic?
Often patriotism is identified with war, the military, and those who have fallen in war. “The Star-Spangled Banner” itself, originally a poem by Francis Scott Key, describes a battle during the War of 1812, one in which our flag—15 stars and stripes at the time—survived the assault of the British in a Baltimore harbor. In opposition to a foe comes unity and with it a commonly experienced form of patriotism.
But I was part of a generation—the tail of the baby boomers—that slipped into the rare gaps in our history of wars. We were too young for the big ones—WW I and II, Korea, and Vietnam—and too old for the conflicts in the Mideast: The Gulf War, the War in Afghanistan, and second Iraq War. Military life was barely on our radar of consciousness. I’ve since become acutely aware of its power.
A number of times over the years, I guided a group of guys down the Middle Fork who served together in Vietnam. The intensity of their bond, their devotion to those who hadn’t survived is remarkable. They had been together in the war for a year or two, maybe three. Still, here they were decades later holding each other up, toasting friends and experiences we cannot know. I’ve always admired the depth of their relationship.
So, I can follow a thread of patriotism that weaves through war, friendship, and death. And it may be that it is death that most ties us together. Working as a ski patrolman for many years, I and other patrolmen have been in situations in which, despite our efforts, someone leaves the world before our eyes. The sanctity of the moment joins the survivors in a bond that resists the wear of time and distance.
Driving into the fairgrounds parking lot that night it hadn’t really dawned on me what “Little Britches” actually meant. Of course, it referred to children. These were children, 5- to 18-years-old riding animals that didn’t seem at all proportionally small or tame. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The broncos bucked furiously, pounded the earth with hooves, arched their bodies skyward. Boys were hanging on seemingly unafraid, bouncing above the broncos. Ultimately, they all fell, slapped the soft dirt like rag dolls, not far, it seemed, from the wild action of the horses’ hooves. Rodeo clowns moved in quickly, but it was harrowing to watch.
Then came a kid named Skeeter from Billings, Montana, who couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12. Skeeter mounted his bronco in the loading pens across the way. Several men helped. When the iron gates opened, Skeeter’s horse broke out. The other broncos had exploded upwards trying to throw their riders. Skeeter’s horse charged forward. It bolted straight across the arena towards the grandstands. At the wooden railing not more than 20 feet away from us, the bronco started to pull up. Surely, I thought, the fence will be indestructible. But the loud splintering of wood shattered that illusion. The horse cracked through the fence, bucking forward and over, following its own front hooves. Skeeter sailed. People stood, screamed. The bronco was now 10 feet away, on its back, rolling from side to side trying to find its footing. Then, in an instant, the horse was up and broke forward in a sprint along the outside of the ring and out of sight.
With the horse gone, we all stood there stunned, staring at Skeeter limp in the dark soil. There was no sound, no motion in the stands. Rodeo workers raced to the boy’s side. Time seemed to stretch out forever, dread sinking into the collective psyche. Then little Skeeter stirred, moved a bit more, rolled to his back, and sat up. When that boy walked off, everyone in the place was standing, clapping, crying. For the second time in one night, I felt part of something bigger.
All these years later, the event seems clearer to me. Yes, patriotism can be borne of anger and aggression—unity in opposition to someone or thing or entity. But it can also be forged among disparate lives and lifestyles and beliefs with a common connection. Just as bonds can form in death and in opposition to the other, it, too, can form in aspiration, in bright life moving forward.