Over the last couple months, I’ve been on a quest for the American summer, and right now, I’m on my way to the Greater Midwestern Rodeo, puttering across the interstate in search of Portage, Wisconsin. I also have non-rodeo-related reasons for venturing out to the heartland. A few weeks ago, I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that, if left untreated, can result in the ossification of the spine, whereby all the spaces between one’s vertebrae slowly fuse together. For the last few months, I’d been waking up in the middle of the night with terrible zaps of pain surging across my sacrum, and things got so bad that I began to experience a limited range of motion. At thirty-four years old, I confess I’m terrified to write a sentence concerning my “limited range of motion.” Is it possible I’ll start describing myself with adjectives like “spry”? Thanks to the wonky health insurance offered by my state university, I hadn’t been able to find a doctor in my hometown, so I have to schlep out here, to the heart of the heart of the country, where a doctor will take stock of the disease’s advance.
The irony of combining a doctor’s visit with a rodeo didn’t hit me until I finally pulled off the exit. After all, I was about to watch a posse of cowboys and cowgirls have their spines whiplashed into oblivion, and not only did this seem like a mean parody of my new medical condition, but it also seemed like an apposite description of certain liberal voters. Indeed, over the last few years, as the very foundations of American democracy have writhed and shuddered beneath us, it’s often felt like the best we can do is simply to try and hold on.
The fair is located in a desolate sector of Portage where the dominant aesthetic might be best captured by Clevelander Joyce Brabner’s phrase, “rust belt chic,” a term she used to describe coastal appropriation of the heartland. Lawns have been mowed into board game rows, and American flags droop from gonfalons that have been bolted to screened-in porches. I grew up in Wisconsin, but I’m suddenly worried folks out here might think me an interloper if they catch a glimpse of my backseat, which is brimming with all the accouterments of my left-leaning disposition (sushi-rolled yoga mats, weatherworn New Yorkers). I might as well be wearing a Marianne Williamson button.
All of the fairground’s expo buildings are massive and without fenestration. I presume these facilities are used for storing root vegetables in winter, but right now, they’re occupied by kiosks of local retailers. Just inside, children are playing in a sandbox filled with corn feed, which they are cupping into their hands and raining down on each other, yelling, “It’s snowing!” Given that I’m an English professor, I’m naturally drawn to an exhibition called “Junior Communications Posters.” All of these have been conjured and crafted by Columbia County middle schoolers, who were free to write a thesis statement on a topic of their choosing. Here’s a random sample of the titles of this year’s winners: “How to Field Skin a Deer in 13 Easy Steps”; “The Different Breeds of Fairy Goats”; “Wool Versus Sherpa: A Study”; and, my personal favorite, “You Can Hunt Anything on the Planet with Just These Four Guns.” For any weapons enthusiasts out there, this child alleges that a Ruger, an American Safari, and two different calibers of Remington can apparently be trusted to handle any beast-related assignations.
The rodeo takes place in a dingy coliseum, one with rickety bleachers and a puny bandstand, all of which encircle a wide, mud-studded paddock. For the second time in as many hours, the PA system is blaring “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, and on either end of the pasture are steel barricades and a labyrinth of animal pens, from whose darkened interiors we plainly hear fractious snorts and odd, eldritch harrumphing. Every now and then what emerges through the metal latticework of the pens are the desperate, heart-melting expressions of various confined barn animals—lambs and ponies, calves and stallions.
Soon an announcement comes crackling over the PA: “All mutton-busters, please line up behind the bucket shoots. All mutton-busters to the bucket shoots, please.” Do urban readers know anything about mutton-busting? Before coming to the rodeo, I didn’t. In fact, the very onomatopoetics of “mutton-busting” conjured (for me, anyway) various carnal acts with barn animals. But mutton-busting is far more innocent, a time-honored rite of passage for rural youngsters. Here’s how it works: a clique of adult ranch hands corral a lamb into a small metal stall called a “bucket shoot.” A helmeted child is then passed through said bucket shoot, where a waiting handler situates her on the animal’s unsaddled back. Once the contestant is firmly barnacled to the lamb’s hide, the gate gets whipped open, and the ram proceeds to hightail it across the pasture, bleating madly and hurtling like a banshee. The object of the game is to see for how long the mutton-buster can hold on. As to the possible gratification the rider might receive from this bumpy peregrination, your guess here is as good as mine.
Moseying back and forth in front of the bucket shoots is tonight’s rodeo’s impresario, a deeply tanned man in his late forties who wears a pink polo and a sun-blanched cowboy hat. Right now, he’s heckling and cajoling the audience, speaking with the unctuous, concentrated poetry of a late-career car salesmen. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, before we get started, I want y’all to go on ahead and give our mutton-busters a nice, warm round of applause. After all, it takes a lot of courage to cross the cold metal of those bucket shoots. Because while you might think these sheep are just some docile little creatures, let me go on ahead and disabuse you of that notion. Because these ain’t your fuzzy, little, cute, cuddly type animals that you want to take into bed with you. They ain’t the lambs that Mary had. So come on now and, without any further ado, let’s go on ahead and get started.”
Yet, this turns out to be a head fake, because there’s even more pomp and pageantry. This includes not only an ovation for our veterans, but also bagpipe renditions of the national anthem and “Amazing Grace.” Then the impresario asks us to “go on ahead” and bow our heads. In my thirty-four years, I’ve heard my fair share of invocations, but I must confess this is the first time I’ve heard a Western-themed supplication. The prayer is laced with countrified motifs—cacti and tumbleweeds, desolate pastures and frontier heartache—and by the time the impresario rises to his heart-rustling conclusion, several men in the audience are wiping away a tear. “And when we embark on that final ride to the great pasture in the sky, where the grass is lush and green and stirrup-high, and the water flows deep and cool, we pray that our final judgment will be: Come on in, cowboy, cowgirl, your entry ticket has been paid in full.” The resultant applause is so thunderous that the horses are bucking in their stables.
Onward then to mutton-busting. First up is the appropriately named Colton Young, a five-year-old child in a blue T-shirt from the hard knocks of Portage, Wisconsin. Mutton-busting rules stipulate that all participants don a grid-faced helmet, which explains why Colton Young enters the bucket shoot looking quite a bit like a gladiator. Right from the get-go, things get out of hand. An airhorn goes off somewhere in the crowd, and the noise seems to have startled the bucket shoot’s ranch hand, because before Colton Young can get a proper grip on the lamb’s fulsome hindquarters, the gate gets flung open, and the sad-faced ruminant commences to tear ass across the pasture. Even from this distance, the lamb’s strangled exhalations are easily detected, and its spooked, white eyes seem distressingly human. Suddenly, the lamb halts and briskly reverses course, which sends young Colton flying up over the animal’s hindquarters, but in a freakish act of athleticism, little Colton Young somehow manages to hold on. In midair, he readjusts his (now one-handed) grip, and dangles from the animal’s neck for a few paces before his strength and mettle finally fail him. As Colton tumbles limb-sprawled toward the earth, the applause in the coliseum is monstrous and deafening. A few men have stood up from their seats to clap madly and offer gruff nods of what looks like paternal approval. Colton now rises as the ovation multiplies, and while the boy dusts himself off, I can see that his face is crumpled with tears (it’s probably just easier for me to say at the outset that virtually all of the mutton-busters end their rides in tears). Soon the boy hobbles wincingly toward the exits, where the impresario offers Colton a high-five and commends him on his effort.
Next up is Rainey Jones, a nine-year-old girl in drainpipe trousers and cornsilk braids. As the child gets plunked down onto her animal, the impresario yells, “Ladies in the audience, make some noise for Rainey Jones if you think a woman can do anything that a man can do and that a woman do it better!” This ends up garnering a tsunami of applause. Soon the gate creaks open, and out trots a brisk, cheerful-faced lamb, with Rainey clutching onto its hide. Unlike Colton Young, who favored an upright, bronco-rider’s position, Rainey is crouched low, as if on a road bike, which seems to better serve her balance and aerodynamics. Soon the lamb reaches the far end of the paddock, and I’ll be damned if Rainey is still holding on. Now, the women in the audience are whooping and cheering, and when Rainey finally capsizes, she turns out to be the only rider who doesn’t burst into tears. “My god, Rainey!” the impresario says, slapping his thigh. “I feel sorry for your boyfriend. You’re gonna break that dude’s neck.”
If I told you how many children willingly subjected themselves to this spectacle, you’d think I was inventing things. But the mutton-busting continues for the better portion of an hour, and by my count, some thirteen children brave the bucket shoots in front of their friends and family this evening. Sitting here in the grandstands, I try to imagine what this experience must feel like to them, how the violence of unwanted animal-riding might rest upon their nerve-endings. And yet it’s only when Eli Wakeman crosses into the bucket shoots that things begin to seem criminally negligent. Wakeman is four years old (!), and even before the gate opens, he’s already turned on the waterworks. It’s at this point in the festivities that I finally notice the coterie of EMTs resting their elbows on the fence along the paddock, where they’re clearly just waiting for tonight’s inevitable injuries to call them into action. These will come later, during the bareback contest, when four adult ranch-hands attempt to break a cohort of psychotic stallions. As the horses shudder and buck, each cowboy will look like nothing so much as a mannequin falling down an escalator. One man gets a concussion. Another man shatters his collarbone. A third lands hard on his sacrum, except when I see him toodling around the fair after the rodeo, he is for some reason icing his forearm. It turns out my own spine is stiffening here in the un-ergonomic bleachers, and in light of the carnage on the paddock, I’m doing my best to hide from the other spectators little winces and the occasional mewling exhalation.
After little Eli Wakeman’s mercifully short adventure, I’m wondering why these fair goers are so keen to condone violence against their children. After all, this is a sport that ensures that a hard fall and some tears is the best a participant can hope for. At one point, the impresario jokes, “You know, folks, I think we better change the name mutton-busting to OCA—that stands for Organized Child Abuse.” Responding to scattered groans, he said, “Oh, come on, I’m just teasing.” And yet, you can see the parents take great pride in their children’s participation. Sometimes I watch the families watching the muttons who are getting busted, and they all have that hopeful, misty-eyed look of proud parents cheering on competitive offspring. It reminds me of a close friend of mine who was explaining to me how his four-year-old daughter had just announced her decision to become a vegetarian. “What’s weird, man, is that we didn’t even coax her in any way. One day, she just shows up at the breakfast island, and says, Yeah, I’m not going to eat animals anymore—not today or any other day.” But for all the father’s claims about the child’s intrinsic motivation, I couldn’t help but remember that she’s a product of her environment. After all, this is a child who attends Montessori art classes and whose parents take her to the public library for something called “Drag Queen Story Time.” It’s interesting to think that she’s being raised only forty minutes away from a rodeo where children her age are strapping on helmets and getting dragged by lambs across pastures. A tacit debate is taking place about child-rearing and the merits of overprotection. What attributes of citizenship—what quotients of courage and forbearance—might run in the veins of these children, in the veins of the adults they’ll become? It reminds me of what Hannah Arendt once said about the difference between nation-states and republics. A nation-state is formed by neighbors who, sharing no ideological tenets, bind themselves together in defense of common resources. A republic, meanwhile, is something different. What unites the citizens of a republic is a willful act of imagination. And yet how can we share an act of imagination when our basic mental frameworks are so wildly divergent?
As Rainey Jones is crowned mutton-busting champion and as the pasture is cleared for the barebacks, I strike up a conversation with the man sitting next to me, one of only two black people in the audience. We get to talking about the history of rodeos, and he asks me whether I’ve ever heard of a man named Bill Pickett. I confess that I haven’t. It turns out Bill Pickett, a descendent of Native Americans and African slaves, was essentially the godfather of the American rodeo, one of the truly great American athletes of the early twentieth century. It was Pickett who popularized the feats of bull-roping, and who had elevated the brute mechanics of ranch life to the lofty choreography of sport. Some brisk googling does yield a veritable treasure trove of interesting stories about Pickett, not least of which is that he had apparently innovated a strategy for wrangling wayward steers, which he called “bulldogging.” In bringing down their targets, bulldogs would leap up and sink their teeth into the upper portion of the cow’s mouth, so Pickett would vault off his horse and land on the heifer’s back, whereupon he’d use his hand to execute the canine’s maneuver. On YouTube I find a clip of Pickett accomplishing this tactic, soundtracked by old-timey music, the kind of tinkling piano melodies that make you think of spittoons and tumbleweeds. Pickett was a superstar in the rodeo circuit in the early 1900s and performed alongside the likes of Buffalo Bill, Will Rogers, and the actor Tom Mix. Every year, a Los Angeles–based rodeo takes place in honor of his memory, which is the world’s only African American touring rodeo and which routinely sells out arenas all across the country.
Granted, it’s not like Bill Pickett’s legacy is free of complication (he was often forced to deny his blackness and compete as a Native American in order to enter in the white-dominated circuit). And yet this history reminds me that, whatever political assumptions one might make about a rodeo, it is not a simple, one-note signifier for the region or its politics. This message is brought home to back in the expo building, where I find myself at the table for the Columbia County Democrats, at which they’re doing a bean poll—like an actual bean poll—right here at the fair. For those politicos who are keeping a jeweler’s eye on the democratic horse race in Wisconsin, it bears noting that in Portage, Biden is in the lead by about ten beans, while wispy-haired Bernie maintains a very close second. (All night Buttigieg, Harris, and Warren will battle it out for third). What the man at the table for the CC Democrats wants me to understand is that while a city person (he means someone like me, someone from Madison) might come to the rodeo and think this place is a deadlock for Trump, what’s interesting about Columbia County is that it actually has more Democrats than Republicans. And yet, when asked which way the county voted in 2016, the man winces. “Look, we went for Obama in 2012 and before that in 2008.” He sighs. “And, okay, in 2016 we made a mistake.”
As I shuffle out of the expo building, it occurs to me that we may well have more in common than we care to realize, but so long as I bristle at mutton-busting and they sneer at me for my yoga mat, then we will be forever sequestered in the mythos of our respective market demographics, growing ever more divided in whatever’s left of our republic.
The rollercoasters outside the rodeo’s coliseum are filling the evening sky with bleary neon light, and as I hobble toward the exits, an older couple in London Fog jackets moves briskly past me. I can’t help wonder if I’m experiencing a premonition of my eventual condition: my spine growing ever more rigid, my shoulders keeled over, unable to see the ground ahead of me. “Doing okay?” the man asks. With my hands on my knees, I unleash a pained squawk, which he apparently interprets as a meaningful rejoinder. “You gotta use it if you don’t want to lose it,” the woman says. This was the sort of homespun wisdom that I once took as a matter-of-fact. But as I was driving home that night, across floodplains and moonlit pastures, it began to haunt me like a rune, one that I couldn’t decode no matter how hard I tried.
Barrett Swanson was the Halls Emerging Artist Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing and was the winner of a 2015 Pushcart Prize. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The New York Times Magazine, The Believer, The New Republic, American Short Fiction, The New Republic, The Point, and Best American Travel Writing 2018, among other places.